Monday, 31 March 2008

Christina Stead died 31 March 1983

Detail from a tiled mural at Hurstville Civic Centre, depicting many local identities.

Christina Stead (b 1902), who became a noted author. Her works included The Seven Poor Men of Sydney, Letty Fox Her Luck, The Man Who Loved Children. Stead lived most of her life outside of Australia, and was probably most known in the USA.

I knew about Stead from a fairly young age because her childhood house is near where I live, and the teacher-librarian at my school introduced her literature.

Fascinating piece about Christina Stead

Further information from Wikipedia:

Stead was born in suburban Rockdale in 1902, and left for London , to follow a man with whom she had fallen in love, in 1928. The man rejected her, but eventually met an American, Wilhelm Blech who became her lifelong partner. They married in 1952, after he got a divorce. He was a Marxist bank trader (!) and Christina shared his views. They moved to Paris where he worked in the Travelers Bank, then when that closed, to Spain.

At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (when socialists from all over Europe were flocking to Spain), they left for the United States. Blech changed his name to Blake.

In the early 1940s Stead worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, contributing to Madame Curie, and They Were Expendable. Stead also taught at a course on the novel at New York University. Before the U.S. House of Representatives started its crusade against Communists, Stead and Blake returned to Europe. To earn their living they had to do a lot of hack work, editing, and writing articles.

"You always said domestic women were treated as cattle, they should be free. They used to be sold like slaves in England till the middle of the nineteenth century, isn't that so? Well, I'm striking a blow for freedom. The so-called moral system is just imposed on women by men, isn't it? Well, I'm asserting my rights and my freedom." (from Miss Herbert)

Blake died of a stomach cancer in 1968. Stead remained unpublished in Australia until 1965, but gradually started to gain recognition. However, she was rejected in 1967 for the Britannica-Australia award on the grounds that she had ceased to be Australian. In 1969 she was a fellow in creative arts at Australian National University, Canberra. She settled permanently in Australia 1974 and received the Patrick White award in the same year.

Stead died in Sydney on March 31, 1983. Her last novel, I'm Dying Laughing (1986), published posthumously, gave an account of communists in Hollywood in the 1940s. It was pieced together by R.G. Geering, who also wrote her biography.

As a novelist Stead made her debut with Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934), set in Sydney's waterfront, and depicting of a band of young revolutionaries, misfits as herself. House of All Nations (1938) was a massive and loosely constructed story about the collapse of a Swiss banking house, contrasting the corrupt capitalists with an ideal socialist hero. Miss Herbert (1976) was not published until some twenty years after it was written. Cotter's England (1966) was a savagely comic novel about politics, poverty, and sexual life. The protagonist is Nellie Cook, née Cotter, a Socialist, journalist, manipulator. Her brother Tom, to whom she remains locked in adolescent intimacy, has his own role as a Don Juan, who breaks hearts like the German's bombed London during World War II.

The title of The Man Who Loved Children was ironic: its portrait of the egoistic and tyrannical Sam Pollit reflected partly Stead's own love-hate relationship with her own father. Stead set the bitter story on the east coast of the United States. In the depiction of a disintegrating family and its consequences for the children and all involved, Stead used several juxtapositions: the clashing ideologies of North and South, the chasm between husband and wife, personal freedom versus traditions. Stead sees the family as a symbol for the world, ruled by power politics. As in her other novels, Stead also dealt with the theme of a woman facing the conflict between her own artistic freedom and family ties. In the story the young Louie plans a cycle of poems for her teacher and at the end decides to go for "a walk round the world."

The Man Who Loved Children was poorly received when it was published, and went unrecognized for 25 years. It was reissued in 1965 with an influential preface by the American poet Randall Jarrell, finally attracting much attention. Jarrell wrote: "It has one quality that, ordinarily, only a great book has: it makes you part of one family's immediate existence as no other book quite does. One reads the book, with an almost ecstatic pulse of recognition. You get used to saying: 'Yes, that's the way it is!'; and you say many times, but can never get used to saying, I didn't know anybody knew that."


  1. Sally, brilliant post. I love Christina Stead's writing. Wonderful to remember her today and the commentary is fascinating.

  2. Thanks for this great post Sally.

    I must say I'd never heard of her but it makes me want to read her work. Have you?

  3. cette peinture murale est superbe. un très beau post.

    This mural is superb. A beautiful post.