“I don’t know what imagination is,” says Letty Fox, “if not an unpruned, tangled kind of memory.” Though the claim comes early on in this long book, and is made what’s more by one of the flightiest narrators fiction has ever produced, nevertheless the reader will immediately take it as confirmation of what he has already suspected: flagrantly unpruned and tangled beyond any unraveling, the six hundred pages of Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck are the seductive and savage reworking of an apparently inexhaustible memory.1
Born in a southern suburb of Sydney in 1902, Stead had lived in New York for nine years when Letty Fox: Her Luck was published in 1946. Her memories naturally tended to organize themselves around the two great stories of her own life: the story of the bizarre Australian family she grew up in, and the story of the Jewish-American family she became part of. The first was a horror story with comic interludes, the second a romance with recurrent nightmares. Letty Fox contrives to tangle them both.
Stead’s early unhappiness is easily understood. The plain, big-boned daughter of a pretty mother who died when she was two, Christina found herself an unwanted extra in her father’s second family. “My stepmother was kind to me,” she later conceded of Ada Stead, “until her first child was born.” Five more children would follow. From the beginning, Stead’s writing would always convey a sense of life’s exhausting excess. “Living is too much for me,” says Letty Fox.
A self-taught biologist and pioneering socialist, a man of immense energy and vanity, Stead’s father contrived at a certain point to complicate his adolescent daughter’s isolation by making Christina his confidant in the epic struggle between himself and his wife. David Stead had made this second marriage at least partly for money. The couple had moved into an extravagant mansion immediately after the wedding. But when Ada’s father died, her family was found to be as deep in debt as it had previously appeared to be swimming in wealth. Reduced to poverty, obliged to make do with ramshackle accommodation, Ada sulked. The charismatic David found her plain and dull. Christina, on the other hand, was lively and intelligent beyond her years. How sad, however, as he never tired of reminding her, that she was also “a fat lazy lump.”
On research trips to Malaysia and Paris, David Stead, a staunch supporter of women’s rights and great believer in eugenics, wrote his daughter long letters sharing his enthusiasm for the superior and slender beauty of the women of those countries. Bulky Christina yearned to travel. When she was seventeen her father fell in love with the sixteen-year-old Thistle Harris and would eventually run off with this pretty child. Again he made the ugly duckling of his brood his confidant. Twenty years later, from the distant fortress of Manhattan, his daughter took her revenge. I know of no account of father and family more generously observed or more irremediably cruel than the autobiographical novel The Man Who Loved Children. Published in 1940, it remains Stead’s most frightening and ruthless work. At the height of her powers, she was thus able to begin Letty Fox with the worst of that old bitterness exorcised. She was ready to have fun.
The passage from family of origin to partner of election is the story at the core of Letty Fox. In that sense, albeit with a completely different milieu and a whole new gallery of characters, the novel takes over where The Man who Loved Children left off. For Stead herself, as one learns from Hazel Rowley’s biography,2 this period of young adulthood was marked by the most intense yearning and frustration. It was also the period in which the contradiction that shaped her novels, or rather that extended them beyond any immediately perceptible shape, first becomes apparent.
Stead’s final school exams won her a scholarship to Sydney University, but she was ineligible for an arts degree because she hadn’t studied Latin. She could have chosen a science course and had her higher education financed, but decided against it, apparently because she associated women in science with dowdy and frustrated spinsters. The Darwinist determinism she had inherited from her biologist father had convinced Stead that in the struggle for survival a science degree would not be a winning card, for a woman. The more biology a girl knew, it seemed, the more she appreciated that it was not biology a girl needed to know.
This disturbing lesson was underwritten, in Stead’s case, by the fiercest erotic longings, desires which, if only because they couldn’t be talked about, she often feared would drive her mad. “Hunger of the stomach can be confessed,” she later wrote, “but not sexual hunger.” In Letty Fox, Christina Stead would make it her business to be alarmingly frank about that hunger. From earliest adolescence, Letty lusts. “This fox was tearing at my vitals,” she tells us. Hazel Rowley remarks that “Stead liked the hint of bawdiness” in the title’s combination of the words “fox” and “luck.” Back in 1921, traveling to Sydney every day to study at Teacher Training College, Christina was already a highly sexed young woman after her man.
But she was also a socialist and radical. Here comes the complication. During the First World War, at Sydney Girls High, Christina had been staunchly pacifist and very enthusiastic when a teacher told them about the Russian revolution. This controversial attitude was something else she had taken from her atheist father. You discovered the hard facts of the biological struggle, facts that in Europe were preparing the way for a book like Mein Kampf, but paradoxically you used them, not for your own fight, or even for that of your race, but to further the cause of mankind in a spirit of solidarity. David Stead, for example, had established which fish off the Australian coast were fit for human consumption, where and how they could be caught. It was an important contribution. It also made him, if only briefly, an important man, the sort of man a bright young girl might run away with. Attending an evening course at Sydney University, a course whose object, according to one student, was nothing less than “the reform of the Universe,” Christina Stead fell in love with the left-wing lecturer Keith Duncan. The comedy that everywhere galvanizes Letty Fox is the mismatch between the idealistic rhetoric of radicalism and the young woman’s biologically driven yearning for a mate.
Stead failed to become a teacher. In the classroom she lost her voice; arriving at the school gates she panicked. Again the problem was the fear of a virginity prolonged into old age. School was a place where “a woman was not a woman.” Bound over to teaching for five years to pay for her training, she had to struggle hard to escape without a heavy fine. She was lonely now. Keith Duncan and other radical friends had left for England and the wider world. They had travel scholarships. But for Stead there were no such handouts. She worked for two years as a secretary to save the money to follow him. He wrote to encourage her, then to put her off. Would they ever become lovers? Every day she walked miles to save tram fares. A special kind of feminism was developing in Stead. She wasn’t interested in rights and equality for their own sake. She wanted the help she needed to get and marry her man.
Then, at last in England, aged twenty-five, Christina Stead had what she would always consider the one great stroke of luck in her life. For in a world which, whatever the rhetoric, is every creature for himself, for a girl to meet the right man can only be, as Letty Fox will frequently acknowledge, a stroke of luck. That man wasn’t Keith Duncan. Duncan led her on but wouldn’t commit himself. He wouldn’t even take her to bed. It was her new employer, ten years older than herself, who finally relieved his young secretary of her virginity. In a letter home announcing imminent marriage, Stead described him thus: “William James Blech is a German Jew of American upbringing, small, very loquacious, very astute in business and literary affairs and art, highly educated and original.”
In fact Blech, like Stead’s father, was entirely self-taught. Like her father he was a radical, indeed a Communist, though he worked for a decidedly shady banking company. Like her father he had boundless energy and optimism. And like her father, alas, he was married. He had a wife and daughter. Wedding bells were far from imminent. Once again, Stead was an anomalous creature on the edge of a family that didn’t quite know what to do with her. The second story of her life, the second great struggle had begun. Having gratefully given herself to this man, she must persuade him to persuade his wife to agree to a divorce. Stead’s now staunch communism, and later even Stalinism, her unquestioning support for Bill’s unceasing political endeavors, would be a crucial part of that struggle.
I can think of no author for whom milieu was more important than for Christina Stead, no author who worked harder and longer to create the social settings of her novels. No doubt this endeavor came out of her being so frequently forced to change milieu herself and thus to appreciate how absolutely different one world was from another. Having met Blech in London so soon after her arrival from Sydney, Stead at once agreed to his moving her nearer to his wife and daughter in Paris. She loved it. In Paris, well dressed, speaking French, she decided she was not so plain after all. Place changes you. Over the next few years she lived in London again, then New York, Spain, Belgium, London, andâ€”at last a few years of stabilityâ€”New York.
She made copious notes on every community she came in contact with. She changed languages, accents. She wrote books set in Australia, England, France, the US, set in the lower class, the middle class, among expatriates. Each work was testimony to her own determination to adapt and survive, to fit in. Above all she was determined to fit in with Bill’s family, with the German mother, the expensively educated American daughter, the wife she must never meet, and, in short, with a Jewish-American milieu and its cosmopolitan traditions. How else could she hope to win through?
Letty Fox was to be the fruit of those long years of adaptation, an exuberant mixture of Stead’s own girlhood memories with her meticulous observations of Blech’s now adult daughter, Ruth, who was a frequent visitor at the Stead/Blech mĂŠnage in New York. So Letty has a father who, like Bill Blech, is a businessman radical, married yet living with his mistress. But then Bill Blech was not unlike the author’s father, David Stead, who also left his wife for a mistress. The book is a hall of mirrors as far as possible identifications are concerned. Certainly all of Blech’s family would see themselves in it when it was published.
This essay appears in somewhat different form as the introduction to Letty Fox: Her Luck (New York Review Books, 2001).↩
Christina Stead: A Biography (Henry Holt, 1994).↩