Waltzing with Matilda

Radio interviews from the 1970s and 80s with Christina Stead reveal as much about Australia as they do about Christina.

In the ABC radio archives, and at the National Library of Australia and National Film and Sound Archive there are hours of taped interviews with the novelist Christina Stead. More than enough for her to speak from beyond the grave.
Christina Stead was born in Australia, went to school in Australia, and studied her tertiary qualifications here. In 1928 Christina finally raised enough cash to leave Australia and sail to the northern hemisphere. She was 25 at the time, and as she says, ‘fully formed’ as an Australian . She spent the next 40 years of her life in a variety of countries, but mostly France, the UK and USA. If you listen to her deep voice, the years of living abroad are clearly there. Her multicultural speech patterns include the USA use of ‘anyhow’, the abrupt French pronunciation of ‘t’, Australian vowels, and strained UK overtones. In the 21st century we would call Stead an internationalist.

The interviews with Stead from the vaults of the archives are all from the 1970s and the 1980s, when she had returned to Australia after a life largely spent in the northern hemisphere. What is interesting about these interviews is that they reveal as much about the cultural state of Australia as they do about the life of Christina Stead. The interviews show that in the 1970s we were obsessed with defining what it meant to be Australian. How could a cultural icon, like the novelist Christina Stead be Australia when her novels were published overseas, and she had written them after she left Australia? This question vexed Stead’s interviewers.

Stead herself didn’t understand this need for culture to be national. She was not alone, at the time Patrick White was outraged at how Stead and Nolan had their Australianess constantly questioned. He famously wrote a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in defence of them both and said, ‘I have felt a foreigner in this pathetically chauvinistic parish.’

Part of the reason Stead’s Australianness was raised in the interviews was because she was denied the Britannica Australia Award prize in 1967. She was put forward by the Literary Committee as their unanimous choice, and in an unprecedented move the General Council, made up of some prominent scientists, did not follow their suggestion. In fact the General Council even withheld the prize for that year rather than award it to an unAustralian Christina Stead . It was decided Stead was not an Australian writer, and so could not receive the prize. All of her books had been published after she had left, and in 1967 she had not ever returned, not even for a brief holiday. Having said this, one of her books was set in Sydney, and another, a thinly veiled disguise of her Sydney childhood. A public debate ensued and some members of the Literary Committee were outraged that their choice for the prize had been overturned. The year before the prize was awarded to a writer who lived overseas, and the year after to a writer born in New Zealand, both were male. Like any good story there could be a conspiracy theory that her Australianess was merely the excuse, Stead had spent her life with Jewish Marxists and there was still a fear of all things red and all things Semitic in 1967.

The Britannica Prize incident, and the interviewers wanting to understand if Stead was really Australian, formed part of the public debate about Australianess, or as Stead put it in her lecture series on how to write a novel, the ‘situation’ . There was also a personal aspect to this debate, what Stead would call her ‘character’. From listening to the interviews with Stead it becomes clear that there was an emotional connection in Stead’s mind between Australia and her father. When the interviewers doubted Stead’s Australianess, subconsciously she felt that they were also doubting her daughterliness. In answer to their queries she would often trot out a version of this tale of her father telling her stories at night:

“I remember the street light always used to fall through the venetian blinds while he was talking. And he used to tell me infinite stories about Australia, ’cause he was a great patriot and really knew the country as a scientist. And er, so I had a wonderful feeling of Australia, and I still have, through him you see.”

It is well known that her father, David, was a naturalist, and imparted his amateur scientific view of the world onto Christina Stead. It might surprise the readers of ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ to find that Stead had fond memories of her father: him telling her stories about nature as she fell asleep at night ; and naturalist expeditions that were organised to entertain various children . In an interview with Anne Whitehead, when asked if her father was the biggest influence on her life she replied ‘yes’, there was no anger in her tone .
Stead’s father was fascinated by Australia and he was excited by the natural environment around him. Stead felt that her father’s stories about the flora and fauna of Australia grounded her here. Without realising it, she was claiming she had a type of songline connection, through her father, to Australia. This is even more fascinating because it is an unusual connection to land for a non-aboriginal urban girl in the first half of the 20th century. Unlike the bulk of urban white Australia, which saw the outback as a vast dangerous place that could engulf parties of people, never to be seen again, Stead saw it through the eyes of her naturalist father, she saw the detail, and knew stories about the elements. Her understanding was in no way an Aboriginal one, but it was a very different connection than her peers. It shared the Aboriginal connection to details in the bush through story.

When Jenny Palmer from Women Out Loud, like all the other interviewers, questioned Stead’s Australianess, Stead trotted out her usual reply about her father telling her scientific stories about the bush, and then in angry exasperated tones, “I’ve said this many times, but, I’m Australian!” For Stead, her father’s stories clearly led to her claim on her nationality. She was talking about influence. Her father influenced her, and Australia had influenced her. Stead clearly felt that this influence was a strong one. Palmer and the other interviewers were looking for something different, they were looking for a more active dialogue with Australian culture, rather than what they saw as a passive influence.

What the interviewers were really asking Stead was not, ‘Were you, or have you ever been, a member of Australia? They were asking, ‘Are you a part of our new identity? Can we fit you into it our debates, and what does it mean if we do?’. It must be remembered that Stead had left Australia before Lawler even dreamed of ’strine vernacular on the stage, and returned to find Don holding a party and Nora and Javo navigating life and love. A lot had changed in her absence. Stead didn’t really have a reply to this question about her Australianess in any of the recorded interviews, but it is clear from a letter to Dorothy Green, quoted in Rowley’s biography, that Stead didn’t think active participation in a culture was required. Stead wrote, ‘Would you call Byron an expatriate writer because he wrote in Italy? He’s English, I’m Australian.’

I am not sure why Australia decided to find an urban national identity in the 1970s. But what is clear is that discovering what it meant to be Australian was partly a reaction against ideas that green and pleasant were good and brown and ’strine were bad. The new definition had to be contained in intellectual as well as physical space and then used to exist separately to Britishness, or even Americanness. Defining Australianess through our relationship to the bush was not what the cultural explorers were embracing in the 1970s. The modern explorers lived in urban centres amongst bitumen and bricks. National identity was being formed in urban regions, and a distinction of that identity from the ‘swagman’ or the ‘bush mob’, was emerging in Carlton and Redfern. Australians were searching for a definition that included this built up identity, and what made their experience of it unique compared to other urban worlds. Stead’s cry that her father’s songlines connected her to Australia via the bush was out of sync with 1970s urban definitions of being an Aussie. Her father’s, and her, notion of Australianess was from another time. It didn’t engage with the current debates, it jarred with them.
Times of national definition are by nature times of inwardness and introspectiveness. They are rarely about a connectedness with the rest of the world, they are about drawing a line in the sand between us and them. Only when there is a confidence about the identity can it have the strength to open out to accept an international influence. Artists who stayed away from Australia throughout the 20th century for extended periods were labelled ‘expatriates’. There was a perception, by some of those that remained, that expatriates betrayed the fight to move the cultural centre to Australia by leaving. When Stead returned she had had to face the question, why did she go? Why did she choose to be an expatriate? And by implication, why did she betray the creation of cultural Australia by not participating?

So, when Jenny Palmer unconfidently spits out the word ‘expatriate’ in her question to Stead, for a brief moment Palmer is the avatar for an anger and angst with cultural creators who left Australia . (It’s not clear if Palmer disliked the term expatriates and its implied exclusivity, or felt betrayed by the expatriates themselves.) Stead gives her best reply yet to this often asked query on her Australianess. She makes use of a part of the bush that had made it through urban bitumen cracks to form the new acceptable national identity: Australian folk music. She says, ‘This is an incorrect idea for a country whose unofficial hymn is Waltzing Matilda. I’ve been Waltzing Matilda, that’s all.’ Stead tried to explain that it is okay to be Australian, and claim to be an Australian, and yet, to leave.

The desire of the interviewers to be able to fit Stead into the ‘Australian’ stay at home narrative made them uncomfortable. Stead was obviously talented, and even wrote about Australia, and wanted to claim Australia, but she hadn’t been here, and her novels hadn’t been published first here. She wasn’t a part of the local dialogue, and it is clear she didn’t really understand that dialogue.

In ‘I’m Dying Laughing’ Stead gave her protagonist the lines, “Someone has to stay at home. A country is made up of people who stay at home. We can’t all run before the storm.” Stead was a storm runner, an internationalist. She may not have understood the desire of 1970s Australia for her to be ‘at home’ for her to be accepted, but she could see that, in the 20th century, national identity was primarily made by those who had stayed at home, who participated in the debates. She saw her Australian influence as key, but her interviewers wanted her to fit into the home-spun dialogue.

In the 21st century we no longer angst about our artists staying at home and we would be asking different questions of the woman who waltzed with Matilda.

You can hear some of the interview archives in the documentary ‘The Character and Situation of Christina Stead’ at: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/the-character-and-situation-of-christina-stead/4681474

Leave a Comment