Academic journal article Hecate

Feminism and Male Chauvinism in the Writings of Christina Stead (1902-1983)

Academic journal article Hecate

Feminism and Male Chauvinism in the Writings of Christina Stead (1902-1983)

Article excerpt

Christina Stead's fifteen major works of fiction show a genius for recreating the times and the places in which she lived--especially in Sydney, London, Paris and New York. Her multi-charactered novels give us a panoply of men and women interacting in their societies. Her voluminous personal writings --letters, notes, drafts--sometimes reveal Stead's observations and ideas of female/male relationships even more pointedly and connectedly. (1)

In 1982 I met Christina Stead at a ceremony I helped to organise when she was awarded Honorary Membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters--a very rare honour for non-American writers. From the friendship that developed, she came to live with me in the New Year of 1983 for a few months before her death at Easter, aged eighty. Knowing Christina Stead has meant that whenever I read any of her writings I can't help imbuing the words with her own voice and tone and the personal certitude with which she expressed her ideas. I am left with a strong memory of her pain when talking about her formative years with her family. This surfaces again and again in her writing. And I always found her wisely understanding of women when talking about herself, myself, her friends or female family members.

Christina Stead was a feminist, but she disliked being called one, disliked labels of any kind. Throughout her life, however, she observed the varying roles of women in society and wrote this into her books in acerbic prose showing the female characters' and their struggles for autonomy. She lived the life of a feminist in a time when this was extremely difficult to do, setting out on her own from Sydney to Europe, penniless, at the age of twenty-five to see the world, to assert her independence and realise her destiny. Her novels intersect with Marxist and feminist perceptions that recognise the oppression of women by men possessing wealth and class power, and the patriarchal family.

The strength of her belief in herself somehow managed to survive the excoriating life she lived in her childhood--painfully detailed in her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children--and even more tellingly, as a young woman in the early chapters of For Love Alone. Here we see an entire household, especially the girls, dominated by the father who, no matter how misguidedly well-meaning he may have been, relentlessly crushed and mocked his children. The seven Stead children rebelled against their father in their young adulthood, each in their own way leaving home as soon as they could. Gilbert, the youngest, ran away to sea at the age of fourteen and was missing for a year. Many of these episodes are written into her fiction.

Stead is undeniably an autobiographical writer. When I asked her one day if she ever thought of writing her autobiography, she replied that she already had--it was all there, in her books. She said this many times, to many people.

Escaping from her father's egomania, Christina said she never wanted to see him again. She never did. Having left the family home for good in 1928, she vowed never to go home again. Even though she was in Sydney for a short time in 1969, and returned for good in 1974, she did not go back despite being invited to by the members of her family still living at 'Boongarre'. When a photographer for the New York Times coaxed her to pose on the jetty in front of the Watsons Bay house with its magnificent views of Sydney Harbour, she walked right past her former family home through the garden to reach the waterfront. She told me that if she had gone inside that house again she would have felt as though she had never left it, negating everything that had followed. The bogey of her long-dead father had not faded.

In her late seventies, Stead wrote to her long-time friend, the American poet, critic and publisher Stanley Burnshaw. She recalls a sickening scene in The Man Who Loved Children. Here the father--a naturalist, as was David Stead--tells his young children how birds feed their young. …

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