Christina Stead’s stories of herself
Christina Stead created her own mythology of her emergence as a writer, particularly in the interviews she gave and the essays of reminiscence she wrote in her later years. In ‘A Writer’s Friends’ she tells of her consciousness from an early age that she was ‘a word-stringer’, recalling that ‘I first made my mark with a poem written suddenly in arithmetic class, at the age of eight, of which all is now forgotten but the line “And elephants develop must”.’ She went on, ‘My first novel was an essay, at the age of ten, on the life-cycle of the frog’ (494–95). This precocious work has long vanished. What she wrote in her next decade is largely a matter of inference, except for her published contributions to her high school magazine and the student journal of the Sydney Teachers’ College – mainly poems, together with a story and some commentaries. Not surprisingly, these pieces are largely derivative, though giving evidence of a fascination with genre that was to persist throughout her career. For this reason alone, it is intelligible that they should have received little attention. As juvenilia, however, they repay consideration for the light they cast on the development of one of Australia’s most original novelists.
Stead’s biographer Hazel Rowley describes her ‘marked penchant for the fantastic, the ghostly, gothic and grotesque. The sumptuous and erotic medieval world of Arabian Nights … coloured her imagination for life’ (30). This comment refers mainly to Stead’s published works, beginning with The Salzburg Tales (1934), relying also on her self-presentation in her fiction. As a girl, Stead spent her pocket money on penny books of fairy stories, which she read to her half-brothers and sisters, graduating into making up stories for them – a familial practice projected into Louisa Pollit’s story of ‘Hawkins’ in the semi-autobiographical 1940 novel The Man Who Loved Children (419–22). This novel displays also Louie’s experiments in various genres, notably the play ‘Tragedy of the Snake-Man’ or ‘Tragos: Herpes Rom’, and her cycle of poems for her teacher Miss Aiden, consisting of ‘a poem of every imaginable form and also every conceivable metre in the English language’ (332). In another fictional version of Stead’s youth, the ambitions and behaviour of Teresa Hawkins in For Love Alone (1944) are coloured by a version of the Middle Ages mediated via nineteenth-century Pre-Raphaelitism, evident in her dress, her obsession with the ‘old heritage’ (94) of Europe, and her novel-within-the-novel, ‘The Seven Houses of Love’.
Student work: Sydney Girls’ High School
Stead several times gave her account of how she came to be published by Peter Davies, ‘a famous man, godson of Sir James Barrie and the original Peter Pan’ (‘Writer’s Friends’ 500). Her partner Wilhelm Blech, who later anglicised his name to William Blake, acted as her agent, after reading a draft of Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934) and pronouncing that it had ‘mountain peaks’ (Wetherell 447). Davies agreed to take the novel on condition that she provide a more conventional book first. Her version of her relationship with Davies, including the way in which she wrote The Salzburg Tales, is disingenuous: ‘I wrote a story every first day of a pair, finishing it and putting in the connective tissue the second day; the third day starting another story’ (‘Writer’s Friends’ 501). So is her description of the Sydney-based Angus and Robertson’s rejection, in 1925, of her volume of stories for children, the loss of that typescript in Paris, and her recreation of some of the stories for The Salzburg Tales (‘Writer’s Friends’ 497–8; Rowley 60–61 and 137–40).
Nowhere does she allude to her publications in the student journals of the high school and teacher training college she attended. Stead’s secondary education at state schools in Sydney was completed at Sydney Girls’ High School on the corner of Elizabeth and Market Streets in the central retail and business district (the school moved to its present site in Moore Park in 1920). She was enrolled there from September 1917, when the family moved from Kogarah to Watsons Bay, through to the end of 1919, when she sat for the New South Wales Leaving Certificate examinations, one of forty-two successful candidates from the school that year. Her results were solid if not outstanding (Honours in English, an A in Botany and Bs in French, Mathematics I and II, and History), and earned her a scholarship to the University of Sydney, covering fees and a book allowance. However, she could not matriculate to the University because she did not have a pass in Latin; instead she took up a two-year teacher training scholarship.
At Sydney Girls’ High she soon engaged in extracurricular activities, notably those connected with the school magazine. Rowley proposes that the adolescent Christina ‘was happiest in her own world’ (36), a loner who did not have a particular friend yet who ‘liked to stand out, and made an ostentatious display of her writing’ (26). A less caustic interpretation is that while elements of her background and behaviour were atypical, the girl actively engaged with student life (Louisa Pollit’s experiences when she starts at Annapolis High School may supply a relevant perspective). As Peggy Stead (her nickname in the family), she was ‘Sub-Editress’ of the High School Chronicle in October 1918, when her sonnet ‘The Hill’ was published. She seems to have favoured the sonnet form, probably because of the challenge posed by the technicalities of various traditional rhyming schemes – and this one conforms to the English or Shakespearean model rhyming ababcdcdefefgg. Despite the use of first person in the opening lines, the sentiment expressed and the scene described lack any sense of personal engagement or experience. The poem has a definite resemblance to Keats’s ‘I stood tiptoe upon a little hill’, but its evening gloom owes more to Tennyson and even Matthew Arnold than to Keats’s lines.1
By 1919, her final year, Stead had really made her mark. As Christine E. Stead (so described on the front cover; in credits at the end she is ‘Christina’), she was the editor of the Chronicle, and one of the seven Senior Prefects elected by the staff. The twenty-eight-page issue of the Chronicle for September 1919 contains no item that can confidently be attributed to the editor though it is likely that she was responsible for some unsigned reports of school doings. Hazel Rowley takes the view that ‘modesty … prevented her from including any of her own writing’ (40). To the contrary, on the basis of Stead’s experiments with metre elsewhere, I suggest that ‘A Psalm of Hockey (With apologies to Longfellow.)’ by ‘CHRISTINE’ could be hers, as the jaunty verses use the trochaic tetrameter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘Song of Hiawatha’, much imitated from the time of its publication in 1855. Apologies are certainly in order. As Rowley remarks, Christina had no pretensions to sporting prowess, though her involvement in school life extended to membership of a winning tug-of-war team in 1918. I also wonder if Stead was the author of the unsigned ‘Pater Generis’, a kind of fairy story, a genre congenial to Stead, though its coyly florid style is typical of other contributions in this issue.
Student work: Sydney Teachers’ College
Christina Stead proceeded to Sydney Teachers’ College in 1920. That year the institution had just moved to an unfinished building in the grounds of the University of Sydney. Although the Teachers’ College was separate from and considered to be of lesser status than the University, some of the staff including the Principal Alexander Mackie held appointments in both, a circumstance that influenced Stead’s course of action at the conclusion of her two-year course. In 1922, Dr Gilbert Phillips, a Teachers’ College lecturer in Psychology, employed her as his research assistant on a project on special needs children, presumably because of her good results and perceived potential. In 1924 Phillips was instrumental in her being employed as a Junior Lecturer in Psychology at the Teachers’ College. She took the opportunity to enrol as a non-degree student of the University in the second year Psychology course which included experimental and abnormal psychology, and lectures on Freud. Later (from mid-1925) she attended an extramural class in Psychology taught by Keith Duncan, the prototype of Jonathan Crow in For Love Alone. Her familiarity with the University buildings and grounds is apparent in Seven Poor Men of Sydney (notably in the episode where Joseph attends the lecture on light), as well as in Teresa’s participation in classes in For Love Alone. While she was still at the Teachers’ College, the Great Hall and Quadrangle inspired a prizewinning poem.
The College’s equivalent to the High School Chronicle was The Kookaburra, and Stead at once became involved, capitalising on her experience at school. In her first year, 1920, Christina E. Stead was joint editor with H. A. Williamson, and presumably had a hand in the editorial in the issue for December 1920 discussing ‘the unifying influence of the new College’ building (3). Other unsigned material may also have been written by the editors. The issue also carried one contribution signed C. E. Stead, ‘Social Notes’, a report of a student visit to the Melbourne Teachers’ College in which she appears to have been a vigorous participant. Its mannered rhetoric is occasionally punctuated by a crisper sentence premonitory of her later manner (‘A general whirl of afternoon tea, trunks, badge exchanges, and trams, found us eventually at Spencer St. Station’).
In 1921 Christina E. Stead was again joint editor, this time with John H. Deane, B.A. There was no false modesty about her editorial role here. She had a story, ‘The Key of the House of Shadows’, and two poems, ‘The Gentle Supervisor’ and ‘Duty Past’, in the issue for November 1921, together with two items signed ‘C.E.S’, ‘Psychological Moments. A Student’s Glossary’ and a mock program for a ‘Students’ Song Festival’. As in 1920, the unsigned Editorial presumably had her input. It opens with the rousing assertion that ‘This is the age of democracy’ and goes on to claim that the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the European revolutions of 1848 ‘laid the foundations of this College!’ because they assisted in establishing democratic principles, the pertinent one being that ‘each and all shall have education’ (3). Moreover, the magazine is ‘Australian every page of it. Its name is the very embodiment of Australian life, freshness, vigour, joy, and “sunshinyness”’ (4).
The most substantial of Stead’s contributions is the ghost story, ‘The Key of the House of Shadows’. Like ‘The Hill’, the story is heavily derivative, though it has discernible affinities with her more mature writing, notably stories in The Salzburg Tales such as ‘The Mirror’. The narrator, Victor, appears to be French, writing from a roughly contemporary position about horrifying experiences some years before that had turned his hair white. An author ‘solitary by nature and pursuits’, Victor seeks lodging in an ‘old French town … attracted by its cathedrals, and its storied antiquity’ (32). He is led through spectral streets by an old man ‘permeated with a peculiar aroma of antiquity – the illuminated books, dirty rags and carven stones of the Middle Ages’ (32). After the old man leaves him, Victor witnesses a crowd kill a young man ‘dressed in the clothes of an age long past’ (33). He loses consciousness, and when he recovers finds his way back to the house where he had met the old man – of whom the current inhabitants deny all knowledge, but produce a ‘black leathered [sic] covered tome’, the pages of which have the impress of a key just like that Victor has been given by the old man. The book turns out to contain the history of the events Victor has witnessed, involving fratricide two hundred years ago. Its disturbance occasions the reappearance of the old man, so threatening to Victor that he throws the key into the ocean in an attempt to drown his memories and fears.
In passing comment on ‘The Key of the House of Shadows’, Michael Ackland accurately observes that it reveals ‘a young mind thoroughly steeped in what passed for the literary Middle Ages to the Gothicising imagination’ (57). Yet at nineteen years old Christina Stead had not had the opportunity to gain more than book learning of the Old World. Her story, saturated in the apparatus of apparitions and ‘legendary and obscure’ events (‘The Key’ 32), has a confident narrative momentum despite such awkward features as the attempts to render vernacular speech (on this point, comparison with ‘Hawkins’, where Stead intercalates a number of registers including spectral black voices, shows her development over the twenty years that separate the two stories). For all its crudeness, ‘The Key of the House of Shadows’ is already replete with the uncanny effects that distinguish so much of Stead’s writing (see Lane ‘The Modern Uncanny’; ‘The Uncanny’).
The two prose commentaries, ‘Psychological Moments. A Student’s Glossary’ and a mock program for a ‘Students’ Song Festival’, are included for the sake of completeness, and to emphasise the relish with which Stead entered into college life. Both are versions of a kind of hardy perennial student writing, dependent on in-jokes the point of which is now blunted. I think it very likely that Stead was responsible for more unattributed material of a similar ilk in this bumper forty-eight-page issue.
While prose was unquestionably Stead’s metier, she wrote poetry throughout her career, most of it unpublished, some incorporated into her novels. Oliver Fenton’s poems in The Beauties and Furies of 1936 are just one example, as are poems in both English and French included in letters to Bill Blake in 1934 and 1935 (Stead, Dearest Munx 20–37 passim). She was good at jokey verse, and extraordinarily skilful in working with complicated rhyme schemes, as is apparent in her light-hearted poem ‘The Gentle Supervisor’, in the same issue of The Kookaburra as ‘The Key of the House of Shadows’. It is very specific to the training college context.
Technically ‘The Gentle Supervisor’ is an advance on ‘A Psalm of Hockey’, using an intricate rhyme scheme in which the run-on from one stanza to the next creates a jaunty effect. Her official supervisor was Gilbert Phillips, a staunch patron and supporter for decades, although on one occasion she had to read an exam script aloud to him because her handwriting was so bad (Williams 43). Much later, in 1952, he was a referee for her application for a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship (Rowley 390). Phillips appears as Dr Smith in For Love Alone.
Her second poem in this issue, ‘Duty Past’, is a marked contrast to ‘The Gentle Supervisor’. It is another sombre sonnet, this time closer to the Italian or Petrarchan model, employing some of the same stock nature images used in earlier poems (seasons, dusk and dawn, stars and waves).
In 1922, working for Dr Phillips, she was joint editor of The Kookaburra for a third time, with Victor Hyde, B.A. The ‘Prize Poem’ was her ‘In the Great Hall’, a considerably more accomplished piece than her earlier extant verse (though I note ruefully that both in 1920 and 1921 judges of the literary competition commented on the paucity of entries in the various competitions and their low standard). The Great Hall in question is that of the University of Sydney. Within a few hundred metres of the solid but utilitarian Teachers’ College building (and symbolically uphill from it), this is a major Victorian Gothic revival building described by its architect Edmund Blacket, influenced by Pugin, as Tudor Perpendicular Gothic. Blacket resigned as Colonial Architect of New South Wales in 1855 to work exclusively on the new University, established in 1850. He modelled the Great Hall on London’s Westminster Hall, originally erected in 1097, with fourteenth-century alterations installing its distinctive hammerbeam roof. The Sydney Great Hall was completed in 1859, the stained glass being installed contemporaneously. Stead is clearly familiar with its interior, and may have sat examinations or attended functions there, its principal use being for formal occasions like graduations.
‘In the Great Hall’ is yet another sonnet. Though following none of the standard rhyming patterns, there is a distinct turn from octave to sestet. The octave accurately describes ‘the tendrilled arches’ supporting the roof, while the description of the ‘pool of ruby’ cast by light coming through the stained glass windows establishes the position of the speaker on the northern side of the Hall, where thirteen sets of stained glass windows represent writers and scholars from the Venerable Bede at the western end (front of Hall) to three figures representing ‘18th century investigators and law’, the Scottish scientist Joseph Black, jurist William Blackstone and explorer James Cook at the eastern end. Diplomatically, no nineteenth-century figures are memorialised. The reference to the poets’ cloaks suggests a placement near the Tudor writers, Sir Thomas More; Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (particularly ruddy though without a cloak – the other two have blue cloaks); and Edmund Spenser.
The phrase ‘Dark and light!’ that opens the sestet heralds a contrast between the light and warmth of the natural world in sun on grass in the Quadrangle, and the shadowy depths of the Gothic hall that memorialises British traditions. As well as the scholars and writers in the stained glass windows, there are Oxford and Cambridge windows and a Royal window in which Queen Victoria is central. The speaker’s thoughts shift from immediate sense impressions to reflections ‘on the dark north race from which we sprang’ – thoughts akin to the yearnings of Teresa Hawkins for all that is represented by the European heritage exulted in by Dr Smith. Teresa travels to ‘Port of Registry: London’, but the novel is not in thrall to the north: more than half of it is occupied by ‘The Island Continent’ which clearly celebrates Australia’s otherness. The attraction to Europe of the twenty-year-old Stead is totally explicable in terms of her education in the reaches of the British Empire, though there may have been an element of reaction against her father’s vehement rejection of ‘wicked old Europe’ (qtd in Rowley 20).
As with ‘The Key of the House of Shadows’ it would be unfortunate to over-interpret this technically accomplished but very mannered sonnet. Like the story, ‘In the Great Hall’ is heavily influenced by Stead’s reading, with the significant difference that this poem demonstrably shows her response to and inflection of actual experience – a tendency that distinguishes much of her later work.
These student productions, together with a few letters, are all that survive of what may have been a quite considerable body of writing produced by Christina Stead before 1923 when she turned twenty-one years old and attained the age of majority. After an abortive teaching career, and a number of office jobs, she set sail from Sydney for England in 1928. It was not until the annus mirabilis of 1934 that she achieved commercial publication, thanks to Peter Davies, with a volume of short stories (The Salzburg Tales); a novel (Seven Poor Men of Sydney); and a short story (‘“O, If I Could but Shiver!”’) in Davies’s Christmas anthology The Fairies Return, Or New Tales for Old by Several Hands. It would be a gross exaggeration to propose that the extraordinary originality of the spectrum of Stead’s fiction that came out in 1934 was presaged in her student writings, and I make no such claim. What scrutiny of her publishing activities with High School Chronicle and The Kookaburra does reveal is stronger and earlier engagement with the available publishing milieux than has been recognised, her eager and inveterate experiments in different genres, and some of the trial and error before she found her authorial voice.