I've come to the end of Christina Stead's books and thanks are in order. Thanks, first, to Lisa Hill, who suggested the idea of looking at the openings in the first place, and thanks to everyone who has tackled Stead in the past, particularly Hazel Rowley, biographer, and R.G. Geering, her literary executor. Geering seems to be the kind of literary executor every writer might hope for: dedicated, discriminating, and willing to wade through mounds of scratchy typing and spare bits of paper. Thanks to everyone who wrote introductions for the reissued books. I didn't reread all of those introductions, but Angela Carter's essay was formidable. If I ever wrote anything half as neat as that I'd be smug as Henny thinks Pollits are, for weeks. Diana Brydon's idea of Jonathan Crow as a femme fatale in reverse still tickles me.
After that last post I put the books in a row and took a photograph. They look like this:
From left to right, with the reprint details of these editions:
The Salzburg Tales (Angus & Robertson, 1989)
Seven Poor Men of Sydney (Angus & Robertson, 1976)
The Beauties and Furies (Virago, 1982)
House of All Nations (Angus & Robertson, 1974)
The Man Who Loved Children (Penguin, 1979)
For Love Alone (Angus & Robertson, 1979)
Letty Fox: Her Luck (Angus & Robertson, 1974)
A Little Tea, A Little Chat (Virago, 1984)
The People with the Dogs (Virago, 1981)
Cotters' England (Angus & Robertson, 1989)
The Puzzleheaded Girl (Virago, 1984)
The Little Hotel (Angus & Robertson, 1983)
Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife) (Random House, 1976)
I'm Dying Laughing (Virago, 1986)
Thank you of course to all the people who republished these books and thanks, most of all, to Christina Stead for writing them. There's a lot I haven't looked at. She's a great, visceral chronicler of money, a subject I think I've barely mentioned, and her dialogue is not like anyone else's, it's eccentric yet exact - look at the children speaking in The Man Who Loved Children. The way she adjusts her tone is another thing. It's not only the story that seems picaresque in Letty Fox, there's also an archaic inflection in the phrasing. Letty's directness is the directness of Moll Flanders, whose rapid turnover of husbands is echoed in the other character's rapid turnover of boyfriends.
[I had] a friendly smile for all lewd gestures which was so successful an act that I had many boy friends.
E.M. Forster's assessment of Defoe's book is true here too: "Attractive as she is, the heroine always keeps to the rules of her game, and never tries to capture our sympathy." Stead draws on the literature of the past in order to give the present resonance, liveliness, and force; this connection between Moll and Letty is one example of that, as are the parallels she draws between her Salzburg tourists and the storytellers of the Decameron. She gives her characters their due, so that even her monsters have their good moments, even Sam, even the Miss Herbert she disliked so much, even I'm Dying Laughing's Emily, whose real life counterpart irritated her so profoundly that she spent one Christmas alone at home rather than go to her party. She had too much writerly energy not to see people, life, really, in the round, or some sort of round, anyway, some kind of vividness, with complications, ironies, surprises. She was widely-read, prejudiced in places, but who isn’t? In the end, a humanist. As Dickens liked to say of himself: inimitable.