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Christina Stead: A Biography

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Christina Stead was a hugely unapproachable person who detested self-revelation and, late in life, destroyed many of her private papers. Would-be biographers were held at arm's length, and any so foolhardy as to persevere found doors slammed and projects aborted. Only Hazel Rowley managed to stay the course, persuading Stead's estate as well as her friends, colleagues, and Christina Stead was a hugely unapproachable person who detested self-revelation and, late in life, destroyed many of her private papers. Would-be biographers were held at arm's length, and any so foolhardy as to persevere found doors slammed and projects aborted. Only Hazel Rowley managed to stay the course, persuading Stead's estate as well as her friends, colleagues, and family members to cooperate, thereby gaining access to private papers and privileged memories. The result is an intellectually rigorous yet dramatically riveting book that brings alive this odd and furious woman who was often her own worst enemy but who stands with very few as one of the truly important literary figures of her age. Born in Australia in 1902, Christina Stead sailed for England at the age of twenty-six, not to return home until she was seventy-two. An intensely private person and an incredibly cantankerous one, Stead lived a life that was stormy, eccentric, and brave. She was highly political and maddeningly contentious - few would call her easy in life or in fiction. And yet, in her lifetime, her work was likened to that of Balzac, Joyce, Ibsen, and Tolstoy. But, in fact, it was uniquely her own.


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Christina Stead was a hugely unapproachable person who detested self-revelation and, late in life, destroyed many of her private papers. Would-be biographers were held at arm's length, and any so foolhardy as to persevere found doors slammed and projects aborted. Only Hazel Rowley managed to stay the course, persuading Stead's estate as well as her friends, colleagues, and Christina Stead was a hugely unapproachable person who detested self-revelation and, late in life, destroyed many of her private papers. Would-be biographers were held at arm's length, and any so foolhardy as to persevere found doors slammed and projects aborted. Only Hazel Rowley managed to stay the course, persuading Stead's estate as well as her friends, colleagues, and family members to cooperate, thereby gaining access to private papers and privileged memories. The result is an intellectually rigorous yet dramatically riveting book that brings alive this odd and furious woman who was often her own worst enemy but who stands with very few as one of the truly important literary figures of her age. Born in Australia in 1902, Christina Stead sailed for England at the age of twenty-six, not to return home until she was seventy-two. An intensely private person and an incredibly cantankerous one, Stead lived a life that was stormy, eccentric, and brave. She was highly political and maddeningly contentious - few would call her easy in life or in fiction. And yet, in her lifetime, her work was likened to that of Balzac, Joyce, Ibsen, and Tolstoy. But, in fact, it was uniquely her own.

47 review for Christina Stead: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    The shape of her life will be familiar to those of us who spend days and nights in the presence of the buried and the neglected: youthful passion and drive and talent and ambition slowly beaten down by rejection from publishers focused more on the “market” than literary talent; reviews that sneer and dismiss the unusual and genre-pushing; poverty; failing health; failing psychological well-being…. You will know The Man Who Loved Children, of course. You may even have read, and possibly hated, it. The shape of her life will be familiar to those of us who spend days and nights in the presence of the buried and the neglected: youthful passion and drive and talent and ambition slowly beaten down by rejection from publishers focused more on the “market” than literary talent; reviews that sneer and dismiss the unusual and genre-pushing; poverty; failing health; failing psychological well-being…. You will know The Man Who Loved Children, of course. You may even have read, and possibly hated, it. Many find Sam Pollit, the father, so unbearable and “unrealistic” that they dismiss the work out of hand. That he is a portrait of her father, and the book a re-creation of her childhood, that his “baby talk” that many find so irritating is taken oftentimes directly from his letters to Christina, that she had a near breakdown writing the book due to the pain it brought up…all of this is forgotten. And, of course, one should not have to care about the bio behind the text. But sometimes it does matter. She travelled a lot too. 1902-1983 Sydney, London, Paris, New York, Hollywood, Brussels, London, Sydney. Restless curiosity - Life-sharpened, open-eared. Movements through the interior of the century. She was a filthy Red for longer than most – her attacks on Sartre gave me a good chuckle. She wrote in depth analysis of Parisian banking practice in the 20s , the voice of a teenage new Yorker in the 30s, Tyneside socialists, London literary hacks, children, dog-lovers, and countless more. She could be funny, biting, caustic, baroque, terse… I like this, from the NY Times review of the bio: “Any one of these novels would be enough to establish Stead as a major European or American or British novelist if questions of actual citizenship were set aside. But the startling variety of her books seems to have confused readers' perceptions of her and obscured the scale of her accomplishments. Like the blind men trying to describe the elephant by touch, readers and critics can describe almost as many Christina Steads as there are books in her canon. It all depends on which ones you've read.” http://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/02/boo... I really wish more of you were reading her - she deserves your attention. house of all nations in particular is extraordinary, and those of you with an interest in marxism, in finance and all the rest will, I think, find a lot of value in its 800 pages (and that a woman (gasp) wrote it in the mid 1930s is simply astonishing).

  2. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    It’s taken me a long time to read Hazel Rowley’s biography of Christina Stead – and I made heavy weather of it towards the end. It was just so depressing reading about the last years of this great writer… Christina Stead was born into a dysfunctional family in 1902; endured a miserable childhood immortalised forever in The Man Who Loved Children; escaped abroad in 1928 and fell in love with a married man whose divorce took decades to come through; and spent much of her life with him in grim finan It’s taken me a long time to read Hazel Rowley’s biography of Christina Stead – and I made heavy weather of it towards the end. It was just so depressing reading about the last years of this great writer… Christina Stead was born into a dysfunctional family in 1902; endured a miserable childhood immortalised forever in The Man Who Loved Children; escaped abroad in 1928 and fell in love with a married man whose divorce took decades to come through; and spent much of her life with him in grim financial straits. Now recognised as a major writer of the twentieth century, her brilliance was unrecognised for most of her life, especially in Australia, and she spent the last years of her life ‘humping her own bluey’ because while not destitute, she had no home of her own. She died in 1983, with 16 novels to her credit, and four collections of short stories. The honours, when they came, were all too late to make up for the neglect. She was 72 when she won the Patrick White Literary Award and (perhaps understandably) barely acknowledged it, not even mentioning it in a letter to a friend, though the money was welcome. The NSW Premier’s Award for Services to Literature came in 1982, the year before her death, and so did an Honorary Membership of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She was on her death bed when the University of Sydney offered her a doctorate. For decades her work was out of print, and her name was as good as forgotten. Stead TBRI’ve read two of her novels, The Little Hotel, (see my review), and The Man Who Loved Children, (see my review) listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and as a must-read in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library. On my TBR I have her short story collection Ocean of Story: Uncollected Stories of Christina Stead; Seven Poor Men of Sydney; House of All Nations; The Beauties and Furies; and For Love Alone. I think I’m going to get more out of these latter novels since reading the biography, partly because I now understand so much more about the author’s ‘modus operandi’ and partly because Hazel Rowley analyses these books and places them in the context of Stead’s life. To read the rest of my review please visit http://anzlitlovers.com/2013/11/22/ch...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Richard Ewart

    This is a very well written and engaging biography of a brilliant but difficult Australian writer who is not as well known as she should be. If reading this book seemed like hard work at times, it was only because there was a lot of frustration and unhappiness in Stead's life, particularly in her later years. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating story, partly because of the glimpses it povides into the history of the times and places in which Stead lived. She became a communist at a young age and ma This is a very well written and engaging biography of a brilliant but difficult Australian writer who is not as well known as she should be. If reading this book seemed like hard work at times, it was only because there was a lot of frustration and unhappiness in Stead's life, particularly in her later years. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating story, partly because of the glimpses it povides into the history of the times and places in which Stead lived. She became a communist at a young age and maintained her beliefs throughout the Cold War, seemingly unfazed by revelations about the realities of life under Stalin. The story of Stead's final years in Australia, after she had lived abroad for over 40 years, is not a happy one, but at least she was, in the end, recognised as a great writer.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Leigh Swinbourne

    Hazel Rowley’s biography of Australian ex-pat novelist Christina Stead paints a portrait of a woman possessed by demons, however melodramatic this sounds, but also herself possessing literary genius. So as readers, we can, at a remove, feel the grip of these demons (and they are many and varied), that harried this unhappy self-crossed individual. A miserable childhood is often prerequisite for a successful artist, rage and guilt great goads. So it is here. Stead escaped from parochial isolated 1 Hazel Rowley’s biography of Australian ex-pat novelist Christina Stead paints a portrait of a woman possessed by demons, however melodramatic this sounds, but also herself possessing literary genius. So as readers, we can, at a remove, feel the grip of these demons (and they are many and varied), that harried this unhappy self-crossed individual. A miserable childhood is often prerequisite for a successful artist, rage and guilt great goads. So it is here. Stead escaped from parochial isolated 1920s Sydney, and her family, chasing love mostly but also experience in the wider world and found both, but not in the ways she expected. Fortunately, for her and us, she was blessed early on to find a partner, American Bill Blake, faithful (unlike Stead) and loving, who quickly recognised her talent and encouraged and supported her throughout their shared life. When he died she could no longer write. They led a peripatetic existence, shifting from Europe to America and back as fortune, or lack of it, dictated. Which means, while relating this, Rowley shows how the couple were enmeshed in major historical movements and events, Communism, the Spanish Civil War, World War Two, the Cold War, giving a fascinating keyhole perspective of much of the twentieth century. Which is reflected in Stead’s writing. While back in Sydney, her great counterpart, Patrick White, having decisively left Europe and its high culture, was also turning out a succession of masterpieces. His fiction, like most writers, tends to revisit a confined number of concerns, and certainly stylistically, is always recognisably his. Stead’s prose (I think) displays a wider range, fitted to wider purpose, always accomplished, whether expressionistic, lyrical, satirical or dramatic. But Rowley demonstrates convincingly that it was the above-mentioned demons that inspired her greatest work. So, in ‘The Man who Loved Children’, her most acclaimed book, Stead turbo-charges the family dysfunctions of her childhood and adolescence to create an intense Dostoevsky-meets-the-Greeks psychodrama that could not credibly have been her actual day-to-day lived experience, but the reader is swept away anyway, although I must admit I was happy enough to finish it, almost as emotionally exhausted and wasted as the characters therein. Anger, never an attractive emotion, is Stead’s major spur in a good many of her novels, and while personal anger obviously distorts narrative balance and psychology, it definitely gives a black power to the writing. It also lost Stead a lot of friends, particularly women, upon seeing themselves caricatured one after another (Stead bizarrely refused to change even minor biographical details) as greedy jealous over-sexed harpies. The men fared better, but not always. Rowley does not disguise her distaste for Stead’s bad behaviour on and off the page, but at least aims to contextualise if not excuse it. A bit of overreach in Freudian interpretation, although the temptation here is certainly strong. At its heart is Stead’s vexed relationship with her father, noted naturalist David Stead, glamourous and polarising, who, like Stead, made difficulties for himself and others through an often pig-headed intransigence. After early successes, Stead fell off the radar, partly due to McCarthyism, but nevertheless continued to write while she and Blake wandered perilously penurious through post-war Europe. Then unexpected re-discovery with the 1965 reprint of ‘The Man…’ Another short season in the sun before further personal difficulties and Bill’s declining health shadowed things again. The final years in Australia, despite some belated acclaim, were on the whole pretty pathetic. Although growing old is no joke, entertaining crazy self-delusions and drinking like a fish never help matters. In an age of increasing self-promotion this is one writer that did not aid her cause. Which considering the outstanding quality of the work, is a pity. Hazel Rowley seized a good opportunity to write the first comprehensive biography of a significant literary powerhouse, still largely neglected. Like Stead, she spoke German and French and lived in most of the countries Stead lived in. As well, Stead’s life is a fascinating story, both in itself, and also in the many things it touches. Thoroughly researched, cleanly written, well indexed etc. I cannot imagine this bio being eclipsed any time soon, if ever. A fine book on a great writer.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. This is a difficult review to write. Hazel Rowley is magnificent as always. But her character! Christina Stead is a difficult one. When I read Rowley'sTete-a-Tete, I came away with a strong dislike of de Beauvoir and Sartre whom I had revered back in the 70's. EVERYONE revered them; and some of their art certainly still stands. But they were self-absorbed users . Stead never acquired that kind of status in her lifetime, but when I came upon her book The Man Who Loved Children, hers was an origin This is a difficult review to write. Hazel Rowley is magnificent as always. But her character! Christina Stead is a difficult one. When I read Rowley'sTete-a-Tete, I came away with a strong dislike of de Beauvoir and Sartre whom I had revered back in the 70's. EVERYONE revered them; and some of their art certainly still stands. But they were self-absorbed users . Stead never acquired that kind of status in her lifetime, but when I came upon her book The Man Who Loved Children, hers was an original and startling voice. I never liked any of her other books as much, with the exception of Miss Herbert. TMWLC (as she called it) accounts for many of Christina's character flaws. The bio makes fairly short work of Stead's time in Australia. She was an outcast, just as she had been in her own family; yet somehow saved the money to sail to England, and there, almost immediately she hooked up with her life-long partner, Bill. She says it was the best thing that ever happened to her. As you continue with the book you see to what lengths that is true. She soon needs other lovers, mostly ones whose devotion exists only in her imagination. As the book grows nearer a close, the reader begins to see how Stead had actually used, verbatim, not as an amalgam, many of her female friends, and some male. Justifiably, she loses these friends. I probably should not go on, or you will never read the book. It was shocking to me how much she despised her own gender--but--maybe that's Dad speaking with his disdain of her. Still, she never introspected, and you can say that she lived in a different age, but many older than she had caught on to Freud. All in all--not a likeable person; but Rowley does such a good job with her story that you can't really fault her that her character is a mess. I guess I need to get Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage which will have more likeable characters. I want to emphasize, though, that you will never be bored with Rowley. I never read past 5 pages of a book if it doesn't seem well done to me, and I finished this one!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Yenney

    While I enjoyed the book greatly -- Stead's life and work are wonderful to read about -- I could not stand the meddling of the author. Having said that I have to admit I'm not a regular biography reader. Perhaps a biography writer simply has to impose her point of view onto the subject, to direct the subject's life in any way she likes. With Hazel Rowley, her world views and philosophy are simply uninteresting. For Rowley everything can be explained by the manifest/latent binary: either Stead wa While I enjoyed the book greatly -- Stead's life and work are wonderful to read about -- I could not stand the meddling of the author. Having said that I have to admit I'm not a regular biography reader. Perhaps a biography writer simply has to impose her point of view onto the subject, to direct the subject's life in any way she likes. With Hazel Rowley, her world views and philosophy are simply uninteresting. For Rowley everything can be explained by the manifest/latent binary: either Stead was repressing some thought, or overcompensating some repressed emotion. This kind of pseudo-Freudian (and bad) reading of one's life to me is pure annoyance. In Rowley's writing it is clear that she did not appreciate some of Stead's behaviours (from drinking, being vain, to treating her female friends and relatives meanly), and I found her degree of being opinionated distasteful. But again, as a biographer you probably have to have a stand; you either have to sing the praises of the subject, or acutely point out how awful the person is. Maybe I just prefer the previous kind.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Anne

    Another outstanding biography by Hazel Rowley. She brings her subjects to life and sets out the political and social context of this remarkable woman's life and writing. I am now tracking down all the Stead I haven't read. First up - Seven poor men of Sydney. Another outstanding biography by Hazel Rowley. She brings her subjects to life and sets out the political and social context of this remarkable woman's life and writing. I am now tracking down all the Stead I haven't read. First up - Seven poor men of Sydney.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Michael Quach

  9. 4 out of 5

    Ann Emanuel

  10. 5 out of 5

    Kate

  11. 5 out of 5

    Michael Alexander

  12. 4 out of 5

    Natalie

  13. 4 out of 5

    Meg Klosko

  14. 4 out of 5

    Elaine

  15. 5 out of 5

    Karen

  16. 4 out of 5

    Deborah

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mike

  18. 5 out of 5

    Margaret

  19. 4 out of 5

    John Purcell

  20. 5 out of 5

    Bayboodlesauntie

  21. 4 out of 5

    Maggie

  22. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ben Langdon

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ethne Mcleod

  25. 5 out of 5

    Laura

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sue

  27. 4 out of 5

    Rdurie

  28. 5 out of 5

    Susan Bybee

  29. 5 out of 5

    ilnyb

  30. 5 out of 5

    Hamish Danks Brown

  31. 5 out of 5

    Nita Durham

  32. 4 out of 5

    Peter Mathews

  33. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

  34. 4 out of 5

    Deb Allen

  35. 5 out of 5

    Mely

  36. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

  37. 5 out of 5

    Taryn

  38. 4 out of 5

    Ms

  39. 4 out of 5

    Jenny

  40. 5 out of 5

    Manuka

  41. 5 out of 5

    Deborah Tait

  42. 5 out of 5

    Tanya

  43. 5 out of 5

    Miss M

  44. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

  45. 4 out of 5

    Sally

  46. 4 out of 5

    Jenni James

  47. 5 out of 5

    Leigh Mackay

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