Interview: Christina Stead
in conversation with Rodney Wetherell
This interview was published first in Australian Literary Studies, vol. 9, no. 4 (October 1980), 431-38, as ‘interview with Christina Stead’ before being reprinted in Overland magazine, number 93, 1983, pages 17 to 29.
From the Overland Introduction:
Christina Stead died early in April this year [Christina Stead died on 31 March 1983], a friend of this magazine (Overland) and what it stood for, and one of the very great Australians of our time. As a tribute to her we print here, for the first time, the complete version of an interview she gave Rodney Wetherell of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in September 1979, subsequently broadcast by the ABC on 24 February 1980 and 2 May 1983.
Paragraph 1 follows:
Rodney Wetherell: Christina Stead, you were born in Sydney, and you’re now living in Melbourne. How many cities have there been in between, where you’ve lived?
Christina Stead: I’ve visited many of course, but when I left here in twenty-eight I first lived in London for some time, not very long, because the crisis of 1929 came, and the man I was working with, who became my husband, went to Paris and took me with him and we both worked in the same bank, in dix-huit Rue de la Paix — eighteen Rue de la Paix, and we lived in Paris for years and years, working in the bank.
After that, I think we went to the States for some time. Yes, we were years and years in the States. Of course he was born there, and we lived in New York; and at one time during the Second World War, just at the beginning, we went to Hollywood, and we lived in Hollywood some time. About three months, a bit more perhaps.
Then we came back to New York and stayed there till the War ended when we went back to Antwerp, where my husband’s partner for many years had had a grain business, which had been taken over by the Germans, I think, and then at that time the Belgians had a socialist government and they had ‘Manager of Grain’… I forget his title. He was some kind of minister or something like that, who had been the Manager of Alf’s (that was the name of the partner) grain firm, which was Rue de la Bourse, in the commercial part of Antwerp — Antwerp’s mostly commercial of course. We went there for a while, but things were very unpleasant and they didn’t like any foreigners there. You can’t blame them. The place looked practically like things look in a Nazi film when we got back, and we had to dodge about in the Channel, because of mines and in the Schelde — that’s the river, because of mines, and Belgium was devastated. At any rate they didn’t want foreigners.
So we went to England and we stayed there quite a while, and England looked terrible. The men who came to take our bags at the station — we were ashamed to hand them to them, because they all looked as if the wind would blow them away. They were wisps of men, through starvation of course.
Anyhow, we stayed in London for quite a while, and you know I’m not quite sure how we got about but we did go to Switzerland, and this was shortly after the war; and we were somewhat suspect, because a lot of refugees from various countries had gone to Switzerland, but naturally we weren’t in any trouble, and we lived there quite a while in Basel, in Montreux and then in Lausanne. It’s very nice place to live. Those three places are very good places to live but especially Montreux and Lausanne. Montreux is right on the Lake of Geneva of course.
And then… oh yes, we had gone back to Paris after the war and then we went from there to Switzerland, because Paris was in a very sad state. It was really starving, half starved, so we went on to Switzerland, we felt a bit ashamed, and then we went to Holland. Yes, we lived in The Hague for a couple of years. My husband liked to travel and he was… he knew all about a country before we got there. He loved it, you know.
Rodney Wetherell: There must have been a great restlessness in you, too, right from early days.
Christina Stead: No, not at all.
Rodney Wetherell: You were very determined to leave Australia, for example.
Christina Stead: I wasn’t. It had nothing to do with that at all. We read about, heard about all kinds of countries. My father was a scientist and he went abroad once or twice. He went to Britain to buy trawlers in 1914, just before the war, and so on; and the sea — we were all closely connected with the sea. It was part of our lives, you see. Now the sea is a continent with no passports and no ports and nothing, it’s a country in itself. We felt we belonged to the sea. It wasn’t a question of leaving Australia, nothing to do with that at all.
Rodney Wetherell: But I think I read somewhere where you said there was quite a lot of you in the struggle that Teresa Hawkins has in For Love Alone.
Christina Stead: Yes, it’s quite true.
Rodney Wetherell: She has quite a desperate struggle to leave Australia.
Christina Stead: Yes, yes, that’s quite true. It is I, it’s me.
Rodney Wetherell: She was saving very hard…
Christina Stead: For years and years. I remember they gave me a twenty-first birthday party and I was so bored by the whole proceedings. I thought: What are they talking about? This has nothing to do with my life at all, you know.
Rodney Wetherell: You had quite a few jobs in those days, before you left Australia, I mean. You worked in a psychology laboratory?
Christina Stead: No, no. I trained as a teacher in Teachers’ College in Sydney University, and there I was — I liked psychology of course. It was natural to me. They kept me on to do psychology and I did these Binet-Simon Tests in all the schools, and the sorting out you have to do afterwards.
Then I went into the schools for a year, but my voice failed, because I’ve always had a very weak voice — unlike the rest of my family who are all great singers, I don’t mean ‘great’ singers, but they sing like mad. So my voice failed and they sent me to a correspondence school, which used to deal in those days before radio with the outback, children in the outback, and then they took me back to Teachers’ College to do a fourth year in psychology, and I went to Sydney University as part of that course, you see. We didn’t do anything much but it was my chief… it was my interest in a way, not my chief interest, but an interest.
Rodney Wetherell: Do you have a professional sort of writer’s interest in psychology?
Christina Stead: No, I was never a professional writer, and I am not now. This is quite true. It’s a thing I do, but I’m not a professional.
Rodney Wetherell: You have a long line of books which make you appear to be a professional writer.
Christina Stead: Yes, but it was… something you do, you know. I had never any idea of being a professional writer.
Rodney Wetherell: I’ve always wondered where you fitted writing into your life actually, because especially during the time when you were in Paris, obviously working very hard in the bank and so on, and yet you were…
Christina Stead: No, I was not working hard, no no, I was not working hard. I was attached to the bank because of my husband, and of course I knew two languages, I always knew French from high school, because I liked it very much, and all writers are linguists, because they know words in their language — other people know about three or four hundred and they get along with that okay.
But writers happen to take a great interest in the language at large. So they’re linguists. So when you come to another language like French or German or whatever it may be, this helps you and you get on, you see. So I always loved French and when I went to France, it was easy for me.
Rodney Wetherell: You had a great passion for Guy de Maupassant at school, I’ve read.
Christina Stead: At school, I think in the fourth year high school, Girls’ High School, Sydney, we did Guy de Maupassant And I thought that he was a very good writer. I liked him very much. But I read all the French books in the Public Library that I could lay my hands on. We used to get two library tickets per girl, and about five of my friends didn’t want any, so I had about ten library tickets, and I used them all.
Rodney Wetherell: What was it about you that propelled you so strongly into French culture?
Christina Stead: I like the language. I learnt it at high school. The year I entered high school, German had just been banned because of the war, and they were banning Beethoven and Brahms — you know what they were doing. You don’t know, but that’s what they were doing. And so otherwise I would have learnt German as well, because I have quite a feeling for German.
Rodney Wetherell: Have you ever written in French, by the way?
Christina Stead: I could, in the old days. I don’t say I could now. But what’s the point of writing in French when there’s Guy de Maupassant and all the other people writing in French. I certainly couldn’t equal them.
Rodney Wetherell: You’ve always been very attracted to the short story form, haven’t you?
Christina Stead: Partly.
Rodney Wetherell: One of your early books, The Salzburg Tales, has what, forty… ?
Christina Stead: Fifty, yes, but I’d written a novel before that. I went to Salzburg. My husband sent me, and I became enraptured with Mozart’s music. They had six weeks then, and when I came back, I had… my husband had submitted — I had never submitted any manuscript — submitted my first manuscript, Seven Poor Men of Sydney to Sylvia Beach, who was a well known character in Sydney — sorry, in Paris — and she had started the famous writer Hemingway on his way.
So my husband, unknown to me, took this manuscript to her and she said ‘Send it to an agent,’ you see. So he did, without telling me, and she sent it to this publisher Peter Davies. It happened that Peter Davies liked… he was a well known character. He was a godson, I think, of Sir James Barrie, and he was Peter Pan. Sir James Barrie met him in Kensington Gardens when he was a little boy, and he made him Peter Pan. And he was famous in London. And he’d had some good luck with some Australian authors, and he believed in Australians, although he was very much a London Englishman.
He read this manuscript, and he wrote to me in Paris: ‘I liked this, but I’d like you to do another book first.’ So I had just come back from Salzburg, and I sat down in the kitchen of our flat and I wrote The Salzburg Tales, right off from beginning to end, except one day I would do a story, next day I would fix it up a bit and do the connective tissue. Next day I would do a story, next day connective tissue, next day a story, etc. I did this from beginning to end right through, because I’d just come back from Salzburg and was inspired by Mozart, because he was the most marvellously connected and creative brain in the whole world, I think. Anyhow for me.
And so I sent it to him, Peter Davies, and he said ‘Well, we don’t like to begin with a book of short stories, so I said ‘too bad!’ So he did begin with a book of short stories, and it had a very good… succes d’estime, as they say.
Rodney Wetherell: Peter Davies must have even then recognized you as a very different sort of Australian writer. Presumably the writers you mentioned that he was keen on were in the Lawson tradition or the…
Christina Stead: No they weren’t. That’s a fixed idea people have that Lawson dominates Australia. Just as English people and Americans always base their… when they talk about you… one, they say ‘Well of course she was deeply affected by Dickens and D.H. Lawrence’ — of all things! — and because they can’t imagine that an author in Australia, above all places, down there, you know, near the South Pole, is affected by French authors and Russian authors and German authors and so forth. So you’ve got to be affected by D.H. Lawrence and Dickens.
Rodney Wetherell: But you’re probably one of the earliest writers to be in that European tradition — apart from Brennan, say.
Christina Stead: I don’t know anything about that. I must admit that when I came back in about 1974, I was very surprised to see how Australian writing had moved into the cities; but that was because I left long before, you see. I left in 1928 and I came back in 1974. There was a slight difference.
Rodney Wetherell: The novels you wrote in the thirties, which were then published, were among the earliest Australian novels about educated people, city people.
Christina Stead: But I lived in cities of course. Abroad I mean. Well, Sydney is a city too, of course. It’s very like Manhattan. When I went to New York first a local lad said to me ‘Well, aren’t you impressed?’ I said ‘It’s very like Sydney.’ And it really is. It has the same narrowing right down to the waterfront, you know. It’s very confined there where the big city, where the real city is, just like Sydney, and it has many waterways and all the back-country, Brooklyn and Queens and all those places like our south-eastern suburbs. Manhattan has not got the beautiful North Shore which we have.
Rodney Wetherell: I thought it was very interesting in your novel For Love Alone that the Sydney that Teresa Hawkins was escaping from, was not really the boring philistine place that it has very often been represented to be.
Christina Stead: My dear, she was not escaping from Sydney. I’ve always loved Sydney. I had no feeling of escaping, I didn’t want to escape. This mistaken idea has re- appeared again and again, and I just think ‘What can you do about it?’ I was not escaping, I liked Sydney. Sydney was fine.
And as for the suggestion that I found the culture narrow — that’s ridiculous. I was full of Australian culture. I wanted to go abroad. A lot of people see that as sin and a crime, but that is because we’re a big country. Russians, people from the U.S.A. and Australians think it’s a crime to leave their country. Now little countries don’t. If England thought it was a crime to leave the country, why everybody practically would be a criminal, you see.
Rodney Wetherell: Still, it is an unusual view of Australia. I mean, Patrick White for example, has often written of Australia as a very philistine and constricting kind of place. This is quite absent from your writing, this sense.
Christina Stead: Look, I love… Patrick’s a lovely boy, I like him and he’s a friend of mine, but I don’t see things the way he does. I’m very full of Australia. My mother died when I was very young, a baby, and my father used to talk me to sleep every night. He was a young scientist then, you see, and he loved Australia. And the things I heard as I went to sleep was all this about… the geography… underneath my bed — I didn’t have a proper bed because there was a little girl in the house, my cousin, who had the cot. My bed was made up on a packing case — I’ve heard this several times before, I know — in which there were Japanese spider crabs and every kind of animal. This is another aspect of the sea that I was brought up with — and the sea was in a sense my country, and I knew that.
While I was lying there and he was talking about Australia and the inland and the blacks and all the things, because he was a great lover of Australia. I had all these things underneath me, and then I suppose because I was talked to sleep — I wouldn’t be quite asleep — and things would be talking to me, probably because I was being talked to. And everything was having a conversation around me. The wardrobe, and the cupboard and the bed, the big double bed was there, in which he was alone by then of course, and the bit of mat — it wasn’t a carpet — they were having conversations with each other; and all the conversations about oppression, oddly enough, though he never talked about oppression. I don’t know how this came in at all.
Rodney Wetherell: Did they suggest stories to you?
Christina Stead: No, they were talking to one another. The drawers in the… what do you call it?
Rodney Wetherell: Chest-of-drawers.
Christina Stead: Chest-of-drawers, that’s right. They were saying: ‘I don’t like being pulled in and out like this, it hurts me,’ and the floor was saying: ‘And all these things are standing on me and I don’t like it, it’s too heavy,’ and that sort of thing. I was only a little tiny thing, you know. But this was sort of dramatic instinct, you know. Very curious, because nobody talked to me about oppression.
Rodney Wetherell: That must have been even more pronounced in human situations, observing people.
Christina Stead: I was too small. I didn’t see that. In fact I strongly disliked or strongly liked people. I didn’t ever think of oppression, I never thought of that, in those days. Well, I was very tiny, I was little. Before I went to school, we had moved to Bexley, to this big house in Bexley. My father had remarried, and I went to Bexley Public School.
Rodney Wetherell: That sounds a wonderful old house at Bexley.
Christina Stead: Yes, it’s interesting. They filled it with… they made a museum of it, and it’s nothing like it was when we lived there of course. People have made donations of china and old beds, fancy beds and all kinds of things. Rockdale Town Council owns it, I believe, and it’s being used for a museum. They show people through.
It’s nothing like it was, cause the whole half… It was built after the model of a European, of an English stone farm. It’s built entirely of sandstone, slightly chipped sandstone, and this looks very nice, so it can’t decay; and then there was an entire householding system, domestic system — a flagged walk leading to a large kitchen built of the same sandstone, and a cellar underneath which was never used, at least in our time. There was a brick yard, there was a large wash-house, a very large wash- house built of the same sandstone. There was a groom’s room and a maid’s room, which of course we used for other things, and a coach house and a stables, and down some stone steps a stone W.C., all in the same sandstone.
Now everything was cut off from the house, and all that stone was sold. So now you don’t know what it was like. And it had three and a half acres with paddocks and things.
Rodney Wetherell: Which are now built on, I suppose.
Christina Stead: Oh yes, indeed, but it still has the marvellous view. You could see between the heads of Botany Bay — Cape Banks, Cape Solander — and most days which were clear you could see straight through to the Blue Mountains, because the owner — that was the grandfather — had kept the place opposite the front gate open, so you could see straight through, over the valleys, the gullies and things, straight through to the Blue Mountains. And that view still exists, of course from the attic.
Rodney Wetherell: What about all your animals that you had? Where did you keep all those?
Christina Stead: Oh, in the brick yard outside the kitchen. It was quite a large place, and in one place we had little… what d’you call them?… and we had pigmy opossums, then we had two real opossums — possums they call them now, no ‘o’ — possums, one honey-colored, one black, and we had a cage of snakes, and I’m very fond of snakes, and you weren’t allowed to keep many things, you know.
We had a kookaburra, you’re not allowed to keep kookaburras but it had injured its wing, so we had it — and we had a seagull. You’re not allowed to keep seagulls, but we had an injured seagull, in the stables — we didn’t have any horses then. There was a large carriage drive leading to the stables from the front gate, which isn’t there now.
Rodney Wetherell: You must have learnt an immense amount about all that from your father.
Christina Stead: Oh yes, of course. And I… at my sister’s the other day I found the reading book we had in, I don’t know what you call it — third class, I think it was; and there’s an awful lot about nature and Papua New Guinea — it was called Papua then I think, and that sort of thing. There’s a lot of it in the reading books too, which was quite right, because we were perched all round the fringe of a continent, you know. It meant a lot to us.
Rodney Wetherell: I’ve seen him described as a Fabian socialist. How strong was that in your father?
Christina Stead: He didn’t know anything about Fabius or Fabianism. He was just an instinctive socialist who believed in state socialism, as it suited him. But he was not a theoretical man at all. He was not a Fabian. He knew nothing about Fabianism, I’m quite certain.
Rodney Wetherell: From Bexley, you moved to Watson’s Bay near Sydney Heads. That seems to have had quite an impact on you, judging from the books.
Christina Stead: Yes, it’s a wonderful place. The house was on South Head, right under the military encampment, and it’s a very slender spine of land there; and in big storms the spray from the Gap used to come right on the roof of our house. It’s so close to the ocean. And all the ocean liners, and other ships, mercantile ships and so on, came right in front of our house. The pilot ship was always there, anchored there, and they used to stay there for quarantine. We saw all the ships that came into the harbor, it was very thrilling. And this was another reason why going abroad seemed so natural, because these ships were always in and out, in and out.
Rodney Wetherell: There’s quite a memorable passage in For Love Alone, where Teresa and Jonathon are walking back to Watsons Bay, and there’s the cries of lovers in the night and so on…
Christina Stead: Yes, yes…
Rodney Wetherell: Did you experience that sound?
Christina Stead: Oh yes, that little park there, which is right at the end of the pier, lovers used to go there. It is a very narrow peninsula, or whatever it is, like a club, you know, little narrow part. The Gap is there where people used to ritually jump over and commit suicide, and I used to worry about them, because right underneath is a kerosene shale platform and they would probably hit the rocks, you see, instead of the sea; but higher up there is a place where they could jump into the sea, just below the lighthouse, jump straight into the sea. But we used to see sometimes… I saw a suicide in a rowboat just anchored off the pier one day. But apart from that, yes, lovers also used to make love in the park, under the Gap, right under the Gap.
Rodney Wetherell: The young Teresa is mystified, but not entirely mystified, she knows what’s going on, but is a bit puzzled by it.
Christina Stead: Well, she was a little reserved in that respect. She felt passion, but she didn’t know anything about these antics, you know. I mean, she knew about them but never experienced them. But she wasn’t uncivilised in this respect. You know what young girls are.
Rodney Wetherell: The family life described — the Hawkins family at Watsons Bay — has some happiness about it, but a great deal of unhappiness, too, tension between the family members. In fact there are a lot of unhappy families in your books.
Christina Stead: Are there?
Rodney Wetherell: Well, The Man Who Loved Children, for example.
Christina Stead: Ah well. But that’s quite a different thing. That’s the celebration of unhappy family life. But otherwise I can’t remember.
Rodney Wetherell: Does it have a connection with the life you lived at Watsons Bay?
Christina Stead: Of course, it’s exactly word for word. And plenty of words. Well, of course she didn’t try to poison her stepmother, but she thought about it, because of the fearful unhappiness.
Rodney Wetherell: How did the other people in the family react when the books came out?
Christina Stead: I don’t know, I was always in another country, luckily.
Rodney Wetherell: But they would have recognized themselves if they had read the books?
Christina Stead: Yes, I changed the children a bit — not quite the same number or sex, and so forth. I was very lucky in that whenever my books came out I was always in another country, so I’ve never concerned… and I think this was lovely and lucky and I was never concerned with the reception or anything like that. This is still true.
Rodney Wetherell: The relationship of the author character with the father in both the novels For Love Alone and The Man Who Loved Children is a very complex and hostile one, but she doesn’t seem to engage with them, in a way. Her weapon against them is a sort of invective always. She doesn’t…
Christina Stead: No, she leads a life of her own.
Rodney Wetherell: … and fends them off as far as possible?
Christina Stead: Doesn’t really bother about them in a sense. She’s self-integrated, she — whatever goes on, she doesn’t really care.
Rodney Wetherell: But they care about her. They try to possess her all the time.
Christina Stead: No, they don’t. She was very lucky in that she was a semborphan, a sort of orphan, and therefore didn’t have to be thoroughly involved, and was not thoroughly involved. And this was the saving grace. Donated by fate, I mean.
Rodney Wetherell: But also rather tragic, I’m sure.
Christina Stead: Not a bit tragic. It was very lucky. I’ve always thought it was very lucky. There’s no tragedy in this life, that you’re speaking about. It was all very very lucky the way it worked out. I mean that.
Rodney Wetherell: Does that mean redemption through suffering or something like that?
Christina Stead: It means nothing religious. It means a genuine material situation.
Rodney Wetherell: Out of enormous tension and conflict, nevertheless.
Christina Stead: There wasn’t much tension. And there wasn’t any conflict in an interior sense.
Rodney Wetherell: Within the family I mean, families as described in those books are…
Christina Stead: Oh, what about them?
Rodney Wetherell: Well, there are enormous tensions and conflicts.
Christina Stead: Yes of course there are, and I’ve no doubt it shows, but… but children live through a lot, most children live through a lot. And this is a true picture of family life. The idea that those are the happiest years of your life and all that, is as you know, pure nonsense. Most children live through, if not that, something like that or some other complication.
Most children live through great tragedies and they grow up and they’re just normal and ordinary and it’s good for them. It strengthens their character — and I mean that. I don’t mean they should be put into an orphan asylum and beaten and that’s good for them. I don’t mean that at all. But I mean ordinary human situations are good for you. You’ve got to live in society.
Rodney Wetherell: It couldn’t be good for people to live with a mother in the condition of Henny for example, in The Man Who Loved Children.
Christina Stead: No, not good for her, of course not.
Rodney Wetherell: Or for the children.
Christina Stead: No, I suppose not. I must tell you that Henny has now become a heroine in a narrow sense…
Rodney Wetherell: But she must have been an extraordinarily difficult woman to live with.
Christina Stead: No. She married the wrong man, that’s all. And that’s extraordinarily difficult.
Rodney Wetherell: But she took it out on the children a lot.
Christina Stead: Not really. I wouldn’t say that. In no way would I attack Henny, who in a sense won their sympathy by her quite obvious situation. Henny was trained to be the daughter of a rich man. Her father was a rich man, and she was trained in a not very common Australian way, to go to a young ladies school away from home, and she was intended to be what I said, so she didn’t. That was all.
Rodney Wetherell: Do you like the fact that Henny has been made a symbol by the women’s liberation movement?
Christina Stead: I don’t care.
Rodney Wetherell: You have been taken up by them quite a bit actually in recent years. Do you think they’re using your work in the right way?
Christina Stead: You know, I don’t really care. There’s a firm in Britain which is bringing out my books and they are… I think the managing editorial board is women. [The publishing firm is / was Virago Press. J.T., 2015, who republished Stead’s story collection The Puzzleheaded Girl.] They’re interested in women’s work, but I notice they’ve brought out a few classics by males too, recently, which pleases me, because I don’t believe in segregation of any kind, and I think men and women should unite to fight the battle. All the men I’ve known have been in favor of women’s success.
Rodney Wetherell: I can see why the women’s liberation movement might light on the book like For Love Alone, which is about a girl’s struggle to achieve independence and so on.
Christina Stead: I don’t see why. It’s a struggle to achieve union with a man, that’s what it is.
Rodney Wetherell: Very much as an equal though. She’s determined to escape from the rather trivial role she sees for women.
Christina Stead: No she isn’t. That has nothing to do with it. That’s not the intention of the book at all. And this thought never entered my head. I never felt inferior to men, and men never made me feel inferior. Men were always very good to me — brothers, lovers, husbands, whatever. I never had this feeling.
Rodney Wetherell: The character, though, has a certain disgust about the wedding that she attends, and she is very critical of all that.
Christina Stead: But many women are [like] this. It has nothing to do with women’s liberation. It’s simply that this was going to be old-fashioned by that time. That’s all. The old ritual — throwing the bouquet and all that sort of thing. And the girl’s longing to be married, and that’s a natural thing. It was only a kind of sensitive feeling about girls showing their poverty, that kind of sensual poverty, so much. That was all. It was nothing to do with women’s liberation except in the sense of taste and behavior and demeanor. But this is just the feeling of a proud and resolute girl, who is not going to be like that, but it’s nothing to do with women’s liberation.
I know what they’re after in women’s liberation. Many of their manifestations have nothing to do with the ordinary woman who needs to be liberated. The poor little struggling housewife who’s doing a job to help to keep the family going and, so forth — she doesn’t want these vociferous girls who are leading the movement. She wants some ordinary women to sit about and talk about her troubles with and think what they can do about it. These purely political types don’t appeal to women, and in fact by their hatred of men among all other things I think is a thing so hateful, even if some of these women are unhappy with their husbands, it does not represent human truth. And they know it, because they’ve been married and had their children, and the man has kept the house going to the best of his ability, and even if they don’t like him, they know this.
The worst thing about it is their hatred of men, but men and women are made to love each other. It’s only by loving each other that they can achieve anything. This separation of women from men is the most disgraceful thing and disorderly thing in the movement, and that’s why I’m against it. Not that women don’t need to be liberated from many unpleasant things and bonds, but the way they’re behaving and alienating themselves from men, who are our friends, our companions.
Rodney Wetherell: But the ordinary suburban woman you talk about might well feel greatly liberated, stimulated say, by reading some of your books, do you think? I mean, there are there pictured very independent minded, very unusual, stimulating…
Christina Stead: No. They do not read my books, number one. Number two, they have their own troubles. I asked a woman I knew quite well in the family, who was the ordinary suburban woman, and she said ‘Yes, we do like to talk, but we don’t want any lawyers, any members of Parliament, anybody like that, we just want to talk amongst ourselves.’ And they don’t care about those pugnacious types, who do not represent them or their issues or anything like that. Something else must be done. Now, a kind man could do more for them than an aggressive woman who’s nothing like them, you know.
Rodney Wetherell: But you do think that a great deal does need to be done on a political level?
Christina Stead: Yes. Yes of course.
Rodney Wetherell: But it could be equally well done by men as by women?
Christina Stead: Of course, You see, of course the women’s movement has had a big effect on men who never thought about it before. A great many men have thought about it. I can’t help noticing in newspapers that men editors and reviewers are a little hesitant now about expressing views about a woman’s book in case anybody will think they’re, you know what they call them.
Rodney Wetherell: Sexists?
Christina Stead: And something else too, but I’m not saying it. Of course a lot must be done. I’m only speaking of the manner in which it’s done, and the idea of isolating men — I’ve never known a man who didn’t want women to be liberated and have a better time out of life. I’ve known a lot of men too. In every way, I mean you know friends, publishers.
Rodney Wetherell: Could you talk about the life you had in Paris when you were working in the bank and I presume writing at night, after the…
Christina Stead: No. No, no. I had very little to do in the bank. I knew English and French, so I could translate if necessary, but a lot of them naturally didn’t know English and… but they gave me a room of my own in the bank. They were very friendly fellows. It wasn’t a traditional bank at all. The man who had started the bank had gone over with the La Fayette Division. He was an airman, and they had gone, I think that was in the First World War; and he was very interested in money, in all sorts of money. And he even made a living, when he was still in the La Fayette Division by selling American telephone books to Germans, because Germans and other mid-Continentals wanted to know the names of relatives or apparent relatives in New York, and then they would write to them and ask for money. So he began with little tricks like that.
Then he came, I think, to Paris and opened an exchange booth — it wasn’t a booth, it was some kind of shop or place where he gave very, very good rates to American travellers, and so with that he founded this very smart-looking fashionable bank. It had been Place Vendome, but it moved to the Rue de la Paix. And it was right in the centre of fashionable Paris, and had many fashionable people of all nations there. The reason I called it that — that’s the reason though — it refers to something quite other.
Rodney Wetherell: This is the world described in your very large book House of all Nations, of course.
Christina Stead: Yes.
Rodney Wetherell: Would you describe that as a documentary sort of novel, almost?
Christina Stead: It was badly received in Wall Street, because it was so true. (Laughs) And they said: ‘The author’, naming my name, ‘writes as if she had been concealed under the desk while they were talking.’ I wasn’t concealed under the desk, I was at the desk. Because people love to talk to novelists. By this time, I was a writer of course.
Rodney Wetherell: They revealed more than they otherwise would, because they knew you were a writer?
Christina Stead: Yes. They revealed everything. They had no shame or didn’t mind. They didn’t care.
Rodney Wetherell: They wanted their lives to be written down?
Christina Stead: Not exactly, but they were free-spoken people, and they were free-dealing and in general — well, wandering minstrels of finance, you know.
Rodney Wetherell: It’s very glittering world you portray in that book, very sophisticated, and corrupt, I suppose.
Christina Stead: Well, corrupt is the way you see it, you know. If you have very strange ideals about any kind… part of the world, you don’t know it. You’ve got to be in it to know it.
Rodney Wetherell: Would you say there was a definite political intention behind that book?
Christina Stead: None whatever.
Rodney Wetherell: Although it’s an attack on the existing system, I suppose.
Christina Stead: It’s not an attack on the system, it’s a picture of the system. If a picture is an attack — but it’s a picture without animosity; there’s a certain amount of amusement and love in a way, of the system. It’s not an attack at all. I’m not a polemic writer.
Rodney Wetherell: People I know who’ve read the book have been amazed that an Australian person should be able to… well, get into that world and understand it so well — the world of high European finance, and wheeling and dealing.
Christina Stead: In the first place they told everything. In the second place, I was brought up by a naturalist, and I am a naturalist. I see what I see, and if you see what you see, you understand it. That’s all.
Rodney Wetherell: You recorded it almost in a spirit of zoological, biological cataloguing?
Christina Stead: Yes, I’m not at all critical. When you’re a little girl and you look in an aquarium and you see fish doing this and that, and snails and so on, you don’t criticize and say they should do something else. And that’s the way in which I was brought up, and in which in fact I see people. What I mean is, you don’t criticize dingoes for being dingoes. You can’t say ‘Bad dog’, that sort of thing. They are, and they exist that way, and that is the only way to see things truly, in my opinion.
Rodney Wetherell: But you weren’t inspecting that world from the outside. You were right in the middle of it, weren’t you?
Christina Stead: I wasn’t in the goldfish bowl, no.
Rodney Wetherell: But you were working in the bank, you were operating…
Christina Stead: I was working in all those things, and I… Out of the spirit of fun, and because I delight in the things I see, I wrote what I saw, that’s all. We were not then in the bank. We had gone to Spain. Oh, I forgot to say we lived in Spain, yes. Also on account of Bill’s partner — Bill was my husband — the man in the grain business who was a great merchant, and an honest merchant too, but a really great merchant. He had made his own money, started off as a poor boy, and made it in the grain business because he was exceptionally good at it, and the news was that everybody was fleeing Spain, all rich people, and that there were many estates to be had, and all that sort of thing.
Some people may have known that a civil war was coming but he did not and we did not; and he wanted to import perfumes from North Africa where they have many sorts of perfumes which would go in Spain, and he wanted to nose the situation out and so he sent us — Bill first, and of course I went too, and we liked it. We were in Ronda — I can’t say the Spanish ‘r’, but it’s a sort of Gibraltar in a great deep valley, it stands just like Gibraltar on land. It’s a lovely place. The first bullfights in Spain were in the arena at Ronda.
It’s a famous old place and a lovely place to live in, but we saw some very strange things. Some days we would see a whole army of men, working class men, not an army, a crowd, marching down the street, going up to the fields to discuss things; and another day I saw a man walking round one of these deserted palaces round the walls and round the roof, and it reminded me of something that Andre Malraux the French writer had written about in La Condition Humaine — The Human Condition — where before the Revolution in China men used to walk round the yards of great palaces and so forth and inspect them, as hide-outs and places for guerilla tactics and that sort of thing.
And Bill became very ill, because they eat lots and lots of proteins in the south, and it’s a quite hot climate. So we went north to the French border, but in Spain to… oh, famous… San Sebastian, yes, San Sebastian, that’s a huge bay, and a little place just near there,the name escapes me for the moment. [The place was Hendaye — Hendaya in Spanish, Hendaia in Basque — a city on the French side of the border with Spain. J.T., 2015.] It’s just across, there’s a tiny little river separates Spain at that point from France. That wasn’t the reason we went there. We went to San Sebastian because it was the north and Bill was feeling sick with the heat and the proteins. He couldn’t take so many. So, we heard the bombardment of San Sebastian and…
Rodney Wetherell: By the Franco forces?
Christina Stead: Yes, And there were refugees by that time, in the hotel. A Danish girl from the Danish Embassy in Madrid, who was very terrified and had a little shotgun, a little revolver by her, and a very cowardly priest who was there with a rich Spanish family. Rich families had their own priests. He was in the hotel. A lot of funny things, but it was tragic too. Then the fishermen couldn’t go out any more, and finally — we were of course eating the food, and food had become difficult to get hold of. We felt ashamed and we went to the ayuntamiento, the majoralty place, and we offered to leave. But they were very proud. They were a lot of very proud young men on the revolutionary side and they said ‘Certainly not. We are the Government’’, and all that sort of thing.
So we stayed a bit, but still it got to be a bit obvious that we were eating the food they needed, so we went to them and we told them we would leave. So they gave us a boat — you couldn’t go across the bridge, because the bridge was guarded.
Rodney Wetherell: You were definitely in some danger, I suppose.
Christina Stead: Oh, not really. We didn’t feel bad. It wasn’t a cowardice at all. We were for that group of people, but we felt ashamed of eating the food when it was clearly getting less and less, you see. So they gave us a row boat and we got across the Bidassoa [Now Rio Bidasoa]. That’s the name of the little creek, tiny river and we got into France, where they treated us as refugees and they put us in a dark room, in a secret place in the hotel and shut all the shutters, and gendarmes were out in the garden and that sort of thing, not against us of course, but because they thought it was safer for refugees from Spain. (Laughs) We had no reason to be in France so we went back to Belgium again, and stayed there. Belgium recurs in this story, but only because of the grain trade.
Rodney Wetherell: Did that situation, the Spanish Civil War, did that awaken the polemic instinct in you, or…?
Christina Stead: I have no polemic instinct. I don’t like fights or arguments or anything and never go in for them.
Rodney Wetherell: But you felt you were definitely taking sides in the war.
Christina Stead: Well, I was naturally on the side of the…
Rodney Wetherell: Republicans.
Christina Stead: Republicans. But I’ve always been naturally on the side of… you know, democrats. That’s not polemic. That’s just nature. My father was a socialist. I mentioned before, a state socialist.
Rodney Wetherell: And your husband too, of course.
Christina Stead: Of course. He was a Marxian.
Rodney Wetherell: Critical articles and works on your books have often seen Marxist influences and points all through them.
Christina Stead: I don’t doubt that they exist because I adopted or felt my husband’s point of view. All our friends were Marxians in New York, almost all, I wouldn’t say all. But I’m not political in the sense of… not the go-to- meeting type. I think this may be simply that I don’t like argument, dispute and dissertation and all that. I think that’s all. It’s not that I object to people taking sides.
Rodney Wetherell: Sam Pollit in The Man Who Loved Children is of course a kind of socialist, and yet you give a fairly devestating picture of him personally as well as perhaps politically. He represents, I suppose ‘New Deal’ socialism, or…
Christina Stead: He represents himself and nothing else. As he really did in life.
Rodney Wetherell: He is a great admirer of Roosevelt for example.
Christina Stead: Yes, Teddy Roosevelt though, it was. Because he was a conservationist, I think.
Rodney Wetherell: Were you there at the time when the Marxian world of America, New York, was under such attack from the McCarthyites and so on?
Christina Stead: It was, just before he left, but it was under attack before McCarthy. I forget the fellow who came before. Oh, it was under attack for years and years, but society in New York with your friends of more or less the same beliefs — I’m talking about literary people of a nice kind, not the V.I.P. boring kind, just ordinary people — are very nice warm people, lovely to live with them. It wasn’t a political society in that sense, our society of friends, although a lot had strong political beliefs, yes.
Rodney Wetherell: A great number of writers, perhaps the majority at that time had definitely socialist leanings.
Christina Stead: Oh yes, of course. There was a thing called League of American Writers, I think. I belonged to that. They asked me to join. I joined. That was all.
Rodney Wetherell: Could we talk about the process of making a novel? How does the novel begin to grow, with you?
Christina Stead: I get an idea, and it grows for some time. This is happening now, in fact, and I don’t rush about it. I’m never in a hurry to do something. I don’t have a plot, but when a fairly entire scheme is in my head, then I write it all down on one page, then in a little while — I never worry about tempo — I write the introduction, if I feel like it, and that’s generally the introduction, the beginning, I mean — there is no introduction.
Once or twice I was stuck in the early years and I wrote the introduction in French, because this kind takes you out of yourself and then you can go back all free and start it again. Then I write characters, because really I’m a character writer. I’m interested, not in plot but what they do with their lives and what their lives do with them. I never twist a character to suit an end, because they come to their ends.
Rodney Wetherell: You have quite complex plots, in several of your novels at any rate, but one does feel that if you come to a situation which particularly interests you, you rest with that situation.
Christina Stead: These plots are real plots that occur in life. The plots in people’s lives, how they are manipulated by society or surrounding circumstances or other people. But I don’t invent it. I see what’s going on. That’s all.
Rodney Wetherell: But you have an extraordinarily fertile imagination in inventing short plots, short stories as in the Salzburg Tales and The House of all Nations. There are a thousand plots there, and yet with the novels one feels that the plots are rather secondary to the characters.
Christina Stead: Novels are descriptions of entire situations, of course. It’s the situation that’s there, and the people in the situation. No plot in the formal sense. The short stories are quite a different thing. That’s just something that comes to you, you know.
I have a story about the carpet weavers, and I told this to a girl who wrote to me from Armidale — she was very pleased — about how to write. I don’t usually give advice to people how to write, because you can’t tell anybody how to write. But I once saw a picture somewhere, on TV I think, of the carpet weavers in I think North Africa, and they used to have people to come and tell them stories, natural story tellers, and they paid them with a cup of coffee if they had it or whatever they had, some little thing like that, and that is the origin of the short story, and that’s how I feel the short story, and when I want to write short stories, I say to myself ‘The carpet weavers are calling’ and that’s it. And then these stories come out by themselves, if you think that way.
But also not only did my father tell me stories, talk me to sleep every night with stories, when I was very very small — I’m talking about two or three years old — but when my brothers and sisters were small, as I was considerably the eldest, by five years, I used to sing them to sleep and rock them to sleep; and when they were very little and later on I used to tell them stories, talk them to sleep, just as my father had done, except I told different stories. They were mostly out of Grimm and Hans Andersen. I was always very fond of those two and still am, and later on I made up some of my own, and that’s how it all started.
Rodney Wetherell: How do you know when you’ve got a complete story?
Christina Stead: I know it’s there, that’s all.
Rodney Wetherell: There is a sense in your writing of it coming rather easily in a great flow.
Christina Stead: Yes. That’s so. Yes. I never struggle. I never have any of this furrowed brow stuff that they always depict writers as having, and as for this business about starting and tearing up a sheet and throwing it in the waste paper basket! Writers never do that. They don’t waste paper that way.
Rodney Wetherell: Well, I think some do. But do you also write rather quickly? For instance how long would you have spent on a very long book, like House of All Nations?
Christina Stead: Wrote that in six weeks in Ronda, Spain. The climate suited me. It was dry, then we had a thunderstorm at four o’clock regularly every afternoon, otherwise it was completely regular weather, and it was chiefly that the climate suited me, I think. It was dry and sunny and I liked Spain. I like all countries to tell you the truth, but I really like Spain. I wrote it in six weeks straight off.
Rodney Wetherell: That’s seven or eight hundred pages in six weeks. It must have been an extraordinary experience just living through that.
Christina Stead: No no. I’m a fast writer when I get going.
Rodney Wetherell: Do you bother with routines, or do you just write as it comes?
Christina Stead: No. I have no routines. I write as it comes. When I got to London, where we eventually went from Antwerp, because I told you, there was an American editor from a publishing house which knew me very well, and I showed him the manuscript of House of all Nations and he said: ‘Well, we want you to fix it up and write it and re-write it’, and I said ‘Nothing doing,’ because I never re-write. So it was published like that. But not by that publishing house.
Rodney Wetherell: There’s a great deal of very dramatically written dialogue in your books, particularly in something like House of All Nations. Have you had it in mind to write a play or a film script or anything like that?
Christina Stead: Never. I’m very bad at plays. I haven’t the slightest idea how to begin. It’s a different type of mind, you know. When you write a play you must have a very strong feeling about the three-sided room as the stage is called, and the exits and entrances and all that. I have no such feeling.
Rodney Wetherell: Could we talk about influences? What were the main literary influences on you in the early days?
Christina Stead: Shakespeare. I hate to say that, because people think it’s ridiculous, but it’s quite true.
Rodney Wetherell: And a number of French writers, I’m sure.
Christina Stead: Oh well, later on, yes. But in the early days some relatives were rather friendly to me, one gave me Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, and I read it and I thought ‘Shakespeare cannot be famous for this stuff’. So I looked in the volume of Shakespeare, which I mentioned before, and I saw that he had different stuff.
Rodney Wetherell: The real thing was much better…
Christina Stead: Yes, and from then on — no, not then, but when I was at high school I used to read Shakespeare through from beginning to end every… once a year. That was a routine. And that was really… And then I was very fond of some of the early playwrights, like Webster, especially Webster, and he was a great, great playwright. He really is.
Rodney Wetherell: What about the classic nineteenth century novelists? The Balzacs and the George Eliots?
Christina Stead: Oh, Balzac yes, I fell overboard for Balzac, when I was… as I said I learnt French quite easily, and I had these ten tickets from four other girls, maybe it was twelve tickets — a lot of tickets, and I read all the French books in the Municipal Library in Sydney, and Balzac was one of my main discoveries. I loved him. Yes, and I still do. I think he’s great.
Rodney Wetherell: But not D.H. Lawrence, I take it.
Christina Stead: I didn’t read D.H. Lawrence until much later in life, when I was in England, I think. I don’t know why, there is always so much to read you know. You don’t read everything, you know.
Rodney Wetherell: There’s something Lawrentian about Jonathan Crow, isn’t there, in For Love Alone?
Christina Stead: Jonathan Crow is Jonathan Crow, and not Lawrence in any manner, shape or form. He’s a genuine person. I got the name, I regret to say — it’s really horrible, of a funeral directors, I won’t say in what city. (Laughs.)
Rodney Wetherell: What about Australian writers? Were there any who had a significant influence on you?
Christina Stead: Well, in my father’s library they had Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and I think I still know a lot of Banjo’s work and…
Rodney Wetherell: Henry Handel Richardson for example.
Christina Stead: Nooo… that was far too literary for my father. And I didn’t read her till I came back to Australia, or a long time after. I’d never read her until, oh, I was more than adult. No. On our Selection that was in my. father’s library.
Rodney Wetherell: Did you regret not having read Henry Handel Richardson earlier?
Christina Stead: No, not at all.
Rodney Wetherell: What about the various scientific books that must have been around your house?
Christina Stead: Yes, there were no novels. For some reason my father didn’t approve of them. So when I was about fourteen or fifteen he had a great friend whose name I forget, but he called him ‘Old Charlie.’ He was a sort of mentor of his, and old Charlie told him, that since I was interested in literature to give me a copy of the works of Shelley, and in fact he did. This had a tremendous effect on me, because I always adored Shelley. When I was adolescent, I was madly in love with two or three men, Shelley was one of them. And I think, ah well never mind. They were all of that type, you see. But that was later on. But early on, I read Charles Darwin because Dad was a great Darwinian, and I enjoyed it immensely, the Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle, and he also had a thing which I read later when I was about fourteen, called… they were Schliemann’s Excavations of Troy. I thought that was fascinating. Well that’s all. There were other books. There was one on… what they call it? Some disease you get from sexual indulgence. I enjoyed that. It was about…
Rodney Wetherell: Venereal…
Christina Stead: Venereal disease, yes yes. I forget the name of the thing. And this book was all about it. I suppose my father as a young man had got it, because he was very cautious; and it had some poems in [it] written by mad people, and some stories about nuns in a convent, dreaming or imagining that the Devil jumped over the wall and that sort of thing. I thought it was fascinating. It just appealed to my sense of drama and personality and psychology naturally.
But I didn’t go in for scientific reading. That was just… But Darwin is extremely easy to read, he’s a clear talker.
Rodney Wetherell: I’d like to ask you about your husband and the life you had together. It must have been a marvellous intellectual companionship.
Christina Stead: It wasn’t..… ‘intellectual’ gives the wrong idea. Of course we had more or less… liked to look at the world in the same way, but that wasn’t it. We were fond of each other, simply and…
Rodney Wetherell: But you shared a great number of intellectual interests, I suppose.
Christina Stead: No, that’s the wrong way to put it. Because it gives an idea of two people sitting around talking highbrow stuff, and that wasn’t it at all. He was a very amusing, witty man, and in fact I had all the luck in the world that I met him. I really did. Because when I was working for him, he went to see this man that I went to London to see, to find out what kind of a man he was, and he came back with very negative opinions, but in the meantime this man had said, that I thought I was a writer, or words to that effect. I don’t know the exact words. I wasn’t there, of course.
And so he asked what I had written and I showed him my first manuscript which was Seven Poor Men of Sydney, which I had written not at all with the idea of publication, but because when I first went to London I was very weak from years of privation. My own fault, I was saving up and I madly started that same thing again in London. I had to save to go to the Sorbonne, because I was fond of French. It was a mad idea, but I used to walk from Euston, where I was living, down to the city, the centre of the city where I was working until I got too feeble for it, but in the meantime I bought a small typewriter, and — one or two other things, I forget now, but… and I didn’t realise the connection between my walking and this continued privation and my feelings, and I thought I was going to die, and I thought ‘Well, I’ll leave something behind me’, but I did not intend it for publication. This was a purely instinctive thing, so I wrote Seven Poor Men of Sydney, and that was the manuscript I showed him. He took it away one weekend. We weren’t friendly — well we were friendly, but we weren’t close. And he brought it back and he looked at me, he had beautiful brown eyes, he was a brunette, and he looked at me with absolute astonishment when he sat at the desk opposite me, he called me in from my little typist den and he said: ‘It has mountain peaks.’ That’s the beginning. That’s all. But I owed it all to Bill, you know.
Rodney Wetherell: Was he already a writer then himself?
Christina Stead: No. He’d been a Wall Street writer on a financial newspaper.
Rodney Wetherell: And he kept on writing of course, in later years when you were living in Switzerland.
Christina Stead: In later years he wrote. We were living in Antwerp when he wrote his first book The World is Mine, and this was quite successful too, very successful. He wrote very fluently. We were both very fluent writers.
Rodney Wetherell: What about coming back to Australia after all those years away? You were back in 1969 fairly briefly, and then in 1974 or so you came back to stay.
Christina Stead: I think it was 1974, yes. Well, you know, all big cities these days are the same. Sydney was like New York, more or less. Of course less, but still, like Chicago, San Francisco, Melbourne — not Melbourne exactly, but still in a way, with the high rises and that sort of thing. Sydney is remarkably like New York in situation and all that, and the only change that I disliked was the hills round Sydney Harbor used to be green, you know, the lower hills, and by this time the rash of red roofs had covered the green hills. That was about… otherwise I didn’t notice any great change. Oh, except a ridiculous infection which I expect will go away soon, which I read in papers about the cultural cringe — I had no idea what it was. It’s an abject and contemptible expression and…
Rodney Wetherell: You don’t think it’s a reality?
Christina Stead: Of course it isn’t. It’s invented by somebody, because when I was here before, we… there was culture everywhere, France, Britain, and we had British culture. We had nothing to worry about. I mean, I never even thought it was a worry, there was no worry. Everybody had culture, and the Australian background was very present to me because of what I said about Banjo. I still love Banjo Paterson and so on, and my father was very well acquainted with the countryside, because he was Fisheries Inspector to begin with, and he knew the whole country because he had to inspect all the dams and rivers and hatcheries and that sort of thing, and sometimes I went with him. So, the country was very present to me.
Rodney Wetherell: It’s become almost a cliche that in the sixties and seventies Australia underwent some sort of cultural explosion, became more aware of the rest of the world, we… there was a lot more writing going on, more film making and so on, but you didn’t feel there was any significant difference?
Christina Stead: Look, before I left, there was a young man in Watson’s Bay who was the son of the Greek fruitseller on the pier, and he was engaged in one of the first films. So it wasn’t exactly new; and as for writing, Australians have always done a lot of writing and reading and theatre and so forth. I don’t know. A lot of talk goes on which is really puffed up and blown about and people like to chat, it’s really jargon. It comes and goes. You’ve got to wait for it to go, that’s all. There’s nothing to it.
Rodney Wetherell: And what are you planning to write in the future?
Christina Stead: I don’t plan, it comes to me. I mean, an idea forms. I’ve been very slow about it, because I haven’t been as strong as I was when I was fifteen for example, but and also, ah… the loss of my life companion has made a slight difference of course. I’m hoping to write something, but I’m not going to say any more about it, because I never talk about it.
Rodney Wetherell: What’s your favorite among the books you’ve written so far?
Christina Stead: I have no favorite. My favorite is the next one. That’s all.