Christina Stead’s ‘Kelly File’: Politics, Possession and the Writing of Cotters’ England


Critics who value Christina Stead’s radical politics often find the passionate excess and the spectral and ambiguous qualities that attend her fiction harder to explain. The political dimensions of Stead’s fiction are further complicated by a scene of writing – most dramatically described in Rowley’s 1993 biography – in which the author draws her material from the lives of close family and friends. The problem is framed in this paper as follows: how can qualities of excess, ambiguity and desire in Stead’s fiction (intimately connected to this scene of writing) be understood in relation to its politics? A substantial notebook acquired in 2007 by the National Library of Australia, dated from mid 1949 to early 1950 and internally designated as the ‘Kelly file’, illuminates Stead’s ten-month process of documenting, researching and transforming raw materials for the novel that was eventually published as Cotters’ England (1967). The notebook sheds new light on Stead’s creative process as one that involved, in Susan Lever’s phrase, ‘living inside the fictions she was making’ (Lever 2003). Patiently observing and capturing her characters, Stead allowed herself to be caught up with them. This paper identifies Stead’s notion of ‘possession’, a doubled and spectral dynamic, as integral to her creative modus operandi. On the one hand this involves the writer in taking possession by means of naturalist observation and classification, and on the other hand it entails being possessed. This is a dynamic that thrives on projection, paranoia, and the willed forgetting of investments. Stead’s theory of ‘spectral England’ – her own political explanation of what ails England – emerges from deep inside a creative process that returns to haunt the finished novel.

What does it mean when a fictional character speaks back to her author This scenario is teasingly suggested in Christina Stead’s Cotters’ England (1967) when Tom Cotter takes his sister Nellie for a Saturday afternoon drive into the country. On their way back to London, they stop at a circus where they regard their distorted reflections in its hall of mirrors:

She began to gesture, posture and then dance a strange dance, her own with knees bent and wobbling, arms akimbo, tufted head going up and down and sideways … She saw Tom there, stretched out her long thin arms and he came forward in his heavy shoes, took both hands; and they danced a few steps, though he was no dancer, at arms’ length, a country dance. Her face bright as metal, triumphant, gleamed and cut into him; very bright, her small eyes peered into his large bursting ones.…

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Published 7 December 2016 in Rediscovering Christina Stead. Subjects: Australian literature - Manuscripts, Christina Stead.

Cite as: Rooney, Brigid. ‘Christina Stead’s ‘Kelly File’: Politics, Possession and the Writing of Cotters’ England.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 6, 2016, doi: 10.20314/als.a14b5c69df.

  • Brigid Rooney — Brigid Rooney is an Associate Professor (Affiliate) with the Department of English at the University of Sydney, and author of *Suburban Space, the Novel and Australian Modernity* (2018).