Essay: Fiona Wrighton Christina Stead

For love and hunger

The year that I first became ill was also the first year that I studied Australian Literature. Actually, I was studying a lot of literature, as a kind of salve to the media subjects that I had enrolled in, thinking at the time that I might like to be a journalist. One of my literature subjects was a course on nineteenth century German prose, riddled with novels about hysterical women, sanatoria and destructive unconsciouses. My Australian Literature lecturers talked about the shock of recognition; the German lecturers were more concerned with accusative declension and pluperfect tense.

The year that I first became ill, that I first started vomiting without volition, no one could figure out what was happening to my body. I had gastroscopies, barium swallows, kept food diaries. I threw up a pH monitor that had been inserted through my nose with my first meal and then spent several hours in Emergency, waiting for a nurse to remove it, coiled up in my mouth. I lost count of the number of times doctors asked if I might be pregnant, or how I felt about my bodyweight. A specialist asked my mother if she knew ‘why I was doing this’. But the ground hadn’t shifted then, at least, as far as I can tell.

In the year that I first became ill, I remember climbing the concrete stairs at Mortdale station and concentrating on each protesting muscle, feeling as though my legs were moving by telekinesis alone. I remember the almost physical longing I felt on the way through Redfern when I saw a sign on the gate of a share house: If you lived here, you’d be home by now. And then in smaller letters Housemate wanted.

That year I read, for the first time, Christina Stead’s For Love Alone (1945). I was nineteen. It was a set text. I remember I disliked the male protagonist Jonathan Crowe for his self-obsession and coldness, which I thought extended to the book as a whole. I remember that I thought it old-fashioned and too rigidly structured to feel poignant, to feel real. But there was one section that stopped me dead, and that remained for years as my overriding memory of reading the book. Teresa, the intelligent and passionate heroine, she who suffers for love alone, is working in a factory in Redfern and saving all her money in order to buy passage to London. Rather than pay for trams between the ferry terminal and the factory, Teresa walks. From Circular Quay to Redfern and back, every day. She saves money; she goes hungry rather than pay for lunch, and she walks, both ways, each day. And Stead’s description of Teresa’s physical exhaustion, of the ravages of hunger on her body, cut me to the ever-more prominent bone.

As Teresa begins to feel ‘the resistance of the body’ she divides her route into defined stretches: from the ferry to the Law School to the courts to a school to Hyde Park, Tooth’s Brewey, Mark Foy’s, a barber, a park, a station, a street in Surry Hills, a war museum, another park, a chapel, a bridge. This is something I too had been doing on those late and suddenly biting-cold autumn afternoons when the walk from the lecture hall in the university’s old English building to the steep concrete steps at Redfern station, where an upswept draught was always and inexplicably howling, seemed unimaginably long, the idea of it alone exhausting. I found I could will myself through small stages, landmark to landmark, until I reached the dirty peach tiles of the station and sat down, propped against a pillar.

The progression of Teresa’s disintegration really resonated with me. She spends more than three years walking, saving her energy and money, hungering for the start of her new life. These three years are all but elided in the book, as if no real living, no real memory-making occurs within in them. All there is is Teresa’s walking, Teresa’s hunger:

When she had less than a year to go, she became very weak … She became indifferent to everyone … She was beginning to notice the noise in the streets, which increased her fatigue; the smell of brewing was getting stronger and sickened her. She avoided food shops and lemonade stands. She had found the kind of step that cost her the least fatigue, a firm lope, though it might not have looked as easy as a drag and slouch … and even when she was half-fainting, she never forgot to walk with this peculiar, life-saving step which cost the least energy … She dreamed; she saw fewer people on the crowded streets but she bumped into no one … She recognised no faces and never in all these years, though she had been bred and brought up in the city, saw a person she knew on the street. She recognised noises and smells, however, things that guided her when her eyes became milky or dark as they did occasionally, and which did not distract her. She developed the acuity of a savage, in sound and in smell.

These things I remember: constantly arguing with my sister in our shared car about the volume of her music, which made my brain feel foggy and which she insisted she could barely hear. Introducing myself to people whom I had already met at picnics or parties, often several times, but was unable to recognise because I had been almost half-conscious, ghosted by hunger when we had conversed; conversely, even now, being able to recall in detail exactly which foods were served at particular social gatherings: the three different cheeses and cherry tomatoes at last year’s Christmas picnic; the chicken wings, potato bake and four varieties of salad at my niece’s Christening; the veal and pumpkin stir-fry my mother made on my twenty-first birthday. How awful I found the smell of bacon. How I would fade in and out of conversations held around me, unable to concentrate on anything more than the bare bones of a story. I feel, sometimes, that my higher functioning has been milky and dark for years; that hunger makes me animal instead.

Later, Teresa begins to compulsively look in shop windows selling jams, cakes, juices, fruits. This too I did. I watched other people eat almost mesmerically. Teresa’s hunger, my hunger, Stead writes, constantly ‘blow[s] through her like a draught’.

In the year that I first became ill, I recognised the physicality of Teresa’s hunger, and I carried it with me for years, although the rest of For Love Alone did not stir me – I was nineteen, and probably too callow, too cold and self-obsessed to fully understand it. But in the last two years, I started hearing so many writers talk again about Christina Stead. Several of her books, her biography, were reissued with new introductions by writers as unlikely as Jonathan Franzen. Stead died in the year that I was born, lived in the suburb where I went to school.

I re-read For Love Alone last year, just weeks after I started negotiating with the hospital to permit me a second admission, and days after the National Young Writers’ Festival, a four-day weekend in which I had eaten just two meals, tearing around Newcastle full of coffee, vodka and sugar-free gum. I was still ill, very much so, but at least I knew by then the shape and face of my disease. And this time, reading, I was stunned.

Teresa, I realised this time, has all of the character traits, from the very beginning of the book, that are said to make a person vulnerable to disordered eating. She is passionate, but stymied by her domineering family. She is intelligent, but always striving for something more: for honour, for meaning, for love. She is austere because she holds herself accountable; she demands standards and sacrifices of herself, she thinks and feels too deeply, and too much. She sees herself as separate from, and frustrated by, the life and the society that she must move through: ‘She smelled, heard, saw, guessed faster, longer more than others, it seemed to her. She listened … with a galling politeness, because what she had to say was not to tell them.’

Teresa’s nineteen-year-old angst at the opening of the book – ‘You offend my honour! I would kill anyone who offends my honour … Honour is more sacred than life,’ she exclaims in the earliest scene – I first read as outmoded and overblown. Almost a decade later, I recognise this sense of grasping, this need for something more, as the pulsing baseline to so much of my life, even if the language has been different. And it is so simple a slippage for food, that most basic, daily ritual, to become entangled in that striving, that separation. Early in the novel, Teresa refuses wine at her cousin’s wedding, and her denial immediately sets her apart. Her denial makes her powerful, and strangely sensual: ‘Teresa looked at them proudly; she felt immortal. The world was like a giant egg of golden glass, she could crush it. She floated; she looked at them, gleaming.’

Teresa’s hunger, and her striving are constantly tied to sensuality, and to love – this is hunger as a yearning, desire made manifest, physically. ‘Shall I die hungry?’ she asks, thinking about the passion that Jonathan cannot show her. But more than this, I recognised in my second reading of the book, Teresa’s walking shifts, in those perilously small increments, from something primarily practical – a frugality of money – to something mostly about achievement, a frugality of the body. More and more, Teresa’s walking becomes a way to prove that she is strong, that she is worthy of the love she craves, that she is earning her right to make choices, her right to even exist, step by step, as she physically shrinks away. She veritably walks her way to England, and it is proof of her selflessness, because it is a kind of self-annihilation. Very quickly, she stops walking for love alone, for the burning hope that she might be beloved. ‘She was not now walking only to save money,’ Stead writes. ‘She was outstripping illness and failure.’

That is what hunger does for people like Teresa, for people like me. It outstrips failure, or at the very least, it makes failure something that is contingent, beyond our control: if we fail when we are hungry, we only fail because we are ill, not because of something lacking in ourselves. It is a strange kind of power hunger gives us. Beyond that physical drivenness, hunger allows us to hold our potential as just that: potential. Hunger keeps our potential untested; it is limitless because we can not access it entirely.

But more importantly, in another of those strange inversions that these diseases offer, Teresa’s hunger is a kind of sacrifice of the physical to bring her closer to a metaphysical ideal. Hunger is a measurable achievement where such things are usually more abstract and ill-defined; hunger is a constant where Teresa can only be uncertain of her purpose, of her place, of Jonathan’s love. Hunger is a constant reminder of what she wants, or what she is waiting for and working towards. It is grounding, and it can be held onto, relied upon, like nothing else that Teresa has – that I have – ever known.

It is important, too, that Teresa is not the only character to equate – or at least align – hunger and love. Soon after Teresa’s arrival in London, she and Jonathan go the theatre together, and return to his bed-sit. After chastising Teresa for ‘doing nothing with herself’ in the years she had been saving, Jonathan begins to talk about his university life and work:

Someone … says the relation between the sexes is based on food. Savages only have their women once or twice a year. Their food is poor. All that about love-life of the savages is balderdash for mammy-pappy consumption in the suburbs. Love is an illusion, love is food. Savages don’t love. It’s due to an overplus of calories, we eat more than we need … Some of the superfluidity goes to the brains, the nerves, and we get love, sighs, groans. Primitive love – raw fish, Cockney love – fish and chips, middle-class love – cottage pudding, the grand passion – roast duckling and port wine.

So too, Teresa’s family consider her sick body as both caused by and the cause of the fact that she ‘hasn’t got a man’. In the final year of her walking, she withdraws further from her family, eating most of her meals in seclusion (a classic eating disorder symptom), or else arguing over the meal table:

‘Terry’s going mad,’ said the brother … ‘The way she’s going on, she must be going mad.’

‘Women go mad if they don’t get married,’ said the father. ‘It isn’t their fault. If Terry would get herself up a it, make herself more attractive, she’d probably get a nibble, but she can’t expect men to go after a bag of bones. Now Terry was quite beefy when she was sixteen, she was quite an eyeful.

‘The brother’, as he is called most often, takes this even further:

Yes, it’s your fault because you’re so ugly, mangy, thin as a skeleton … It’s your fault. Look at your hair and the hollows in your cheeks, you can almost see your teeth through your cheeks. I’ve seen you in bathing, you can almost count every rib you’ve got, your arms are like sticks, your legs are like broomsticks, it’s your own fault no man will have you.

Teresa’s family see her thinness not as a misplaced act of striving but as something hysterical, her shriveled body as directly linked with her stymied sexuality. And they are, perhaps, correct. But although the body does become the most obvious expression of these illnesses, it is also, in a way, the least important. Hunger is, I think, an attempt to transcend the body, to be something other, something more.

But beyond Teresa’s reconfiguring of food, accomplishment, desire and denial, For Love Alone is riddled with metaphors of eating. A description of Teresa’s adolescent love of reading (which is, incidentally, held partly to blame for her high ideals) refers to her as having ‘eaten into her few years’; an early family reprimand is ‘Eat your soup and don’t be a fool.’ One of Teresa’s most vivid childhood memories is of barges in the harbour, glimpsed on her way to school, dumping excess fruit into the water, to ‘fall among the fishes’, a waste that’s almost ironic given what lies ahead.

On Jonathan’s part, his descriptions of and his railing against his poverty are constantly figured around food. He tells Teresa early on that he always eats at home because it is all he can afford; he conflates his lack of property, and subsequent need to work, with a need to eat: ‘If I had property, I wouldn’t have to use my brains … I’d just enjoy. But I can’t eat and so I think.’ Indeed, it is Jonathan who introduces Teresa to the idea of frugality, concerned as he is with always showing the world the bootstraps by which he has pulled himself up.

Most important, however, is Stead’s figuring of eating as an erosion, a wearing away, at times of will, of hope, but finally, of despair. When, in England at last, Teresa and Jonathan become lost on a weekend hike (mostly due to Jonathan’s self-righteousness) and are forced to spend an evening sleeping through a storm in an abandoned mill, Teresa finally sees him for the callous person that he is. She ‘released him from her will,’ writes Stead, and ‘the harness of years dropped off, eaten through.’ It is a remarkable choice of metaphor, and one that seems, suddenly and subtly, to close the cycle of hunger and destruction that has been plaguing Teresa for so many years.

Teresa has been physically recovering since her arrival in London, in terribly small increments, helped along by her new freedoms, the kindnesses and attentions of new colleagues, a new lover, a release from poverty and its attendant need for parsimoniousness. These things give her the clarity to be able to cast Jonathan off – on its own, hunger does not lend itself towards epiphanies. The metaphysical is impossible without the physical, though hunger desperately tries to convince us otherwise.

I realise now that what I admire most about Stead’s portrayal of Teresa is how her illness is never made unambiguous, never named. In all of her years of walking, Teresa does not recognise that anything has shifted. Although she knows that her body has been devastated, she never thinks that she is doing anything other that what she has to do to get through. So it was for me: I was managing the physical cause of my vomiting by cutting out the foods that triggered it, preventing it from happening by barely eating at all and I couldn’t see, for years, that anything was wrong with this. For people like Teresa, people like me, hunger is no longer an act of will, although it is, perhaps, that willing for something else. A willing to live for love, and by love alone; by word and not by bread.