Chris Williams, Christina Stead: a Life of Letters, McPhee Gribble Penguin, $24.99

David Walker

We are due for a spate of Stead studies, but this one deserves to succeed. It is marked by an informality quite in keeping with the spirit of a great writer who was never at ease with literary fame and its trappings. Williams is more concerned to document the life that Stead lived than provide a formal analysis of her fiction. Writing was undoubtedly central to Stead’s life, though she was casual about her reputation. She wrote because she had to.

Clearly, Williams was absorbed by Stead and admires her writing. We learn a good deal about Stead’s involvement with the left, but it is apparent that she was not the kind of person to obey the party line. Indeed, Stead emerges from Williams’ biography as a person who was always on the move creatively and geographically. There are interesting parallels with Janet Fr Frame here, not least in the problem of trying to categorise the writing. Stead’s restlessness is well documented and makes the point that she and her partner and husband from 1952, Bill Blake, were often poor. Though Blake was a financial adviser and tied up with money markets his heart was in Marxism and economic history much more than money making. The solid things in Stead’s life were writing and the relationship with Bill Blake.

Christina was devastated by Blake’s death in 1968 and her last years make melancholy reading. She returned to Australia, tangled with her family, felt miserable and awkward in a range of universities, though she also found loyal friends there, worried about her writing, complained about feminists, got sick and drank too much. This period also marked a growing local reputation, although Williams notes that Stead was never inclined to complain of neglect. She died in 1983.

For those interested in security files, an unlikely interest among Hummer readers, there is interesting material on American and Australian concerns about left-wing involvements, Marxist causes and assorted nastiness. They looked hard and found little.

I imagine this to be the kind of biography Stead would have liked, though I have an inkling something along these lines has already been expressed. Finally, this is a McPhee Gribble publication and a very fine one too. It is a bad business that they are no longer with us.

School of History University of New South Wales