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A Woman of Superior Wit : Australian novelist had an uncanny ability to capture the complexity and sheer extravagance of life : CHRISTINA STEAD: A Biography, By Hazel Rowley (Henry Holt: $37.50; 562 pp.)

November 20, 1994|Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin is a free-lance writer and critic

By the time she reached the last years of a rather difficult literary life, too much of which was spent struggling to overcome the resistance of publishers on three continents, the Australian-born novelist Christina Stead (1902-1983) had finally been acknowledged as one of the century's most gifted and underrated writers.

Stead's admirers constitute an impressive array of discriminating minds, from Rebecca West, who had detected her originality in her very first published book, "The Salzburg Tales" (1934), to Saul Bellow, who, on receiving his Nobel Prize in 1976, mentioned Stead as deserving of one. In 1974, Stead's fellow Australian Patrick White made the 72-year-old author the first recipient of a generous award endowed with funds he had set aside from his own recent Nobel Prize money. Yet until 1966 not one of her books had ever, as we learn from Hazel Rowley's fascinating biography of Stead, been published in her native Australia. Indeed, in 1947 the Australian Literature Censorship Board actually banned the importation of one of her novels, "Letty Fox: Her Luck," for its portrayal of a promiscuous young anti-heroine.

Despite such influential partisans as Lillian Hellman, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, Diana Trilling, Peter Taylor, Jean Stafford, Martin Seymour-Smith, Theodore Roethke, Clifton Fadiman, Stanley Burnshaw, Hortense Calisher and Angela Carter, by the the early 1960s, most of her work was out of print in England and America. The man whose opinion of her work helped turn the tide was Randall Jarrell, whose introductory essay to the 1965 reissue of her 1940 novel, "The Man Who Loved Children," helped rescue her from semi-obscurity.

Jarrell's warm praise for the novel--"It seems to me as plainly good as 'War and Peace' and 'Crime and Punishment' and 'Remembrance of Things Past' are plainly great!"--tempered with his critically judicious account of the novel's vital strengths and minor weaknesses, shone a much-needed spotlight on Stead's unique talents. Her uncanny ability to capture the complexity and sheer extravagance of life, its messiness, folly, idiosyncrasies and perilous blend of comic and tragic elements, is perhaps nowhere more vividly demonstrated than in this particular novel, based largely on her own childhood.

Stead's mother died when Christina was 2 1/2. Her father, a clever, self-educated naturalist with socialist and social Darwinist notions, loved playing the role of paterfamilias to his growing brood of Christina and her six younger half-siblings by his second wife. His relentless jocularity, firm belief in his own goodness and wisdom, and blithe insensitivity to anyone else's feelings are brilliantly represented, and probably exaggerated, in the eponymous character Sam Pollit of "The Man Who Loved Children." Louie, the child who most staunchly resists his jovial despotism, is based on the author herself, and the hopelessly weary, embittered stepmother Henny is a darker, grimmer re-imagining of her real-life stepmother Ada.

Hazel Rowley's is not the first biography of Christina Stead, but it is the most complete and detailed account of her life to date. Rowley, born in London, educated in Australia, and currently a research fellow at the University of Texas, very ably demonstrates the close connection between Stead's life and her fiction, without falling into the dangerous habit of mistaking one for the other. Stead drew many of her characters and situations from real-life family, friends and acquaintances. Her portraits, fueled by obsessive love or strong hatred, may well have distorted the facts, but uncovered deeper truths about human nature, laid bare by the intensity of her re-imagining.

"Everyone," Stead declared in a 1935 interview, "has a wit superior to his everyday wit . . . and the most depressed housewife . . . can talk like Medea about her troubles. . . . " As Rowley shows, it was Stead's unique style and vision, rather than her unpopular political views (she was a lifelong Communist) or even her rootless cosmopolitanism (anathema to the Australian literary Establishment), that caused her problems with publishers.

Like other restless, intellectually enterprising members of her generation, Stead left home for Europe and England. She did not return until she reached old age. Setting off in her late 20s, filled with romantic and sexual desires, but inhibited by lack of obvious physical charms (her father made fun of her plainness), Stead followed a young man she then idolized who had gone to London. She was spurned. Much to her surprise, she found the love and admiration she so desperately craved from an unexpected source: an amiable American Jewish banker who had hired her as his secretary.

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