Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Christina Stead's Poor Women of Sydney, Travelling into Our Times

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Christina Stead's Poor Women of Sydney, Travelling into Our Times

Article excerpt

If the nation, the novel and psychoanalysis ... draw our gaze in two directions at once-inward to their imaginary psychic territories and outward to their global reaches or, on a different axis, backward to their hegemonic histories and forward to their postcolonial afterlives-what can we learn from such double vision? (Cooppan, Worlds xxiii)

This paper considers the imaginary psychic territories that Christina Stead (1902-1983) brought into the first novel she completed, Seven Poor Men of Sydney. These were constituted from a wide range of reading, and from familiarity and often affinity with Left intellectuals and political activists in Sydney from towards the end of the First World War (during which the Russian Revolution had also occurred) through the 1920s, and then from what she found in London and Paris from 1928 to 1934, when the book was substantially written and revised. Stead had arrived in London in May 1928 with a novel, 'Death in the Antipodes,' in mind; how much of it was on paper is unclear.1 As is well known, she was pursuing on some level an unsatisfactory romance with the Sydney University tutor, Keith Duncan, who went in 1926 on a travelling scholarship to the London School of Economics to study political science, and who intended to go on to further work in the United States. This was apparently why Stead introduced Duncan to Wilhelm Blech, her American boss in the job she found-serendipitously, it would turn out-at the grain exchange business of Strauss and Company almost immediately upon her arrival, with little money to live on, in London. It was purportedly Duncan who told Blech that Stead 'thought herself a writer' (Rowley 85), after which Blech asked her to show him some of her work. After he had taken it home for the weekend, she recalled later, Blech 'looked at me with absolute astonishment . . . and he said: "It has mountain peaks"' (Wetherell 85); this undoubtedly increased the boss's already considerable interest in his secretary. Seven months after their meeting, he asked her to move to Paris to continue as his secretary (Rowley 91)-and perhaps he thought at the time, his 'back-street wife' (Rowley 24-25).

Many passages in Seven Poor Men significantly bring out Stead's own familiarity with actual figures on the Sydney Left,2 and some of their activities and preoccupations in the mid-nineteen-twenties. Stead's interaction after that with Left intellectuals and writers in London, and Paris, was also drawn upon in inventing or developing some of the characters in the Sydney-set novel.3

Expanding the focus from the men foregrounded by the title allows more attention to the styles of femininity, or psychic territories, that this novel by a woman writer depicts and investigates.4 Dorothy Green in 1968 argued that Catherine 'is the real centre of the book and it is her predicament as a woman, and as a woman who has come to maturity in Australia that is the seed from which the book grows' (Green 153). The title, and the list of dramatis personae-'The Seven Poor Men'-might have seemed to suggest that any women were written as significant in their relation to the men. The novel's main characters were described, in a review when it first appeared, as 'victims of the depression, all searching for jobs or loves or happinesses which in fact do not exist for them' (Charques 106), while Stuart Macintyre described them in 1998 as 'a circle of tormented outsiders who seek through politics and philosophy to assuage their unhappinesses' (98-99). This seems a summary of the situation of the male characters, although the category might include Catherine (especially since the noun 'torment' is usually associated with her). But for Green, 'The inner world, in short, is the world, not of seven men and a woman, but of one woman, Catherine, whose selves have been separated and given a local habitation and a name. There are no separate dilemmas, which each character has to face singly . . .' (154). This might seem to ignore the dimension of gendered inequality (both economic and psychological) that can be observed in various experiences in Stead's own earlier life, as well as in the 'dilemma' Catherine might be seen to have had in her relationships with various men because of her inability to achieve any substantial agency for herself. …

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