Hazel Rowley’s biography of Australian ex-pat novelist Christina Stead paints a portrait of a woman possessed by demons, however melodramatic this sounds, but also herself possessing literary genius. So as readers, we can, at a remove, feel the grip of these demons (and they are many and varied), that harried this unhappy self-crossed individual.
A miserable childhood is often prerequisite for a successful artist, rage and guilt great goads. So it is here. Stead escaped from parochial isolated 1920s Sydney, and her family, chasing love mostly but also experience in the wider world and found both, but not in the ways she expected. Fortunately, for her and us, she was blessed early on to find a partner, American Bill Blake, faithful (unlike Stead) and loving, who quickly recognised her talent and encouraged and supported her throughout their shared life. When he died she could no longer write.
They led a peripatetic existence, shifting from Europe to America and back as fortune, or lack of it, dictated. Which means, while relating this, Rowley shows how the couple were enmeshed in major historical movements and events, Communism, the Spanish Civil War, World War Two, the Cold War, giving a fascinating keyhole perspective of much of the twentieth century. Which is reflected in Stead’s writing.
While back in Sydney, her great counterpart, Patrick White, having decisively left Europe and its high culture, was also turning out a succession of masterpieces. His fiction, like most writers, tends to revisit a confined number of concerns, and certainly stylistically, is always recognisably his. Stead’s prose (I think) displays a wider range, fitted to wider purpose, always accomplished, whether expressionistic, lyrical, satirical or dramatic.
But Rowley demonstrates convincingly that it was the above-mentioned demons that inspired her greatest work. So, in ‘The Man who Loved Children’, her most acclaimed book, Stead turbo-charges the family dysfunctions of her childhood and adolescence to create an intense Dostoevsky-meets-the-Greeks psychodrama that could not credibly have been her actual day-to-day lived experience, but the reader is swept away anyway, although I must admit I was happy enough to finish it, almost as emotionally exhausted and wasted as the characters.
Anger, never an attractive emotion, is Stead’s major spur in many of her novels, and while personal anger obviously distorts narrative balance and psychology, it definitely gives a black power to the writing. It also lost Stead a lot of friends, particularly women, upon seeing themselves caricatured one after another (Stead bizarrely refused to change even minor biographical details) as greedy jealous over-sexed harpies. The men fared better, but not always.
Rowley does not disguise her distaste for Stead’s bad behaviour on and off the page, but at least aims to contextualise if not excuse it. A bit of overreach in Freudian interpretation, although the temptation here is certainly strong. At its heart is Stead’s vexed relationship with her father, noted naturalist David Stead, glamourous and polarising, who, like Stead, made difficulties for himself and others through an often pig-headed intransigence.
After early successes, Stead fell off the radar, partly due to McCarthyism, but nevertheless continued to write while she and Blake wandered perilously penurious through post-war Europe. Then unexpected re-discovery with the 1965 reprint of ‘The Man…’ Another short season in the sun before further personal difficulties and Bill’s declining health shadowed things again.
The final years in Australia, despite some belated acclaim, were on the whole pretty pathetic. Although growing old is no joke, entertaining crazy self-delusions and drinking like a fish never help matters. In an age of increasing self-promotion this is one writer that did not aid her cause. Which considering the outstanding quality of the work, is a pity.
Hazel Rowley has seized a good opportunity, to write the first comprehensive biography of a significant literary powerhouse, still largely neglected. Like Stead, she spoke German and French and lived in most of the countries Stead lived in. As well, Stead’s life is a fascinating story, both in itself, and also in the many things it touches.
Thoroughly researched, cleanly written, well indexed etc. I cannot imagine this bio being eclipsed any time soon, if ever. A fine book on a great writer.