Thursday, February 20, 2014

Letty Fox: Her Luck

It happened that I went out once or twice in the following week to studio parties, and fat-chewing political groups where I exhibited a foul bad temper, and hardly recognised myself; I really seemed to have Luke's spirit in me. I said what I thought he would say when tired or bored. I would come out into the streets, into the new June night, still floating with bud scales, once more bitterly unhappy, my anger raging like a fire. Is not his seed like a fire? All about him, his word, his smile, his hypocrisy, his darkness, was like a fire, and I burned because I could not tell people, I have Luke. I came home once in the morning and saw two street lovers getting together on the steps of a church; the little cigarette ends jigged in the dark and described, in arcs, their weavings and embraces. Another time, a man groaned in an areaway. I did not care. I could have passed murderers, not only men with the blue devils. I was possessed with this man. One night, about two, I walked over to the slum he lived in and, taking a hand mirror out of my purse, threw it into the window of their room on the second floor. The window was open; they were in bed inside; I heard it tinkle on the floor. There were voices. I looked up. He came to the window and looked down. He saw a woman. But what woman? He had so many women. He only knew it was one of his women because of the smashed mirror from a lady's handbag, and so did she, of course. I went back home and cried in fresh agony, thinking of the scene, the conjugal bed, the open window on the summer night, the jag of glass flying through the air, smashing on the floor, the delicate tinkle, and him leaping from bed. If only it could have planted itself in her eye, her cheek, her breast! But it just sang a little note like a mosquito and lay there on the floor of their room.

Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946)

While reading Letty Fox for the first time recently (and I have still not finished it), I keep wondering what I'd have thought of this novel when I was 24, the same age Letty is when she narrates her story. And I do wish I had read it then. It was certainly (just) available, having been reissued in 1974 by Angus and Robertson in their Australian Classics, with an introduction by Meaghan Morris. I was certainly aware that it was available - but what was I doing? Huddling in a shabby room in Sydney's Glebe reading Margaret Drabble and Doris Lessing and Shulamith Firestone, attempting a few scribbles of my own and finding them sadly lacking, and avoiding reading all the (patriarchal, to my mind) set texts for university.

In her introduction, Morris says:

'Letty Fox had offended because it presented a woman's account of her sexual and emotional life without following the prescribed formula for females of modesty, passivity, and simple contentment. It described the way women do live, not the way they are supposed to live. It is likely to be equally disturbing now when Letty's notions of self-respect in marriage are being discarded by more and more women.'

Yes! That's what I love about Letty Fox now. It is so frank and real. I recognise myself, and women I know, in her. Yet at the age of 24, I fear I may have dismissed her because, while she had many sexual adventures (and she is very much an adventurer), she believed in love and longed to be married. It might have done me good to see that the free and easy ways of libertarian young women in the 1970s (I'm sure most of us thought we were different from women in the past) had already been charted by women in the 1930s, as this book portrays (and no doubt before then, too!)

Stead herself (born 1902) was scared of being 'left on the shelf', and to her delight wasn't, because soon after she arrived in England from Australia in her 20s, met William Blech (he later became Bill Blake), a communist businessman who had been born in America.  They lived together a long time but weren't to marry till Christina was in her 50s, because his wife wouldn't give him a divorce (and I don't think he pressed her too much for one). It was complicated.  Letty's father, Solander Fox, was based on Blake, and his partner, Persia, on Stead herself.

A review of Letty Fox in the New York Times was to bring Christina to the attention of the FBI because it 'indicated the author had an extensive knowledge of Communist matters'.

Stead, who lived almost all her life away from Australia, much of it America, was also not awarded an Australian literary grant in the 50s because of her communist connections. She and Bill were both Stalinists. (Even the intelligent were obviously deluded, even though Emma Goldman tried to tell communists what Russia was like after she'd been there soon after the Revolution.)

As well as wishing I'd read this in my 20s, I wish that newly adult women would read it now. Is Letty Fox a Young Adult Novel?

Certainly, it could be. If publishers today were brave and bold enough.

But there is certainly nothing there that would shock many young women from their late teens on, and much in it to delight them, from the frank portrayal of sex and love, to the stunningly brilliant writing.