Christina Stead's The Puzzleheaded Girl: The Political Context


  • Michael Wilding


The fiction of Christina Stead (1902-83) is at last receiving something of its proper recognition after years of critical neglect, ascribed variously to her gender, to her expatriate status (born in Australia and spending her creative life in Europe and America), and to her left-wing politics. Her work is now being brought back into view within the general reappraisal of women writers and the extending of the canon of Australian literature. This essay explores her political vision with an examination of her volume of four novellas, The Puzzleheaded Girl. The collection of novellas, even more than the volume of stories, is most publishers' least favourite form. It
has proved similarly unattractive to critical commentary. Yet so many fiction writers have felt most at their ease in the novella, enjoying the space for amplification denied !n the short story and free from the necessity of the ramifications of complex plotting and narrative expected in the novel. The novellas in The Puzzleheaded Girl work not by conventional plot but by the great monologues her characters deliver and the obliquely realized, compulsive, seemingly unwilled, and unmotivated entanglements in which they live. Stead catches most remarkably the way people talk, and the way, talking, they reveal themselves, their sexual and political involvements and obsessions - though the characters themselves could never recognize them as obsessions. The world of intellectual, radical, fringe bohemian groups during the late 1940s and the McCarthyite period and its aftermath is effortlessly documented. None of the actions has that neat Jamesian form, but instead a succession of seemingly inconsequential events. It seems sometimes as if Christina Stead is writing a variation on, or descant to, material a more mundane writer would have treated naturalistically; though we could never reconstruct those ur-novellas. It is a manner that leads to a remarkable concision, an elliptical compression, resulting in a solidity and fulness free from any ponderousness; and from the elisions and ellipses retaining a powerful energy that imprints these stories on the memory.