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Authors: Christina Stead

Letty Fox

BOOK: Letty Fox
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The Miegunyah Press

The general series of the
Miegunyah Volumes
was made possible by the
Miegunyah Fund
established by bequests
under the wills of
Sir Russell and Lady Grimwade.

‘Miegunyah' was the home of
Mab and Russell Grimwade
from 1911 to 1955.

 

 

 

 

Miegunyah Modern Library

Titles in this series

Christina Stead,
The Man Who Loved Children

Christina Stead,
Letty Fox: Her Luck

Christina Stead,
For Love Alone
(upcoming)

THE MIEGUNYAH PRESS

An imprint of Melbourne University Publishing Limited

187 Grattan Street, Carlton, Victoria 3053, Australia

[email protected]

www.mup.com.au

First published 2011

Text © Christina Stead, 1946; estate of Christina Stead, 2011

Design and typography © Melbourne University Publishing Limited, 2011

This book is copyright. Apart from any use permitted under the
Copyright Act 1968
and subsequent amendments, no part may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means or process whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publishers.

Every attempt has been made to locate the copyright holders for material quoted in this book. Any person or organisation that may have been overlooked or misattributed may contact the publisher.

Text design by Peter Long

Typeset by Megan Ellis

Cover design and illustration by Miriam Rosenbloom

Printed by Griffin Press in South Australia

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

[to come]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its principal arts funding and advisory body.

Introduction

One critic has said of Christina Stead that “at no time during her life or beyond it could Stead be even remotely considered a popular writer.”
1
Unfortunately for Christina Stead, this was not the case. When I founded Virago in 1972, the group of women I gradually gathered round me included many who were devoted to the works of Christina Stead, and each of us loved her work for different reasons.

The feminism of the 1970s had many strands, and in Britain one of its strongest elements was that of socialist feminism, which carried with it a firm attachment to any woman who had suffered for the faith. For these women Christina Stead was a heroine of the left, a writer who wrote about socialists, who was said—more daring still—to be a communist, and a Stalinist to boot. In those days this was seen to be a good thing. (Christina Stead was in fact not a member of the party, and William Blake, her husband, only for a short time.)

As for me, I came to Christina Stead's works because I am an Australian libertarian, and my version of Stead worship was purely literary, and of course, nationalistic. Then there were others, including my great friend the novelist Angela Carter, who hailed Christina Stead as a forgotten woman writer of huge achievement, fabulous individuality and magnificent creative powers. Angela, herself a towering figure in what she called “pygmy times,” recognized with rapture a kindred spirit.
2

And so it was inevitable that once I thought to launch a series of reprints of out-of-print novels by women writers, Christina Stead should be almost the first writer we thought of. She was one of three writers whose books launched the Virago Modern Classics series in 1978. We published
Letty Fox: Her Luck
on 20 July of that year, and over the following decades we published nine more of her works.

Critically, they were a success; she was “rediscovered” by Virago, so that, as English writer Lorna Sage claimed, she was “a kind of Virago mascot, a truly extraordinary writer whose rediscovery is a major event of the past decade.”
3

For us, life was not easy. Trees were felled in sorting out knotty problems between Christina Stead and her agents in New York and London. The writer we chose to introduce
Letty Fox: Her Luck
was a disaster. She was an American writer, Markie (Mary Kathleen) Benet, a scion of the old American left, and Christina Stead's acid letters about it still cry to the heavens.

Meanwhile, Christina Stead had developed a marvelous technique to deal with a recalcitrant world. She became a professional contrarian: in all her numerous interviews, in response to the most innocent question, Christina Stead would automatically answer no, the response of a person irritated beyond bearing by the banalities and stupidities of the everyday folk amongst whom she was forced to live.

Rodney Wetherell interviewed Christina Stead for the ABC in Melbourne, in September 1979. The exchange was a classic and the gist of it is to be found in other interviews both before and after it, during which she perfected her art:

Rodney Wetherell: There must have been a great restlessness in you, too, right from early days.

Christina Stead: No, not at all.

RW: Do you have a professional sort of writer's interest in psychology?

CS: No, I was never a professional writer, and I am not now …

RW: I've always wondered where you fitted writing into your life actually, because … obviously you were working very hard in the bank …

CS: No, I was not working hard, no, no …
4

Why did Christina Stead accept publication by a feminist publisher? She made it clear, again and again, that the success that came to her with the women's movement was hard to bear. Another classic encounter occurred when she was interviewed in 1982 by Dr Guilia Guiffré for
Stand
magazine:

Guilia Guiffré: Would you agree that some of the notions that occur in your books would support a feminist reading? Christina Stead: No. I have always found men to be wonderful friends and they've helped me a great deal. I love men.
5

I can only imagine that, despite her constant reiteration that she had always been published with ease by leading publishers, by 1977, when I came along, her work was usually out of print. But “I adore men” was a Stead catchphrase.
6
Her fixed opinion that feminists did not inevitably led to a relationship between us which, reread thirty years later, can only make one laugh.

How heroically she tried to be polite, not to be driven mad by what we represented. How she struggled to deal with us. She was intelligent enough—and good enough—to know that we meant well, but the Virago files bristle with her sharp stabs:

D
EAR
V
IRAGO
,

Thank you for your catalogue; you have many interesting titles. About my own books … details about myself. I did not “fall into disfavour under McCarthyism”—a romantic (and corny) statement … I do not care about the other romantic statements in your blurb: I am interested in fact. Sorry, I know you mean well—but the women's movement, like any other movement, is best helped by FACT, by TRUTH.

At the time, it was painful. How could we please this revered icon? How was I to know, when I went to meet Virago's heroine of literature and socialism, that she thought she was encountering a radical lesbian man-hater? How was I to know that I was about to encounter a writer whose bad teeth meant she could not eat, who drank over a liter of Cinzano a day and who liked to absorb at least two strong drinks, if not more, before lunch?

I met her in February 1980. It was hard to find an unattractive brutalist pub in Melbourne at the time, but Christina Stead managed it.

Here is how the meeting went:

A formidable and terrifying lady. Just as picky as one imagined. Offered me two gins and tonics, made a great fuss about getting them, and drank nauseating brown vermouth herself. Talked about her brothers and sisters and her position in the family. We talked about being the first child in the family, she said how harsh her life had been, that she'd been almost an orphan. She was the only child of her father's first marriage to a working-class girl; he married subsequently a middle-class girl and they had six children, four boys and two girls and she had to more or less bring up her step brothers and sisters. She described a very harsh childhood and then said, “Of course it did me no harm whatsoever, I was perfectly happy, it was good discipline.”

She said meaningfully twice that she loved men and constantly referred to her close relationship with her husband. I think she meant by this that she was suspicious of my sexual proclivities. About her husband she talked a great deal … After lunch we stood outside in the blazing heat waiting for a taxi for ten minutes, we then went to a post office so she could send three valentines to men friends.

She continues to assert in a quiet sort of way (it's very difficult to hear what she says) that all the circumstances of her life, wherever she is, are good. A weird sort of inverted rage it seems to me—which you can see in her books. I found it hard to imagine that this prickly, rather disagreeable and unloving creature had written those novels.

I was a terrified and crestfallen young publisher when I wrote a—much longer—account of this meeting thirty years ago. Today I see her quite differently. Even if Christina still frets in whatever Darwinian utopia to which I hope she has been transported, what she had and what she gave us was far grander and more wonderful than the stinging encounters to which she subjected us mere mortals. What she had was genius, and a troubled childhood. She was selfabsorbed and spiky, often idiotic—in other words, she was a human genius, but there are many monsters prowling the earth who have given us a great deal less than she has. Almost, though not quite, I wish I could meet her again.

Since Christina Stead's death in 1983—and mostly emanating from Australia—biographical accounts of her life and critical studies of her work have poured out, often interpreting the personality of this remarkable writer in ways that would have made her incandescent with rage. Did her seeming dislike of women mean she was a closet lesbian? Was she psychologically damaged by her unhappy childhood? Was she fixated on her supremely egotistical father, and thus always in pursuit of equally domineering men?

This is not surprising, because as Stead often admitted herself, her fifteen works of fiction plundered her own life and the lives of those around her. “But I don't invent it. I see what's going on. That's all.”
7

In
Letty Fox: Her Luck
, her sixth novel, written in 1946, Christina Stead uses such sources to place Letty's picaresque pursuit of sex, love and marriage within a meticulous satire on marriage and the marketplace without any rival in English literature. More than that, Stead uses her own passionate nature to explore, brilliantly, sexual desire—female sexual desire in particular: what women feel about it, what they will do to satisfy it, and the arrangements society has put in place to control it.

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