“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.
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 …