Reviewed by Karen Langley
Australian-born Christina Stead led a lively and picaresque life, spending parts of her time in the USA, France, Spain and the UK. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that the heroine of this entertaining and adventurous novel draws much of her experiences from the life of her author. Letty Fox: her Luck is a recent reissue from Head of Zeus in their wonderful Apollo imprint, and it’s an excellent, if long, read!
Stead is a fascinating character; although hailing from Australia, her novels are most often set in one of the many countries she passed through, and she spent much of her time living away from her country of birth. A committed Marxist all her life, her novels attracted controversy for their content, and I’m not sure that she’s ever made it through to the mainstream with her writing although she does have a devoted and committed following. In fact, this re-release has a laudatory introduction by Tim Parks, and many of her books have been reprinted by Virago in the past.
Letty Fox: Her Luck opens with the titular character in New York; finding herself stood up by her latest lover, she storms off into the Village determined to find company. She is instantly presented to the reader as some kind of 1930s good time girl, flouncing about, flirting and attempting to capture a man, as a marriage to someone willing to pay your way through life seems to be the highest thing to which to aspire. The story then flashes backwards as Letty relates her earlier life and we begin to learn of the kind of upbringing she’s had and why it’s made her like she is.
And my goodness, what a dysfunctional and eccentric lot Letty’s family are! Her father Solander is permanently leaving her mother Mathilde, who seems to be resigned to her fate in a depressed way. There are uncles making their way through consecutive marriages and relationships, controlling grandmothers, emotionally damaged cousins as well as numerous lovers and hangers-on. Letty’s childhood is punctuated with constant moves from home to home, country to country, usually along with her mother and her sister Jacky, but other times without them. There are periods in school, periods being farmed out with carers of all sorts, and it really is an unsettling life.
It’s a large and odd ménage, and none of them seem able or willing to break away and become independent – though much of this is because of the constant money issues and the hopes of inheritance from Grandma Morgan. So they all rattle around all over the globe, unable to function without the rest however far they travel. For example, when a couple of them decide to up sticks and head for London and then Paris, they all go – husbands, wives, mistresses, children, grandparents, assorted friends and relations, the lot!
Mathilde always asked why she was ever born and why no luck had ever come her way. I felt, in my rather strident way, that my life was my luck. I could make the best of it.
Gradually, we watch Letty grow up (although she was always a knowing child, aware of far too much for her age); her mother and father continue to drift in and out of each other’s lives, but Letty herself is keen to get herself a man, as a husband seems the only way to get on. Stead is remarkably frank and pragmatic about the love affairs the characters have, and the book was actually banned for several years in Australia because it was considered amoral. Certainly, it’s a book that often views the relationships between men and women coldly, based on economics rather than emotions, and the conflict between these two extremes is painted well.
For an author feted by feminist publishers and lauded for portraying women as individuals aware of their sexual appeal and prepared to use it, the end is perhaps unexpected. Rather than Letty going on to become an independent woman, she chooses a more traditional role. There is a curious inconsistency in Stead’s outlook: a socialist herself, her characters claim themselves to also have this belief, but their actions belie this. The women are not prepared to work, simply to leech off the nearest man. Letty’s cousin Edwige is a prime example of this, attempting to get into show business and actively trying to sell herself almost as a commodity.
In her intense, limited, keen idea, everyone was always working consciously for their own ends, all of them either marriage, or money-making.
Stead’s message is perhaps a little nebulous: on the one hand, she could well be satirizing the kind of woman who relies on men to pay for her every need; but on the other, it almost seems as if she’s condemning them, as her judgements on other women are harsh, and they’re pretty much portrayed as parasites. No one in this book is particularly likeable: the men are feckless and weak and easily swayed by a pretty pair of heels, and the women are either rather pathetic, like Mattie, or rapacious like Letty and her ilk. The chances of anyone having what we would call a normal relationship or a calm family life seem very remote, and the book ends up coming across as very cynical.
As for the length of the book, if I’m honest that is a little bit of an issue. The book is basically a bildungsroman, a coming of age novel of a young woman from the 1920s to the 1940s, and I felt at times that there wasn’t enough happening to justify the length. For example, the constant marital wrangling of Sol and Mattie began to become a slight irritant and I found myself wishing that Stead had had a decent editor who removed about a quarter of the book. The points she was making about the economics involved in the relationships between men and women were well made early on, and the repetition of the same discussions and quarrels but set in different parts of the world added nothing.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt at all that Stead can write; the early sections of the book had some particularly stunning descriptions of the landscape. The sense of place is strong throughout, and each different location Letty lives in is well drawn.
The rains flung themselves upon the house like a storm of light and music, sending the clouds so fast across the sky that the sun poured through: the thick crown of the wood parted and was filled with fragments of sky, and the fields all the way down the hill and the low tops at its foot and the smoky patterned fields and hills for mile upon mile tossed and shone, as the gusts poured north in a shining ocean.
There is much dry humour, and Letty can be an engaging, if occasionally frustrating, companion. And the book could be read as a criticism of a patriarchal system that doesn’t give women more options in life; although I would argue that there were women making different choices at that point in the 20th century, if from perhaps a more economically stable background. The lack of money is a constant theme and perhaps is one of the most important elements if you boil the book down to its essence.
In the end, Letty Fox is a fascinating read which gives much food for thought as well as painting some larger than life characters and settings. Despite its flaws, it gives a vivid picture of women’s lives and relationships in the early part of the 20th century and is another worthwhile addition to Apollo’s reprint series.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks that life is very much what you make it.
Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck (Apollo, 2017). 978-1786691392, 562pp, paperback.
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