Tuesday, November 24, 2009

consummated with roast beef

In the part of the world Teresa came from, winter is in July, spring brides marry in September, and Christmas is consummated with roast beef, suckling pig, and brandy-laced plum pudding at 100 degrees in the shade, near the tall pine-tree loaded with gifts and tinsel as in the old country, and the old carols have rung out all through the night.

In Australia this is Stead's most popular book behind The Man Who Loved Children. For Love Alone is easy to find in secondhand shops, and it's the only piece of her work to have been turned into a movie, not counting the scraps she contributed to Hollywood during her short and disappointing scriptwriting stint in the 1940s. Sam Neill played good James Quick, Hugo Weaving played bad Jonathan Crow, and the lead role of Teresa Hawkins went to a feral teenager from Mad Max II: Beyond Thunderdome. However the first thing an Australian reader will notice is that it is not addressed to Australians. Or perhaps it is. An Australian should recognise the description immediately. Will a foreigner? Or will they be titillated by the oddness and sit there wondering which country she's talking about until she clarifies it geographically: "her northern neighbours are those of the Timor Sea, the Yellow Sea; to the south is that cold, stormy sea full of earth-wide rollers, which stretches from there, without land, south to the Pole"?

Over the page, bringing this short introductory chapter to a conclusion, following a path already worn for her by past examples of Australian literature, she places the continent in an ancient classical frame: "It is a fruitful island of the sea-world, a great Ithaca, there parched and stony and here trodden by flocks and curly-headed bulls … To this race can be put the famous question: "Oh Australian, have you just come from the harbour? Is your ship in the roadstead? Men of what nation put you down - for I am sure you did not get here on foot?"" O restless Odysseus. O echoes of Barron Field grumbling that Australia in 1819 was "a land without antiquities." The indigenous Australians are forgotten; no hint of them in the Australia she's describing, which is an unusual omission for Stead. Her father, who had such a powerful influence over her childhood and therefore over her adulthood, took a kind of casual but regular pleasure in Aboriginal Australia. In the introduction to Ocean of Story, a posthumous collection of her short fiction, the author says that he sometimes told her bedtime stories about "the outback, the life of the black people whose land it was, though even they were comparative newcomers, come from who knows where, brave canoe-sailors." She remembered this so well that she gave Sam Pollit the same fondness for Native America. One of her stepsisters had an aboriginal word for a middle name. And there's an antecedent to Love Alone's introduction in Seven Poor Men of Sydney when Kol Blout makes a speech descriptive of the "last post of the land world, thence south to the whale land," and its "native youth": "He chased the kangaroo, and the wild turkey from its incubating hill, heard the curlew and the boobook owl in solitude and the deep throbbing of the frogmouth's throat." Stead often drew on past cultures, folklore as well as the European antiquities. So the neglect here is odd.

From this introduction the book passes on to a description of the protagonist's father standing, "Naked, except for a white towel rolled into a loincloth … laughing and shouting" in front of his daughters, boasting about the pleasure women take in the sight of his nude legs. "Poor Mrs. Slops said I had legs like a 'dook'." Ideas about bareness, mental and physical, passion, lust, and honesty run through the story. Teresa wants grandeur, openness, abandon, sex, and love. The world tries to thwart her but she perseveres fiercely. Diana Brydon, in her study of Stead, sums it up as "a voyage to Cythera".

An active seeking of union with the other, the journey toward Cythera [motif, in Stead's fiction] is the opposite of the paralysed drifting of the sons of Clovis toward their deaths.

Jonathan Crow, in Brydon's reading, is la belle dame sans merci in male clothing:

[Teresa] makes a 'cult' of Johnny in the same way men have made cults of the Virgin Mary or the 'Cruel Mistress' of courtly love fantasies. In this scenario, the male, rather than the female, is cast as the great withholder of love. He becomes the passive object of the chase ... For Love Alone turns romantic conventions upside-down, rewriting them from an antipodean point of view - the woman's rather than the man's.

Crow is a coy, cold flirt; Brydon's casting of him as la belle dame is illuminating and perfect.

Reading the book, it's not hard to think of passionate Teresa as another Louisa Pollit, and of her father, with his Sam-Pollit "hair of burning gold", as another Sam. (In interviews and private letters Stead made the connection explicit, but if you've read both books then you don't really need to see her say it - it's clear enough.) The first half of For Love Alone hints at the Man Who Loved Children she could have written if she had set that book in Australia, as she'd intended to, and not in the US, as her American publishers Simon & Schuster preferred.*

I wonder if it was this kind of prompting that made her decide to open the book with this subtextual message to the reader, wait, let me warn you, this is set in Australia, describing her Ithacan homeland in language that makes it sound as exciting and easily-grasped as possible. "Plains heavy with wheat?" the American reader might say, cocking an eye at paragraph three. "They're just like us!" "Outcrops of silver, opal, and gold?" the English cry. "Baroque and fascinating!" She doesn't take similar precautions with her later books, all set in the northern hemisphere, and the story itself really begins with the bare chest and legs of Mr. Hawkins.


* According to Hazel Rowley's biography.


  1. I loved Chapter 1 ... her language is exquisite - the word plays (bending/unbending, the use of "honour" different ways in the space of a few sentences, the teasing phrases ("inviting cell", Lance "chaste and impure"), the irony (her father's "I love everyone") etc.

    1. She's so powerfully powered by that ironic frisson, which is itself "chaste and impure:" the writer is standing apart from the sin but you wouldn't see it without her. I think about it and I remember that she loved Balzac, who was excited by hypocrisy and corruption too.

  2. I hope the notify me check box will work.

  3. Oh, the notify me worked! Yes, the ironic frisson ... Loved it. I was disappointed that no one else in my reading group loved it. Some wanted to out it down after that first chapter with the father, whereas that got me in hook, line and sinker. Such writing!

    1. Did they say why? (Was it the father himself? His character? I swear, with Stead it's always the characters.)

    2. Here I go typing on my iPad while on the road, again. Please excuse silly typos. Yes, one specifically named the father. Another decided not to start because she didn't like The man who loved children, and I think that was character related. I think a couple found it too repetitive ... But was liking it more towards the end. Three didn't turn up and I know at least one was not liking it ... And as I recollect it was the characters and the writing. Most I think found the writing hard .. Old fashioned ... But some of those love Hardy! Isn't he old-fashioned if you are going to label writing such?

    3. No, it doesn't make sense to complain that Stead sounds "old fashioned" if a person likes Hardy. Her sentences are wilder than his. (I'm thinking of construction, not emotional content -- I'm putting that aside.) If you take "old-fashioned" to mean something like, "expected, antique, boring, done in a familiar elderly manner," then they're absolutely the opposite of old-fashioned. She has the energy of those paradoxes, she has that attraction toward thrusting fullness that I can see in the excerpt you posted on the 3rd ("too full for lapping ... flooding ... choking ... every moon-red shadow ... every bush... highest point ... high tide ... high ledges ..." and so on -- the suggestiveness of "narrow paths" and trees forcing themselves between boulders). I'd like to be in this book group so I can ask them exactly what they think is old-fashioned about it. (Old-fashioned in a Rabelaisian way? That would make more sense. Or one of those uncontrolled old splurge-authors, like Robert Burton. Or engulfingly old-fashioned, like Balzac: one of those authors who write as if they've been born before self-consciousness was invented, which of course they were not.)