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Guide to the classics: Christina Stead’s The Beauties and Furies

Carl Rahl’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1852). Wikimedia

Guide to the classics: Christina Stead’s The Beauties and Furies

From the beginning Christina Stead’s fiction divided critical opinion, and reactions to The Beauties and Furies, her second novel, were no exception. Where some saw “garrulous pretentiousness”, Clifton Fadiman in the New Yorker found “such streaming imagination, such tireless wit, such intellectual virtuosity” that Stead must be recognised as “the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf”.

What Fadiman discerned is the extraordinary originality of Stead’s modernist experiment, ranking her achievement with that of James Joyce. Ulysses, published in 1922, was no longer banned for obscenity in the United States by 1936, when The Beauties and Furies was published.

Of the major novels published in that year, only William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood rival The Beauties and Furies in its contempt for prevailing realist-narrative expectations. (The big commercial success of 1936 was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, much to Stead’s chagrin.)

Once I would have thought Fadiman’s claim excessive. My introduction to Christina Stead was through the reissue of The Man Who Loved Children (1940) in 1965, which astounded me.

I was already reading her in earnest in the late 1970s when the Virago republications began, including The Beauties and Furies in 1982. I found it baffling, over-shadowed by its predecessor, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934), and its successor, House of All Nations (1938) — the latter is Stead’s other Paris novel, based on her experience of working in the private bank where her partner, William Blake, was a financial adviser.

Christina Stead.

I wasn’t alone. The Beauties and Furies has never been taken up as The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone (1944) have been. Only in recent years, as I have thought more about Stead’s early writings, has it been borne in on me that it is arguably her most experimental work, disconcerting and disturbing, a searching, sometimes ironic, depiction of a decadent society. It is a quintessential modernist text that heeds Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new”.

Its affinity with Ulysses is marked. In letters back to Sydney after her arrival in London in 1928, Stead called Joyce “the modern Shakespeare, superior to Shakespeare in command of language, equal in music”, acknowledging that Ulysses is “hard work” because it “has to be read with a rhyming dictionary, an encyclopaedia, the grammars of ten languages, and an annotated ‘crib’”.

James Joyce by Berenice Abbot. alrionun/flickr, CC BY

Joyce was far from being her only discovery in those heady years. Stead’s fiction from the start displayed the interest in dreams and the unconscious flaunted in The Beauties and Furies, everywhere mixing fantasy and reality in extravagant swoops of tone and register. The influence of surrealism is pervasive, reaching greatest intensity near the end, in the spectacular sequence in the Somnambulists’ Club.

Yet a plot summary could represent the novel as no more than a variant of 1930s lending-library romances: a bored London housewife, Elvira Western, leaves her solid doctor husband, Paul, for a younger lover, Oliver Fenton, a student in Paris.

At every turn, though, the narrative undermines romantic expectations. There is an undertow of incestuous and same-sex attractions among the various heterosexual liaisons, along with daring depiction of casual couplings, and references to prostitutes, venereal disease and abortion. This is not the Paris of romantic love: dreams are nightmarish in a city of night rather than light.

A ‘middle-class’ novel

The action takes place in a specific timeframe in 1934, in a moment of political instability due to an economic downturn and the menace of fascism. It begins in March, with Paris still unsettled following an outbreak of violence in February, and ends in the winter of 1934–35. Throughout there are references to contemporary events, including the workers’ rallies in May attended by Oliver.

There is much political rhetoric. Characters’ analyses of such issues as the operation of capital are largely Marxist-Leninist, and to a significant extent are attributable to the input of William Blake. But they are the views of the characters, frequently belied by their actions, and not endorsed by Stead. The weight of this depiction of bad faith rests on Oliver.

Although he supports the workers by attending rallies, he harbours a desire for a career in business rather than academia. His commitment to the labour cause is expedient. The topic of his thesis, on which he works fitfully, is The French Workers’ Movement from the Commune to the Amsterdam Congress of 1904, chosen for easy archival access and exotic appeal to his English university. However, his cynicism rarely finds such epigrammatic expression as in his observation that

All middle-class novels are about the trials of three, all upper-class novels about mass fornication, all revolutionary novels about a bad man turned good by a tractor.

According to this mocking definition, The Beauties and Furies is very much a middle-class novel, though bourgeois values and behaviour are among its targets. In the rich opening chapter, the first of a sequence of triangles is set up, involving the “runaway wife” (as Elvira is described in the List of Characters), her husband and “her lover, a student”.

The similarity of the names Elvira and Oliver is curious, and they are sometimes described as twins: Elvira’s brother Adam Cinips also enters the emotional equations. Oliver’s affairs with the actress Blanche and the lace artist Coromandel set up further triangles.

Scene from Parsifal, from the Victola book of the opera (1917). flickr

The idea of Paris as an underworld is spelled out by Annibale Marpurgo, “a lace-buyer”, a manipulative self- made cosmopolitan. His declaration that “Paris is Klingsor’s garden, to me” is typical of the range of allusion that Stead deploys, here bringing into play Wagner’s opera based on the medieval Grail quest epic Parzival.

An “annotated crib” would tell us that in Wagner’s version, Parsifal, Klingsor— who has been denied entry to the Temple of the Holy Grail, despite having attempted to do away with his impure thoughts by self-castration — constructs a garden into which questing knights are seduced. The sexual connotations are especially relevant. Similar intertextual references proliferate in the novel, including an explicit invocation of Ulysses when Oliver reads to Elvira as she is lying ill (an episode that tells us a lot about Oliver).

Lace and capital

From the first chapter, where Marpurgo trades radical credentials with Oliver, political affiliation is a persistent topic in The Beauties and Furies. Marpurgo declares that they are “Brothermarxists … and brother fantasts”, tossing in mention of the Arabian Nights and Hegel.

Elvira refers to the economic determinism of capitalism, using imagery from lace manufacture to enunciate a tension between romantic dreams and fate: “Life’s a pattern, and we’re just shuttles rushing in and out thinking we are making jerks up and down freely.” The image is potent, playing into the role of the lace industry in the novel as well as signalling that these characters lack agency.

Although the characters articulate insights both about others and themselves, these rarely translate into action, any more than do such histrionic processes of irresolution as this:

Elvira sat at home and ate olives and chocolates alternately. She also wound herself, slow, cold, beautifully-diamonded, as a snake, round the problem, and colder and more forbidding grew her brow. She began to smoke, and was presently smoking the chamber full of her resentment, desolation and increasing resolution.

‘What a damned traitor!’ she cried, beside herself with impatience. Her smoke-trails, as she paced about, were like wraiths waiting about the ceiling to topple on Oliver’s much-cursed and oft-coddled black topknot.

Stead took pains to study the practical aspects of lace-making. The industry provides an economic case study of a venerable craft being overtaken by mechanisation.

Lace from Lille. The Dictionary of Needlework/flickr

The novel focuses on the businessmen who manage the trade, the Fuseaux brothers (“lace-jobbers”) and their employee Marpurgo: the operatives are not seen. Paradoxically, these economic issues are explored in some of Stead’s most fantastical writing, particularly in the presentation of the Paindebled family, whose members literally live off the past. Both the Paindebled house and shop are repositories of lace as a work of art, exemplified by the prized umbrella cover, a beautiful decorative object entirely lacking utility.

The Paindebled daughter, Coromandel, despite her family context has more agency than any other character in the novel — as demonstrated in a seduction scene that enactsa metaphysical poem like Donne’s “The Good Morrow” (“This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere”).

Later she carries Oliver off on a crazy drive into the countryside. She can operate in the bucolic environment of the farm in Burgundy, beyond the house and shop. Along with Blanche, the characters in the lace storyline are the only Parisians among the dramatis personae: the others are transients.

Stead reaches beyond the immediate setting in the allusion of the title to the Furies of Greek mythology, goddesses of vengeance who brought pestilence and misfortune. Marpurgo says that Paris “has many beauties — and furies”, and the three central beauties, Elvira, Blanche and Coromandel, all become destructive furies.

“Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone send me for you,” says the Machiavellian Marpurgo to Oliver — who he is about to lead into a hypnotic drunken revel. In a welter of allusion, Marpurgo casts himself as Laius, father of Oedipus, and addresses Oliver as Orestes, who was pursued by the Furies for killing his mother.

The classical references reinforce Stead’s alignment with Joyce, which is evident also in the wordplay of Oliver’s poems. Like Ulysses, The Beauties and Furies is concentrated in a particular city at a particular historical juncture, though its action extends beyond a single day to run across a full year.

The novel is shaped by the cycle of the seasons, within which is conducted the minuet of characters meeting and parting, mainly in interiors or nocturnal scenes from which the natural world is largely excluded. The seasonal round offers no promise of anything other than a different version of the same kinds of romantic illusion and delusion that have been delineated with such exhilarating energy over some 350 pages.

The Beauties and Furies is a challenging novel of breathtaking ambition. Surrender to it, and marvel.

This is the introduction to the new Text Classic edition of The Beauties and Furies.

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