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Christina Ellen Stead (1902–1983)

by Margaret Harris

This article was published:

Christina Ellen Stead (1902-1983), author, was born on 17 July 1902 at Rockdale, Sydney, only child of New South Wales-born parents David George Stead, naturalist, and his wife Ellen, née Butters.  Her mother died in December 1904, and Christina and her father then lived with his sister and niece.  In 1907 David Stead married Ada Gibbins and the new family moved to Lydham Hall, Bexley, an old sandstone cottage owned by Ada’s father.  Christina absorbed her father’s fascination with the natural world from the long tales that he told her at bedtime; 'I was brought up by a naturalist' she maintained, 'and I am a naturalist'.  When Ada’s father died in 1917 the family, which now included Christina’s six half-brothers and sisters, shifted to Watsons Bay.

Christina attended Bexley Public and Kogarah Girls’ Intermediate High (from 1916 St George Girls’ High) schools and, from 1917, Sydney Girls’ High School.  An editor of the school magazine, she matriculated in 1919 and took up a scholarship at Sydney Teachers’ College.  Completing her training in 1922, she worked as a research assistant to a psychology lecturer at the college and studied second-year psychology at the University of Sydney.  Next year she was posted to Darlinghurst Public School.  Hampered by a soft voice and chronic pharyngitis, she was soon transferred to work at Blackfriars Correspondence School.  She had voice enough in 1924 for a one-year appointment as a junior lecturer in psychology at the teachers’ college.  In 1925 she returned to primary teaching but the classroom environment proved too stressful and she resigned from the Department of Education in July.  Planning to travel to Europe, she now gained secretarial positions and saved the two-penny tram fare from Circular Quay to the hat factory near Central Station where she was working; she projected the experience of 'walking her way to England' onto the central character of her largely autobiographical novel For Love Alone (1944).  She made time for writing but a volume of short stories offered to Angus & Robertson Ltd for publication was rejected.

Stead sailed for England in the Oronsay in March 1928.  She had hopes of joining W. G. K. Duncan, formerly a tutor at the University of Sydney and now a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  The character of Jonathan Crow and his rejection of Teresa Hawkins in For Love Alone derive from this experience.  Promptly finding a secretarial job at Strauss & Co., a grain exchange firm, she worked for Wilhelm Blech (naturalised in 1936 as William James Blake), a married American of German-Jewish extraction.  They soon became lovers and over time Blake provided Stead with emotional and practical support for her writing.  When Blake was transferred in 1929 she moved to Paris, where she worked with him at the Travelers Bank.  She had completed the manuscript of Seven Poor Men of Sydney, which was conditionally accepted in 1931 by the London publisher Peter Davies; in it she depicted the fishing village atmosphere of Watsons Bay in 1920s Sydney.  While Davies recognised the originality of her story, he wanted a more conventional book for her début.  After attending the Salzburg Festival in 1930, she wrote The Salzburg Tales, which was published, as was Seven Poor Men, in 1934; both received good reviews in London, New York and Sydney.  She published House of All Nations, based on her experiences at the bank, in 1938.

Moving between London and Paris until 1935, in July Stead and Blake travelled to the United States of America.  In 1936 they went to Spain and that year Stead published The Beauties and Furies, a novel set in Paris and given to the themes of love and learning.  On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, they retreated to England via Belgium and France and, in July 1937, embarked again for the USA; they lived in Manhattan and in semi-rural locations near New York.  In 1942-43 they were in Hollywood, where they attempted to make their fortunes as scriptwriters.  Despite these many moves, Stead retained her sense of national identity, although damningly labelled 'expatriate' by Australian critics.  She reviewed Australian novels for the New York Times Book Review and submitted an entry in an Australian sesquicentenary fiction competition in 1938; she kept up with news of Australia, mainly through correspondence with her cousin, Gwen Walker-Smith.

From the outset Stead had based her fictional characters and situations on people she knew and she now turned back to her own experiences in childhood and early adulthood; in The Man Who Loved Children (1940) and For Love Alone (1944) the young heroine rebels against a dominant father, recognisably drawn from David Stead.  Her stepmother and half-siblings are similarly recognisable in The Man Who Loved Children.  Although that novel draws on Stead’s childhood environment—'I was able to transport Watson’s noiselessly and as if it were an emulsion or a streak of mist to the Chesapeake'—it is not simply realist.  Her claim that 'I wrote what I saw' is disingenuous; the transformation of her father into Sam Pollit, named for the American humorist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) and a British Communist Party leader, is part of a narrative strategy that generates criticism of American paternalism and capitalism.  Critics such as Susan Sheridan have discussed Stead’s 'prodigious variety of . . . narrative experiments' and the dimension of social and political critique in her work.

While fiction writing preoccupied both Stead and Blake—who published seven novels from 1938 to 1959, and non-fiction works, including a Marxist text and An Intelligent American’s Guide to the Peace (1945)—they undertook some journalism, reactivating their earlier connection with New Masses, an unofficial weekly of the Communist Party of the USA.  They made a number of friends in this milieu, including Stanley Burnshaw, a writer and publisher, who, thirty years later, helped to reprint Stead’s work.  In 1945 Stead and Blake co-edited the anthology, Modern Women in Love: Sixty Twentieth-Century Masterpieces of Fiction.

Amid moves in the USA against communist sympathisers, Stead and Blake left New York for Belgium in 1946.  Unprepared for the austerity of postwar Europe, they moved from one set of lodgings to another—to England and then to Italy and Switzerland, in search of a cheap and congenial environment in which to write.  But no publisher had sufficient investment in Stead’s work to champion it, and so her literary reputation had been eclipsed.  Her refusal to write for popular taste, her mobility and her left-wing politics, all impeded her efforts to be published in the postwar environment.

Although banned in Australia because of its racy depiction of a female rake in wartime New York, Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) was perhaps Stead’s most successful novel of her decade in the USA.  Like For Love Alone it was originally part of a grand design for five books that Stead had described as 'satires and moralities', constituting the 'Natural History of Woman'.  Its American setting aligned it closely with her next two novels, A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948)—a satiric critique of wartime profiteering and philandering—and The People with the Dogs (1952), a mellow analysis of American utopianism, played out in and around New York.  The most ambitious of this suite of novels was to be the posthumously published I’m Dying Laughing: The Humourist (1986), set mainly in Europe during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the subsequent McCarthyism persecutions of the late 1940s and the 1950s in the USA.  It engaged with many of Stead’s recurrent preoccupations: passion of different kinds, family dynamics, writers and literary culture, and political commitment.

Back in London in 1949, Stead was already at work on The Little Hotel (1973) and I’m Dying Laughing.  Blake eventually secured a divorce and on 23 February 1952, at the register office of St Pancras, he and Stead were married.  Stead made a field trip to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to gather material for Cotters’ England (1967, published in the USA in 1966 as Dark Places of the Heart), a novel mainly written during 1953 when the Blakes were in The Hague, before they finally based themselves in London.  Now struggling financially, they took whatever hackwork they could get.  Christina produced an edited selection, Great Stories of the South Sea Islands (1955), and translated three books from French.  Relations, visiting from Australia, were shocked at the Blakes’ living conditions, which were reflected in the circumstances of the Blackstones in Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife), 1976.

In 1957 the Blakes visited the German Democratic Republic, where Bill had accrued royalties for German translations.  Their situation improved significantly in 1958, when he landed a job as a researcher and scriptwriter with Hannah Weinstein’s Sapphire Films, the employer of a number of blacklisted Hollywood writers and directors.  The position included accommodation at the company headquarters at Foxwarren Park, near Cobham, Surrey, England.  In 1961 they moved to nearby Hawley and, in 1965, to Surbiton.  Blake died in 1968 and Stead returned next year to Australia, to take up a short-term visiting fellowship at the Australian National University, Canberra.

Despite her expatriate status, Stead was still remembered in Australia.  A band of enthusiasts had emerged: as early as 1952, the Sydney-based journal Southerly had published 'The Hotel-keeper’s Story', part of The Little Hotel, which drew on postwar pension life in Switzerland.  Published by Angus & Robertson, it was the first and only time that one of Stead’s novels was originally brought out by an Australian firm.  Southerly’s Christina Stead Special Issue in 1962, Angus & Robertson’s republication of Seven Poor Men (1965) and For Love Alone (1966), and the republication of The Salzburg Tales (1966) by Sun Books were important landmarks in re-establishing her reputation.  However it was the reissue by the New York publisher Holt, Rinehart & Winston in 1965 of The Man Who Loved Children that brought Stead some late-flowering success.  The book’s popularity was due to its accordance with the politics of second-wave feminism, although Stead disavowed sympathy with 'women’s lib'.  Moreover, in Australia the republication chimed with a new interest in Australian literature, manifested in publishing initiatives and in university curricula.

The long-delayed recognition of Stead, with its accompanying material benefits, was gratifying but controversial.  In 1967 she was nominated for the annual Britannica Australia Award for her outstanding contribution to Australian literature; the committee’s decision was overridden on the grounds of Stead’s expatriate status, and the $10,000 prize was not awarded.  Elsewhere, her fame was increasing, reinforced by the publication of two works written more than a decade earlier: Cotters’ England and a collection of four novellas, The Puzzleheaded Girl (1967).

In 1974 Stead returned to Australia to live.  The recipient that year of the inaugural Patrick White Literary Award, which recognised the lifetime achievement of older writers, she was in poor health and drinking heavily.  Again peripatetic, famously generous and inherently needy, she lived sometimes with family, sometimes with friends, or in university accommodation, on occasion as writer in residence.  She continued to write, her new work consisting of short pieces, and she fretted over reworkings of I’m Dying Laughing.  The reissue of much earlier work—notably by the London publishing house Virago in the 1980s—secured for her a new audience.

Stead died on 31 March 1983 at Balmain, Sydney, and was cremated, her ashes scattered by staff in the grounds of the Northern Suburbs crematorium.  As well as I’m Dying Laughing, her literary executor, R. G. Geering, edited another posthumous publication, Ocean of Story: The Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead (1985) and, in 1992, two volumes of selected letters.  The New South Wales Premier’s Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead awards commemorate her.  A photographic portrait by Jacqueline Mitelman (1981) is held by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Lidoff, Christina Stead (1982)
  • S. Sheridan, Christina Stead (1988)
  • C. Williams, Christina Stead (1989)
  • R. Geering (ed), A Web of Friendship (1992) and Talking into the Typewriter (1992)
  • H. Rowley, Christina Stead (1993)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
  • M. Harris (ed), Dearest Munx (2005)
  • Australian Literary Studies, vol 6, no 3, May 1974, p 230
  •  Australian Literary Studies, vol 9, no 4, October 1980, p 431
  • H. de Berg, interview with C. Stead (ts, 1969, National Library of Australia)
  • C. Stead papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Margaret Harris, 'Stead, Christina Ellen (1902–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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