Christina Stead

Christina Ellen Stead (1902-1983), novelist, was born on 17 July 1902 in Rockdale, Sydney, the only child of Ellen (born Butters) and David Stead, marine biologist. Ellen died before Christina's second birthday. In 1907 David married Ada Gibbons and they moved to Bexley, where Ada had six children. Christina helped care for them but hated the endless domestic chores. Her novel, The Man who Loved Children, draws on this period of her life.

After the family moved to Watson's Bay in 1917 she attended Sydney Girls' High School, where she edited the school magazine and read widely in European literature. An enthusiasm for revolutionary history was fanned by the Russian revolution and influenced by her agnostic father's support for state socialism and environmental conservation. His influence as a scientist, she claimed, made her an accurate observer of human nature. She trained at Sydney Teachers' College, in her second year acting as a demonstrator in experimental psychology.

Her teaching career was cut short by voice problems and she resigned from the Education Department to take up clerical work, having taught herself shorthand and typing. She decided to 'give herself a scholarship' to the Sorbonne and in three years saved the money for her passage. This period and her arrival in London in 1928 are the basis for the novel For Love Alone.

Her first employer in a London firm of grain merchants was an American William Blake, who became her life's partner. They travelled widely, spending much of the 1930s in Paris, the war years in New York and Hollywood, the following years in a variety of European cities and from 1953 to Blake's death in 1968 in London. She made her first trip back to Australia in 1969 to take up a Visiting Fellowship at the Australian National University, and she returned to Australia to live in 1974. She received the Patrick White award, 1974, a New South Wales Premier's award for services to Australian literature, 1982, and honorary membership of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She died in Sydney on 31 March 1983.

Her first books, The Salzburg Tales (1934) and Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934) were reviewed enthusiastically. Then followed The Beauties and Furies (1936), House of All Nations (1938), a brilliant satire on international finance banking, The Man who Loved Children (1940) and For Love Alone (1944). Next came three satires on American life: Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946), A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948) and The People with the Dogs (1952). After a long silence she published four more books between l967 and l976, including Cotter's England (1967), one of her best. Her Ocean of Story and I'm Dying Laughing appeared posthumously, edited by R. G. Geering.

Her peripatetic life with Blake contributed to the instability of Christina Stead's literary reputation; she maintained she never sought a place in literary circles on either side of the Atlantic, preferring the company of her husband's business and political acquaintances. It seems likely that as they were both associated with the Left during the period of the Cold War, she was not well placed to achieve the recognition she deserved. Her fiction is challenging and often unfamiliar in style, using elements of both realism and modernism and having more affinity with European than with Anglo-American traditions. The 'psycho-logical drama of the person' was her main focus and many of her most memorable characters are women. However, she rejected any association with the feminist movement, remaining loyal to the older socialist idea of a single revolutionary force.

Susan Sheridan

Susan Sheridan Christina Stead: Lives of Modern Women (forthcoming).