Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Christina Stead's For love alone

It would be fair to say that Christina Stead has not bowled over Minervans. This is the second time the group has read her - the first being The man who loved children when I was overseas. It apparently did not go down well. And her second outing with us this month, For love alone, didn't change minds. Nonetheless, we had a lively discussion: we appreciated that she had something to say, and that she's a significant name in Australian literature. I'll 'fess up here though, before I go any further, and say I loved the book. I felt myself wanting to get back to it ... but that wasn't the universal experience.

Why is this? The book was published in 1945, and set in Sydney and London between 1933 and 1937. It tells the story of 19-year-old Teresa (Tessa) Hawkins, and her determination to find love, and to find it on her terms. She's determined not going to be an "old maid" like her teacher colleagues, but neither will she marry a boy just out of long pants. Enter the aptly named Jonathan Crow, her 23-year-old Latin tutor and, to Teresa, a sophisticated man of the world. Most of the book concerns her desire to get to know him and develop a deeper relationship with him. Her plan is complicated - physically - by the fact that he moves to England to undertake further studies a few months after the book opens and - emotionally - by Jonathan's slippery, to say the least, behaviour. That's the basic story. There's not a lot of plot and the book is long. Most present found it pretty repetitive - and therefore tedious - as the two go on and on about their ideas on life and love. Some felt the writing old-fashioned, and didn't find the major characters engaging.

However, we found lots of things to talk about, such as that the book has an autobiographical element. We also talked about what people liked, such as the wonderful description of a wedding at the opening of the novel: the messiness of the extended family, the silly bouquet throwing scene, the unhappy bride who is marrying because she needs to and not because she's "in love", the discussion about wedding presents (including chamber pots). We liked lively Aunt Bea who's fond of Teresa and tries to take her under her wing, not recognising that Teresa's goals for herself were rather different. We also liked Stead's descriptions of Teresa and James' (the truly loving man she eventually finds) trips into the English countryside, and we thought that Stead had a lovely facility with dialogue. The dialogue sections had real energy.

We discussed Teresa's naivete and her inability to see into Jonathan's real nature, which, as became pretty clear by the second half of the book, is misogynistic and sadistic. He is psychologically cruel to Teresa and cynical about love, but he is also weak, lonely and needy. We wondered whether we were supposed to feel sorry for him, as Teresa does for much of the novel (alongside admiring what she believe is his superior intellect). Some felt in fact that Jonathan is a bit caricatured. Teresa on the other hand might be naive, but she's courageous, loyal and intelligent. Eventually she works out that her love for Jonathan has no future, and that in fact she never really loved him. What a relief. One of the clever things about the book, although its plot isn't its strong point, is that we are kept guessing right until the end about how things will turn out for Teresa. For much of the book, it doesn't look good!

We talked about the novel being a psychological novel, rather than a plot-driven novel or one with a strong narrative. Stead is exploring the self and how it can construct itself, even mould itself, in the face of a tricky world. She talks of social controls on male-female relationships -
Why do men make the laws, say, about marriage, decency and the like, to shackle themselves?
- but her interest is more on the psychological impact of those laws. This made us think of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (and we wondered whether Teresa - Tess's name had this intention) and Edith Wharton's novels, like The house of mirth. But Stead's book is different to both of these, while owing something to them. Stead recognises the economic imperative for women to marry, and explores social conventions which control how people find mates, but her real interest is the psychology.

Consequently, her characters aren't simplistic and Stead doesn't appear to think there is an easy resolution to the human drive to find love. Teresa's maturation is not a simple process. She becomes obsessive in her plan to go to England to see Jonathan again, and almost destroys herself in the process. She becomes gaunt and haggard, and starts fading away. She develops a cough like the tubercular heroines of 19th century novels. As her relationship with Crow reaches its conclusion she returns to this self-destructive behaviour, preferring to die - a martyr for love - than live without love:
But it's not in the conversion of Jonathan that she believed now, but in her coming martyrdom.
One member noted that while the second half of the novel is set in England, two of the main characters are Australian and the other American. The issue of national sensibility and identity is, she said, one of Stead's themes in the book. We could see this, but didn't explore it in detail.

The Miegunyah Modern Library Edition quotes Patrick White as saying: "it's a remarkable book. I feel elated to know it's there". We agreed that Stead's intensity would appeal to White - as would her rebellion against unthinking social mores.

Overall, a good discussion of a challenging book, but methinks it will be our last Stead!


3 comments:

  1. I love this book, and have read it at least twice. I couldn't get far with The Man who Loved Children, which is regarded as her greatest novel. I agree it's a psychological novel, and I think that her depiction of the complex, ambiguous characters (with the exception of James, who is almost too good to be true, but endearing, nonetheless) is masterly. I was also amazed by how strong-minded Teresa is, born several generations before I was, yet so much more willing than I was to resist the trap of bourgeois marriage; even though, in the end, she marries the devoted James, we're left with the hint that Teresa will be unfaithful to him again: ''Now I know, this is the only love, but not the first and last. I will know how to make myself a life apart.'
    There's a passage I love, chapter 5, where Teresa walks down to the harbour at night, at high tide, passing the fishermen and the lovers: 'She passed slowly, timidly, but fascinated by the strange battlefield, the bodies stretched out, contorted, with sounds of the dying under the fierce high moon. She did not know what the sounds were, but she knew children would be conceived this night, and some time later women would marry hurriedly, if they could, like one of her cousins, who slept the night with a man in one of these very grottoes; and perhaps one or two would jump into the sea.'
    'She longs to be out there, with the men, and spend the night with them, thigh-deep in the sweet water, catching fish, saying nothing, looking out to sea!'
    She is such an intense creature, it surprised me that the author gave her a happy ending; though, as I said, this has a question mark hanging over it.

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  2. Oh nice to hear from you Christina. I'm glad you loved it. I think I was the only one present who also loved it. Those early deiscriptions of Sudeny are so sensual, and then as she starts to starve herself Sydney seems to become more pinched, dirty, scary doesn't it? She's a wonderful character, I agree. We talked about how we weren't sure how it was going to go and, like you, I was surprised how positive the ending was, but liked the fact that it was also left somewhat open too regarding the buture.

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  3. yes. I also loved the London scene, though it's not described as sensuously and riotously as Sydney is in the early scenes. And yes, her increasing anorexia is very well reflected in the scrape and grind of city life on the poverty side.

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