- "Ugly by Design":The Fiction of Christina Stead1
She Came Into the Literary World in style. When she left it, she left—in addition to her thirteen published, books—a quantity of uncollated, unrevised, and unpublished papers (often spoken of as "a trunkful" in the years following her definitive return to Australia in 1974). In addition, she left a problem for criticism. As the author's literary executor, R. G. Geering is custodian of the first; as editor of her previously uncollected short fiction in Ocean of Story, he has inherited the second.
In the mid-'30s (her own and the century's) Christina Stead published four books, highly mannered, expressionistic, "writerly," modernist and European in their address. The first to appear (although not to be written) was a collection of stories; the others were novels put together (rather than structured) in narrative blocks and "sequences of scenes." To the [End Page 185] following decade belongs a foursome of "American novels" closer to the realist band of the representational spectrum; to the 1940s also belongs For Love Alone, a novel in Stead's "first manner." Then came a curious hiatus after 1952. When she made a comeback to the novel in 1966, she had "started writing ugly" (Carter, Interview).
Some of the thirty-six pieces in Ocean of Story fall in the gap. Not all are fictional. Nearly half were still unpublished at the time of the writer's death in Sydney in March 1983; at the hands of the same editor, R. G. Geering, they appeared during 1984 in the Australian literary quarterly Southerly (1-3, 1984), which featured stories by Stead at a time (the 1950s and early 1960s) when there was some difficulty in thinking of her as an Australian writer and well before she had a book published in Australia in 1965. Two more items have their absolute first publication in this collection; one of them, "A Harmless Affair," a story of love (rather than a love story), is easily among the best in it. The places of first appearance of the remainder include the Australian literary magazines Overland and Meanjin, The New Yorker, Commentary, Vogue (U.S.), and Partisan Review.
Geering wrote the first book-length study of Christina Stead's work up to the mid-1960s (recently succeeded, although not entirely supplanted, by Joan Lidoff's Christina Stead, which is naturally able to give attention to Stead's later published work). His brief Afterword suggests, without going into details, that the Stead papers are somewhat chaotic, and many of the dates put to the unpublished material (spanning her entire career) are admittedly conjectural. He remarks on her habit of returning, with no forethought for the future scholar, to unfinished things at widely spaced intervals (not for her the protocols by which a Calvino would note the dates on which he returned to a manuscript, finally signing off from the last draft with even the time of day).2 As if asking the reader's indulgence, Geering observes by way of conclusion that some stories and fragments he has collected are "obviously lacking the final polish" (549).
"Obviously"? He doesn't say how he got around the single most important question for criticism in relation to Stead. How do you tell finished from unfinished work in writing marked by fractures, gaps, detritus, and inconsistencies, where the hallmark of style is refusal to apply "the final polish," and even the apparently willful excoriation of a surface that risks finishing up polished? Where is this true even before the writing turned "ugly," showing up in the early books as the stylistic indecorum of jamming words from disparate lexicons together? If the editor's silence on this point can be explained by limitations of space in the Afterword, or by the presumed limitations of readers' receptiveness to critical and philological discussion, then it could be expected to be tacitly borne out [End Page 186] in the organization of the material. It isn't, and the collection suffers as a collection from not being able to count on a Stead criticism that does not make ideology, outlook, and style mutually exclusive.