Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
Christina Stead's first novel 'Seven Poor Men of Sydney' is lush with descriptions of Sydney's Watsons Bay where she lived with her family from the age of fifteen until she fled Australia for England at the age of twenty-six.
The hideous low scarred yellow horny and barren headland lies curled like a scorpion in a blinding sea and sky. At night, house-lamps and ships’ lanterns burn with a rousing shine, and the headlights of cars swing over Fisherman’s Bay. In the day, the traffic of the village crawls along the skyline, past the lighthouse and signal station, and drops by cleft and volcanic gully to the old village that has a bare footing on the edge of the bay.
By turns vivid, funny and tragic, The Man Who Loved Children (1940) is widely regarded as Christina Stead’s masterpiece. It follows the emergence of an extraordinary young woman from a vital, chaotic and troubled family.
American poet and literary critic Randall Jarrell wrote a laudatory introduction to the 1965 reissue of The Man Who Loved Children, seeking to instate it into the Western canon:
The Man Who Loved Children knows as few books have ever known – knows specifically, profoundly, exhaustively – what a family is: if all mankind had been reared in orphan asylums for a thousand years, it could learn to have families again by reading The Man Who Loved Children.
More recently the book has found a much wider readership thanks to American novelist Jonathan Franzen, who wrote a rave review in The New York Times.
…it’s the kind of book that, if it’s for you, then it’s really for you. I’m convinced there are tens of thousands of people who would bless the day the book was published, if only they could be exposed to it.
The novel is a fictional expression of Stead’s own childhood: a childhood full of disturbance that wrought a peculiarly brilliant artistic voice. To discover why this novel about family rings so true, it is necessary to examine Stead’s childhood in Sydney, where she was born in 1902.
When Christina was just two years of age her mother Ellen died from appendicitis. For a while she enjoyed being the special, only child of her father, David Stead. He was a naturalist and Fabian Socialist, and a great talker and spinner of tales. In an essay written just before she died (published posthumously in Ocean of Story, 1985) Christina reminisced about how he mothered her and told her stories at night.
I was born into the ocean of story, or on its shores….He meant to talk me to sleep; he talked me awake.
He told her tales about indigenous Australians and their corroborees; the passage of convict ships and men ‘washed away by wind and current’; gigantic extinct animals, and the voyages of Captain Cook and Charles Darwin. The stories went ‘on and on, night after night’. His passion for the Australian continent affected her with a sense of wonder and curiosity. The thousand or so nights that followed her mother’s death shaped her views with:
…an interest in men and nature, a feeling that all were equal, the extinct monster, the coral insect, the black man and us, the birds and the fish; and another curious feeling still with me, of terrestrial eternity, a sun that never set …. I rejoiced in it ….
From these earliest days, the celebration of the real, in all its diversity and strangeness, was to be found in story for Christina, and the translation of nature into story, life into literature, became her lifelong preoccupation.
David Stead was handsome and charismatic. Christina said he shone in a ‘pale blaze’ full of ‘vitality’ and ‘self-trust’. He had inherited an odd mixture of atheism from his father and puritanism from his mother.
Two and a half years after his wife’s death, much to Christina’s dismay, he remarried. Ada Gibbons was the youngest of a well to do family, a dark eyed society girl, coquettish, impractical, and in fragile health. At twenty-seven she had been in danger of being left on the shelf. Ada may have been attracted by David Stead’s handsome looks and his energetic zest for life but soon she was finding his ways oppressive. He disapproved of the romantic novels she read; of dancing, theatre, alcohol, and kissing or embracing the children. Their marriage quickly soured.
In an interview many years later, Christina said: ‘My stepmother was kind to me until her first child was born, and then I was the outsider’. After the first child came another, and another: six children were born over the course of ten years. Ada was ill-equipped for the domestic drudgery involved in raising a family on a limited budget, and Christina was expected to help her.
Although she called Ada ‘mother’, Christina was acutely aware that she was ‘another woman’s girl’. Ada could be funny but more often she was caustic and sarcastic and often cruel to Christina, who was remembered by her cousin as a sullen, difficult child. Looking back years later, she declared it ‘very natural’ how she was disliked by her stepmother.
I was the kind of child only a mother could love and then probably with doubts: her treatment of me was dubious. Sometimes servants thought I was my father’s illegitimate child, at other times, they fancied I was an orphan…friends who came to the house took me aside and told me what I owed the kind people who had taken me in. I myself with dark, thunderous looks, frowns and portentous behaviour did nothing to discourage the idea I was something the gypsies had left behind.
Ada’s fictional counterpart in The Man Who Loved Children is called Henny. The novel charts her descent from an elegant, spirited woman dressed in ruffles to a screeching, embittered, self-described ‘hag’. Sam Pollit (Christina’s portrait of David) is engaged in an all out war with Henny. She is dark and saturnine to Sam’s pale sunniness; engorged with loathing as her husband brims with ‘world peace, world love, world understanding’. Seldom on speaking terms, they rope in their children to communicate terse messages to one another. Their hatred propels the narrative.
Prior to adolescence, Christina enjoyed a good relationship with her father. They were both ambitious, with fierce intellects and vivid imaginations. They shared an intense curiosity about the world and a love of language and stories. David Stead was a self-educated fisheries biologist, nature lover and conservationist (a founder of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia) who was in many respects ahead of his time. His favourite book as a child had been Joel Chandler Harris’s tales of Uncle Remus, Tar-Baby and Br’er Rabbit and he spoke a Remus-inspired dialect. In a letter to his children in 1922 he ended:
Luv to evryboddie and all be goode. Those who duz thare dutie ar luvly wuns thay will get some frottie and some kurren bunze. From DadPad the Boald.
But there was nothing sweet or cuddly about David Stead. He did not love his children as individuals. Conflicts with them occurred over his narcissistic failure to see them as anything more than an extension of himself. When his son David Darwin (the four boys were named after important men) came second in French one year, he asked, ‘Why not first?’ But the following year, when he did come first, his father’s only comment was, ‘Of course, from a son of mine!’
David Stead, who called himself the ‘King of Kids’, enjoyed the power to form young minds. He had a long list of definite ideas that were not to be questioned: ‘Under my roof you do as I say.’ There was no God; cats and dogs carried disease; fresh air was a panacea for everything, and the Nordic race was superior (he believed in Eugenics). The children learned from a young age that he was not to be completely trusted. Out of the blue he could set them up, challenge and humiliate them and their games often ended in tears.
Christina’s earliest memories were linked to a sense of rejection connected to her physical appearance. She was big-boned and plain and her handsome father, who worshipped beauty, found this particularly irksome. He taunted her with offensive names and often reminded her that she would never make marriage material, in an age when this really counted. She once wrote to friends: ‘Always I felt like a cripple…and I thought it was because my father thought I was ugly’. On reaching adolescence she began to question him and alongside her admiration an anger grew which verged on hatred.
When Christina was fifteen her family, in increasingly straitened circumstances, moved to a dilapidated two-story weatherboard house at 10 Pacific Street, Watsons Bay. David renamed the house on the windy stretch of headland Boongarre, after an indigenous leader who had lived in the area. Located eleven kilometres north-east of the city, the suburb sits at the end of the South Head peninsula. It has a sheltered bay with a wide view of the city and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, while to its eastern side lies the ocean cliff known as The Gap, with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and North Head, including Manly.
When the Steads arrived in 1917, people were leading poor, unpretentious lives here in old houses of stone or weatherboard, with tumbledown fences and jungly gardens where fishing nets were spread to dry in the sun. Christina and her six siblings loved the ramshackle house and the garden that ran down to the harbour. At its edge, several boulders formed a natural swimming pool full of fish and while they were swimming there, one of the children would stand on the boulders to watch for sharks. Christina’s room was upstairs at the back of the house with a view of the harbour. On windy nights she liked to lie in bed listening to the boom of the ocean waves crashing against the cliffs. And from her window she could watch the ships moving past the signal station at South Head, ‘lighted like a Christmas tree’ with ‘the great subtropical moon’ hung over the water.
Ocean liners from around the world would anchor in the harbour, awaiting quarantine inspection, their anchors clattering into the bay in the early morning. Boys ran out to inspect the liners that had pulled in from Shanghai, Singapore, San Francisco, Naples, London. There was the rattle of carts from the butcher and the baker, the yodel of a milkman, the warbling of magpies. Commuters and school children would wait outside the Italian fruit shop at the wharf for the ferry that chugged them across the harbour into town.
At low tide, fishermen headed for The Gap, the indented sea-wall with its shale platform standing out in the sea. The fish were plentiful here, and so were the suicides. Christina used to wonder about the desperation it took for people to throw themselves over the cliff, worrying that some of the bodies would land on the jagged rocks below instead of in the more merciful sea. In her novel Seven Poor Men of Sydney Michael Bagenault is struck by this thought just as he steps off the edge.
By the time the family arrived in Watsons Bay, Christina knew she was going to be a writer. Books had provided an escape to different worlds, nourishing her secret, other self. She had graduated from the tales of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen to old tales and legends like the Arabian Nights that satisfied her romantic yearnings. She read the Australian bush ballads and stories of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and Steele Rudd. She admired Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Voyage of HMS Beagle, and she read every one of Dickens’ novels. For the most part, David disapproved of novels as they usually dealt in ‘unsavoury subjects’ but she took no notice. Nor did Ada, who continued reading her romances which Christina found hidden all over the house.
Christina learned that through writing she could wrest some form of control back for herself. Her biographer Hazel Rowley says, ‘It seems beyond doubt that a sense of abandonment and rejection, accompanied by anger and self-loathing, were factors in her impulse to write’. She also recognised that writing would serve as her escape route from home.
Since the move to Watsons Bay, home life had become ‘atrociously wretched’. Her stepmother detested the reeking bay that stank of fish, and a house full of sand traipsed in by the children. Aged thirty-eight, Ada had six children under the age of ten, plus the one ‘lazy lump’ of a teenager. David was out of work and it was a struggle to clothe everyone. Ada rarely spoke to David but when she did, they would have violent arguments. Her son, also called David, remembered that Ada would often hit her husband in bouts of rage but he never hit back.
When a quarrel started (Henny and Sam did speak at the height of their most violent quarrels) and elementary truths were spoken, a quiet, a lull, would fall across the house. One would hear, while Henny was gasping for indignant breath and while Sam was biting his lip in stern scorn, the sparrows chirping, or the startling rattle of the kingfisher, or even an oar sedately dipping past the beach, or even the ferry’s hoot. Exquisite were these moments.
As the family was increasingly preoccupied by personal suffering Christina was largely left alone. She liked to walk up the hill and sit on the cliff top, gazing out at a view that she loved fiercely and described lyrically in Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934) and For Love Alone (1945). Her first published piece, a sonnet called ‘The Hill’ appeared in her school magazine:
I stand upon a hill – on either hand
Lie darkening waters. At my feet, the sea
Clothed with faint mists that steal upon the land,
E’re yet the moon has risen, roars sullenly.
Christina was grateful for this period in her life, later finding it distasteful how American children were ‘prodded and puffed’ by their parents. Long solitary hours were spent composing writing in her head. She trained herself to see tiny details ‘with the accuracy of a miniature painter’, and would listen closely to catch the rhythm and cadence of speech. She had developed her father’s habit of observation, along with his naturalist’s ability to remain impartial, later saying, ‘I am an inveterate and shameless eavesdropper, I listen at the doors of rooms, I pussy-foot along the corridors, I read private letters and stare at people in their emotion.’ She watched and listened to the members of her family closely, catching invisible currents beneath the surface which later enabled her to give us such an intimate view of their lives.
In The Man Who Loved children, her father, characterised as Sam, is a preposterous man-child whose own children serve as foot soldiers in his miniature empire. He holds them in his thrall with his babbling language bordering on baby talk, full of puns, private in-jokes and nonsense rhymes.
His oldest daughter, Louisa Pollitt (Christina) is on the cusp of twelve: a dreamy, ‘shamefaced clumsy’ girl, spotted with bruises and spilled food, taunted as ‘a barrel of lard.’ All the family believe they have a right to correct her. But secretly she holds them in contempt and slinks away to moon in the orchard or on the beach. She falls into ecstasies over her teacher, Miss Aiden, and composes a series of poems to her in ‘every conceivable form and also every conceivable meter in the English language.’
Sam is appalled by this new woman/child, finding her repugnant and uncouth. His ‘nice’, ‘high-souled, sober-minded’ Louisa is now ‘a burning star, new-torn from the smoking flesh of a mother sun, a creature of passion.’ He senses that she is slipping away from him, his view of the world, his omniscience. And he is right, as Louie harbours dreams of escape. While acknowledging her status as the ugly duckling, she knows this is just a phase:
…when a swan she would never come sailing back into their lily pond; she would be somewhere away, unheard of, on the lily-rimmed oceans of the world.
Sam vows to break her spirit. He infuriates her by claiming to know what she is thinking as if they are the one person.
“You will be alright, Looloo,” concluded Sam, kissing her good night. “You are myself: I know you cannot go astray.”
“I won’t be like you, Dad.”
He laughed, “You can’t help it: you are myself.”
He insists she follows his lead to become a scientist so she can join him in his work. He mocks her writing and her attempt to construct her own private language. He reads it aloud to the children: ‘foolish, poor little Looloo’. Seeking to catch her out, he pokes and pries into her life, ‘always with a scientific, moral purpose…investigating her linen, shivering with shame when suggestive words came from her mouth.’ This titanic struggle between father and daughter constitutes the emotional core of the book.
Christina started at Sydney Girls’ High School just days after moving to Watsons Bay. She was happy there, becoming sub-editor, then editor of the school magazine. Each day she would take the forty-five minute ferry ride from Watsons Bay to the city, past hills dotted with red roofs and gardens sloping down to the water, past lush Nielsen’s Park, the grey towers of the convent in Rose Bay, and Garden Island. Other green and yellow ferries roared up and down the harbour, ‘boiling silver’ like dragons in plate-mail. At Circular Quay passengers burst out of the turnstiles to stream up and down the city’s narrow streets. Christina would head past the dignified government buildings of Macquarie Street to the red brick school on the corner of Elizabeth and Market Streets, where a teacher stood at the entrance to check the girls were walking sedately and wearing their hats and gloves.
She was good at English and French, and fell in love with the work of the naturalistic writer Guy de Maupassant. His sombre simplicity inspired her and she borrowed all the French books in the library: Rabelais, Chateaubriand, Hugo, and Zola, whose naturalistic and meticulous observations were an influence too. She ‘fell overboard’ for Balzac, whom she claimed as a lifelong influence, not only for his powers of observation but also for the scope of his imagination. Christina developed no close friendships and ate her lunch alone. Other girls at the school remembered her as ‘odd’, ‘strange’ and ‘terribly plain’.
Later came Teacher’s College, followed by a disastrous bout of teaching and various secretarial jobs. Christina hankered to get away from David and her family. When asked why she left Australia as a young woman, she replied, ‘It’s all there in For Love Alone’, which she wrote five years after The Man Who Loved Children. Teresa Hawkins (Stead’s alter ego) is high-minded and passionate. She believes in the one commandment, ‘Thou shalt Love’. Appalled by the treadmill of teaching, she observes that the unmarried women teachers seem to ‘go queer’. The school buildings fill her with ‘a delirium of horror’ with the thought that she might be ‘condemned for life, until she was sixty, when a woman is not a woman’. Teresa expresses Stead’s belief that there was a great destiny in store for her and it could not flourish in such a small, parochial world. Not for her the ‘Hope Chests’, or ‘Mr Right’ that other girls dreamed about. She wanted love desperately, just not at home.
Similarly, in her first novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934), Stead examines the need for young people to free themselves, not only from parental bonds but also from the constraints of old ways and their own country. This novel is about a group of young socialist intellectuals leading poverty stricken lives in the depressed Sydney of the 1920s. A dark, brooding book, it is full of madness, talk and ideas. Despite the seven males in the novel’s title, critic Dorothy Green insists that Catherine, the character at the centre of the book, is Christina. Green calls it a ‘Spiritual autobiography of a highly tormented girl…who has not yet found what it is she is to love or create.’ She is the most overtly rebellious of all the characters, with complex needs and the strongest desire to escape. She spurns a life of relative comfort at home, using it as a base only when she falls ill:
‘she preferred her vagrant life and raffish experience. Some acrid experience stung her. She was in a fever at these times. It was not safe to speak to her much, she withdrew from argument: she paled perpetually with suffering, her eyes swam in a brilliant liquid, she cried aloud in a tempestuous voice, instead of speaking, or else turned her back on the company, her lips purple.’
Those characters in the novel with ambition and the desire for a creative life (like Christina herself) realise they must find their own destiny. ‘Nothing floats down here, this far in the south, but is worn out with wind, tempest and weather; all is flotsam and jetsam’.
The urgency to leave was not only connected to David and the family. Australia in the 1920s had become a literary backwater. Most books and magazines were imported from England; very few good Australian novels were still in print, and the Bulletin, the only magazine with a literary bent, was no longer influential. Christina had watched the brilliant students from her college and university leave for England or Europe; most Australian artists and writers of note had fled long before.
Obsessively, she saved every penny for her fare to England, choosing to walk all over Sydney rather than pay twopence for tram fares. At twenty-six she sailed for England. She did not return to Australia until she was seventy-two.
Soon after arriving in London, Stead worked as a secretary with a company of grain merchants and slipped into her first adult relationship with her boss, the American Bill Blake, a novelist, businessman and Marxist economist. He asked to see some of her writing and took it home to read. She later recalled that when he returned, he ‘looked at me with absolute astonishment…and he said: “It has mountain peaks.”’
They moved to Paris to be nearer his ex-wife and children who were living there. In spite of this difficult situation, it was the happiest period of Stead’s life. Bill shared with her his vast knowledge of European culture. In 1929 she wrote to a school friend that the city was a ‘pearl of delicacy, brilliance and suavity’ and that she was being happily ‘loved, indulged, taken (intelligently) all over Paris, musiced, champagned, cabareted, zooed, parked, taxied, walked and otherwise ambulated.’ Bill was a ‘marvellous raconteur’ and she pretended to complain in a letter to a friend that he ‘will not leave my side for even two hours’. It also came as a revelation to be treated with chivalry and charm by French men. Christina, who had never felt worthy of love, was extraordinarily happy.
Bill introduced her to intellectual Marxist circles and some of their ideas were worked into The Seven Poor Men of Sydney, along with haunting, poetically exuberant descriptions of Watsons Bay. Stead had planned the novel way back as a schoolgirl but it came together in this city that she loved.
While living in Paris, she was still in touch with her father. He sent her letters rich in descriptions of nature. She eventually burned them but this scrap survives:
Grand easterly gale blowing this morning. I have just been up to the Gap, but could not stop long because of the glare on the surf (I have dreadful trouble with the glare – much worse than it used to be. With thick, lowering conditions, such as to-day, the glare is much worse than in bright sunlight). It is a magnificent sight, looking out to sea – as far as one can see. I was thinking of you and wished so much that you could see it again, instead of being stuck in that stuffy rue Jean Bart, among those more than stuffy people.
As Stead’s biographer Hazel Rowley notes, just sixteen years before, David Stead had written ecstatic letters from Paris, full of enthusiasm for the city. It was typical of him to wrong-foot his child, making his experiences more valuable and valid than hers.
David Stead had a marked hatred of Jews (her husband Bill Blake was Jewish), of the theatre, and alcohol. Christina embraced them all, priding herself on casting off his puritanical repressions. And during her time in Paris she underwent something of a transformation. Back in Sydney an acquaintance, the poet and social reformer Mary Gilmore, had remembered her as a ‘lank-haired pallid-faced anyhow-dressed girl’. But it was a different person Christina’s friend Nettie Palmer met on the train from London to Paris, following the publication of Seven Poor Men.
Christina Stead came in light-foot and assured, perfectly dressed, carried nothing superfluous, except perhaps the newspaper her husband handed in to her at the last moment. – “Hm-m. Bill’s idea of a newspaper,” she said to me as the train began to move: she smiled, half guilty, but I felt as if it were her idea of a newspaper too. It had some name like The Economist.
Christina was thirty-six when she at last felt compelled to write The Man Who Loved Children. By then she and Bill were living in a dark and dreary apartment in New York, overshadowed by high rises and factories. Aware that her childhood had left her emotionally scarred, she felt the wounds opening as she wrote. Violent emotions surfaced as the memories of her father and her childhood flooded back. She hardly slept; she wept, she raged. In an interview when she was seventy-five, Christina said the book had ‘demanded to be written’.
Taking the perspective of a clinical observer seemed to heighten the misery of it all: the inability of her father to see her view, his indifference. Although relations with her family since leaving Sydney had been distant but cordial, she made the decision never to see her father again, writing to her second stepmother Thistle Harris:
It has been a grand thing to get this plucked out of the back of my mind. But, a thing David could not realise, that home was so atrociously wretched and I was so ill at ease as a result that I do not want to see Australia, except on some gilded visit…I do not want to see Sydney, nor my family, nor anyone connected with the old days. I’m not unforgiving – how could it be so when no one is to blame? – they just made an etching out of me, and I was deep bitten. Of course, I can never tell them that, and don’t want to.
Stead’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, insisted that Christina exchange the Sydney setting (largely Watsons Bay) for an American one, on the grounds that it would have a stronger appeal for American readers. Reluctantly she transposed it to Washington and the Chesapeake Bay, which she judged to be closest to Sydney Harbour, and took great pains to get this aspect of her novel right: ‘I was able to transport Watson’s noiselessly and as if it were an emulsion or a streak of mist to the Chesapeake’, she wrote. She also changed the novel’s time frame from the 1910s to the 1930s in a bid to give the book a more contemporary feel. Unfortunately American critics felt these alterations failed to ring true. Mary McCarthy wrote:
Though there is a compulsive circumstantiality of detail in the book, the sense of reality is feeble. The action takes place during the Roosevelt administration, when Samuel Pollitt is supposed to be between thirty-eight and forty years old; yet all his taste, his slang, and his opinions date from twenty or thirty years earlier…
While she was writing the novel, she asked for copies of her father’s documents and the letters he had written to the family on his travels overseas when she was a child. David sent them, together with a typewritten note dated Nov. 1941: ‘Have just re-read this befr sndg [before sending]. Don’t be too hard on poor Dad. Remember tht he was sick, tired and nostalgic. Love Dad.’
She included one of David’s original letters from Malaya virtually verbatim in Chapter 6 and used extracts of other letters elsewhere, which is why Clifton Fadiman’s review must have come as a blow. He wrote how Stead had not quite pulled the novel off but that Sam’s letters from Malaya were a stand out: ‘extraordinary writing’. She had struggled so hard to break free and find her own voice, yet here was his, still lording it over hers, even in her own domain. The novel sank largely without a trace, and back in her home country, this now ‘un-Australian’ work was firmly ignored for decades.
Christina sent a copy of The Man Who Loved Children to Thistle at Watsons Bay in August 1941. It was left lying about the house so David could read it but Christina believes he never did – father and daughter knew how to hurt each other. In a later letter to Thistle, she appeared to try to make amends for the way she had portrayed her father in the novel. She said she believed his problems stemmed from ill health. ‘Temperamentally, I am also much like the old guy’, yet ‘that is a jolly good reason why I should never see him.’ It appeared that she wanted to make peace but could not bring herself to do so. Thistle observed that David was jealous of Christina. She felt they had been rivals and each had wanted to be ‘the best’.
Bill and Christina suffered for their Marxism. Fleeing America in 1946 due to the rise of McCarthyism, they experienced grinding poverty, shifting from hotel room to hotel room in London and parts of Europe. By the mid 1950s, after publishing a series of ferociously vital books which were largely overlooked by critics, Stead’s creativity stalled. When attention did come her way, it was largely negative and she became accustomed to reviews that brought on a ‘quiet nausea’.
Creative outlets for Communists all but dried up, so Bill was forced to work as a ghostwriter and watch as others took credit for his work and insights. Christina’s books began to go out of print and she succumbed to depression. Many believe that by the time The Man Who Loved Children was reissued in 1965 (after her ninth book) and hailed in its introduction by Jarell as a forgotten masterpiece, it was too late for her. Fiercely private, funny, caustic and cantankerous, by this stage she had grown bitterly angry and her hackles were quick to rise. She was a complex mix, as the writer and poet Kate Llewellyn described in a letter to Jerry Rogers: a woman who reminded her a little of Jean Rhys in her fecklessness, penury and the way ‘good things’ avoided her:
Christina is a woman who married her father and who was man mad as you know and a funny kind of genius to boot…cruel to women, feminist and scathing of that same thing…feminist in liking freedom, but vile to most women…fawning to men in a way that is quite painful to read in the letters…but generous, encyclopaedic, lusty, and full of paradoxes.
Jonathan Franzen suspects Stead’s stronger alliance with men rather than women, and her idiosyncratic form of feminism, went some way toward explaining why her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, never received the recognition it deserved.
Christina Stead’s ambition was to write not “like a woman but “like a man”: her allegiances are too dubious for the feminists, and she’s not enough like a man for everybody else…Stead wasn’t content to make a separate peace for herself, in a room of her own. She was competitive like a son, not a daughter, and she needed to go back, in her best novel, to her life’s primal scenes and beat her eloquent father at his own game.
Although Stead was aware of the plight of women, claiming that she had dealt with this in her writing (particularly in the portrait of Henny in The Man Who Loved Children), she did not agree that their problems were unique. ‘It’s the whole system that has to be changed. Men have lives of drudgery too.’ Stead disliked the fact that concerns for women were split off into a special realm called women’s liberation.
I can’t interest myself in an island full of women. Because I believe that the sexes stimulate each other. You manage him and he manages you. And it’s a good thing. It’s nice working together. You get something from each other. It’s a true fertilisation.
Perhaps another reason why Stead failed to receive due recognition is that her writing is dense, tough and demanding. Her novels teem with characters and events, but little plot. As she explained in a lecture in 1939, she used an immersion technique that requires the reader to ‘draw his own conclusions from the diverse material, as from life itself.’ The reader is given few signposts or guidance.
For a subject to grab her attention she said she needed a ‘depth charge’ that took hold of her and swept her away. She would write until the creative flood exhausted itself, a flood which she felt could occur only once. This is partly why she famously refused to revise her work.
Stead aimed to possess readers’ minds with characters who speak savagely or repetitively or mesmerically. Her faithful recording of the idiosyncrasies of speech gives her novels the type of realism she had so admired in the work of Balzac, Flaubert, Gorky and Zola. She takes readers where they do not always want to go, sometimes forcing them to stay with characters who are deeply unpleasant. Some critics accuse her of unevenness and too many digressions yet as writer Rodney Hall points out, ‘the lumps and bumps is where the life is…where the energy is.’
After her husband Bill died, Christina returned to Sydney for the first time, at the age of seventy-two. She died nine years later.
Her last pieces of writing are a reconciliation of sorts with the despised father she had portrayed in The Man Who Loved Children. In leaving Australia and cutting her ties to her father completely, she thought she had managed to escape him. She was wrong. It was David Stead, she confessed, this ‘unusually gifted man’, who had taught her to swim in the ‘ocean of story’. Their love of language and imagination had forged common ground.
David had left her with the sense that even death, essential for the evolution of the species, held a certain grandeur, a type of ‘terrestrial eternity’. The woman who was her father’s daughter said she would become like ‘the coral-insects, the ancient leaves and saurian that had left only a small imprint in the kerosene shale.’
In the early morning, the nature reserve near the Gap throbs with the birdsong of Magpies and Currawongs, Seagulls, Rosellas and the squawks Cockatoos. The Australian Magpie (the black bird in my picture) has the most exquisite flute-like carolling call, which is predominantly featured in this clip, along with calls of other species in the background. This is the soundtrack of my childhood and apart from friends and family, was one of the things I missed most when I moved to England.
In her essay ‘Apprentice Piece’, writer Drusilla Modjeska gives an account of a painful interview she conducted with Christina Stead when she was a postgraduate student. Stead, by then living back in Australia in a small room at Canberra’s University House, was renowned for giving publishers, feminists and interviewers a hard time. Drusilla proceeded to ‘labour’ through her list of questions while Stead, over a large Cinzano, demolished them one by one. ‘What kind of a question is that?’ she asked. ‘Nonsense,’ as her face turned ‘a dangerous plum puce.’
After the miserable interview, Stead nevertheless took Drusilla to lunch. There was an ‘underlying kindness that was, I think, a strongly struck note in that complex personality,’ Modjeska wrote. Things improved over their meal. When Stead asked why Modjeska was in Australia she related a story about having read For Love Alone at a difficult point in her life. An English woman living in Sydney, she had been newly divorced with ‘no sense of a future I could imagine myself into.’ She was captivated by the novel and followed Teresa Hawkin’s footsteps all over Sydney. She caught the ferry to Watsons Bay, tried to work out which house was Stead’s childhood home (discovering that her guess had been wrong) and lay in the harbour waters, filled with ‘unnameable longings’, as Teresa had done. She said the novel had helped her find the courage to stay in Australia.
As she heard this story, Christina Stead’s eyes filled with tears, and placing her hand on Modjeska’s arm she said, ‘Thank you. That’s the greatest compliment anyone can pay a writer. That’s all that matters. Not just to be read. But to move someone, to touch them.’
Later, walking back to Stead’s room arm in arm, Modjeska remarked on the weirdness of some Australian parrots sitting in silver birch trees, and the fact it was ‘sort of topsy-turvy’. ‘ You won’t write much if that’s what you want,’ said Stead, ‘everything in its right place. You’re in Australia, girl.’ Then laughing, a ‘sort of roaring gurgle’, Christina shook her hand and walked away.
I arrived at Watsons Bay shortly after dawn on a muggy, hazy morning in late October. The air was moist from a burst of rain after a long drought and I could almost hear the lush vegetation sigh with relief.
The coastal path from the Macquarie Lighthouse to the Gap is still the most common place in Sydney to commit suicide. A controversial fence was erected along the cliffs some years ago but it would be easy to climb over it. Large signs appear at timely intervals: ‘Hold onto HOPE. There is always HELP,’ with emergency numbers for assistance. And a memorial has been built for Don Ritchie, who for nearly fifty years watched over the Gap from his house nearby and saved the lives of many people with his kindness, willingness to listen and offer of a cup of tea.
Thanks to the preservation of the headland by National Parks and Wildlife, the headland has changed little since Stead’s time. There are stunning views of the Sydney Heads and the white buildings of Manly across the harbour. A colony of sulphur-crested cockatoos, those larrikins of Australian bird life, were canoodling on the clifftop where Christina used to compose her stories in her head.
It is just a short walk into the ‘volcanic gully’ to the village and the harbour. In Sydney’s great gentrification, you would be hard pressed to find shanties or ramshackle houses in the area now. Stead’s childhood home looks out across the bay and up the harbour to the city, although that is not apparent from my picture taken from the street. According to her niece, it bears little resemblance to the house in which Christina grew up.
Sydney is no longer a working harbour so the foreign ships have gone but the ubiquitous ocean liners with their loads of tourists pass by, as do the green and yellow ferries that still collect people at the wharf for the beautiful ride into Circular Quay.
After many years of improvements to the harbour’s water quality, the fish have returned: Leatherjackets, Perch, Australian Bonito and Salmon, Groper, Mangrove Jacks, Gemfish, Bream, Flounder, Garfish, Sole and Blue Marlin. David Stead would have been pleased. In 1914 he had persuaded the state government that there was a huge variety of edible fish in these waters, and was instrumental in starting a deep-sea trawling industry in New South Wales.
While writing this story, I was struck by the uncanny similarities between the relationships of both Christina Stead and Daphne du Maurier with their fathers. On the surface, David Stead and Gerald du Maurier appeared charming and charismatic. They each entered into their role as fathers with gusto, enchanting their offspring and using a special secret language. Yet they could be cruel, wielding a disturbing degree of control as their children matured and began to gain independence. You can read the story about Daphne du Maurier’s childhood here.
The Jonathan Franzen article ‘Rereading The Man Who Loved Children” in The New York Times.
Ramona Koval discusses the work of Christina Stead with writer Rodney Hall and playwright Darryl Emerson for the Wheeler Centre.
A piece by Hilary McPhee about Christina Stead’s later years in Australia.
For Love Alone, the other novel of Stead’s set in Sydney was made into a film starring directed by Stephen Wallace and starring Helen Buday, Hugo Weaving and and Sam Neill. You can see it here.
Read about David Stead and his contributions to natural science on the Stead Foundation Website.
One of the loveliest trips you can take from Sydney is a ferry ride from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay which is an event in itself. After a walk around this beautiful area, there’s the option of a seafood meal at Sydney’s iconic restaurant Doyles, right on the beach.
Some amazing facts about cockatoos.
This Heritage Trail offers a short walk through spectacular scenery starting at Camp Cove in Watsons Bay.
And a longer walk around Watsons Bay provided by Sydney Coast Walks that takes in The Gap which which is so spectacular!
Ferrier, Carole. Christina Stead’s Poor Women of Sydney, Travelling into Our Times, JASAL: Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Vol 3, 2015
Franzen, Jonathan. ‘Rereading ‘The Man Who Loved Children”, The New York Times, 3 June, 2010
Modjeska, Druisilla. Timepieces, Pan Macmillan, 2002
Niall, Brenda and John Thompson. Eds. The Oxford Book of Australian Letters, Oxford University Press, 1998
Rowley, Hazel. Christina Stead: A Biography, William Heinemann, 1993
Stead, Christina. A Web of Friendship: Selected Letters, 1928-1973, Ed. R.G. Geering, Harper Collins, 1992.
Stead, Christina. Ocean of Story. Ed. R.G. Geering, Viking, 1985
Stead, Christina. Seven Poor Men of Sydney, Miegunyah Press, 2015
Stead, Christina. The Man Who Loved Children, Miegunyah Press, 2010
Williams, Chris. Christina Stead: A Life of Letters, McPhee Gribble, 1989