“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, and—at last a few years of stability—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 ménage 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.
Wasn’t this blatant fudging of fic-tion and reality a risk for Christina? Couldn’t it perhaps lead to a breakup with Bill, to whom she still wasn’t married, particularly if his daughter was to be presented as wild and promiscuous, Bill as an ineffectual father who kept wife and mistress happy by lying to them both, and the radical movement they all supported as largely phony? Reading Rowley’s biography one becomes aware of an unspoken pact between Stead and Blech. She would never disagree with him politically and he would never take offense at what she wrote in a novel.
Stead would also one day remark that she only felt truly “moral” when writing, and again that she had only “felt herself” when writing. Perhaps what she meant was that in this supposedly fictional space she was free not to adhere to the ideals of her father and her lover, free not to be coherent. “Radicalism is the opium of the middle class,” announces an incensed Letty. Stead is enjoying herself. What luck to be able to say anything one wants!
But what now of Letty’s luck? The novel had to be convincing about New York. It had to demonstrate that Christina now had full command of Bill’s world. It opens thus:
One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarreled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad.
Letty is always flinging out of rooms, rushing across streets. She is always full of energy and always on the edge of depression. Above all she always needs money. The long first paragraph continues:
Beyond such petty expenses, I needed at least two hundred and fifty dollars for a new coat. My fur coat, got from my mother, and my dinner dress, got from my grandmother, were things of the past and things with a past, mere rags and too well known to all my friends. There was no end to what I needed.
Immediately we have the picture of Stead’s America, a place where love and money cannot be separated, where relationships are talked about in terms of investments and cutting losses, where people enjoy the illusion that the marriage game can be managed and evaded like income tax. Yet it is impossible not to appreciate the gusto with which Letty enters the fray. Wondering whether she should accept a job offer in return for sex, Letty tells us, “I do not even see a scandal in this, for wide-awake women.” Later in the book the terms are reversed, but the principle the same: “I had the feeling that he could have been bought,” she reflects of one reluctant lover, “if I had had a little more money.” Needless to say, Letty thinks of herself as a left-wing radical.
Having given us just a dozen sparkling pages on the twenty-three-year-old Letty’s life in wartime Manhattan, Stead then goes back to reconstruct her narrator’s childhood. It is the sheer scope of the enterprise that is so extraordinary. Stead, an Australian, meticulously puts together the New England family of Letty’s maternal grandmother, the notorious Cissy Morgan, then the German-Jewish family of her paternal grandmother, Jenny Fox. Uncles, aunts, and cousins marry, divorce, and remarry. We have their foibles, ambitions, views on education, and endless improprieties. None of these are mere vignettes, but highly developed studies that could well fill a book of their own. What they establish beyond all dispute is that Letty, like so many modern children, knows far too much far too young.
The satire is vast, fed constantly by the ancient struggle between the sexes and the modern American woman’s discovery of alimony. At great length we learn of the unhappily complex relationship between Letty’s father, Solander, and her mother, Mathilde, then his passion for the younger woman who becomes his mistress. Eagle-eyed, always excited, Letty wants to know what all this means. By the time her father leaves home, she and her younger sister, Jacky, have already learned how to present themselves as victims. They know that compassion is often accompanied by gifts.
The daughters are moved in with relatives, they are taken to England, to Paris, they write extremely long, witty, passionate letters in highly individual voices, seeking to impress their father, calm their mother. Slowly and with complete conviction, Stead shows the sisters growing distinct as they react first to the overall situation and then to each other’s response to it. In short, we see character in the making.
Meantime, stories you thought must have ended start again. An uncle you imagined married and forgotten reappears with debts and a mistress. He tries to seduce a niece. A cousin is becoming a whore, or a saint. An aunt turns up with a child, but without a husband. The book smolders, flaring up where you thought it extinguished, smoking where you had seen no fire.
But where is the whole thing going? If every form of narrative representation is essentially a convention, a pact between writer and reader about how experience can be talked about, then it is only natural that the finest authors should be uneasy with some aspect of that convention, eager to bend it closer to the grain of their own lives. What Stead most resisted in traditional narrative was any easy formulation of shape and direction, any neatness. The manic extension of the world she depicts in Letty Fox denies any possibility of order. The book is rich and capricious, its descriptions dense, vital, and highly particularized; its only overall drift is that of Letty’s growing up.
And it is with the depiction of Letty’s adolescence and young womanhood that Stead achieves her most impressive effect in this book. For perhaps three hundred pages we have been given a dazzling social satire, a tragic-comic picture of a society where, with all traditional hierarchy broken down, the only possible relationship between men and women is conflict; it is the mirror image at a social level of the political war that is raging in Europe as Stead writes her story. Yet up to this point, the reader feels, the book might well have been written in the third person, for Letty is retailing stories she has heard from others. She feels superior to her relatives with their incomprehensibly muddled lives. There is a consequent distance in the narrative voice. And, as with most satires, the reader too feels a certain detachment. There is something grotesque about all these Morgans and Foxes with their interminable passions. Letty feels sure she will do better.
But the moment Letty too becomes subject to sexual desire, everything changes. It is as if a sane psychiatrist, chuckling over the antics of his lunatic patients, had himself suddenly gone mad. Suddenly it is no laughing matter:
Moods of blackness and suffering passed through me, of fierce, fierce intercourse such as no flesh could bear. I got up and the fever that raged through my body was intolerable. Yes, this is the love that nymphs knew on afternoons when Pan chased them, I thought, this is the meaning of all those stories. I thought I was passionate; now, I know what growing up is. I thought, if it is going to be like this, this suffering and madness, I will kill myself now, for in the difficulty of getting married nowadays and of getting a child, that cooling cold stone of a child which stands in the hot belly and makes a woman heavy and tired, forgetting all her cruel fervours, that thing that drags her to the doors of the death-house and away from the intolerable ardours of the sun, in this slow world for women, I cannot live, I will kill myself.
Letty does not kill herself. She goes out and finds another lover. And another. Sexual conquest brings with it a gust of energy. Letty studies hard, works hard, goes to meetings to discuss socialism and reform, achieving the “cheerful feeling that a lot is wrong with the universe; and it’s marvelous to be able to discuss it all over a Martini.” Political militancy thus emerges as no more than a byproduct of sexual happiness. Or as a way out of distress (“Everyone forgot…my troubles, and we all began to discuss… the African problem”). In one of the most powerful scenes in the book, Letty seduces her father’s radical philandering friend, Luke Adams, while the older man is selfishly trying to get her to take in a Hispanic orphan boy whom he himself had agreed to look after in a moment of weakness. Letty remarks: “One not only felt that, in love, this dangerous man consulted his own pleasure and had no morals, but with him, all altruism vanished like smoke.”
As fully drawn as any character in literature, Stead’s Letty is marvelously talented, bursting with energy and youthful optimism. What is to become of such vitality? How is it not to be spilled? In her biography, Hazel Rowley feels that this is a question Stead could not answer. The jacket copy for the Virago edition of 1982, however, shows all the feminist publisher’s uneasiness with the answer that the novel all too evidently does offer, marriage: Letty is a “powerful portrayal,” Virago’s copywriter tells us, “of a woman who might have been independent, but chose otherwise.”
But could she? What Letty most profoundly learns from her promiscuity, from her growing fear of herself and her appetite, is that marriage is not, as her crazy family had led her to believe, merely the legally regulated collision of sex and economics. Something else is going on in the long-term union of man and woman, something to which she is inexorably drawn:
I sometimes wondered at the infinite distance between the state of not being married…and the state of being married…. I couldn’t figure it out; perhaps I was too young, anyway; but it savoured to me of magic, and I felt very miserable that in this modern world something so primary, this first of all things to a woman, smacked so strongly of the tribal priest, the smoky cult, the tom-tom, the blood sacrifice, the hidden mystery. It didn’t seem fair. We should have abolished all that with enlightenment.
Fair or otherwise, enlightened or not, Letty gradually comes to the conclusion that her energies must be “husbanded.” But by whom?
The conclusion to Letty Fox: Her Luck is at once mockingly traditional and strikingly new. It is, I believe, one of the first novels to offer what we might call catharsis through exhaustion. Like many contemporary and later writers, Stead faced this problem: if our vision of the world is that it is perpetual struggle, if there is no state of harmony and propriety to which we can be returned after the disturbing events of our story—and however necessary she might have believed it was, Stead never viewed marriage as such a state—then how is a novel supposed to end? Where can it leave us? Her answer is to brings characters and reader to such a state of plenitude, or weariness with events, that the thing simply has to stop.
Letty moves from job to job, man to man. She is getting nowhere. A fiancé becomes a war journalist and writes to say he has married somebody else. Another suitor backs out during the crucial discussion with her parents. She goes on vacation for a “trial honeymoon” with the perfect American, Wicklow; it lasts five days. Men promise to leave their wives. Out of curiosity, she seduces the elderly professor her sister is in love with. But she is getting tired of it. She throws some extraordinary tantrums. She is more and more manic, more frequently depressed. She is appalled by herself. Without a husband “a woman as strong as I am can also be strongly, wickedly lazy, and for ever.”
But finally, like her author, she does get her one piece of luck. In the summer of 1945 she meets an old lover as tired of the game as she is herself, as tired as Europe then was with its interminable war. Everybody is quite exhausted. Ring the wedding bells. It is not a Jane Austen ending. “Will this last?” Letty asks. And she muses: “It’s a question of getting through life, which is quite a siege, with some self-respect. Before I was married I had none.” At last pregnant, she concludes: “The principal thing is, I got a start in life; and it’s from now on. I have a freight, I cast off, the journey has begun.”
How poignantly those closing words must have echoed in Stead’s ears over the coming years. All too soon after the publication of Letty Fox, she too would be embarking on a journey, casting off from New York’s docks, but without a precious freight. In the early days with Bill she had twice aborted. While writing Letty she suffered a miscarriage. Now, with the war in Europe over, the cold war had begun. She and Bill were under investigation by Hoover’s FBI. They had heard that the heroine of Stead’s latest novel was a Communist.
It became hard to find either work or publishers. Sliding into poverty, the couple moved back and forth between Belgium, Switzerland, England, and France. Afflicted as ever by erotic yearnings, Stead sought to seduce Bill’s friends, largely without result. She was humiliated. Critical acclaim had brought little cash. Bill wrote some historical novels which sold well in East Germany. It was impossible to get the money out. When, twenty-six years after they had become lovers, the couple were finally able to marry, they were living in slum conditions and Stead was advertising for work in the local papers. She did not mention the ceremony in letters to friends.
Stead, Rowley tells us in her biography, “had a knack of arousing hostility.” Even in the days of first love when Blech did everything for her, she was uneasy with the situation. She was too used to the battle of life. She needed to make the brutal gesture, to assume the extremist position. Certainly when Blech lay dying she was not kind to him. Later she regretted it. Living exclusively on steak and alcohol, she defended his political opinions, now far beyond the pale, with renewed vigour. But she couldn’t work, she considered her life over: “My life was for that, wasn’t it? To live with Bill. I didn’t know that was it, but it was.”
It is no surprise that Stead was a very poor essayist and even poorer public speaker. There was no particular message she had to get across. She wanted to seduce, but also to provoke, or rather, to seduce through provocation. The best writing, she claimed, was driven by an “intelligent ferocity” that would be able to speak all the contradictions that cannot be spoken in any essay, friendship, or political movement, all the experience that risks driving a person mad if it is left unsaid, and risks driving a reader mad when it is. We must love her, in short, for telling us things we don’t want to hear.
In no novel does this formula work quite so splendidly as in Letty Fox, if only because Letty herself is the incarnation of this drive. Never are her men, or the reader for that matter, more enamored of Letty than when she is unfaithful and bitchy. After her failed honeymoon, after refusing to talk to her ideal American on the train back to New York, he comes back just the same: “I scolded Wicklow when he came to see me, ” she says. “He grinned, sat down on a stool, took off his hat, and remarked. ‘You’re more fascinating as a termagant, Letty, than as a sweet little wife.’”
As a writer, Stead is a termagant to whom one is always happy to return. I would advise a more comfortable seat than a stool. The gesture of removing the hat, do please note, is obligatory.
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).↩