One evening in December 2015, following a symposium on Christina Stead (‘Re-Discovering Again’), participants and members of the public gathered at the University of New South Wales’s Io Myers Studio for a sold-out writers’ panel. For over an hour the audience listened enthralled as Delia Falconer, Gail Jones and David Malouf seemed to forget where they were and plunged, in the way only fellow writers can, into the fiercely libidinal and dpassionately restless element that is Stead’s writing. In tandem with the symposium that generated this special ALS issue, this lively scene of writerly engagement demonstrated the cultural significance and maturity of Christina Stead studies in the present moment. The symposium was intended to mark the fifty-year anniversary of the first major ‘re-discovery’ in Stead’s career: the 1965 reissue of The Man Who Loved Children (1940) with its laudatory and influential introduction by American poet and critic, Randall Jarrell. Another, more recent American-led ‘rediscovery’ of The Man Who Loved Children was declared in 2010 in the form of a long essay by Jonathan Franzen for the New York Times. This essay was used as an introduction to the Miegunyah Press re-issue of The Man Who Loved Children (2011), and this successful publication marked the starting point of a sustained project to reprint many of Stead’s works by Melbourne University Publishing and latterly by Text Publishing. Each of these new editions, available in print and digital form, is introduced by a contemporary Australian writer or critic, whether long-time admirer or inspired new reader. This recognition of and dynamic engagement with Christina Stead as a writer’s writer par excellence has never been more marked and energetic.

The 2015 symposium presented Stead scholars with an opportunity to take stock of new directions and energies in the field. At fifty years on from Jarrell’s seminal essay and almost a quarter of a century on from Christina Stead: A Biography, Hazel Rowley’s commanding and controversial 1993 biography, it is clear that a richly accumulated knowledge of Stead’s politics, aesthetic and archive now layers the field. This maturity in Christina Stead studies forms a secure base that enables exciting perspectives to emerge: about Stead’s worldly mobility and its consequences for textual production; about the inextricably linked dyad of colonial province and international stage; about Australian literature and larger canons of world literature; and about a writer perennially outside multiple categories of belonging. If it is now uncontroversial to say that Stead was a politically committed writer, much still remains to be understood about how this connects with her aesthetic, and with the excessive, affective and elemental currents of her writing.

The readings and arguments presented at the 2015 symposium, as well as key invited papers from emerging and established scholars, form the basis of this collection of essays. We present these essays according to the order of Stead’s publications, from early to later work. We are aware, however, that for all its benefits and basic elegance, such chronological arrangement can work to obscure important trajectories and points of connection across many of the papers in the collection. We wanted to highlight these connections by way of preliminary introduction. Perhaps the strongest connection to highlight at the outset is that several essays in this issue stem directly from work on archives, forming a distinct and complex hub of re-reading and analysis. From work in the archive to attentive close reading, Stead studies in the twenty-first century indicate a productive consideration of modes of composition and processes of writing, extending to questions of technique – matters that have long engaged Stead’s fellow writers but that remain to be fully explored. Another recurring thread, not unrelated to matters of craft, method and aesthetic, picks up the intriguing and multifaceted ways in which Stead’s work deals with politics. The ways in which Stead worked to represent and negotiate her radical political stance with her unique and specific drives around creativity and passion are a source of persistent interest and attention in this collection of essays.

At times this question about politics and aesthetics appears in the form of Stead’s negotiation of modernism and modernity and the implications for her uses of narrative form; at other times, it broaches the ways in which we might understand Stead’s complex and sometimes contradictory speaking position in her later work. Indeed, it seems, especially now, that everything old is new again: Stead’s late works possess another afterlife in the way that they so strikingly and presciently speak to the fracturing and weakening of the Left, to the fate of the West and the American imperium, and to the scene of global capitalist modernity. Transnational perspectives, too, summon old-new questions, bearing many afterlives, having long been both carried and mobilised in transnational feminist perspectives that have helped to secure Stead’s writing internationally, opening up importantly nuanced ways of understanding the nature of her political engagement in conjunction with questions of class and gender.

Another noteworthy thread that emerges in many of these papers relates to the ways in which Stead scholars are consciously working away from the influence of Rowley’s biography, while also acknowledging through citation of her work the significant nature of this scholarly tool. This critical move is prevalent and important enough to note as a genuine shift in the field of Stead studies in the twenty-first century. Conscious departure from Rowley’s psychologically focused portrait of the author has continued to stimulate new perspectives on Stead’s political and aesthetic bearings. These perspectives are threaded into the critical readings of her fiction and the primary work on existing and new archival material that are presented here.

Together with two essays on Stead’s earliest writings, this collection delivers a contoured version of early, middle and late staging posts of Stead’s major publications, presenting contemporary work on Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934), The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Cotter’s England (1967) and I’m Dying Laughing (1986). In light of symposium themes, however, it is fitting that we begin with Fiona Morrison’s synoptic discussion of the nature and effects of ongoing, career-shifting ‘re-discoveries’ of Christina Stead. In ‘“A Vermeer in the Hayloft”: Christina Stead, Unjust Neglect and Transnational Improprieties of Place and Kind', Morrison examines the repeated rhetorical figuration of Stead as an unjustly neglected writer waiting to be discovered. Investigating the terms of Elizabeth Hardwick’s essay on The Man Who Loved Children in 1955, in which Stead’s masterpiece is likened to a ‘Vermeer in the hayloft’, Morrison begins to calibrate the meanings of Stead’s relative invisibility and the uncannily productive afterlives attending her work. This essay prises apart the historical drivers and lingering legacy of what, as Morrison reminds us, was a mid-century critical industry in the recovery of lost literary treasures. In this context, Morrison gauges Stead’s peculiar literary status, suggesting various reasons for her work’s failure (despite mid-century acclaim in the most glowing terms of universal merit and undeniable value) to remain durably lodged in the world canon. Morrison’s central argument – that Stead’s radical mobility through place so tellingly militates against secure placement of her work – has the effect of returning us to nation itself, spectral though this category may now seem, as foundational to, or as structural within, systems of world literary recognition and value. Morrison is less concerned with actually securing Stead’s canonicity, however, than she is with the generative unclassifiability, for readers, of the work of this remarkable woman writer.

‘Christina Stead’s earliest publications’ by Stead scholar and literary executor Margaret Harris is the first of three papers to work with the unpublished archive. All three mount persistent and original investigations into Stead’s practices of composition, her evolving style, her politics and her aesthetics. Although Hazel Rowley gestures to the archival presence of Stead juvenilia, this material has not previously been readily accessible, so we are delighted to host its collection here. Harris’s essay curates a set of texts that stem from Stead’s school and college years, published between 1920 and 1922 while the young Christina attended Sydney Girls High School where she edited its High School Chronicle, and from her time at Sydney Teachers College where she co-edited its magazine, The Kookaburra. These writings provide a rare glimpse of Stead’s earliest preoccupations, demonstrating also her youthful experiments with British and broadly European literary forms in both prose and verse. Not only do these works display budding technical virtuosity, in such forms as the sonnet and the European gothic tale, but they also point, as Harris intimates, away from Rowley’s assertion that Stead was a loner and towards the sociability of the young writer and editor actively participating in the literary life of two educational communities. Harris’s measured appraisal advances new possibilities for thinking about the relation between Stead’s juvenile work and the tremendous corpus of published novels and short stories to come.

The idea that educational settings were significant for Stead, and in some sense formative of her literary project, is given a new cast by Michael Ackland’s essay, ‘“The Young Man Will Go Far”: Education, Mobility and Christina Stead’s Compositional Practice in the Early 1930s’. This essay, like Harris’s, is firmly located in the archive. Ackland patiently pieces together Stead’s unpublished drafts for a project called ‘The Young Man Will Go Far’. As part of his reconstruction, Ackland notes aspects of Stead’s reading and her habits of composition, tracing thematic links between her politics, questions of education and class mobility. In what is perhaps the first essay in the field to focus on the theme of education in Stead’s writing, Ackland argues that Stead’s own education shifted from the eclectic socialism of her Australian background to quasi-tertiary training in Marxist-Leninist thought in the context of her intellectual companionship with her husband Bill Blake. For Ackland, this educational trajectory was formative of the intellectual propositions that drove Stead’s writing. He emphasises the way in which her notations show both the ‘groundswell of ideas that propelled her pen’, and a mind ‘sharp, ideologically engaged, and unforgiving’. This thoughtful contextualisation of ‘The Young Man Will Go Far’, a fragmentary prototype for adjacent and succeeding published works, allows us to recognise Stead’s interconnected project in new ways.

That Seven Poor Men of Sydney is enjoying a flowering of critical interest in the twenty-first century makes this first novel an important venue for new developments in Stead studies. One driver of renewed critical interest has been transnational modernist studies, an area both challenged and nuanced by questions of locality that pertain in this novel. This double capacity is abundantly evident in Meg Brayshaw’s essay ‘The Tank Stream Press: Urban Modernity and Cultural Life in Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney’. The Tank Stream, the famous fresh water stream around and over which Sydney was built, is both the name of the printing business that collects the various workingmen and women of the novel and a central spatial and metaphorical coordinate. Brayshaw sees the ‘Tank Stream Press’ both as a component of Sydney’s colonial culture industry, with its use and abuse of labour, and as a recurring citation, through geography, of the novel’s thematics of water. Stead’s ‘aqueous metaphor’ serves as a master trope yielding resonant political and cultural possibilities. Aligning the Tank Stream Press with the subterranean stream itself – as buried source of fertility or waste – Brayshaw argues that Stead’s narrative expands and contracts in patterns that evoke the antipodean city’s shifting possibilities, utopian and dystopian. Waterways and cultural work are both presented as ambivalent forces in a young city that is at once intensely local in its conflicts and global in its political and financial connections. Press and stream enable Brayshaw to illuminate themes of progress and poverty, corruption and capital in the Sydney of Stead’s novel.

Where Brayshaw traces connections between water and cultural production, Sam Matthews focuses on the novel’s uses of light at the intersection of science and aesthetics in his essay, ‘“Lights all askew in the heavens”: Einsteinian Relativity, Literary Modernism and the Lecture on Light in Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney’. With close attention to the novel’s set piece lecture on light, Matthews teases out the cultural impact of Einstein’s theories of relativity on literary modernisms at both centre and periphery in his effort to distinguish the nature of Stead’s own aesthetic negotiation of these scientific theories. Matthews discovers important historical coordinates that link Stead’s novelistic scene – a lecture on light that dazzles its audience of poor men – to a specific moment in the cultural reception of Einstein’s relativity, detailing news of similar public lectures held between 1919 and 1923 in Australia, America and England. Matthews compares Anglophone avant-garde literary modernist uses of relativity with Stead’s own narrative emphasis on experiment and description, and her production and exercise of multiple space-times. Through this argument, Matthews enables us to see how Stead’s novel, working within and through its antipodean perspectives, disrupts hegemonic forms of globally standardised time. The Stead who emerges from Matthews’s reading is a radical writer interested in modernism but one who performs ‘a critique of modernism from the other side.’

Two readings of The Man Who Loved Children refresh a longer history of investigations into the technical accomplishments and narrative originality of this novel. Readings of technique in The Man Who Loved Children have been somewhat in abeyance over the past twenty years and the two essays in this collection are a welcome example of what patient consideration of this classic work can yield. In ‘The Children’s Chorus: Sibling Soundscapes in The Man Who Loved Children’, Susan Carson presents her analysis of the role and representation of the Pollit children – their voices, sounds and silences in counterpoint with the adults who preside over the enclosed familial realm in Stead’s novel. Carson argues that the soundscape of child and sibling voices is pivotal to the work’s originality, in which the children function as a kind of chorus commenting on the adult world. This essay’s discussion includes work on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), which offers a fascinating comparison with Stead’s novel in its contrasting treatment of familial noise, modernist aesthetics and domestic power relations. The disciplined ‘ear’ Carson brings to The Man Who Loved Children reveals both the background noise of the children, and their intriguing call and response patterns, together with the political possibilities afforded for agency and dissent.

Bending a similarly disciplined focus to Stead’s masterpiece, William Lane delivers a detailed consideration of forms of repetition in his essay, ‘Repetition and Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children’. Lane asserts that repetition is central to Stead’s style and he demonstrates how it is responsible for some singularly striking effects. Lane’s close analysis of narrative patterning and structure in The Man Who Loved Children emanates from the perspective of the writer (or reader) fascinated by Stead’s storytelling craft. He sees the architecture of Stead’s narrative as a series of rhythmic patterns and webbed, mutually reinforcing meanings and effects. In asking how the vividly detailed realism of the novel’s idiosyncratic characters, family and domestic world interacts with the narrative’s more abstracted, mythic dimensions, Lane maps out a multi-dimensional model of repetition as a structure of reiteration, layering, and accretion that involves a continual tacking between idiosyncratic detail and allegory or myth.

Moving from Lane’s appraisal of Stead’s narrative technique, Brigid Rooney’s assessment of an astonishing archival addition allows us to consider her approach to fictional composition in her postwar career in important new ways. Rooney works in detail on a notebook, acquired by the National Library in 2007 and internally designated as ‘the Kelly file’, that documents Stead’s ten-month creative process (between 1949 and 1950) in the prelude to her initial drafts of Cotters’ England. Rooney’s analysis teases out the phenomenon of Stead’s ‘scene of writing’ and the way this involved her in a complex ‘possession’ of (and by) her real-life models (in this case, members of the Kelly family). Rooney argues that the nature of the relationship between Stead’s fiction-writing process and her ‘real life’ relationships was one of spectral trade. Stead invited a kind of haunting into her life and imagination through her involvement with creatively significant people; an involvement loosened after a period of intensity in order that drafting could commence and art prevail. A generative tension in Stead’s awareness of this ‘process of possession’ is deemed crucial to her sense of creative authenticity. Rooney suggests that this spectrality of possession – the haunting of Stead’s writing by those with whom she was obsessed – saturates and directs her political vision of Cold War England.

Stead’s challenging, frequently ambivalent and politically complex late fiction remains an under-explored dimension of her oeuvre. Joining Rooney’s work are essays by Nicholas Birns and Susan Sheridan, each engaging in the assessment and exploration of questions and positions inspired by Stead’s late work: Cotters’ England, and the unfinished, posthumous magnum opus, I’m Dying Laughing. Echoing the memoir form favoured by New York intellectuals, Birns opens his essay, ‘“Merely Unfriendly or Slightly Critical”: Christina Stead, The Left, and I’m Dying Laughing,’ by invoking personal and familial engagements with left politics, the 1930s and the spaces of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It is from the viewpoint of the American Left (past and present) that Birns thinks through the many productive strangenesses of Stead’s posthumous novel, which he sees as narrating, in idiosyncratic ways, a certain moment of crisis in the Western Left – a moment newly resonant for the present era. Birns locates this investigation first and foremost in the title of the work, whose doubles and oppositions generate a series of ambiguities, disjunctions and disorientations that his essay teases out in terms of marriage and politics, life and art, author and narrator, and narrative position. In a further modulation of these collapsing binaries, rather than seeing Emily and Stephen’s political position as oppositional to that held by Stead and Blake, Birns notes telling proximities between the author and her character, so that Emily is Stead’s ‘fake double’ – indeed is Stead’s late fictional negotiation of personal and collective crises, and of political homelessness and loss. The essay finally locates the un-locatable Stead in the very place – Australia – where she made her last attempts to finish I’m Dying Laughing. Unlike ‘The Monster’, however, the loose papers of which lie strewn around the derelict and homeless Emily on the steps of the Roman Forum, Stead’s own novel was at last posthumously published as a result of heroic efforts by her key Australian champion, Ron Geering.

This collection closes with a magisterial overview of Stead criticism, elucidating its abiding and new questions and inviting us to consider an important aspect of her writing. In ‘Politics and Passion in Stead’s Late Novels’ Susan Sheridan appraises the critical field since the 1965 reissue of The Man Who Loved Children. Offering a corrective to the notion that the radical politics of Stead’s writing has gone unrecognised, this essay contextualises periodic scholarly debates around this question, noting how these have in turn been conditioned by shifting interpretive horizons. Although treatments of Stead’s politics continue to emerge, most recently in work by Simon During and Michael Ackland, Sheridan notes that connected questions around gender and affect remain relatively unexplored. Moving through left wing and feminist accounts of Stead, and noting contributions by Louise Yelin, Brigid Rooney and Kate Webb, Sheridan brings Stead’s ferocity back into view, highlighting qualities of negative affect and anger. Sheridan observes that while her often contradictory commitment to Soviet communism gave Stead a ‘sharp unyielding lens on the world’, one suited to her ‘fierce nature, and her purposes’, this commitment collides with another, arguably deeper layer, an abiding Nietzschean strand that channels the powerful, ferocious passions that circulate through her writing, and return so forcefully in the late works. It is with Stead’s ferocity at hand that we close this introduction and open this collection and open up, too, the continuing project of reading Christina Stead in the twenty-first century.

Fiona Morrison and Brigid Rooney, December 2016

Published 7 December 2016 in Rediscovering Christina Stead. Subjects: Christina Stead.

Cite as: Rooney, Brigid and Fiona Morrison. ‘Introduction.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 6, 2016. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.7be4410aa2.