Christina Stead was a Sydney-born writer whose work won international recognition within her own lifetime (1902-1983) but whose standing within the field of Australian literature was less assured. In a more parochial era, Australian critical opinion struggled with her ex-patriate status and a body of work largely realised while living abroad, and which frequently drew on themes and concerns beyond the Australian focus.
That perception should not cloud the fact that Stead left her readers with a local as well as a broader literary legacy, and that many of her best-known works are steeped in her Sydney experiences, even when nominally set elsewhere. Memories forged at Boongarre, the Stead family home on Camp Cove, surface recurrently within the fictional worlds she created. That period, 1917-1928 – the years of transition from youth to adulthood amid the chaos of an unstable and often unhappy household – shaped stories later unfolded in Stead’s fearless and uncompromising telling.
Christina Ellen was the firstborn child of David George Stead, a scientific assistant at the Fisheries Commission, and his wife Ellen, née Butters. Born 17 July 1902, she would be their only child as her mother died in December 1904 – although David went on to father six children with his second wife, Ada Gibbins, whom he married in 1907. In these events and their many emotional consequences lies the kernel of much of Stead’s later writing.
A love and facility for literature was in the genes on both sides of Christina’s parentage. Her father was a lively teller of tales invented for her pleasure. “I was born into an ocean of story, or on its shores” Stead would later write (Ocean of stories p.7).
The greatest influence on her earliest years, David Stead was a complex and often difficult man – domineering and delusional, and oblivious to his effect on others. Christina shared with her father a firm and abiding belief in the principles of socialism, and sympathised with his passionate views on nature conservation, but the father-daughter closeness did not survive her adolescence, turning eventually into active loathing on Christina’s part. The narrative of this transition would fuel some of Stead’s most powerful and disturbing commentary on human relationships.
Beyond her father, the sphere of Christina Stead’s family included, as it evolved, her stepmother Ada (with whom she maintained contact after her parents’ 1931 separation), her six half-siblings, her father’s partner and eventual third wife Thistle Harris, and her long-term partner and eventual husband ‘Bill’ (Wilhelm Blech - naturalised in 1936 as William Blake).
Stead had no children, but had been a substitute mother to her half-siblings all her young life “… soon I was looking after a younger child and then a younger” (Ocean of stories p. 15). She appears to have been popular among them: “the most wonderful sister any young girl could have wished for”, was the verdict of her youngest sister, Doris Weeta Stead (Rowley p. 38)
Stead’s first 15 years belong to the Sydney district of Rockdale. Born in present-day Banksia, Christina moved to Bexley with her father on his re-marriage. Here they lived at Lydham, a substantial house in spacious grounds overlooking Botany Bay, provided by her stepmother’s prosperous father.
Christina’s schooling began at Bexley Public, followed by Kogarah Intermediate and St George Girls High. Here Christina gained her Intermediate Certificate shortly before the family's move to Watsons Bay.
Stead’s nostalgia for the locality of her childhood emerges repeatedly in letters, fiction and the wish (unfulfilled) that her ashes be scattered over the waters of Botany Bay.
The death of Ada Stead’s father in 1917 dealt a double blow to the material fortunes of the Stead family, which at once lost his ongoing fatherly assistance and, with Lydham sold to settle his estate, the home he had provided. It was the beginning of a slide into entrenched financial hardship, worsened by David’s intermittent unemployment, and unhelped by his wife’s inability to economise. The marriage soured beyond retrieval, unable to withstand the burden of these anxieties, the disordered personality of David, and the bitter unhappiness of Ada. David’s relationship with the young Thistle Harris, whom he met in 1918, delivered only the final blow.
The scene of this unravelling was the family’s newly acquired and frankly run-down home in the harbourside locality of Camp Cove, part of the present-day suburb of Watsons Bay. For Ada Stead, the move to Boongarre represented despair. Christina later drew on her stepmother’s misery and disillusionment, crystallised into a single moment, in depicting the fictional Pollit family's first sight of Spa House. Absorbing the full significance of her husband's purchase of the “large tumble-down place”, Henrietta Pollit - Ada's fictional counterpart - comes to the realisation that “her heart was breaking... for good and all” (The Man Who Loved Children p. 325).
The household dynamics at Boongarre played a critical role in shaping Christina Stead's character, life and writing, but they were not the only influences at work. During those years she completed her schooling at Sydney Girls, excelling at English and gaining a creditable Leaving Certificate in 1919. Unable to attend university under one of her father's idiosyncratic prohibitions, she studied at Sydney Teacher's College, which by proximity drew her into university circles and student life. Christina's writing skills again impressed at STC, and she co-edited the College magazine. Her academic results gained her a scholarship for her final year of study, and allowed her to successfully apply in 1923, less than a year after completing her own training, for a junior lecturer's position, teaching psychology.
Despite her natural affinity with children, Christina decided quickly that she was unsuited to primary teaching and retrained as a secretary. The move was as much economic as vocational – secretarial work paid better than teaching, and she had now determined to leave home permanently. This was in part a decision of the heart – following a young academic who had moved to London to study, a personal story of unrequited love told in For love alone (1944). It was also a desire to escape the limits of her homeland and family. By exercising stringent personal economies, Christina was able to fund her passage to London by 1928.
When the SS Oronsay steamed outwards through the Port Jackson Heads with Christina aboard, members of the Stead family suspended a bed-sheet from the cliffs below the Signal Station as a gesture of farewell. If her intention then was permanent exile, a decade abroad had not reversed it when in 1939 she wrote to Thistle Harris, proclaiming no wish “to see Sydney, nor my family, nor anyone connected with the old days” (Williams p. 21). As for Boongarre, she sighted the family home only once more during her lifetime, agreeing after 48 years to a fleeting visit to its frontage for the purposes of a press photograph.
The former Stead home 'Boongarre' from the harbour at Watsons Bay, 1994
In a life bookended by Australian residency, it was natural that it was Christina Stead’s years abroad – the productive, eventful middle years of life - that held the momentous times, both creatively and personally. She met her main partner in life, Wilhelm Blech (Bill) through the job she secured within a week of arrival in London, and once their relationship developed, the two began a peripatetic existence spread across Europe, England and the United States. These were decades of immersion within a rich diversity of cultural and intellectual experiences.
Blech was a businessman and fellow writer who would ease the way towards publication for Christina, providing introductions, material support and encouragement. The two also worked at times collaboratively. After 23 years together, Bill and Christina married on 23 February 1952, Bill’s divorce from his previous wife finally secured. Bill died in 1968 in England, and the following year Christina accepted the offer of a visiting fellowship at the Australian National University in Canberra, a short-term reunion with Australia which presumably paved the way for her ultimate return in 1974.
Christina Stead published her first two works of fiction, Salzburg Tales and Seven Poor Men of Sydney, in London in 1934, immediately drawing the eye of the major review journals. The word “genius” was used more than once, but as would happen throughout her career, Stead sharply divided the critics. As Jonathon Franzen would note of The Man Who Loved Children, 70 years after its publication, “It’s the kind of book that, if it is for you, is really for you” (Franzen, 2010). It would seem that with all Stead’s writing, the opposite equally applies.
Stead maintained an active writing career over the ensuing four decades, with a prolific output which spanned Hollywood film scripts to political journalism. It is for her 13 major works of fiction that she is known – all but two of which were written before her final return to Australia, and only one of which (The Little Hotel Angus & Robertson, 1973) was handled by an Australian publishing house. One of her novels, Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) was banned in Australia, though nowhere else – a suspected response to the airing of Christina’s provocative views on Australian censorship.
Christina Stead saw neither her limited time in Australia in 1969, nor her permanent return in 1974 as a homecoming, writing in 1975, “I left my life lying on the shores of other countries and I came to Australia. No question of coming back – you can't come back – I am not home” (letter to Stanley Burnshaw, 1975 quoted in Rowley p. 512). She died in Balmain Hospital on 31 March 1983 and was cremated, her ashes scattered at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium.
One of Stead’s own hopes for her work was that it should be informed by an “intelligent ferocity” (letter to Stanley Burnshaw, 1942 quoted in Modjeska, Drusilla p. ix) – an ambition well served by her writing. Another clear legacy is the sense of place and time evoked so compellingly in her fiction. Her keen sense of the Watsons Bay landscape emerged in her first published novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, the fictional locality re-named “Fisherman’s Bay”, but the text liberally scattered with unmistakable references to features of the actual built and natural environment. Unsurprisingly, Stead feels no need to romanticise the landscape, setting the scene at the opening of the novel with the words: “The hideous low scarred yellow horny and barren headland lies curled like a scorpion in a blinding sea and sky”, a description which allows the South Head none of the usually-applied superlatives (Seven Poor Men of Sydney, p. 1).
When Simon & Schuster, publisher of The Man Who Loved Children, insisted upon an American setting for this highly personal story, she overlaid the necessary detail of Baltimore, but preserved the essence of Camp Cove. Here Spa House, permeated by the smell of dampness, stands on low-lying ground by a brackish lagoon. The sights and sounds of the placid neighbourhood and its slow rhythms all serve as a counterpoint to the mood of the Pollitt family home: “the calm sky and silky creek, with sunshine outside and shrieks of madness inside” (The Man Who Loved Children p.328).
In her next novel, For Love alone, Stead - tired of publisher’s decrees in general - launched the journey of her autobiographical character Theresa from a not dissimilar family life, in what is openly identified of Watsons Bay, and proves again her mastery of capturing the milieu.
Postcard view of Watsons Bay from Laing Point, early 20th century
Christina Stead’s highly personal style has defied the imitation which generates movements, but her work has endured by virtue of that distinctiveness. There is a sense among many literary commenters that Stead has been inexplicably neglected and underrated within the context of 20th century authorship. American author Randall Jarrell made this observation in the mid-1960s with the re-issue of The Man Who Loved Children, and the same point was made by Angela Carter writing in 1982, and Jonathon Franzen in 2010. Carter and Franzen moreover expressed fears that Stead’s challenging and disturbing works will not find a continuous renewal of readership, “because we have grown accustomed to the idea that we live in pygmy times” (Carter, p. 11).
Nevertheless, the fact that throughout her writing life, Stead’s work sustained sufficient interest to warrant the posthumous publication of two previously withheld works, and the fact that her major writings remain in print, in translation, and re-issued in e-form, gives hope that she will continue to be read and re-read, studied and debated, and re-discovered by fresh generations of readers.
1965 Britannica Australia Award
Awarded for outstanding contribution to Australian Literature (withdrawn on grounds of Stead’s expatriate status)
1967 Britannica Australia Award
Awarded for The puzzle-headed girl (withdrawn on grounds of Stead’s expatriate status)
1974 Inaugural Patrick White Award
(White had said of For Love Alone, “A remarkable book. I feel elated to know it is there.”)
1982 American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Granted honorary membership
1985 Barbara Ramsden Award
Joint winner, for Ocean of story
1986 Victorian Premier’s Award
(withdrawn once it was realised Stead had died)
1991 Sydney Writers’ Walk, Circular Quay
One of 49 authors honoured with plaque
In 1979, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction was one of the awards inaugurated as part of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards initiative. In 1987, the FAW Christina Stead Award was established for a work of fiction first published in Australia.