Dreaming of the Middle Ages: the place of the 'mittelalterlich' and socialist awareness in Christina Stead's early fiction
Abstract[Extract] The Middle Ages have proved to be imaginatively a fluid and artistically enticing entity. As Umberto Eco has underscored, many have turned to the Middle Ages for inspiration and diverse forms of confirmation (66-72). These range from nostalgia-enshrouded models of craftsmanship and social organisation to repugnant images of the alien and intellectually benighted other, which needed to be overcome in the interests of enlightenment and progress. Moreover, a single work can entertain antithetical verdicts on the period, or an individual's reaction to it change in response to socio-historical or personal impetuses - a point well illustrated by the early writings of Christina Stead. Born in Sydney in 1902 into a strongly socialist family, Stead followed her father from an early age in publicly avowing her atheism (Rowley 26; Williams 36), and had embraced communism by the early 1930s.^1 Stead, however, was far from being doctrinaire on all matters (Rowley 254-55; Sturm 90-93), and her early compositions reveal an abiding fascination with a nebulous, romantic image of the Middle Ages, which was difficult to align with the dictates of engaged writing. Her efforts to reconcile the two, though noted, deserve more detailed attention than they have received,^2 as does evidence of her awareness of the dangers of ideological derailment which imaginative immersion in this period might portend. In particular, the evocation of the Middle Ages in the Salzburg Tales bears witness arguably to her determination not to produce merely escapist bourgeois fiction, while in Michael Baguenault, in Seven Poor Men of Sydney, she drew an admonitory portrait of a potential comrade who succumbs to the spell of 'mittelalterlich' (or the medieval), rather than turning his creative gifts to socially productive ends.
Ackland, Michael (2011) Dreaming of the Middle Ages: the place of the 'mittelalterlich' and socialist awareness in Christina Stead's early fiction. Australian Literary Studies, 26 (3-4). pp. 54-68.