Politics and Passion in Stead’s Late Novels


This essay examines some recent attempts to devise a new critical approach to Stead’s fiction which can encompass both the socialism she endorsed and the feminism she rejected, and asks how these approaches attempt to account for the affective as well as the intellectual impact of politics in Stead’s novels, in particular Cotters’ England and I’m Dying Laughing.

The question of Stead’s political beliefs and their influence on her writing is one to which readers have persistently returned. It illustrates very well the cycles of ‘repetition, recognition and renewal’ featured at the symposium on her work from which this collection of essays comes. A quarter of a century after the collapse of Soviet communism, the ideology of revolution to which Stead was loyal, our understanding of this question will necessarily change, our critical perspectives shift. This essay examines some recent attempts to devise a new critical approach to the fiction which can encompass both the socialism Stead endorsed and the feminism she rejected. My concern here is to identify the capacity of these approaches to consider the affective as well as the intellectual impact of politics in Stead’s novels, in particular Cotters’ England and I’m Dying Laughing.

When in 1965 her great novel The Man Who Loved Children was republished it was enthusiastically welcomed as a book that transcended politics. English novelist John Wain welcomed it as ‘a real novel in this age of satire and documentary’, with a ‘width of range, universality of interest, knowledge of the human heart’, qualities that had been discarded as old-fashioned.1 It says a lot for the dominance of New Criticism in the 1960s that those critics who sought to revive her reputation claimed the book as a classic in universalist terms like this. Randall Jarrell did the same in his Introduction, ‘An Unread Book’. These claims brought Stead’s earlier fiction into the magic circle of literature considered suitable for formalist and humanist criticism, while the political dimensions of her work were soft-pedalled. Some years on, in the context of New Left and feminist critical discourse in the 1970s and 80s, her later-published novels, Cotters’ England, The Little Hotel, Miss Herbert and the posthumously published I’m Dying Laughing, were recognised as powerful political novels in a harsher, more satirical register than her earlier work (Carter).

Yet it has proved difficult to deal satisfactorily with Stead’s left-wing politics, to demonstrate what exactly this political commitment involved, and how that operated in her fiction. Among earlier attempts to do this, in the 1970s, Michael Wilding attempted to place Stead in a loosely defined radical tradition in Australian writing, while Terry Sturm argued that her ‘new kind of realism that is primarily geared to the intensity of her characters’ experience’ (91) had nothing in common with either the dominant tradition of social realism in Australian fiction, nor with socialist realism’s demand for documentation and character types. These critics tended to take for granted that her ‘left-wing’ or Marxist stance would lead her to work within some form of realism, and would influence her choice of characters, both heroes and villains, but were more impressed by her capacity for ‘creative identification with her characters’ (Wilding) and her denial of any programmatic intentions. By and large these critics did not broach more specific questions of what Marxist ideas Stead may have been influenced by – Sturm’s fine analysis, for example, implies that she held a position diametrically opposed to Lukacs’ defence of realism, but does not spell this out. Nor could they adduce much evidence as to how she felt about communism’s possibilities and strictures for the writer.

During the 1980s and ’90s, feminist critics, in attempting to account for Stead’s hostility towards the women’s movement, made some attempt to identify the political ideas in her fiction. They recognised that her commitment to a Marxism which had been forged in the 1930s and sustained throughout the Cold War period precluded any sympathy for a politics based on the recognition of women’s oppression in a patriarchal gender order. For Marxists of that earlier era, women’s emancipation would come only when they joined men in the public world of class struggle, leaving behind the private world of the home where women were, in Stead’s own words, ‘often moneyless, powerless, often anxious, disturbed, wretched, with no status to speak of, no trades-union’ (‘The Magic Woman’ 529). Yet Stead’s subject was always, she said, ‘the psychological drama of the person’, and her central characters were most often female. This posed a particular challenge to those critics who, as socialist feminists, knew that Marxism lacked the means to analyse gender in articulation with relations of class and race, even though all these structures were central to the conflicts enacted in Stead’s novels. Diana Brydon, for example, expressed her broad critical aim as to show how Stead’s art dramatised ‘the ideological inconsistencies that characterise twentieth-century capitalist society, particularly but not exclusively those which oppress women’ (165). It was necessary to devise ways of reading Stead that could ask feminist as well as Marxist questions of her texts, without being hamstrung by her purist version of revolutionary theory that denied gender oppression (Sheridan, Christina Stead 11–12).

When in 1993, ten years after Stead’s death, Hazel Rowley’s biography claimed her as a great international woman writer, it was warmly welcomed by American and British reviewers alike, and contributed to a renewal of interest in her novels. Yet in Australia there was a noticeable difference between the praise showered on the biography by writer-reviewers and the harsh criticism that came from some academic critics, who argued that Rowley’s psycho-biographical focus underplayed the significance of her subject’s left-wing political stance in order to focus on her personal life, and showed her in a bad light as a vindictive and manipulative woman.2 Yet these critics had little by way of new evidence to show where she stood politically, how her views changed and, most importantly, how those purported views affected her art; and they seemed reluctant to acknowledge that connections between the politics and the personal life might legitimately be made. The most sympathetic reviews of Rowley’s Stead biography praised its success in maintaining a connection between the psychobiography and the politics. As American critic Louise Yelin put it, in offering a convincing account of how Stead’s fiction grew out of her life, Rowley creates a narrative of that life and its political and cultural affiliations that is ‘at once larger and more intimate’ than the story of Stead as a mid-century left-wing writer (‘Review’ 620).

Since the biography, critical attempts to connect the politics and the psyche have engendered the most productive approaches to Stead’s work. They explore the affective dimensions of Stead’s communist beliefs (and their eclectic admixture of Nietzschean, Darwinian and other more esoteric ideas), and the way those beliefs fed into the passions and compulsions that were so deeply etched in her psyche. In what follows I want to draw out some implications of these recent approaches for identifying the affective as well as the intellectual impact of her politics, particularly in the two late novels, Cotters’ England and I’m Dying Laughing, both of which feature the political failures of a female protagonist.

First, however, there is some ground-clearing to be done on the subject of Stead’s politics – where did she stand, how did she line up? Rowley did not ignore these questions. Her approach was to ask them in relation to her important friendships and literary connections, but this yielded disappointingly little insight into her political beliefs, far less into her intellectual alignments within Marxism. Stead was never a member of the Communist Party, and her partner Bill Blake had signed up for only a few months in New York before the war. Many of their friends were Communist Party members, however, or had been, and throughout the post-war years the Blakes shared with them a fierce loyalty to the Soviet Union as the cradle of the communist revolution. In this period, compared to the 1930s and the Popular Front, there were relatively few intellectuals who took the ‘fellow-traveller’ position (favoured, for example, by Sartre and Beauvoir) that it was better to stay outside the Party in order to offer sympathetic criticism. This was not the Blakes’ position. They remained ultra-critical of those who criticised the USSR, yet as non–Party members themselves they were free from the obligation to toe the shifting Party line. They could in this way keep faith with their own understanding of revolutionary socialism.

Rowley was surely right to say that it was a ‘bit preposterous’ of Blake and Stead, who had ‘never clambered onto the train’ at the Finland Station (in the sense of committing themselves to the Communist Party), to criticise as ‘immoral’ those who ‘jumped off’ in 1956 in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the revelation of many of Stalin’s atrocities (411). Jean-Paul Sartre’s attack on the invasion earned him the scorn of Stead, the Soviet loyalist: she described him in a letter to an American colleague as ‘an indifferent writer, a bogus philosopher, that’s J.P.S. but high-rating publicity talent’ (qtd. n Rowley 411–12). Her position, and Blake’s, was similar to that of Eric Hobsbawm, the eminent British historian who never left the Party, despite his opposition to the 1956 invasion. His loyalty to Soviet Communism remained because, he wrote, for his generation, ‘the October Revolution represented the hope of the world, as China never did. The Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle symbolised it.’3

Bill Blake died in February 1968, before the second mass exodus from the Party in the West, following the persecution of the Russian writers, Sinyavsky and Daniel, and the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring. Christina Stead is not on record as expressing a view about those matters. Rather, in interviews after her husband’s death she maintained simply that she was not a political writer, but wrote ‘to express my own ideas, and not those of a magazine, or a social or political group’ (Raskin). Jim Davidson, when he was editor of Meanjin, maintained that in the six-hour conversation he had with her in 1976, she never once mentioned politics.4 As a veteran of Cold War cultural politics, she was wary of making public statements about her political alignments, but nevertheless there is some support there for Rowley’s view that without Blake she lost interest in the fortunes of international communism. She showed no interest in the New Left that had emerged among Western communists and sympathisers since the 1960s, though she supported the anti-war movement of that period, as is shown by her contribution to the Australian anthology, We Took Their Orders and Are Dead (Cass).5

What perspectives does the twenty-first century allow us on the political stance of this writer, who lived in the United States during World War 2, and in Europe and England in the post-war decades, and who was a committed communist but not a member of the Communist Party? Michael Ackland has argued that Stead’s Marxist ideas are essential to her literary vision. Fiona Morrison proposes that ‘for Stead and Blake classical Marxist theory … provided a mobile discursive and political home’, an ‘international system of ideas’ that supported them and ‘kept them ideologically afloat and properly affiliated’ (242). Ideas rather than allies, she suggests, were most important to them. Simon During, proposing Stead as a ‘lost object’ in the context of ‘World literature, Stalinism and the nation’, designates the Blakes as Stalinists – by which he means communists who remained faithful to ‘the Soviet Union-directed policies of the Comintern and a commitment to the anti-social democratic Leninism which officially legitimated that policy’ (64, 88). As an attempt to explain the Blakes’ purist criticism of other communists this is useful, but to call them Stalinists is both simplistic and ideologically fraught, reifying the term as a label used against anyone with Soviet communist sympathies. Certainly the Blakes were Soviet loyalists throughout the 1950s and 60s, but there is no way that their writing could have been politically approved either by Stalin or by his successors.6 It would be more accurate – and it would avoid the ideologically loaded term Stalinist – to call them Leninists, who believed that a theoretically-informed vanguard party was necessary to lead the proletariat beyond trade union politics towards revolutionary change.7 This Leninist position underlies the political critiques of left-wing journalist Nellie Cotter and her trade-union husband in Cotters’ England, and also the satire on Popular Front communism in the American section of I’m Dying Laughing.

To analyse the way Stead deployed her Marxist ideas in her fiction remains a major challenge for critics. Simon During attempts to identify how this political commitment affected the writing with his claim that her narratological position is ‘outside the outside’, that is:

She stands outside the bourgeois world [her subject matter] as a communist and, then, outside communism, because she doesn’t endorse the literature of engagement and isn’t herself bound to the party. (83)

Yet this identification of the double distancing of narrator from her material cannot account for the passionate intensity of the writing. As he acknowledges, because revolutionary theory systematically negates private passions and intensities:

the revolutionary fire which is absent from the social world, and takes no propositional form in her texts, does seem to find expression in hidden winds of passion directed at her characters, who are imagined through a range of (mainly negative) emotions that, however, remain unlocatable. Hatred, scorn, disgust, admiration. (83)

The gap between revolutionary theory and the ‘private’ passions that seem to drive Stead’s characters is addressed in numerous feminist readings of her novels, recent instances of which explore those apparently ‘unlocatable’ negative emotions at work in her texts. Stead creates her characters as monsters, but their passionate energy is what Stead seems to admire, even love, in them. This is evident, for example, in the way she spoke of Emily and her husband in I’m Dying Laughing, saying it was ‘all about the passion of – I use passion in almost the religious sense – of two people, two Americans’. But she is an ironist and a satirist, not a writer of tragedy. So she adds, ‘At the same time they wanted to be on the side of the angels, good Communists, good people, and also to be very rich. Well, of course … they came to a bad end’ (qtd. in Geering vi–vii). She is a satirist in love with her creations – a state of being which, as is well known, includes negative emotions like hatred, boredom, disgust. Their politics are shown to be deeply compromised, even at times dead wrong. They are immoral and even ‘criminal’ (as she described Nellie Cotter).8 But her monsters are first and foremost vehicles of passion, ‘marked by a compulsive energy, apparently in excess of ideological contradictions and confusions, by melodramatic speech and behaviour, by obsessively repeated images of desire – hunger, thirst, restless movement’ (Sheridan, Christina Stead 110).

Fascination with characters of passionate energy and faith in their superior destiny bespeaks the unreconstructed Nietzschean in Stead. Within her art, the passionate soul contends with the stern Marxist moralist. The result is a unique kind of grotesque satire. Yet the ferocity with which she creates and condemns these characters, especially Nellie and Emily, carries them beyond caricature. Here is Emily, for example, in I’m Dying Laughing making a last-ditch bid, as a fellow traveller, for communist heroism:

Can we too perhaps enter the annals of the red register as gorgeous monsters, human, all-too-human, a bit of Lucullus and Petronius, a bit like the Medici or even just like poor Cicero, adoring the fine life; but still faithful in our hearts. (395)

It is a disarmingly outrageous appeal.

An exemplary approach to reading the novels’ politics, together with Stead’s authorial investment in her characters and their ‘psychological drama of the person’, can be found in Louise Yelin’s 2000 essay on The House of All Nations. She offers not only a well-informed account of the context of pre-war socialist ideas (including the position to which they relegated women) but also a nuanced reading of the ways in which that novel’s Marxist political and textual ideology is destabilised both by an explicit Nietzscheanism and an implicit recognition of the metaphorical burden that women carry in this discursive context. Yelin shows that the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party in 1935, where the Bulgarian Dimitrov’s views on the importance of ‘cultural work’ prevailed, made a marked impact on the Popular Front; but she also argues that Stead’s article on the 1935 Paris Writers Congress, ‘The Writers Take Sides’, is ‘ambiguous as a manifesto of Popular Front cultural theory and practice’, its Marxism being ‘undermined by a Shelleyan, Nietzschean, indeed romantic image of the writer as creator’, who is able to ‘make something out of nothing’. In House of All Nations, she argues, ‘Marxist political and textual ideology is destabilised by Stead’s attraction to the Promethean ability of Jules Bertillon to make something – money – out of nothing’, an insight that brilliantly evokes the force of Stead’s creative attraction to such amoral monsters (Yelin, ‘Representing the 1930s’ 75, 76). 9

Yelin proposes that Stead’s interest in the idea of cultural work conflicted with her own preference for Bakhtinian ‘multiplicity’ and incongruity, as shown in her essay, ‘Uses of the Many-Charactered Novel’.10 Susan Lever has examined this essay, along with Stead’s manuscript notes for her 1939 ‘Workshop on the Novel’, in order to suggest how Stead could ‘function both as a committed Marxist and an open-minded writer’, how her preference for ‘the novel of strife’ meant that she often chose communist characters like Nellie Cotter and Emily Wilkes ‘in order to draw out the contradictions and paradoxes in their positions’. Yet this useful analysis of her ‘scientifically Marxist’ approach to fiction writing, at a far remove from ‘the socialist realist conventions associated with the communist novel’, still leaves open the question of where the passion of Stead’s writing comes from – particularly in the late novels, the ferocity with which she creates and condemns the renegade (Emily) or the populist/revisionist (Nellie) communist women.

The contrary forces of Marxist moralism and Nietszschean passion that constitute Stead’s creativity are brought into play in Brigid Rooney’s intriguing argument, in relation to Cotters’ England, that Stead stages a ‘contest’ between Nellie’s Bohemian, decadent version of the truth and the authorial project, which aims to ‘label and contain her within the category of perversity’. This contest, she implies, Nellie wins (‘Strange Familiars’ 261). Rooney’s sustained interest in the politics both public and private of Stead’s texts yields important insights into the ways these texts work on their readers. Her essay on I’m Dying Laughing shows how the narrative’s ‘gaze upon these failed renegades (Emily and Stephen) abets its avoidance of more threatening failures, failures implicating stalwart Stalinists who did stay on that train from the Finland station in 1917.’ She brings the personal together with the political by reading Emily’s physical abjection as homologous with the spectre of revolution ‘blighted, corrupted, betrayed’ – an image consonant with her use of the Kristevan metaphor of abjection to capture the distinctively nightmarish qualities of this novel. In her conclusion Rooney acknowledges the ‘horror [that] surfaces but submerges again’ in the text (‘Crossing the Rubicon’ 37). In this novel, too, she proposes, the movement of the text’s ‘unconscious’ undoes the ‘authorial project’, which is consciously critical and satirical. What erupts in the unconscious of the text in these two late novels is the horror of where all that ‘daylight logic’ of Marxist theory may have led – or where its failure had marooned the twentieth century’s desire for revolution.

Kate Webb takes a different tack on the opposition between Marx and Nietzsche in Stead’s work, as well as drawing on the work of two eminent English feminists who were among the most perceptive and politically savvy readers of Stead, Angela Carter and Lorna Sage. Her extended study of I’m Dying Laughing explored for the first time the significance in Stead’s oeuvre of ‘ideas about “bohemia” and “decadence” that were a part of Stalinist ideology' (expounded by Stalin’s commissar of culture, Andrei Zhdanov and his acolytes). Stead’s focus in her novels is on ‘outsiders whose battles in life were neither typical nor exemplary’ and who have an unsettling capacity to ‘feed off their oppression, to create themselves out of it’ rather than become victims or martyrs. They could not be heroes of socialist literature, but they could be made into larger-than-life inhabitants of:

a place of “waste” and “perversion”, a political, social and cultural space that both she and the communists of the time referred to, disparagingly, as “Bohemia”. It is a place of failure and decadence… It is where Stead thinks the Women’s Movement belongs. Its inhabitants have denied the “reality” of Marxist materialism and become “eccentric” in their beliefs and pursuits, waylaid by false gods.

Webb suggests that Stead made selective use of communist theory, using these ‘ideas about “bohemia” and “decadence” that were a part of Stalinist ideology. It might be added that Fascism held similar beliefs about homosexuals, radical artists and decadence.

Webb’s reading of I’m Dying Laughing and Cotters’ England in this context strongly suggests that the sharp unyielding lens on the world provided by Soviet Communism suited Stead’s fierce nature, and her purposes. As a communist she relished the grim times for the scenes of her fiction, not the revolutionary utopian moment (Sheridan, ‘Christina Stead’s Last Book’ 50). Her characters, based on people who touched her, and disappointed or failed her, are made to represent the social forces that Communism gave her justification to despise – bourgeois intellectuals, feminists, lesbians, big capitalists and small money-grubbers, journalists, ‘do-gooders’, wishy-washy liberals, and, within the Left, even trade unionists and other social democrats. Failed communists come in for the fiercest critique, for their failure to live up to the demands of the revolutionary movement, like the ‘renegades’ Emily and Stephen Howard in I’m Dying Laughing, or in Cotters’ England Nellie, the sentimental socialist, and her husband George Cook, the ambitious trade union leader.

The Stalinist concept of Bohemia, of an underworld of moral decadence, lends force to these satires, and goes some way to explaining the furious misogyny of Stead’s portraits of Nellie and Emily. Her reliance on this notion might be traced to her own deeply conflicted experience as a woman, especially of her sexuality (as we know from Rowley’s biography), together with her refusal to countenance any theoretical account of gender as a structure of power and therefore susceptible to political analysis. To put it (too) simply, the irresolvable conflict between her own experience and observation, and the ideas to which she was committed, resulted in the negative emotions that mark these difficult novels written in the 1950s.

In Cotters’ England Stead subjects her readers to Nellie’s rhetoric, ranging from its most seductive to its most hectoring, involving us intimately in the contest or strife that is its theme (Sheridan, ‘The Cold War Silence of Christina Stead’ 210). Even as we are carried along on the tide of her eloquence, we struggle to understand her drift, and test the truth of her assertions. Sometimes it is clear that she is lying, contradicting herself; sometimes she is undermined by other characters, as here, when she rants against ‘socialist theory’ to her women friends:

‘When it comes, it comes by itself; the men know what to do. I’d know what to do. … You can’t teach socialism, Camilla; it comes to you. It comes to one, not to another; it comes by mysterious ways. It is the way; but you can’t point it out to another.’

Eliza and Camilla burst out laughing.

Nellie said solemnly, ‘You know if you’ve got it in you, that’s all.’ (237)

At other times, however, listening to Nellie is as disorientating as if we were her target. Here she attacks Caroline, who has been introduced into the narrative as a young woman working at the Rehousing Committee. The attack seems to come from nowhere, but it is clearly intended to destroy the naive Caroline so that Nellie can then restore her confidence:

Nellie said bitterly, ‘I understand you very well. You’re smugly satisfied to be enclosed in the shell and never get out. You don’t want experience. You don’t want discovery. Experience is a difficult woman to woo: you must leave your mother and your father and your milksop ideas of romance. No good will ever come of your writing unless you open your eyes. You’ll get no respect from me. You must rely not on yourself but on others; on me. I can show you the way; and if I don’t, if you alienate me, your last chance is gone … You’re weak. You want to follow the ways of the mothers, the grandmothers, the pathetic imprisoned Eves.’ (43)

In rapid succession, she attacks Caroline for her ‘bourgeois’ origins, her timidity, her conventional femininity, all the while claiming that she, Nellie, is her only reliable guide.

Although it has its moments of black comedy, and of lyricism, this subjection to Nellie’s voice becomes a painful experience, a kind of torment. Like Nellie’s friends, the reader cannot help but be charmed by ‘the inner melody of the northern voice and its unexpected cry, its eloquence’ (17). Yet her endless insistence on ‘confession’ ‘introspection’ ‘sacrifice’, ‘the dark and lonely road’, and her sheer exertion of will through this rhetoric, alienate the reader. Like Nellie’s listeners in the novel, we experience puzzlement, boredom, resistance, and eventually exhaustion.

It becomes clear that Nellie is excited by the suffering of others, especially of women, and by the power that she can exercise in ‘helping’ them, and binding them to her.11 She meets her match in her brother, Tom, who refuses to accept her view that his life is meaningless and that only she can save him. Although she can charm him, too, and force the reactions she wants from him, she never definitively gains the upper hand. The sister and brother are both described as ‘minnesingers’,12 whose role it is, like the troubadours, to seduce women with their stories (Tom) and chants (Nellie). Nellie of course denies this: ‘I despise and loathe and have complete contempt for the knight-errant and minnesinger who goes around playing with things that are so deep’ (254). But ‘playing with things that are so deep’ is exactly what she does, and her principal victim is Caroline, who eventually commits suicide. The particular horror of this climactic event in the novel is that, as listeners and witnesses, readers can see what she is up to. It is like watching a horror movie, being compelled to witness her manipulate and bully Caroline but unable to call out a warning. We are both compromised, and caught up in the nightmare.

Cotters’ England started out as a satire of postwar England’s failures, when Stead began writing it in the late 1940s. By the time it appeared in print almost twenty years later, the social and political details of the period are present only in passing reference to bombed buildings, post-war rationing, Cold War paranoia, and protests against the nuclear bomb. Characters argue about politics, but their differences are enclosed in the satire on the failures of post-war British socialism. By this time, it would seem, the ‘mobile home’ of Marxist theory (in Fiona Morrison’s phrase) was no longer keeping Stead afloat. The satirical polemic about class struggle is merely one element in a novel that employs the grotesque ‘to characterise social and psycho-social life in its entirety’ (Pender 140). And it is a grotesquerie with all the attributes of a bad dream – insistent voices in the head, sensations of paralysis or suffocation, mysterious inexplicable happenings (like Tom’s stories, or the set-piece of the moonlit lesbian party). The novel is haunted by what Stead, and some of the characters, referred to as ‘the black’.13 Experiences of depression, illness, grief and sexual abuse abound, and there are several deaths, one by suicide. It is a world in chaos, and in the foreground is Stead’s characteristic ‘psychological drama of the person’ – or, rather, a number of these dramas, as engineered or exacerbated by Nellie. The politics that count in this novel are the personal power politics that Nellie plays so expertly and ruthlessly. In her passionate belief in herself, in the force of her egotism, she emerges as the most monstrous of all Stead’s protagonists, making Cotters’ England the darkest of all her books.

The survey of recent work undertaken here shows that feminist critical attention to the intersections of public and private continues to open up new perspectives on politics and passion in Stead’s writing. Political ideas often provide the basis for her satires, and we now have a more extensive understanding of her communist beliefs, and their admixture with other, less intellectually rigorous ideas. No doubt the Stalinist notion of Bohemia as a decadent underworld, which underpins much of the critique in the late novels under consideration here, is partly responsible for the negative affect they convey. Yet Stead’s creativity seems to have been inspired less by ideas than by her fascination with certain kinds of people – those with a Nietzschean belief in their own destiny, and an inexhaustible capacity to speak themselves and their world view into existence. Her fiction works principally by drawing readers into those worlds and putting us at their mercy. In these late novels, where prominent themes of political failure and hypocrisy are inextricably mixed with those of illness, abuse, depression and mania, the readerly experience partakes of those negative affects to an extreme degree. The passionate intensity of Stead’s writing continues to the end, but it draws us into extremely ‘dark places of the heart’, of personal and political failure.



  1. Observer review, quoted on the dustcover of Cotters’ England (London: Secker & Warburg, 1966). This novel was published in the USA as Dark Places of the Heart.

  2. Most notably Michael Wilding, Ken Stewart and Carole Ferrier. See Sheridan, ‘Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead: The Biographer’s Art’.

  3. In his Interesting Times (2002), quoted in ‘Hobsbawm’s History’, Guardian Weekly 12 October 2012, 28.

  4. When she returned to Australia to live in 1974, Stead stayed with her brother Gilbert, who had been a member of the Communist Party of Australia, but had left some time in the 1960s, before the pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia split off from the New Left influenced CPA in 1971.

  5. Stead attended an anti-war rally in Canberra at which her friend, the writer and academic Dorothy Green, spoke (Susan Magarey, personal communication).

  6. It is surprising, then, that Susan Lever also uses the epithet Stalinist to describe Stead’s politics, even as she reasserts the open-endedness of her writing. See ‘“There I’m a Nobody, Here I’m a Marxian Writer”: Australian Writers in the East.’

  7. As argued in Sheridan, ‘When Was modernism?’204–218, 212.

  8. Stead, letter to Leda and Stanley Burnshaw, 14 September 1965, in A Web of Friendship: Selected Letters 1928–1972, p.256.

  9. Yelin pioneered postcolonial feminist readings of Stead in her book From the Margins of Empire (1998).

  10. Stead’s possible debts to major Marxist literary theorists like Lukacs and Bakhtin remain an undeveloped subject of investigation.

  11. Stead told the present writer that she believed the women’s liberation movement was dominated by lesbians motivated by the desire to seduce ‘ordinary women’, whom she saw as passive and helpless. This bizarre idea is evident in her creation of Nellie and Caroline. The present writer did not undertake to argue with Stead, who was at the time a guest of Adelaide Writers’ Week (March 1980).

  12. Stead, letter to Leda and Stanley Burnshaw, 14 Sept. 1965, in A Web of Friendship: Selected Letters 1928–1972, p.257.

  13. Stead asserted that this book is ‘an attack on the Black, not black itself’, in a letter to Stanley and Leda Burnshaw in A Web of Friendship p. 256; but if, as I understand its use in the novel, ‘black’ refers to depression and entertaining thoughts of death, then I would call it a ‘black’ work.

Published 7 December 2016 in Rediscovering Christina Stead. Subjects: Feminism, Politics, Christina Stead.

Cite as: Sheridan, Susan. ‘Politics and Passion in Stead’s Late Novels.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 6, 2016. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.ef8d3d2e7e.