Only recently has the Australian-born Christina Stead been seen as a major twentieth-century writer, particularly honored for The Man Who Loved Children. Although some will contest this view, interest in the Stead canon is high, particularly among feminist scholars. Stead's antifeminist stance and analysis-resistant texts make their task of interpretation particularly challenging.
Susan Sheridan in a fruitful exploration addresses Stead's fascination with the lives of women, her rejection of feminism, and the dialogue thus prompted between Stead's works and contemporary feminist theories. Her study of these complex issues is valuable for the careful and considered way she examines some of Stead's major novels within the framework of feminist perspectives and methods. Sheridan deals with the central paradox head on. The novels only appear to fulfill the feminist quest for accounts of female experience, subordination, and/or rebellion. Indeed, Stead often leaves the feminist reader with a sense of dis-ease, the sensation of Langer's music, a feeling that there is only the form or outline of feminist melody.
As Sheridan formulates the conflict, Stead writes about women emerging from the home into the public sphere but denies us heroines who qualify as models. Sheridan points to Nellie Cotter, the fascinating arch-rebel of Cotter's England (published in the United States as Dark Places of the Heart), who spouts an irreproachable women's rights rhetoric but is murderous. Arguing that Stead resists orthodox feminist readings, Sheridan offers her alternative reading in which she sees Stead as revealing to and involving the reader in the dynamics of female sexual/political/social experience without providing profiles in courage. Sheridan foregrounds Stead's use of language and seeks in the novels "their exploration of the ways female subjectivity is culturally inscribed."
For example, Sheridan reads The Man Who Loved Children as a feminine Oedipus story. Focusing on the heroine's original play, a rewriting of Shelley's Beatrice Cenci, Sheridan makes a strong case for the novel as portrait of the potential destructiveness of the Oedipus dynamic in the patriarchal nuclear family. In Stead's For Love Alone, Sheridan traces the heroine's entrapment in the many conflicting voices, representative of social discourses, in tension with one another and opposed to Teresa's fantasies of love and freedom. Sheridan insists that current critical formulations of the female bildüngsroman are called into question by this heroine who wants both love and freedom, who does not move along the path from innocence to experience, but who instead continues to live her life according to her personal vision, a dedication to love as creative struggle.
In her last two chapters, Sheridan discusses Letty Fox, Miss Herbert, I'm Dying Laughing, and Cotter's England. She is as much concerned with what Stead's texts have to teach feminist criticism as she is with what critical theory can uncover in the texts. She illuminates our understanding in both directions. [End Page 872]