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Stead, Christina Ellen (1902–1983)

by Ruth Arndt

Christina Stead, by Robert McFarlane, c.1974

Christina Stead, by Robert McFarlane, c.1974

National Library of Australia, 21225120

Christina Stead's death in Sydney earlier this month went unannounced because she wanted no publicity. There was no memorial service and she was privately cremated. Here, an admirer mourns. 

Three years ago a young friend of mine in Washington sent me a copy of 'The Man who Loved Children' with a note saying she had just discovered it and read it with great interest. What did I know about Christina Stead?

I began to read the book, found it quite gripping, but came to a point when I found I could not read on. It was altogether too disturbing.

In the ABC's FM magazine 24 Hours I happened to read an interview with Christina Stead and found out to my delight that she was living in Canberra, at University House. I sat down and wrote her a note telling her how I felt about 'The Man who Loved Children'. Quite soon I had a reply which read:

".. The birds arc beautiful here; it is a pleasure — and my room looks into the tops of the smaller trees, where they perch — and I also face Black Mountain Tower, which I like, though I know it is heresy to say so. I found a fellow-conspirator on Thursday when I had lunch with Dr Dobrez. Being an Italian, that is of Italian birth, he does not mind the creations of man, in nature. (But he explained to me about the proposed funicular, etc. That would be different.) Never mind about your feelings — or rather you mind about them and must — that is, about TMWLC, my book. Everyone cannot like everything — in art, books or whatever! And it was not written to please — but because it was a truth ...".

That was in June 1980, when she was almost 80.

I treasured that letter and sent a copy to my friend in Washington. By that time, of course, I had finished 'The Man who Loved Children' and passed it on to quite a few friends. I also read all other books by Christina Stead then available in Canberra.

One day in July I called on her at University House. She received me most warmly in her simple room. She had one of the less-spacious flats, just one room which was dominated by her large electric typewriter and a teatowel. The teatowel was always on view, sometimes to cover half the window when the sun was too strong. I wondered whether a woman nearing her 80th birthday should have to worry about her food and washing-up, but she never complained. 

I loved my first meeting with Christina Stead. We found a great many subjects to talk about. She showed me a photo of her husband to whom she referred as a Marxist banker, a somewhat unusual description. I asked her whether she had had any children. She answered by pointing to a small Eureka flag, telling me how many people came to see her and would take the flag as the starting point for a discussion. An orchid in a small vase, she explained, was a gift from her hair dresser at David Jones.

She told me that Dr H. C. Coombs, Dr Faunce and the Whitlams all had flats on the same staircase and that all were very kind to her, taking her out to meals or dropping in for a chat after 5 o'clock, her favourite hour of the day.

We talked about sex. She took me to a Picasso print hanging on the wall of her room, a present from a friend. Pointing to the details which identified the nude as a young man, she tried to convey to me why she found the picture so physically exciting.

Above all, our happy two hours were dominated by the Black Mountain Tower. Her window framed it perfectly. She described how at night she never drew the curtain because the lights of the tower became her friends, shining through the window on to her bed.

Never once, on that occasion, did she talk about her books. And later, when I managed to interest her in some of the activities of the university's women's clubs and she attended some of our lunchtime meetings, she preferred to be introduced as Mrs Blake, her husband's name. To those lunches, in all seasons, winter, spring or autumn, she invariably came wrapped in her big old fur coat. There are photos of her, published at the time of her 80th birthday, wearing that coat, like a uniform.

I took all sorts of friends to visit her in her room at University House. It was always successful. She enjoyed meeting people, especially people of different background. Once I took a girl student, my gardening assistant, carrying a large box full of camellias which perfectly matched the colour of the tomatoes in her room.

When she heard the student was studying horticulture, she at once set her the task of finding out the name of a beautiful tree outside her window.

Not many people in Canberra knew that, living among them, very simply and delighting in uncomplicated things, was a writer with an international reputation. Her books are read in many countries. Some of them will be made into films. Visitors are coming to Australia because they have read her books and others read them here as an introduction to Australian literature. Yet, when she died, many of us here in Canberra did not know to whom we might write to express our sorrow.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ruth Arndt, 'Stead, Christina Ellen (1902–1983)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/stead-christina-ellen-15545/text35606, accessed 22 May 2019.

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