The shape of the city is hazy. From above, Sydney looks like somebody spilled ink on a map, let the rivulets run and shrugged when the mess began to dry, saying ‘fine, that can be Sydney’. The way it actually happened wasn’t so different. The city was first a prison, not a place. Roads were built with no logic or forethought. The city sprang up hastily, and it was too hot and too hard ever to go back and try to make sense of it. The roads are thin and winding. They adhere to no grid. The tree roots splinter the bitumen. Sensible-seeming routes peter out into dead ends and one-way streets.
The inner suburbs are clogged with pollution and clinging heat because Sydney is a city ruled by the car, with traffic its defining feature, snaking out along Parramatta Road, across the bridges, down the Princes Highway, unmoving and seemingly infinite. But then there’s the water. Driving over a hill at Coogee or Rushcutters Bay and seeing the ocean laid out before you never fails to feel like a minor miracle. Sultry, shallow, cocksure, contradictory—this is Sydney spread wide. Slinking its way through the red tape and traffic into absolute raw, ravishing beauty.
If there is a single book that captures Sydney in all its sweltering loveliness and brash parochialism, it might be Christina Stead’s 1944 novel For Love Alone, the novel that Stead wrote immediately after her best-known book, The Man who Loved Children. When Stead published The Man who Loved Children she was persuaded by her publishers to rewrite the story so that it occurred not in Sydney but in Washington because, her publishers argued, Americans don’t care about Australians. The dissonance is clear in the prose. The cadences are off, somehow. It’s an Australian novel putting on a third-rate American accent, the vowels all wrong, filled with awkward idioms, ‘by jiminy’s and ‘ain’t much for tuh see’s. When Stead came to write her next book she was adamant that her instincts would win out. The book would be set in Sydney.
Christina Stead was one of Australia’s great twentieth-century writers, and a modernist to the core. As the world became more urbanised, more complex, Stead along with a legion of Western writers did away with the idea that old realist techniques were enough to describe and diagnose the condition of the times. The ‘city novel’ was a defining feature of modernism, driven by a need to thematise the fragmentation, complication and subjectivity of the world as it looked in the first half of the twentieth century. These are books in which the city is key to their emotional foundations. What was overlooked when For Love Alone was published was that with this book Stead did for Sydney what Woolf did for London, Joyce for Dublin, Dos Passos for New York, Döblin for Berlin. These books contend that a city affects the rhythms of consciousness itself.
Christina Stead was born in a still-unassuming suburb of Sydney in 1902 and her childhood was a notoriously unhappy one. Her mother died when she was two years old, her father remarried, and her stepmother did not love her. She lived miserably with her father, half-siblings and stepmother first in Bexley and then in Watsons Bay. Incredibly intelligent, Stead couldn’t go to the university, but instead went to Teachers College. She hated teaching. She wanted to write. To do this successfully she set upon leaving Sydney. And so she worked and saved and schemed and in 1928, at the age of 26, she left. With her partner William J. Blake she lived variously in London, Paris, Antwerp, New York and Spain, and wrote novels that focused not on the subjects expected of lady novelists—the home, love, the small dramas of private life—but on class warfare, unionism and one, House of All Nations, an 800-page doorstop on international banking. Stead was a cosmopolitan writer. But she never ceased to be an essentially Australian writer. The island continent was in her marrow.
These days The Man who Loved Children still has the reputation of being Stead’s masterpiece, possibly because by the 1970s it was the only book of hers that remained in print. While a revival of interest in Stead’s work was largely due to the feminist movement of the 1970s, her own feelings about women’s liberation were decidedly equivocal. When, in her spiky and contrary old age, Stead was asked about her attitudes to the feminist movement, her response was terse. ‘It’s nonsense. It’s eccentric. It’s not a genuine movement. It’s totally, purely middle class.’ It wasn’t that Stead disagreed with their conclusions; it was that she thought they were going about it all wrong. ‘I know what women have to put up with; I’ve written about it, I know,’ she declared. In short, Stead alienated those who would best defend her. But in 2010 Jonathan Franzen reappraised Stead. He lionised The Man who Loved Children in the New York Times, placing it among the best works of twentieth-century modernism and throwing Stead’s name into the same literary pool as Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.
If The Man who Loved Children was about Stead’s childhood, For Love Alone is about her early adulthood. Which is to say that it is a novel shot through with longing, ‘spun’, Stead explained, ‘out of anguished reminiscences’. It operates at a pitch of ferocity that is overwhelming, like the riptide, sometimes hard to bear.
For Love Alone is Stead’s fifth novel, written for the most part in New York. She had been away from Australia, by then, for 14 years. Set largely during the years of the Depression, the book opens with Teresa Hawkins, the 19-year-old protagonist, attending her cousin’s wedding on one of the hottest days of the year. Teresa lives with her family in Watsons Bay in a situation recognisable as Stead’s at the same age, at a time when the South Head community was still wild and relatively inaccessible from the city except by boat. Working as a primary school teacher, she takes night classes and dreams about the University of Sydney, of Oxford or the Sorbonne. She falls in love with her tutor, Jonathan Crow, and makes up her mind to follow him to London, to a life of ardour and the intellect that feels impossible at home. Teresa is lonely, desperate, roaming, verging on manic. She works herself to the edge of exhaustion, becomes utterly consumed in her effort to leave Sydney. Divided into two sections, the London part of the book is significantly shorter than the Sydney part, and operates as a way for Stead to attempt to give an ending—marriage to a nicer man—to an experience that defies the regular constraints of plot. All the blood of the book is in Sydney and Teresa’s agonising peregrinations across its sandy hills.
When For Love Alone first appeared reviews were tepid, and warned readers away from the ‘five hundred pages of lust and abnormality’. The novel was printed on flimsy rations-era paper with a cover that only bolstered the impression that the book was a cheap novelette written by an unserious lady novelist. It served only to lose Stead the readers who might have appreciated her work, and attracted only those who were drawn to the image of the half-naked girl on the front cover, who all in all found Teresa to be exceptionally dreary.
I first read For Love Alone when I was eighteen. My stepmother had an old Angus & Robertson copy on her bookshelf in Melbourne, and I had just finished high school. I had never heard of Stead, but the title appealed to me. I took the novel back to Sydney with me, where the days, without structure or plan, yawned open ahead of me. It was November. The weather was threatening to get very pretty again, and I was wandering around Alice-like, afraid of advancing adulthood. For five days I sat in the garden under the gum tree where the lorikeets screeched at sunset and I read For Love Alone.
Stead’s prose captures Sydney in all its livid, dissolute loveliness. The velvet air. The sea breeze after the westerlies. The worn impermanence of the landscape. In the opening pages, Teresa and her sister make their way across the harbour on the ferry, the air about them full of the stench of seaweed and fishing nets, while in the distance bushfires cast a red and smoky glow across the horizon. This is Sydney at its Sydney-est, a place that can be simultaneously wet and burning. For Stead, Sydney is textural. Her prose gathers up the life of her protagonist and imbues it with all the qualities she attributes to the city.
Teresa longs for the ‘sensual life’ she knows she is best suited to, and believes that ‘she smelled, heard, saw, guessed faster, longed more than others’. She imagines a kind of intellectual and emotional utopia in London, but even the most cursory reader will note that it’s Sydney that makes Teresa who she is. In For Love Alone, the heat of Sydney, its disarray and humidity and the threat of the night are metonymic of Teresa’s internal condition; the city is part and parcel of her longing for a life of the mind and a meaningful future as well as a longing for the ‘love’ alluded to in the novel’s title.
For Love Alone is a novel that resonates particularly with young, bookish, female readers. Drusilla Modjeska, in her introduction to the 2011 reissue of the novel, notes that she was drawn to Stead ‘for her insistence that the intellectual settings of the mind are woven into the drama of the person’: what’s appealing about the book is Teresa. The love story is supplementary, and subverts nearly every idea of what we imagine a love story to be. The loved one, Jonathan Crow, is truly awful. He is full of coldness and hypocrisy. What Teresa is in love with is what she makes him represent—and this is what a lot of arrested love affairs in your early twenties are for. The relationship is as much about the experience, the feeling of wildness, than the person himself. The thing that’s at stake in For Love Alone is Teresa and the untamed state of her emotional and intellectual topography.
Teresa Hawkins leaves her mark all over Sydney. She goes trudging through Sydney with broken shoes, without a winter coat, contemplates sleeping in the Domain, in Surry Hills alleyways, in the factory where she works, just to save energy. Her self-sacrifice is both pious and excessive. The dark beaches where Teresa walks at night are full of groaning and strange cries. We are led to believe they are sounds of sex, but anyone with a working knowledge of Sydney will also entertain the thought that they might be the sounds of death. Watsons Bay is the site of The Gap, Sydney’s most infamous suicide spot.
Hazel Rowley, Stead’s biographer, describes how as a teenager Stead would wander the coastline, fascinated by the cliffs, and worry that the jumpers wouldn’t fall lightly into the water below but that their bodies would instead be slammed against the rocks. On one of these walks along the shore at night, Teresa passes by the body of a woman lying beneath a tarpaulin recovered from The Gap that afternoon. ‘It did not cause much comment. They lived there, among the gardens of the sea, and knew their fruits; fish, storms, corpses, moontides, miracles.’ The term ‘on the beach’, famous as the title of Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel from the 1950s, comes from a naval expression. ‘On the beach’ originally meant ‘retired from service’. Any place defined by its beaches, as Sydney is, also aligns itself with these latter-day meanings of a place by the sea. Liminal zones where things wash up, are left abandoned, can be created and re-created continually. Because surely Stead herself was formed by the walking, by the international vessels sailing in and out of the heads, by the grid-less city streets and the dark places where the noises you hear could be sounds of sex or sounds of death.
A city isn’t its roads and beaches and bridges. Alone, they don’t tell you anything. It’s the stories, the imaginative work, the memories that flow in as you pass through the streets. The imaginary city rises and expands sponge-like over the topography, and we live in both. These stories of the city sustain the intellectual and emotional life of a place. English-language literature abounds with stories that evoke New York and London and Chicago and Dublin, but Sydney is an under-written place, and to that extent it has yet to be fully imagined. It’s possible to grow up in one of Australia’s major cities and never read a book set in the place in which you live.
If For Love Alone resonated with me because I was young and female, it was made all the more potent by being set in the city I had grown up in. In the days of that November reading For Love Alone in the garden I would look towards the skyline from the verandah and see in the weird, distancing hieroglyphs of skyscrapers, for the first time, a sense of meaning, an intention to communicate. I needed to read about Sydney to fully experience it as a place that had anything to do with me.
When it was suggested to Stead in her advancing years that she might try her hand at a memoir, she responded with rage and contempt. Stead insisted that ‘the truth’ could be located in her books. The daughter of a scientist and the first student in the history of Sydney Girls High School to write ‘No Church’ on the registry form, she fiercely prized an adherence to objectivity and fact. But artists are tiny dictators who derive pleasure from controlling the kingdoms of their various creations. Stead could bend the past in her novels, control the outcome in a way she could not in real life. The Jonathan Crow of the novel bears traces of Keith Duncan, a one-time university medallist who, when Stead met him, was whiling away his time on an MA before he took off to do academia properly in London. Stead believed her portrait of Duncan accurate, yet some of the descriptions of the man are grotesquely Dickensian—she has him slinking down the street like a black-coated villain as the book ends. This is writing as punishment, literature as revenge. Rowley writes that ‘Writing had become a means of attaining power over others, and resisting their power over her. By writing—and showing her writing to others—Christina could reduce people by ridicule or raise them to great heights.’
For Love Alone is Christina Stead claiming her early twenties for herself, making Sydney hers. And the proverbial pink elephant in this essay in praise of For Love Alone as the quintessential Sydney novel is that it’s also a novel about wanting desperately to get out of the place. As Stead did, and as I have. In Australia in the 1920s, Stead was one of the women writers who experienced themselves as ‘exiles at home’, to borrow a term from Drusilla Modjeska. While no Australian who voluntarily moves to London or New York is really an ‘exile’ in the truest sense of the word, for many Australians in the twentieth century, the place they felt exiled from was Australia itself. To leave was to release oneself from internal exile. This was especially so for artists, writers, intellectuals. There simply wasn’t enough in Australia to sustain them.
In For Love Alone, Teresa articulates the conviction Stead and many Australians felt, and still feel: ‘If I stay here I’ll be nobody.’ She longs to ‘sail the seas, leave her invisible trace on countries, learn in great universities, know what was said by foreign tongues’. Stead’s writing was profoundly different to that of the writers who stayed behind in Australia during the 1920s and 1930s. Instead of learning to write in the model of the ‘dun-coloured’ realism that Patrick White inveighed against upon his return, Stead was in Paris reading Joyce. As a result her work was some of the first Australian literature to break free into more challenging, poetic territory. Big cities of the world are still filled with Australians attempting to break through into more challenging territory. As I sit writing this on a park table in Brooklyn, just across the East River from Gramercy Park where Stead wrote For Love Alone, it makes perfect sense to me that the most resonant of Sydney novels would be written on the other side of the world. That’s the paradox. You love your birthplace most when you’re furthest away, as far away as you could possibly be without treading water hopelessly in the mid Atlantic.
Christina Stead returned to Australia in 1974. She was old by then, at a loose end. She was hailed as a genius upon her return, her books were being reissued, but she was living in Hurstville with her brother, uncomfortably close to where she had started. She was drinking too much, she dithered, she never really wrote again. At her last lunch with Patrick White she arrived in a taxi and thrust at him a number of empty bottles wrapped in a brown paper bag. She told him to throw the bag into his rubbish, so that nobody else would discover it, and by implication, her alcoholism, in the bin at home. She spent the last years of her life stuck in creative inertia, desperately lonely, shuttling between the houses of the friends and relatives who would take her in.
Writing is not, by its nature, cathartic. To write about things that have happened to you doesn’t make you feel better. The only real reason to do it is for the brief moment when it feels as though you’ve made something that’s brought you closer to other people. The catch is that the writer can never be sure that communication is happening. A relationship between a writer and a reader is fragmentary. It exists in a vacuum.
Part of the impact of For Love Alone was that it helped me think about something that I had always been too afraid to confront—how to work and live in Australia, as a woman and a writer, and how to feel that those three details might not be fundamentally incompatible. Even the most overworked, most hopeless passages soothed me. Sentences etched themselves into the sealed metal box of my self, and I have carried them with me, will do, always. Stead had no knowledge of me as a reader, no guarantee that I would pick up her book and read it on the other side of her death, nor you, who may read the novel now if you haven’t already. All she did was write into the vacuum, filling the space. All a writer can do once they’ve finished is hope that some other receives what they’ve sent out, blends it with their own stories, understands, expands, takes the story in and makes it mean something.