"Hedging on Destiny": history and its marxist dimension in the early fiction of Christina Stead

Ackland, Michael (2011) "Hedging on Destiny": history and its marxist dimension in the early fiction of Christina Stead. ariel: a review of international english literature, 41 (1). pp. 91-109.

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Abstract

[Excerpt] "We hedge on destiny" (216), remarks one of the financial sharks in House of All Nations, meaning at its simplest that our success depends on double-guessing the outcome of events, or historical processes: a form of analytical divination of considerable interest to Christina Stead and her communist friends in the 1930s. Then, as the Great Depression worsened, they believed themselves to be living through one of the major turning-points of history. Her life-partner, the American financier and Marxist intellectual William ]. Blake, looked forward to 1931 as "the battle year fit to stand with 1517, 1848" (Letters 35), years when Luther smashed the unity of Western Christendom with his dissenting theses in Wittenberg, and the revolt of the armed proletariat profoundly shook the European social order. Now advanced capitalism, which had once exercised unparalleled sway over distant continents as well as home markets, was entering its long-predicted final crisis. Even greater convulsions seemed pending and lent new urgency to the key MarxistLeninist issue, in Blake's words, of "who will inherit the kingdom of history" (Harris, Letters 250). This pressing concern is one not usually associated with Christina Stead and her imaginative output, despite her occasional, barbed comments directed at those who ignored, or turned their back on the historical record.

Instead, commentary has delved into her preoccupation with the "political powers of patriarchy' (Gardiner 151), and with characterization, while her books, it is often argued, are shaped by "flows and surges of emotion" (Blake 4) rather than being those of a novelist of ideas. Yet Stead, in 1936, noted with obvious pleasure that Seven Poor Men of Sydney had at last attracted insightful, serious commentary, adding: "I really put some gristle into" it (Letters 62). Presumably this was the case, too, with her subsequent novels and would normally have included, in the work of a committed Marxist-Leninist, more than a passing interest in history. In what follows I wish to initiate detailed discussion of history's neglected role in Stead's fiction. Beginning with an illustration of the widespread tendency to downplay its significance in her work as a whole, my argument then focuses on what historical fiction means typically in Marxist terms. From the outset Stead arguably embraced this view-point, as emerges from her working notes and the texts of Seven Poor Men of Sydney and House of All Nations, early novels which reveal an abiding preoccupation with the historical implications of both temporal settings and contemporary events.

Item ID: 19359
Item Type: Article (Refereed Research - C1)
ISSN: 0004-1327
Date Deposited: 09 Feb 2012 04:50
FoR Codes: 20 LANGUAGE, COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE > 2005 Literary Studies > 200502 Australian Literature (excl Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Literature) @ 100%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9505 Understanding Past Societies > 950503 Understanding Australias Past @ 100%
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