Christina Ellen Stead (1902-1983), the daughter of the leading Australian naturalist David Stead, was born in Sydney. She was educated at Bexley Public School, Sydney Girls’ High School and Sydney Teachers’ College. She worked as a teacher and then as an office worker before going overseas in 1928. In London, where she lived in straitened circumstances, she wrote her first novel Seven poor men of Sydney. She also met William Blech (Blake), an American writer, banker, economist and Marxist. They settled in Paris in 1929, where Stead worked as a translator and as secretary in a bank. In 1937 Stead and Blake moved to the United States. They were active members of the Communist Party. They mostly lived in New York, but also in Santa Fe and Hollywood, where Stead worked as a scriptwriter. In 1947 they returned to Europe and led an itinerant life in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. They were married in 1952, after Blake was finally granted a divorce by his first wife. In 1953 they settled in England, first in London and then in a cottage on the Foxwarren Estate in Surrey. William Blake died in 1968.
In 1969 Stead visited Australia for the first time in forty years and took up a fellowship at the Australian National University. On her return to England she lived in Surbiton in Surrey. In 1974 she returned to Australia permanently and in the same year was the first recipient of the Patrick White Award. Her last years were mostly spent in Sydney, but she also lived in Canberra and Melbourne.
Among the novels written by Stead were:
The Salzburg tales (1934)
Seven poor men of Sydney (1934)
House of all nations (1938)
The man who loved children (1940)
For love alone (1944)
A little tea, a little chat (1948)
Cotters’ England (1966)
The puzzle-headed girl (1967) - four novellas
Ocean of story (1985) - a volume of short stories that appeared posthumously
Christina Stead has never been a popular writer, but she is often linked with Patrick White as one of the outstanding writers in English in the mid-twentieth century. Susan Lever wrote that in their novels both Stead and White ‘move beyond the representational faith of realism, or the seeking of individual difference of modernism, to present a great sweep of disbelief and despair’.
Christina Stead donated her 1959-60 diary to the National Library in 1975. She bequeathed her manuscripts and papers to the Library and they were received from her literary executors, Ron Geering and later Margaret Harris, in a number of instalments between 1984 and 1999. Geering also assisted the Library to obtain letters and other papers from friends of Stead in Britain and the United States. Edith Anderson bequeathed to the Library a long series of letters from Stead and they were received in 2000. The correspondence of Harry Bloom with William Blake and Christina Stead was acquired in 2007. A notebook and letter of Stead were purchased in 2007 from Gilbert Stead, the nephew of Christina Stead.
The papers and tape recordings that Christine Williams assembled while working on her life of Stead were purchased in 1990. The papers of Hazel Rowley relating to her biography of Stead were purchased in 1996.
Manuscripts and personal papers
(i) Papers of Christina Stead
The papers of Christina Stead include manuscripts, typescripts, notes and jottings, correspondence, diaries, personal documents, financial papers, newspaper cuttings, photographs and publications. There are no surviving manuscripts of her early novels, but the collection contains notes and fragments of drafts of For love alone, The man who loved children, House of all nations and The beauties and furies. There are more substantial typescripts of Cotters’ England, The little hotel, Miss Herbert and I’m dying laughing. There are a large number of unfinished writings, stories and fragments. A manuscript of William Blake entitled ‘Imperialism – the last phase’ (1948) is also held.
The diaries date from 1929-40, 1950-51 and 1959-60 and there are also appointment diaries kept in Stead’s later years. The most extensive correspondence is with her husband William Blake (1929-68), her brother David Stead (1929-83), and her American and English friends Ettore and Jessie Rella (1944-82), Harry Bloom (1949-74), Philip and Leah Harvey (1958-83), Norman Rosten (1967-82) and Stanley Burnshaw (photocopies, 1937-82). There are also letters from many Australian writers, mostly dating from the last ten years of her life.
(ii) Letters of Stead
The Library holds a large number of collections containing letters of Stead. They include letters to family members, school friends, personal friends, literary agents and publishers in Britain and the United States, in a few cases dating back to her departure from Australia in 1928. The letters to Australian writers and other Australian friends and acquaintances mostly date from 1969-83.
MS 802 Papers of H.C. Coombs, public servant
MS 4536 Papers of Judah Waten, novelist
MS 4713 Papers of Dal Stivens, novelist and short story writer
MS 4955 Papers of Rosemary Dobson, poet
MS 5678 Papers of Dorothy Green, literary historian and critic
MS 5836 Papers of A.D. Hope, poet and critic
MS 6885 Papers of David Martin, novelist and poet
MS 7017 Papers of Brian Kiernan, literary historian and critic
MS 7168 Papers of Jack Lindsay, novelist, poet, critic and historian
MS 7228 Letters of Stead to Ettore Rella, American dramatist and poet (photocopies)
MS 7426 Papers of A.T. Bolton, publisher and photographer
MS 7436 Letters of Stead to Kathleen Grieves, a school friend
MS 7550 Papers of Manning Clark, historian
MS 7570 Papers of W.H. Pearson, historian
MS 7666 Letters of Stead to Nellie Molyneux, a school friend
MS 7840 Letters of Stead to Donald Cameron, publisher
MS 8162 Papers of R.F. Brissenden, poet, novelist and critic
MS 8237 Papers of Elizabeth Harrower, novelist
MS 8317 Letters of Stead to her step-mother Thistle Stead
MS 8439 Papers of the publisher Oliver Stallybrass and Gunvor Stallybrass, including manuscripts of Stead
MS 8477 Letters of Stead to her niece Margaret Hanks
MS 8548 Correspondence of Stead with Laurence Pollinger Ltd, literary agents
MS 8617 Papers of Gwen Walker-Smith, cousin of Stead
MS 9351 Papers of Ron Geering, literary executor of Stead
MS 9405 Letters of Stead to Edith Anderson, American-born writer
MS 9873 Papers of Dymphna Clark, historian
MS 10034 Correspondence of Stead with a friend, Harry Bloom
MS 10080 Letters from Stead to Michael Wilding, author and publisher
MS 10231 Letters from Stead to Jim Hamilton
Acc. 08/157 Letters from Stead to her brother Gilbert Stead
Acc. 08/192 Letters from Christina Stead to Rosemary Hibbert
Acc. 09/151 Letters of Stead to Gilbert Stead and his wife Betty Stead
Acc. 10/038 Letters from Stead to her agents Cyrilly Abels and Joan Davies
Acc. 10/086 Letters from Stead to Pauline Nestor
(iii) Papers of biographers
The Library holds the papers of Christine Williams (MS 8065), the author of Christina Stead: a life of letters (1989). They include a typescript, galley proofs and lists of sources and captions, photographs, and correspondence with the publishers McPhee Gribble and Virago. In addition, there is an extensive correspondence with friends and acquaintances of Stead (1986-89) and correspondence with archives and security organisations in the United States.
The Library also holds the papers of Hazel Rowley (MS 9244), accumulated when she was writing Christina Stead: a biography (1993). They also include typescripts of the book and correspondence with friends of Stead (1986-93). In addition, the collection contains transcripts of interviews, copies of reviews and obituaries, and copies of a large number of letters of Stead held in libraries, archives and private ownership in Britain, America and Australia (1933-83).
The Library holds an oral history interview with Christina Stead recorded by Hazel de Berg in September 1969.
In addition, there are 26 cassettes of interviews recorded in England, France and Australia by Christine Williams when she was writing Christina Stead: a life of letters. The interviewees include Sir Hermann Black, Manning Clark, Rosemary Dobson, Ralph Elliott, Margaret Fink, Ruth Hall, Elizabeth Harrower, Leah and Philip Harvey, Stephen Murray-Smith, Elizabeth Riddell, David Stead and Thistle Stead.
Publications and Theses
(i) Correspondence of Christina Stead
Dearest Munx: the letters of Christina Stead and William J. Blake, edited by Margaret Harris, 2005
Stead, Christina, Talking into the typewriter: selected letters, 1973-1983, edited by R.G. Geering, 1992
Stead, Christina, A web of friendship: selected letters, 1928-1973, edited by R.G. Geering, 1992
(ii) Biographical and critical studies
Ackland, Michael, Christina Stead and the socialist heritage, 2016
Adie, Mathilda, Female quest in Christina Stead’s For love alone, 2002
Allen, Diana Lynn, Lives of obscure women: polyphonic structures and the presentation of women in the fiction of Christina Stead, PhD thesis, Murdoch University, 1989 [MS 8024]
Blake, Ann, Christina Stead’s politics of place, 1999
Brown, Denise, Wakers and sleepers: the dynamics of Christina Stead’s ‘drama of the person’, PhD thesis, University of Tasmania, 1990 [mc G 6596]
Brydon, Diana, Christina Stead, 1987
Forsyth, Ludmilla, Fantasy and dream in Stead’s fiction: an examination of Christina Stead’s Seven poor men of Sydney, The beauty and furies, and House of all nations, PhD thesis, La Trobe University, 1984 [mc G 6618]
Gardiner, Judith Kegan, Rhys, Stead, Lessing, and the politics of empathy, 1989
Geering, R.G., Christina Stead, 1969 [Rev. ed. 1979]
Gribble, Jennifer, Christina Stead, 1994
Harris, Margaret, ed., The magic phase; critical essays on Christina Stead, 2000
Holmes, Bruce, Moral dialectic in the fiction of Christina Stead, PhD thesis, University of Newcastle, 1984 [MSD 106]
Lidoff, Joan, Christina Stead, 1982
Pender, Anne, Christina Stead: satirist, 2002
Petersen, Teresa, The enigmatic Christina Stead: a provocative re-reading, 2001
Rowley, Hazel, Christina Stead: a biography, 1993
Segerberg, Anita Kristina, Christina Stead: the American years, PhD thesis, University of Auckland, 1990 [mc 252 91 20208]
Sheridan, Susan, Christina Stead, 1988
Stern, Kate Macomber, Christina Stead’s heroine: the changing sense of decorum, 1989
Wilding, Michael, The radical tradition: Lawson, Furphy, Stead, 1993
Williams, Chris, Christina Stead: a life of letters, 1989
Yelin, Louise, From the margins of empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, 1998
The papers of Christina Stead are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 4967 (18 boxes) and MS 8645 (4 boxes). In addition, the correspondence and other papers formerly in the possession of David Stead are held at MS 9581 (5 folders and one folio). A 10 page listing of the papers held at MS 4967 is available on-line at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-324873320/findingaid.
The papers of Christine Williams (MS 8065) and Hazel Rowley (MS 9244) are also held in the Manuscripts Collection. The Williams Collection, which is restricted, occupies six boxes and there is a nine page finding-aid at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-300815084/findingaid. The Rowley Collection occupies ten boxes and there is an eight page finding aid at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-370478988/findingaid.
The oral history interview with Stead recorded by Hazel de Berg is held in the Oral History Collection at TRC 1/398. There is a 14 page transcript. The 26 interviews recorded by Christine Williams, which are restricted, are held at TRC 2625. At present only four of them have been catalogued.
The extensive correspondence of Stead with Stanley Burnshaw, the American poet, critic and editor of the journal New Masses, is held in the Harry Ransom Research Center in the University of Texas at Austin.
Holt, Stephen, A Steadfast Revenge: Dr Duncan and Mr Crow, National Library of Australia News, vol. 13 (11), Aug. 2003, pp. 7-10
Pender, Anne, In search of Christina Stead, National Library of Australia News, vol. 11 (6), March 2001, pp. 11-13
Powell, Graeme, ‘National News’ [the Stead Papers], Australian Book Review, no. 242, June/July 2002, p. 48
‘Stead, Christina’ in Oxford companion to Australian literature, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 714-15
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)