by Whispering Gums
Today’s post continues our project of reviewing Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead, which was edited by R.G. Geering and published posthumously. To recap, Geering was a teacher, academic, and, most significantly, Stead’s literary executor. This book, as he explains, brings together most of her short prose writings that appeared in various places (journals, magazines and newspapers) but were not included in the thirteen volumes of fiction published in her life-time, together with other unpublished pieces found among her papers after her death. Geering grouped the pieces “according to their settings and contents rather than chronologically”.
Geering’s collection starts with the titular piece, “Ocean of story”, on which we posted last month. After this Introduction, the stories have been organised into 7 parts. These sections are presented chronologically in terms Stead’s life, not in the order in which they were written. The first is, therefore, logically titled “The Early Years – Australia”. It contains three stories – “The old school”, “The milk run” and “A little demon” – all of which have children as their central subject, which is, perhaps, interesting given Stead had none of her own.
If you ever went to primary (or elementary) school, and that would be most of us presumably, you will enjoy “The old school”. If you were a girl, you’ll probably enjoy it even more. “The old school” was, Geering says, one of the few things Stead worked on in the last years of her life. It was published in Southerly in 1984. It’s like a little slice of life, and like the following two stories, starts with a fairly detailed setting of the scene before she gets to her main subject matter.
This means that “The old school” starts with a description of the school, followed by a description of what happens at the school, or, more precisely of what the rumours say happens. Stead writes that “cause and effect” are clearer at school than at home, and “mostly concerned the boys”. Boys who are bad – who truant for example – will go to “the reformatory”, from which the next step is prison. Cause and effect. Who knows all this? It’s “the informants” of course, the “small sages”? And you will have guessed who they are; they are the “natural moralists, two or three to a class and as far as I knew, all little girls”. From here, Stead provides stories about these informants’ moral pronouncements through the first person “I” voice. This “I” appears in two of the stories, but is an observer, rather than a participant, from within. In “The old school”, this “I” is a student at the school.
The rest of the story explores the “moral questions” debated by these “informants”, whom Stead describes in more detail:
The informants, our moralists, had clean dresses, pink, blue or sprigged, patent leather shoes and white socks, and curls natural or rag. They did clean school work too, even when we got pen and ink. Goodness alone knows how, with their pink cheeks and shiny curls and neatly dressed brink little mothers, they got all this news about jails, reformatories, judges and sentences, lashings, canings, bread and water.
They are, of course, often little tyrants, deciding which child will be approved and which won’t. The story chronicles some of their pronouncements and their impacts on their peers. Whenever anything happened in the school “they knotted together, a town moot: they discussed, debated and delivered an opinion.” What the teachers said was to them only “hearsay”. Our “I” character doesn’t have an opinion. She “thought then that cruelty and injustice were natural and inevitable during all of a poor creature’s life”. (The use of “then” would be worth exploring. Having been published in 1984, was it written from a perspective of looking back, suggesting that this “I” no longer thinks this?)
The main “story” concerns poor little Maidie Dickon who is, literally, “poor” and thus ostracised by our “natural moralists”. She didn’t have the right shoes, didn’t bring the right notes from her mother, and didn’t have her own pen and paper and so would be given some from the school supply. “It isn’t fair” cry the well-provided “informants” who also prove, mystifyingly to our “I”, to be excellent “newsgatherers”. They somehow know about Maidie’s roadworker father, who is (illegally, in those days) striking, and washerwoman mother.
Stead’s focus is on the “natural” justice delivered by these “sages” or “moralists” to those less able to defend for themselves, while the “I”, Stead’s young self perhaps, tries to make sense of it all, of how the world works. It’s a vivid story with a gorgeously sharp ending.
“The milk run” was published in The New Yorker in 1972 (and later appeared in a Penguin anthology, The Penguin book of the road, published in 2008). It is set in the same area of southern Sydney as “The old school”, but it tells the story of a family and a little boy whose job it is to get the family’s milk from the grandfather’s dairy a mile away. Stead takes some time setting the physical scene, and describing the family and the boy, Matthew, who worships his father.
It is a beautifully detailed story of a particular place and time. Stead captures ordinary family life and tensions with such precision – a comment here, a brief conversation there, convey all we need to know about the various relationships. It conveys a child’s eye view of the world, the child’s incomprehension of adult behaviour. Things happen. Sometimes they make sense to Matthew, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the father he worships supports him, sometimes he doesn’t. But, after a lucky find, Matthew gathers to himself a warming thought, something that offers him comfort when all else is uncertain.
And finally, “A little demon”, which was published, Geering says, in “an almost identical version” in the Harvard Advocate in 1973. It’s a satire, which again starts with setting a wider scene by describing a large and successful but rather insular family, the Masons. On the surface, they seem to be perfect, but asides and hints suggest that the surface is just that. There’s something a little claustrophobic and inward-looking about them with their “same notions” and suspicion of travel.
Into this family is born Stevie, the titular “little demon”. We hear a lot about him – the horror of his behaviour and what a trial he is to his mother, though, strangely, not to his teacher who finds him “very good” – but we don’t meet him until the last couple of pages. We are told what an “adorable” person his mother, Mariana, is, and how much she loves her two dogs, Duff and Rags. And here come some hints about who this adorable Mariana really is because, she loved Duff and didn’t want her to ever have puppies. Why would you, after all, “spoil” that beautiful dog by letting her have puppies? Does this tell us something about Mariana’s attitude to motherhood – and perhaps Stead’s? Ironically though, she falls in love with Rags, one of Duff’s unwanted puppies, the irony doubled because she doesn’t love her own offspring.
It all starts to go bad for Stevie when the cat that he found upset the dogs. He took the cat’s part, “just for a day or two; and then he saw which way the wind was blowing and lost interest”. And here the rot sets in. Stevie is depicted as having no feelings for animals, and as doing everything he can “to be disagreeable, to annoy, to tease”. How old is this Stevie that everyone – except perhaps his grandmother who defends him – hates? About 5!
It’s a satirical story in which Stead skewers shallowness and self-centredness, not to mention lack of maternal feeling. The language here is more heightened, using exaggeration and exclamation, than the more natural language of the previous two stories. It also has a somewhat stronger plot: we are set up to want to meet this Stevie, and there is a delicious little twist or sting in the tail, which the other two stories don’t have.
“The old school”, “The milk run” and “A little demon”
in Ocean of story: The uncollected stories of Christina Stead
Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1986
Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.