Christina Stead Week – my review of For Love Alone
November 6, 2016 — 2:48

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Uncategorized  Comments: 10


To celebrate Christina Stead week this year, Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers is hosting a selection of reviews and appreciations of Stead’s work. As my contribution, I’ve written an appreciation, rather than an objective review of For Love Alone.

For Love Alone meant a great deal to me when I first read the novel in the mid nineteen seventies, a time when I was teaching myself to write. It is among the top ten, if not top five novels from which I learnt the most. The mid nineteen seventies was also the time I met Christina Stead, while she was a writer-in-residence at Monash University. This post – which is really more of a personal testament than a critique of the novel – is not the place to describe our meeting. Suffice to say, Stead struck me as both gracious and formidable – gracious in that she had taken the time to read and think about a manuscript I’d sent her – formidable, as well as accurate, in her criticism of it.

While I learnt much from For Love Alone, I understood, young as I was, that it would be vain and foolish ever to imagine I could write like its author. But I identified with the struggle of Stead’s protagonist, Teresa Hawkins, to better herself through education, to scrimp and save in order to afford the fare to Europe. I also identified with the mistake she made in falling in love with the wrong man – not only a kind of generic ‘wrong man’ – but a man who was also her teacher.

And I fell in love with Stead’s prose, her language that is rich and deep, extraordinarily well orchestrated, heart-felt.

Jonathan Crow, the tutor who turns out to be nasty and self-serving, is the catalyst Teresa needs to get away from Australia, from Sydney. But what a Sydney Stead creates in the early parts of the book! I can never go to Watsons Bay without recalling her descriptions of the water and the summer heat, and Teresa and her sister Kitty, dressed in their best, heading off to their cousin’s wedding.

Stead’s London is the London of the 1930s, where Teresa finds work with the American radical, James Quick, a man who finally wins her affection and returns it. The title, For Love Alone, I have always read as ironic. It is not ‘for love alone’ that Teresa triumphs and learns to forge her own path; it is certainly not for romantic love, and she turns her back on the duties that might have kept her in Australia as a consequence of loving her immediate family.

During her lifetime, Stead was often maligned and misunderstood, the power of her prose sometimes frightening off readers and reviewers, not to mention the publishers who forced her to re-write The Man Who Loved Children and set it in America. Thankfully, Stead did not bow to the same kind of persuasion when it came to For Love Alone.

I’ve said I’m not going to describe my meeting with the author in this post, but I will finish it by mentioning one thing. It has always intrigued me how, in The Man Who Loved Children, Louisa helps her step mother to kill herself, or at least does not prevent it happening. When I met Stead at Monash, and asked her about this harrowing and memorable scene, she replied, ‘I could be violent with them (meaning her characters) because I was violent with myself.’

Here is a link to another contributor, who has reviewed Christina Stead: A Life of Letters by Chris Williams.

As time goes on I’ll be adding more.


  • Thanks for the link (to theaustralianlegend). I appreciated your heartfelt review – how great to not only have met Stead but to have had your ms critiqued by her.

    November 6, 2016 — 4:15
  • I find it fascinating that you learned to write by reading this book (among others). I’ve never really been able to pinpoint an influence so clearly and I ‘d be very interested to talk more with you about it.
    Perhaps because The Man Who Loved Children made such a huge impression on me, I’ve never really taken to For Love Alone, which seems so much more rough-hewn. But it certainly did disturb me a lot, on a more personal level, and maybe because, like you, I recognised a lot of her experiences, in a more muted form, in myself.
    Thanks for the link to the Williams review. I really enjoyed it.

    November 6, 2016 — 6:14
  • Oh wow, imagine that! Meeting Christina Stead and having her look at your work, that must indeed be a cherished memory.
    I haven’t read this one, but reading Seven Poor Men of Sydney, yes, the way she creates a setting is just brilliant. Add that incisive dialogue and she succeeds in making me feel enraged by the tragedy of the Depression years too.
    Thanks for your contribution, Dorothy:)

    November 6, 2016 — 7:02
  • Yes, all Christina Stead’s novels have inspired and intrigued me – the latter because she seems to break every ‘rule’ in the minimalist book. Think of that amazing first paragraph in Seven Poor Men of Sydney – I think I counted the adjectives in one of the sentences. (Were there twelve?) Her prose was lush but never limp. A powerful writer. I would have been utterly cowed had I met her. Brave indomitable you.

    November 6, 2016 — 21:52
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    Thanks, Bill. I enjoyed your review too. It’ll be interesting to read the other posts as they come in. And yes, it was a privilege to have Christina Stead critique my ms. She was pretty tough!

    November 7, 2016 — 3:14
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    Thanks for your comment, Gert. When I look back over my old notebooks from that time, they are mostly passages copied from novels I was trying to learn from. There are quite a few passages from For Love Alone, and they are mostly descriptions of place. I think I knew that I could never hope to come anywhere near Stead’s skill with characters and the emotional dramas between them, but that some of her skill with places might perhaps rub off!

    November 7, 2016 — 3:20
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    Thanks, Lisa. What a good idea of yours, to share our thoughts about Christina Stead and her books! And yes, meeting her was quite an experience – very daunting in fact!

    November 7, 2016 — 3:22
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    Thanks, Sara. In fact, I consider myself a minimalist writer (of sorts), and, as I say in my post, I was never vain enough to believe I could write like Stead. Nor does my mature self, looking back, identify a time when I really wanted to. I can admire her prose without aspiring to it And her passion inspired me, her determination, against all odds, to forge her own path.

    November 7, 2016 — 3:27
  • Lovely reflection Dorothy. It’s so sad when authors aren’t appreciated as they should be in their own time, and Stead, while I know she had her admirers, was one of those. And yet. as you say, her prose is so beautiful and her understanding of the struggle to be or find oneself, not to mention her understanding of the mistakes we make in the process, should have made her loved.

    November 9, 2016 — 23:55
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    Thanks for your thoughts, WG. I’m looking forward to your contribution to Christina Stead week.
    My feeling is that Stead remained true to herself, and I didn’t get the sense, when I met her, that she was in any way embittered. (But of course our meeting was very brief.)

    November 10, 2016 — 1:50
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