A Reconsideration of Christina Stead at Work: Fact into Fiction

Everyone knows that novelists, like painters, draw from life. What we need to understand is more about the ways particular novelists transform real people into fictional characters and make them their own creations. Literary biographers may identify a writer's models, but they cannot hope to establish how much of a fictional character is invented and how much borrowed from life. In the end this delicate matter must remain unverifiable, even if one happens to know, or even be, the real person in question. The accuracy of any portrait is often a matter for dispute; the process of transformation by the writer is even more obscure. A poet's manuscripts may offer a chance to glimpse the creative imagination at work and so may studying a writer's reworking of literary sources, but when it comes to creating characters in fiction, it is hard to find a literary equivalent of a painter's sketches of a model. Among Christina Stead's papers there is one piece which perhaps fits this bill. The character in question is Eleanor Herbert, the woman writer in Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife), Stead's last novel, which closely follows the life of her friend Florence James, best known as author (with Dymphna Cusack) of Come in Spinner. In this document, to be discussed in detail later, Stead can be watched as her eye turns from the model and her imagination goes to work. The propriety of serious writers such as Stead using real models is currently for some a matter of concern. But to read over the pages of this manuscript is to become aware of how irrelevant such concerns are to the effect a writer's fiction has on the reader. The individual model may feel misrepresented, but for other readers, as for the writer, the new figure is the only reality. And all the reader can judge is the value of the literary creation.

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Published 1 May 1997 in Volume 18 No. 1. Subjects: Characterisation, Creativity, Psychological detail, Writer's craft, Writer's inspiration.

Cite as: Blake, Ann. ‘A Reconsideration of Christina Stead at Work: Fact into Fiction.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 1997. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.ee7186ce2c.