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. … She stopped a moment, eying a mirror which showed them side by side, shredded, a bundle of dark reeds and a wisp of hay, both with long beaked faces, split like seaweed, on her head a long sprout, on his the dry grass ground birds hide in. (189–90)1

Nellie and Tom are imagined here in theatrical terms. Like dolls or marionettes, they are objects of the narrative’s anatomising gaze. The visual images produced by the hall of mirrors cut starkly across Nellie’s incessant talk as she grooms her brother Tom, binding him into her plot. Inured to his sister’s stratagems, Tom seems unmoved, an observer whose ironic gaze channels an implied critical view. And yet he too is the object of the narrative gaze, a product of the Cotter family web. With his strange passivity, he presents the negative complement to Nellie’s positive verbal energy. Mired by the past, he is a ‘wisp of hay’, less a man than a manifestation of English place and time. This brother-and-sister double act forms the novel’s dark heart. With her perpetual crooning – her paean to the cosy fireplace and little back room of the British ‘cot’ (15) – Nellie is aggressively seductive while Tom, a wispy and radiant storyteller, remains passively adrift. In the mirror, however, brother and sister are not only seen, but also seem to glimpse themselves, as puppets worked by a string. They appear as seductive figments of the author’s imagination.

Yet as the meta-theatrical nature of this mirroring suggests, Nellie is more-than-puppet. She is a usurper, as Michelle de Kretser observes, of narrative power, co-opting and channelling the narrative resources deployed to capture her, refusing to be pinned down (De Kretser xiii). Their reflection in the mirror prompts Nellie’s scornful laughter. She says: ‘Not much, is it? They’re distortions of human beings! Why do we like it, Tom?’ (190). Nellie’s judgement rings out as riposte to her designer and puppet-master, Christina Stead. Nellie’s voice is extraordinarily powerful within the novel – she is its master manipulator – even while the narrative strives to immure her within its implied political and moral frame. The hall of mirrors scene speaks to the ambiguities of a ventriloquial dynamic that mobilises the binaries of dummy and ventriloquist, puppet and puppeteer, character and author, fiction and reality (Davies 20–21). As Kate Webb writes, to read Stead’s ‘reflections’, her characters dancing in the hall of mirrors, ‘as only antipathetic (wasteful) doesn’t take account of their disruptive power, of the energy and charge they engender in the narrative’ (Webb, n.p). This complex dynamic shapes Cotters’ England, both constituting and haunting its political vision.

The hall of mirrors within the text finds its uncanny reflection and spectral extension outside the text, too, in recently uncovered paratextual material comprising Stead’s earliest unpublished notes towards Cotters’ England.2 In 2007, the National Library of Australia acquired a set of previously unknown notebook manuscripts that yield a stunning glimpse into Stead’s primary research for this late novel.3 This recent acquisition occasions my present return to this great novel. Like other readers, I have long been as fascinated by the uncanny qualities of Cotters’ England as disturbed by its coded use of the lesbian as a vehicle for its political critique of England (Rooney, ‘Strange Familiars’). In Yglesias’s words, Cotters’ England is about the failure of the English working class to have the revolution (420). But the homophobic tenor of Stead’s treatment of the postwar English malaise makes Cotters’ England a difficult, even unpalatable novel for contemporary readers. To read the novel again in light of this new material – the most significant element of which is a 130-page notebook that Stead internally designates, several times, as ‘the Kelly file’ – is to be compelled by real life sources that return to haunt the novel. These spectral qualities, as I will argue, have everything to do with Stead’s purposeful political theorisation of her project. On the one hand, the idea of ‘spectrality’ forms Stead’s own answer to the puzzle of what ails ‘Cotters’ England’. On the other hand, ‘spectrality’ clings to Stead’s own writing process: ‘spectrality’ is generated through her practised harnessing – in what proves to be an ambiguous, dynamic and creative process of possession – of real-life materials and real people for her art.

Before coming to the notebook itself, it’s important to register the ways in which political agendas in Stead’s fiction have been read against its libidinal excesses, its pulses of desire and fantasy and its spectres of the uncanny, the surreal and the supernatural (see, for example, Lane). In the past several decades, there has been broad consensus that Stead’s writing is, in one way or another, political. Stead’s radical left affiliations in both her life and writing have been variously considered by, among others, Wilding, Yelin and Rooney and (more recently) Ackland and During. Feminist scholars (Gardiner, Sheridan and others) have traced the politics of gender in Stead’s fiction, while Morrison is concerned with Stead’s politically and intellectually formative American years. Debate about Stead’s politics intensified in response to Hazel Rowley’s acclaimed biography (1993), a formidable scholarly work that gained a wide readership. Seeing her subject as governed by irrational anger sourced in childhood misery, Rowley suggested that for Stead the political was merely a façade while her writing’s true wellsprings were psychological, that libidinal passions burst the veneer of political frames. Rowley’s account of Stead’s psychological make-up remains compelling. More questionable is Rowley’s implied model of what the political is and how it enters into Stead’s creative process. In Rowley’s surface/depth paradigm the political remains subordinated to hidden psychic depths. What if Stead’s politics and passion are not in some neat hierarchical binary relation but rather form a dynamic, generative fusion, a haunted intertwining, yielding what she herself once identified to Thistle Harris as her chief aim: ‘an intelligent ferocity’ (Stead, Web of Friendship 94)?

Susan Lever engages this question in her essay on Stead’s 1940s ‘Workshop in the Novel’. She argues Stead ‘was not a critical theorist’ of writing but ‘a reader interested in the craft and dynamics of a novel’ (Lever, ‘Christina Stead’ 82). She identifies Stead’s method as the conscious application of Marxist frames. Emphasising Stead’s ‘intelligent ferocity’ and political craft, Lever contests Rowley’s account of the author as under the sway of unconscious compulsions. She concludes that Stead’s habitual and notorious use of family and friends as models reflected her commitment to working from life ‘as a conscious method, even though that might mean the sacrifice of life for art’:

Many of her comments on friends support the view that Stead lived inside the fictions she was making, even when with friends and relatives who were also her characters. (Lever, ‘Christina Stead’ 87)

Lever’s brilliant formulation, ‘Stead lived inside the fictions she was making’, exerts a degree of tension, however, with her characterisation of Stead’s approach as conscious and rational. To privilege conscious authorial control is to reverse Rowley’s binary and to imagine creative desire as subordinate to rational, purposeful method. Living inside her fictions must surely, however, have been dangerous and unpredictable for Stead, fraught with the risks of complicity and personal betrayal, potentially engendering claustrophobia, paranoia and projection. Indeed, through their atmospherics of alienation and paranoia, Stead’s late fictions darkly mirror their historical moment, refracting the Cold War turn against writers of the radical left, a group increasingly marginalised and subjected to surveillance.

How did Stead’s manifest political intent converge with wayward desire in the making of her fiction? In other words, how did her commitment to scientific Marxist inquiry, to naturalist observation, interact with her everyday proximity to real-life subjects? For Stead was clearly not engaged in some kind of carefully theorised, reflexive participant observation scheme. Rather she was enmeshed in situations about which she wrote, either living with others who would become her subjects or drawing on those with whom she had lived, worked or socialised in the recent or more distant past. It seems logical to assume that Stead’s emerging fabrications retroactively conditioned her attitudes towards and feelings about these others. If such a dynamic was formative for her fiction, then it must have involved her in struggle, whether for political authority or moral legitimacy. This is what Michelle de Kretser senses in Cotters’ England, in the ‘excess of the representation’, in the ‘smoke that swirls demonically around Nellie’:

the surreal lesbian orgy she hosts, her torrential speech … Cotters’ England, no less than Tom or Caroline, is Nellie’s victim, unable to get free of her, unwilling too. (xiii)

Could Stead’s creative process – ‘the night of which no-one speaks’ (Stead, Web 94; Lever, ‘Night’) – have been both rational and blind? Once again, it may be Angela Carter who most nearly catches this dynamic when she observes that Stead was both ideologically Marxist and a ‘blind painter throwing paint at a wall’ (11).

One way to achieve a more textured and nuanced account of how Stead, as Lever put it, ‘lived inside the fictions she was making’ involves returning Cotters’ England to the layered continuum of drafts, notebooks and letters that comprise its making. It is exactly this embedded, developmental process to which the notebook – the ‘Kelly file’ – speaks. This material extends, deepens and further complicates what we already know from extant drafts of the novel and from the various letters that Stead wrote to her sister Kate Stead and her husband Bill Blake at the time (Web 114–17; Dearest Munx 453–83). The ‘Kelly file’ allows us to discern and trace Stead’s process of research at the earliest stage of her novel’s development. What it affords is a glimpse, not of the drafting or rewriting process, which comes later, but of Stead’s unfolding and anticipatory conceptualisation of the project. The ‘Kelly file’ reveals an intense, and intensely lived, ten-month process of collecting, interrogating, developing and transforming the novel’s key materials – its major characters, its settings and its most significant plotlines.

The ‘Kelly file’ – which for convenience will be referred to hereafter as the ‘notebook’ – is unique in Stead’s archive because it pertains so directly and intensively, indeed almost exclusively, to a single project. As a physical object, the notebook is also curiously distinctive – it comprises a 130-page bundle of loose leaf pages closely typed on both sides and strikingly bound together by white laces threaded through red ring-reinforcers on front and back. Acquired and archived with this notebook is another manuscript, also diary-like in its arrangement, showing dates that run into subsequent years; this second manuscript comprises nearly 100 pages of loose-leaf A4 typescript in a black ring binder.4 The distinctively bound ‘Kelly file’ notebook is dated between May 1949 and March 1950, in all likelihood making this the earliest assemblage of notes towards Cotters’ England. It is dense with observational material and exploratory thinking. There is a gap of several years between the notebook’s final entry and the first full draft of the novel, which Rowley dates to 1953 when Stead and Blake were in Den Haag (392–93). The notebook documents Stead’s daily life during the ten months of this particular sojourn in England. But this is no ordinary diary: it has all the hallmarks of a process diary or writing journal. As such it is similar to other diary-like notes kept by Stead, but the notebook possesses an unusual singularity of focus on English place and on people who will become fictional characters. It moves freely between apparently dispassionate observation and impassioned response. There is much sifting and sorting through literary forms and types for suitable counterparts. The notebook bespeaks the compressed time and the hothouse quality of the environment within which Stead’s research for this particular novel, Cotters’ England, took place. She herself observes that: ‘this is first time [sic] I have lived day to day with people I am writing about: hence the artistic distance, the vision conflicts with the development and the movement on the other plane’ (‘Notebook’, back of 52).

Putting notebook and novel together brings into view the longer process involved not only in mapping life materials but also in transmuting these materials for fictional purposes. We can discern within the notebook, for instance, the emergence of the ‘bohemian’, a figure that ambiguously contours the evaluative political frame implied in Cotters’ England (see Rooney, ‘Strange Familiars’; and Webb). The notebook affirms Stead’s effort to observe naturalistically at the same time as it suggests the degree to which desires, fears and feelings are projected onto her models. Taking possession of her characters – capturing, classifying and pinning them down through quasi-naturalist practices of observation and documentation – Stead also, evidently and willingly, allows herself to be possessed, to be caught and captivated by her creations. It is this doubled, reciprocal sense of ‘possession’ that is constitutive of, rather than separate from or antithetical to, that which is most avowedly political in Stead’s fiction. The struggle for control, for authority, is a by-product of the creative dynamic of ‘possession’. This involves the conjunction of naturalist observation and political diagnosis (a will to possess) with an immersion in and willed surrender to ‘possession’, entailing a willed forgetting of the structural complicities of projective desire. This dynamic, to which I will return, works as the structuring structure (the deep structural, organising principle) of Stead’s writing process, conditioning the way in which the interaction of political schema and creative desire engender and transform her real-life materials.

A prefatory note on the very first page of the notebook offers a working title for the project: ‘Traveller from New Holland’. A brief general set of points about setting – ‘London as a smoking slag heap’ – and character follows, noting that the latter will show ‘understanding’ typical of ‘Virginia Woolf and her crowd’. This summoning of Woolf and Bloomsbury at the very inception of Stead’s project is a significant matter that I will shortly address. The notebook proper, in the sense of diary, begins with an entry on 1 May 1949, detailing Stead’s arrival and immediate excursion with Anne Dooley to meet striking workers on the East Ham docks and families living in Islington’s slums. Anne Dooley née Kelly and her husband Pat had been communist friends of Stead and Blake since their association with 1930s Popular Front activism (Rowley 166–67). Returning after a decade in the USA, Stead sought entrée to working-class English circles through Anne, then a journalist for the communist paper, the Daily Worker. Across a series of entries, the notebook shows Stead abandoning the idea of contacting her own distant relatives in England for this purpose, along with her gathering resolve to focus instead on her friend Anne and on Anne’s extended Kelly family in Newcastle.

A new working title for her project, ‘Kellys’ England’, soon emerges within the notebook, indicating the point at which the Kellys became the focus of Stead’s documentary energies. That this notebook is more singular in focus than her usual working diary is confirmed by Stead’s remark near to the end of its 130 pages, in an entry dated in March 1950: ‘I’m rearranging Kelly letters … intense desire to finish with it … [to] “close the Kelly file.”’5 Here the phrase, the ‘Kelly file’, echoes the Cold War, McCarthyist context in which both Stead and her partner Bill Blake were subjected to FBI investigation. This retrospectively designates the notebook, in only semi-parodic terms, as a kind of secret file, an exercise in novelistic surveillance. For Stead, the Kelly family – the London-based Anne and her brother Peter Kelly, and the Newcastle-based ‘Ada’, ‘Pop’, sister Zena and old Uncle Tom – embodied a ramified, enclosed familial world stifling the worker and retarding revolution.

The notebook records how the Dooleys, along with Anne’s brother Peter Kelly, took Stead and Blake on tours of the English countryside. The novel’s three major settings take shape in the detailed notes that Stead makes after these trips. The novel’s bombed-out metropolitan London with its dilapidated houses and loose women will be associated with Nellie. Polluted, industrial ‘Bridgehead’ (Stead’s fictive counterpart to Newcastle’s Gateshead) will be dominated by mad sister Peggy and old Uncle Syme. The third space, breaking from the London–Newcastle axis, is the countryside of East Anglia and its ancient brecklands (also known as the Brecks). This haunted landscape will be correlated with Nellie’s brother Tom. With Tom we travel through warped vistas of dry grass and pheasants, encountering England as beautiful but spectral, full of uncanny, horrifying experiences.

Rowley asserts that Stead was charmed by Anne’s brother Peter Kelly. The notebook reveals this to be an understatement: it is on Peter that Stead’s creative desire fixes. In a nine-page entry for 10 June, 1949, Stead records how Peter takes her, alone, on a drive through East Anglia to Norfolk where he is interviewed for an engineering job at the Norfolk Canneries. They set out from London at 7.30 a.m. and travel all day, returning at 11.30 p.m. to collect Anne who had been working late at the Daily Worker. They had covered, Stead notes, at least 300 miles in a single day:

We went by Hertford, Herts. Cambridge, Camb. Ely, I. of Ely, Swaffam, Cawston (district of) Aylsham, N. Walsham, Cromer, Mundesley, Baston, Bacton, Stalham by Coltishall by Norwich, Thetford (where is head office of canneries and where he will work if he gets and takes job) Bury St Edmunds Lavenham, Long Melford, Sudbury, Halstead, Braintree, Chelmsford, Brentwood, Romford, East End (Mile End Rd). (‘Notebook’ 6)

In later entries, Stead refers to this outing as the ‘Norfolk ride’.6 Its impact upon her imagination, its stimulus for her writing, was powerful. She vividly records the countryside through which they travelled, through fenlands, pine forest, flat lands, flood plains and flint country. Noting contrary signposts in a confusing labyrinth of ring roads, Stead describes villages with nowhere for travellers to eat and people they meet such as boys from industrial slums visiting relatives on the coast. Above all, Stead observes Peter Kelly himself – often denoted in her typescript by the abbreviation ‘PK’ – documenting his account of his wartime post as an engineer at a joint British-American airfield, as well as the story of his marital troubles.7 She records what he says of his strained relations with his father, and his intimate bond with his sister, Anne.

The notebook does not simply observe and enumerate character traits; it interrogates the social and political implications of such observations. Concluding her long recount of the ‘Norfolk ride’, Stead writes:

Re Kellys’ universe … Don’t think [Anne] has ever read books on socialism. Enquire … Enquire PK also … Both: extremely humane [-] unkind censorious biting satiric or sharp word about others never passes lips and they don’t think that way … What kind of socialism does this make? They can’t censure? A question. Don’t know the answer. (‘Notebook’, back of 10)

An entry dated two days later reflects again on the scene of the Norfolk ride, but at this point records a confluence of political questioning with libidinal desire:

But the curious little obsessive, insinuating and sweet P.K. was still in a sense with me, the result of a whole day of that length with only one person and the fact that the engine ran perfectly all day, no trouble, a sort of unity, harmony in spite of the trouble and his engineer’s calmness, his smallness, and aphrodisiac emotion, his soft speaking which comes through the motor (he doesn’t speak when the car and motor stop) so that I had to bend my ear all day, while he spoke fast, about all his most private troubles – and the astonishing thing that this queer little [burbling] animal was more lively as the result of this awful death, a kind of unity between him and the pheasants, rabbits, other things, with the remarkable singular quietness of the English countryside, the unspectacular lure of East Anglia, flat and wide horizon, this is very obsessive – a perfect picture, artistically a complete feeling, and perfect for my subject.8

This ‘perfect picture’ – obsessive and complete – blends sound and vision, converging driver, machine and wide horizons. All is charged with desire. We see how the novel’s representation of the English countryside in Cotters’ England takes shape in proximity with and through desire for P.K. He emerges as a kind of Green Man, serving at one level as a magical, animus figure. The experience of riding with Peter gives Stead ‘the first idea I ever had of depth in this country’ (‘Notebook’ 41). This unity of man and place constitutes a depth charge that engenders Stead’s English chronotope, a picture of place deepened and crosshatched by time. This haunted landscape, this ‘spectral’ England, will infuse the novel, not only animating and conditioning its characters but also forming its ideological frame.

The ‘Norfolk ride’ galvanises Stead. Thereafter, the notebook reflects her conviction that the Kellys shall be her conduit for England. Stead documents sensitive negotiations with Anne, organising to stay with the extended Kelly family in Newcastle and seeking to assuage Anne’s fears by declaring she is well intentioned, that she only sees the Kellys positively. Then subsequently, during her Newcastle stay, Stead records how Anne, at one point, ‘snoops’ in the notebook.9 She recounts an ensuing night-long battle during which Anne will not let her sleep. In Cotters’ England the night-long harangue is one of Nellie’s chief modus operandi for breaking down the autonomous functioning of her victims. The notebook recounts how during that long Newcastle night Anne implores Christina to ‘write rosy stuff’, to create ‘lovable characters’, or at least to disguise them. She dreads the scalpel ‘pitilessly revealing people’. Stead reports Anne as saying that ‘she did not want to be known just as L[etty] Fox is known’ (‘Notebook’ 18). Deeply disturbed and angered, Stead at this point begins, not coincidentally, to impute to her friend the ‘signs of Lesbian looks’ (‘Notebook’, back of 18). In the notebook, the letter ‘N’ appears to denote ‘Nan’—the Kelly family’s pet name for Anne (‘Notebook’ 12). Signs of abject bodily horror, of lesbian tendencies, gather around ‘N’:

N’s ‘naked’ episode … when I was shut up in bedroom with beating heart terrified: … Bill said it would shock you to see someone you knew suddenly naked (i.e. not husband or wife …) and he said ‘Look at how you felt yesterday when N. was walking about naked …’ Yes, I was nextdoor [sic] to helpless with dread and horror – (thought today this would be good scene for say anti-L. scene … L[esbian] hating lesb[ian]s etc. It is a dreadful sort of story, but of course effective – and possible.10

The ‘naked’ episode fills Stead with horror but equally strikes her as useful material. This passage, like many others, exemplifies the ways in which the notebook functions as process diary or writing journal, affording scope for continual, speculative and indeed – with Bill as interlocutor and supporter – collaborative production of characteristics spun from the affective strands of lived experience. The notebook shows how uncertain and porous is the boundary between naturalist observation and desiring projection. Towards the end, with her fictive material richly developed, there is even a moment when Stead briefly catches herself in the very act of projecting. Classifying ‘N’ as a lesbian, observing the ‘dreadful odour of vice, wickedness … vacuity, incest … round the K[elly]s’, Stead suddenly entertains another idea, ‘but a vain one’, that ‘K[elly]s England really came from Bill and me who poured all that into them’. Significantly, she immediately shrugs off this perspective, assuring herself that ‘this isn’t true following the “spectral Eng[land]” approach’.11

‘Spectral England’ is the key phrase, therefore, that describes and defines Stead’s novelistic treatment and diagnosis. Stead’s phrase, ‘spectral England’ implies no less than a political theory about what determines or shapes her characters: the nature of their entrapment in, and perpetuation of, ideological or false consciousness. Spectral England coheres with a Marxist analysis that understands ideology as the inversion of an inherited history, an inversion that obscures the realities of socio-economic and class position. Stead’s characters, mired and trapped in place, do not know their past – prefer not to know it – even as signs of the past proliferate and return to haunt the present. ‘Spectrality’ is what thwarts revolutionary agency, turning power and energy inward towards narcissistic narratives, cloying dependency and entrapment in repetition. The characters are puppets on the string of their family, social and national history. As ideological web, ‘spectral England’ is both seductive and regressive, and this is why the trope of brother-sister incest makes Nellie and Tom exemplary manifestations of all that is wrong with England. The suggestion of incest situates the pair as insufficiently differentiated beings, figures representative of unawakened, pre-Oedipal, pre-revolutionary nature. Their individual psychopathology, their false consciousness, manifests English society at large as regressive and amnesic.

The spectral England approach, for Stead, must be true, and cannot be a projection given that what she seeks to capture in her novel is the very ideological masking and amnesia that retards her characters and stymies revolution. This approach bears the hallmarks of what Sedgwick theorises as paranoid reading, suspicious in orientation and structured by the anticipated unveiling or exposure of invisible, repressed or hidden truths (6, 24). Stead, as we have seen, does not entertain for long her thought – a vain and incapacitating thought – that she and Bill are the source and agents of this spectrality. Yet the thought is entertained, is written down. Here is another spectre: a flickering awareness that points to the structuring structure of possession, of possessing and being possessed. This semi-awareness haunts the novel at its inception – and thus for readers the notebook comes to haunt the novel itself: the notebook is a chronicle of Stead’s transformation of life into art, and a chronicle of her willed surrender to the drama of possession. Admission to full consciousness of such projection threatens to undo and disable the creative process. This potentially disillusioning self-knowledge is at once glimpsed and held at bay, held at the threshold. It is the very liminal and embedded quality of this self-awareness that enables Stead’s creative praxis.

There is no doubt that the drama of possession gripped Stead in personal terms. As the later section of the 2007 archival material shows, Stead’s feelings for Peter Kelly lingered on a full year after the couple’s return to Europe.12 On at least one occasion, Stead veers close to acknowledging the pain that her passion for ‘PK’ must have caused Bill, prompting her own careful navigation around the matter to alleviate his feelings.13 It also seems likely that Bill understood that an erotic yearning, with its accompanying dynamic of ‘possession’, shaped Stead’s creative process. I use the word ‘possession’ advisedly: it is her own word. In this same later loose-leaf manuscript, in an entry dated 6 February 1952, Stead likens her obsession with Peter Kelly to the ‘rf possession’.14 She notes that this ‘rf possession was always strongest in my life, only other one since [P.K.,] other Englishman, prob[ably] expl[ains it] but don’t know’ [sic]. On the same page, she continues:

peter ibbetson15 crisis passed, it ousted childman fixation and so both gone, good for moment … is ‘man who died’ obsession like ‘child who died’ with mothers? Would I have been so fixed on rf if had enjoyed him? Perhaps not …

It is logical to assume that these initials – ‘rf’ – stand for Ralph Fox. As Rowley’s biography details, Stead was in love with Fox, a writer of the English left who died fighting the Spanish Civil War. Stead found Fox’s study, The Novel and the People (1937) conducive to her own fictional project (Rowley, ‘Christina Stead: Politics and Literature’). As is well known, Fox is the model for Teresa’s lover Harry Girton in For Love Alone with whom she has a brief, one-night affair before returning to connubial life with James Quick, the character modelled on Bill Blake. This reference to Fox in Stead’s diary seems to indicate that in real life no such consummation of any putative affair between Stead and Fox occurred. In addition, Stead’s mid-life ‘PK’ obsession seems somewhat correlated with a displaced maternal longing that – as it happens – finds its way into the novel itself through the character of Eliza (202). What is most revealing and significant about the above note, however, is the way the mature and experienced writer can identify her own (by now) familiar patterns of obsession, fixation and possession. We see her reflecting on these patterns, however partially, as she harnesses what remains for her writing.16

Rowley says it was rare for Stead to admit that the creative act inevitably transformed life (359). Yet the notebook carries remarkable meditations on the transformations entailed in fiction, and so the opposite would appear to be the case. The notebook suggests an ambiguous ‘awareness’ of the process of creative transformation. This ‘awareness’ functioned somewhere between a reflexive knowing and a willed forgetting. The double act of knowing/forgetting is palpable in rapid shifts within Stead’s ruminations on art. Even as she contemplates the necessary divergence of fiction from life, we can sense the hermeneutics of paranoia as Stead builds her characters from real-life models, as is plainly apparent in accompanying patterns of rejection and disavowal. Late in the notebook, for example, Stead contends again that Anne and Peter have ‘betrayed’ her. In the very same entry, she bends this alleged betrayal towards her own fictional plot: the ‘idea that … they hunted “together” came to me, and also idea of incest’ [sic] (Notebook, back of 33). As the fiction takes on its own life, the notebook records Stead’s increasing urge to sever her links with ‘real-life’ sources. At the exact moment that she crystallises the theme of incest, Stead articulates her decision to set the work aside, to leave it ‘for future developments’, since:

in an artistic sense it is the painful, necessary and yet fertile split of the painting from the model, art from the ‘reality’ … the reality goes on fermenting, fevering and the art-thing goes on in its own purer line …

(‘Notebook’, back of 33)

Closing the ‘Kelly file’, as she writes in March 1950, seems to mark a decisive transition in the process. The closed and bound notebook stands as one of the many figures of possession that mirror, haunt and anticipate each other. The act of taking possession is marked out, for instance, by the use of the possessive case in both her working title, ‘Kellys' England’, and in her published novel, Cotters’ England. The network of Cotter family homes monstrously encompasses space, incorporating, containing and compressing England into a series of suffocating and nightmarish domestic interiors. Stead in turn effects possession of this domain by means of her ‘Kelly file’, and by means of her novel to come. Sealing off the first stage of the process, closing the Kelly file is a gesture that enables new developments. This decision is the outcome of a pressure that has built through several months, during which time Stead notes her increasing sense of boredom with the Kellys, and expresses her impatience to begin her novel, ‘before the glamour wears off’ (‘Notebook’, back of 52). Having exhausted Peter Kelly’s potential, she banishes him from her mind, declaring (albeit prematurely) her surprise ‘that he has made no real impression on me but artistic’ (‘Notebook’, back of 52). It is at this moment of separation that Stead writes for the first time in the notebook of the suicide plot that she has decided will form the climax of Cotters’ England: ‘have not mentioned this to Bill, cannot, it moves me too much’ (‘Notebook’, back of 52). Suicide and incest are central to both Seven Poor Men of Sydney and The Man Who Loved Children, so the suicide plot will incorporate Kellys’ England into Stead’s fictional universe.

Stead writes about the suicide plot as though it is a secret discovery that has only emerged belatedly in her thinking, an idea to be closely guarded since it moves her so much. But this belies the fact that suicide is already present, has indeed presided over and haunted her ‘Kellys’ England’ project from its very beginning. This spectre appears in the notebook’s prefatory statement when the proper name of Virginia Woolf is invoked to stand for those categories that will subsequently be drawn out of and projected onto Stead’s real-life models, and then folded into the fictional characters of Nellie and Tom. The prefatory notes read, in full, as follows:


1. London from Grosvenor as smoking slagheap

2. Virginia Woolfe [sic] and her crowd understanding – ‘they come to us and make their choice’ – and then anything to avoid reality that no-one comes, no-one is there, the world has left them behind: even the Labour Gov[ernmen]t proves this ... and so it is a No[h] Play, they should be in boxes of glass and china in British Museum, come out squeak the classic lines, take the classic attitudes, no longer even beautiful to us; and go back into their stands and on to their strings and the keys turn and they do not even have to commit suicide … The idea that all Britons have is idea of centuries of culture – how false: means they never knew their own people: those people never knew even the name and occupation of their own grandfather except in rare circs (c.f. Lord Raglan) …17

Here again we find ourselves inside Stead’s ‘hall of mirrors’. Woolf and her crowd are imagined here theatrically as dolls or marionettes, kept in their ‘boxes of glass and china in the British museum’ and brought out to perform for ‘us’ (the projected ‘we’ of an imagined revolutionary future) who laugh at their posturing and inauthenticity. It is telling, here, that Stead should liken this scene to a Noh play, given the basis of Noh in tropes of spirit possession (Hagiwara 14). The notebook marks Woolf out as representative of an English bohemianism that is politically outmoded, aligned with a decadent, amnesic culture caught up in its own myths. Woolf is here the signifier for a wider English literary bohemia identified elsewhere in the notebook. In an entry dated 9 May 1949, Stead tells of her intense recoil against Elizabeth Bowen’s best-selling novel, The Heat of the Day: ‘A dreary incredible pseudo analysis of feelings of two or three Chelsea types during the war … A dead class drifted off on a cloud to Laputa-land’. This repudiation of Bowen’s novel enacts Stead’s vehement rejection of the Chelsea-Bloomsbury bohemian axis. It is both purposeful and ironic that this axis is mapped onto the Kelly-Cotter family’s London-Newcastle axis, implicating Bloomsbury’s cultural elite in the corruption of the English working class.

Though Woolf and her crowd are aligned with the corrupting bohemianism of Nellie, the covert lesbian, the novel in fact diverges from any simple or predictable parallel between them. Instead, Woolf herself, as an individual woman who falls victim to spectral England, is projected onto Nellie’s victim Caroline. Indeed, in the notebook, Stead momentarily identifies with Woolf, wondering whether it was the loss of her beauty with advancing age that led to her suicide.18 In the novel, driven to desperation by Nellie, Caroline finally leaps to her death from an abandoned high rise. The note she leaves seems to confirm Nellie’s power but also exacts a victory over her:

This will be perfection and the water is rushing over the dam, it is roaring deep smooth all the thread twisting into the fabric, continuous splendid dark – I can say nothing to you, for you are inside your cell of glass this is the only message I can give – from the glorious power – think of me as grief, I will not be thinking and not grief – the end not submission rushing intensity, not what you think, everything there rankles, here is living – quiet rushing over the edge out thousands of stars so many they are daylight, all lives stars, myriads are one. I lost my honor. I said that once to you. Honor went down the wind a rag. It turns round, flies in my face – it is returning coming at me, what it is I don’t know. I lived for honor and love and – dishonor only – (there was a stroke of the pen after this and some watermarks, perhaps tear marks. Some way under she had written in big letters,) I am dying, Nellie, where is honor. (304)19

The rushing water imagery recalls Woolf’s death. Likewise, Caroline’s fragmented, run-on syntax seems to emulate or summon Woolf’s use of stream-of-consciousness. Caroline’s death recalls, similarly, the modernist surreality of Michael Baguenault’s terminal consciousness, as well as the manner of his death at the Gap in Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934). The tenor of the note, conveying Caroline’s final thoughts, evokes pity. Even though as Nellie’s victim she has succumbed, in writing the note Caroline is able, for once, to silence Nellie, to block her interminable narrative. Finding the note belatedly, Nellie feels a ‘gust of joy, anger and fear’. But she cannot use it as a trophy of her triumph because ‘without understanding it, the word honor, honor, displeased her’ (304). Caroline’s parting shot – ‘for you are inside your cell of glass’ – refers us again to the novel’s symbolic immurement of Nellie, together with those Bloomsbury Noh puppets of the notebook’s preface, inside its glass cabinet or ‘doll’s house’, as de Kretser says – or in other words, inside its hall of mirrors. But the hall of mirrors can never finally contain or stabilise meaning. Caroline’s words return from beyond the grave to haunt Nellie just as Stead’s real-life subjects return to haunt her novel.

This is not the only coded allusion to Woolf’s suicide in Cotters’ England. Beyond the climax of Caroline’s death, Tom spends a terrifying night in a hotel where the hearthstones in his bedroom are engraved with the names of dead guests. Subsequently he learns that this hotel, called ‘The River Ouse’, has been built over the top of an old graveyard, and from its tombstones (317–19). Though there is more than one River Ouse in England, it seems unlikely that Stead would name her fictional hotel-graveyard ‘The River Ouse’ unless she meant to conjure Woolf. In this way Cotters’ England encrypts and immures Woolf and Bloomsbury, counting literary bohemia among England’s dead generations. This encryption – like the engraved tombstones that mutely speak to travellers of the hotel’s buried guests – mimics the malaise of forgetting, a forgetting of historic conditions that blocks revolutionary consciousness. This may be what Stead intends her ‘spectral England’ approach to convey.

In contrast with the novel’s encryptions, however, what increasingly proliferates in the notebook as Stead’s fictional characters take shape are classifying labels, especially the word ‘Lesbian’. It is noteworthy that in her subsequent correspondence with publishers, Stead sought increasingly to regulate her novel’s enigma. In 1957, having sent her unpublished manuscript to editor Charles Humboldt, Stead emphasises that enigma structures the story: ‘in fact I do not want people to know it but for it to be borne in upon them … I don’t want to explain it all away’. Yet she offers to decipher meaning, explaining that ‘their game grows out of a complex childhood story, poverty, riffraffishness, bohemianism, a family history’ (Web 159). By 1965, in correspondence with Stanley Burnshaw, Stead has moved even further away from letting enigma work upon readers, offering instead to decode the novel. This entails outing Nellie as Lesbian, and classifying Tom as an impotent charmer, a ‘fay’ (Web 256-58).20 Over time, then, through her paratextual interventions, Stead anxiously strengthens the boundaries between herself as intentional author in control of meaning and the fictional characters within her novel.

In the notebook, however, although Stead’s classificatory will is everywhere present, it is always in contention with a sense of immersion that produces an ebb and flow of passion, sympathy, speculation and self-questioning. As her fictional model splits from reality, Stead hopes her yet-to-be drafted novel will be the next step in her long-held ambition to write about the lives of the obscure. The notebook shows her pivoting between believing these people, the sources for her characters, have preyed upon her, to admitting that she in fact has poured herself into them, imaginatively recreating them:

Why did both characters cause me extreme exhaustion as if they were vampires? … therefore why not that into these two characters I have poured all possible imagination, to extract from them and build them up, giving them all that they have in my mind and heart, they not having it, in order for myself to create a new step, that is not to write any more about obvious characters a child would see, but to write better, more imaginatively about those not so easy to see?’ (Notebook, back of 54)

The notebook-novel nexus illuminates the dynamics of Stead’s process, and the way she conceptualised her novel, through political, anticipatory and at times paranoid structures attendant upon a temporal unfolding and transformation of life into art. This structuring structure is the engine that makes Cotters’ England at one and the same time politically engaged and psychically contoured. Reading novel and notebook together confounds any attempted hyper-separation between creative desire and political orientation, or the privileging of one over the other. Their generative and embedded interaction is what defines Stead’s creative praxis. Both guide and propel Stead’s inquiry into the lives of others, an always-already politically-loaded inquiry necessarily mobilising and forgetting its projective structures. Cotters’ England is spectral because it both dramatises the workings of false consciousness and is itself enabled by quasi-closeted projections that proliferate awareness on the very edge of forgetting. The politics of Cotters’ England, in other words, points to knowledge/forgetting as both Marxist diagnosis and an enabling condition of the text’s making. The novel takes possession of, even while haunted by, its real-life sources. The drama of possession is a constitutive struggle. If, as this suggests, Stead lived inside the fictions she was making, then her analogy between the love affair and the creative process acquires full force:

It’s like a stone hitting you. You can’t argue with it. I wait and wait for the drama to develop. I watch the characters and the situation move and don’t interfere. I’m patient. I’m lying low. (Raskin 75)


For their comments on earlier versions of this paper, I am grateful in particular to Margaret Harris, Fiona Morrison, Monique Rooney, Ian Shepherd and anonymous peer reviewers. I owe special thanks to Margaret Harris, Christina Stead’s literary executor, for permission to cite from Stead’s unpublished manuscripts.


  1. This novel was first published in the USA as Dark Places of the Heart (New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1966). All subsequent page references in the body of the text refer to the 1967 edition.

  2. This essay refers to a Stead notebook not grouped with the main Christina Stead Papers (MS 4967), but listed separately in the NLA catalogue as ‘Notebook and letter by Christina Stead to Edith Anderson, circa 1949-1951 [manuscript]’. The catalogue description runs: ‘MS 10058 comprises a typescript notebook of approximately 280 pages in a small black ring binder, prefaced “Emily Evans, or, the Humourist. Begun Feb 11 1949”, and the typescript letter from Christina Stead in Lausanne to Edith Anderson, dated 20 February 1951 (1 binder, 1 folder)’. The typed title on the black cover of the ring binder, ‘Emily Evans, or, the Humourist’, shows the co-germination of Cotters’ England with I’m Dying Laughing, but the folder’s title is potentially misleading as to the notebook’s content. The accompanying typescript is headed, ‘The Travellers’ Bed and Breakfast’. My chief focus is on the bound ‘notebook’ in which the title ‘Traveller From New Holland’ appears on the first typed page. In transcribing text from this ‘notebook’, I have supplied gaps left by Stead’s idiosyncratic typewriter, expanded some abbreviations, and noted verbatim errors in square parentheses. Where relevant, I have used Stead’s handwritten page numbers which appear on the facing page of each double-sided typed leaf within the notebook. Stead’s numbers cease after November 1949. These handwritten numbers are not always reliably sequenced, and some are missing. A stray page belonging to the notebook can be found in Box 2, Folder 10 (MS 4967) together with drafts of ‘Branch Line: the Northern Engineer’, early fragments of Cotters’ England. See footnote 3 for provenance.

  3. The library note indicates that Stead passed the notebook to her brother Gilbert Stead. In 2007, the notebook and its accompanying letter to Edith Anderson were acquired from the Stead family by the NLA. It seems clear that Stead carried this notebook with her when she returned to Australia.

  4. See notes 2 and 3 above.

  5. The mention of letters (plural) here is intriguing. One three-page handwritten letter, on smaller note pages, from Peter Kelly, is inserted, loose-leaf, inside the bound notebook. It appears that there were a number of letters to Stead from Peter Kelly and Anne Dooley that she subsequently either destroyed or lost. The presence of Peter Kelly’s letter within its pages makes the notebook a truly spectral object.

  6. For example see ‘Notebook’, undated entry between 24 August and 8 September 1949, p. 39.

  7. Peter Kelly is at first identified as ‘PK’, but is subsequently coded in the notebook as ‘A’. Internal evidence in the notebook suggests that ‘A’ stands for ‘Alioscha’ – referring to Alyosha Karamazov from Dostoyevksy’s Brothers Karamazov – a character benign but passive, lacking in moral agency. Late in the notebook Stead also correlates ‘A’ negatively with the supine ‘Oblomov’, the eponymous hero of Ivan Goncharov’s novel.

  8. ‘Notebook’, 10. The word in brackets [burbling] is my best guess at the word obscured by the vagaries of Stead’s typewriter.

  9. This detail – about Anne ‘snooping’ – reveals the likelihood that Stead kept handwritten notes when staying with the Kelly family in Newcastle (and no doubt at other times) and typed them up on her return home to London. The notebook’s entries are uneven in length, dated at regular intervals, sometimes daily or every couple of days and sometimes at intervals of a week or more.

  10. ‘Notebook’, unnumbered page. Stead’s numbers stop after page 59, but subsequent entries show dates from 28 December 1949 to March 1950. This text is from an entry dated Sunday 12 March, 1950.

  11. ‘Notebook’, unnumbered page, entry dated Sunday 12 March, 1950.

  12. This detail is from the second typescript in the ring binder, entitled ‘The Travellers’ Bed and Breakfast’. The typescript seems to be an earlier version of a manuscript held in Christina Stead Papers MS 4967 Box 15 Folder 111, also titled ‘The Travellers’ Bed and Breakfast’. Both date from late 1950 to mid 1951 while Stead and Blake were living in Switzerland and then France. This version of ‘The Travellers’ Bed and Breakfast’ includes sensitive details omitted from the version in Box 15 Folder 111.

  13. See for instance ‘Traveller From New Holland’, n.p., end of entry for 28 December 1949; and ‘Traveller’s Bed and Breakfast’, n.p., entry for 1 February 1951.

  14. In an entry dated 6 February (likely year 1951).

  15. Peter Ibbetson (1935), directed by Henry Hathaway and based on a George du Maurier novel, starred Gary Cooper and Ann Harding as Peter and Mary: its themes include identity substitution, childhood romance, and the melodrama of wrongful conviction for murder and spiritual union.

  16. The comment in the diary about ‘rf’ is omitted from the other version of the ‘Travellers’ Bed and Breakfast’ held in Christina Stead Papers (see note 12). Rowley considers other evidence as to the likelihood of the affair being consummated, but finds it indeterminate (227).

  17. Stead attributes the idea about Britons’ inability to remember the names and occupations of their grandparents to FitzRoy Richard Somerset (Lord) Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama. 1936. New York: Vintage, 1956: see for example 35–36.

  18. ‘Notebook’, n.p., entry for 17 January 1950.

  19. Stead’s last letter to Bill Blake, when he lay dying in hospital, closed in terms that reverberate with Caroline’s letter: ‘What have I done with my life – eh? – but one thing – you? The rest flies down the wind’. Stead to Blake, 11 January 1968, Dearest Munx, ed. Margaret Harris 530.

  20. Stead to Stanley Burnshaw, 14 September 1965, A Web of Friendship, 256–58. In this letter, Stead also alludes cryptically to an incident she personally witnessed that formed the basis for the Walpurg-isnacht scene; she also refers back to an Australian girl’s suicide story for which Anne Dooley was the source, although she elides the source at this point.

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.