The Beauties and Furies by Christina Stead: Paris ‘the city of night’

The Beauties and Furies by Christina Stead: Paris ‘the city of night.’

The Beauties and Furies (1936) is set in Paris over the period of one year: 1934. But this is no lightweight romantic story. It is a challenging, complex novel in the vein of Virginia Woolf, reminding me of the magnificence of Stead’s writing. This is Australian author Christina Stead’s (1902-1983) second novel, although she is best known for her 1940 masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children.

Christina Stead did, of course, visit Paris. And she acknowledged an affinity with Irish author James Joyce and his novel Ulysses (1922). In her letters in 1928, when she is in London, writing to her family in Sydney, Australia, she describes James Joyce as:

‘… the modern Shakespeare, superior to Shakespeare in command of language, equal in music’ but ‘hard work’ to read because it ‘has to be read with a rhyming dictionary, an encyclopaedia, the grammars of ten languages, and an annotated ‘’crib’’ ‘(cheat sheet). – Christina Stead, 1928

Bored housewife Elvira Western leaves England and her doctor husband Paul to follow a young, charming, but penniless, British student to Paris. Oliver Fenton is writing his thesis on The French Workers’ Movement from the Commune to the Amsterdam Congress of 1904.

On the train to Paris Elvira meets Annibale Marpurgo, an Italian lace-buyer, who inveigles his way into the lives of Elvira and Oliver, influencing their decisions through deceit and subterfuge. He is a master manipulator, a slippery snake, a schemer.

The beauties (and furies) are Elvira, Blanche D’Anizy the French actress, and Frenchwoman Coromandel Paindebled. Elvira, the ‘broad-bottomed’ married woman, five years older than Oliver, with ‘pretty eyes’ and ‘brows that meet’ has competition for Oliver’s attention. Oliver too has competition for Elvira’s attention. 

France is in political turmoil and economic downturn, and Paris is the underbelly of society. Amid this setting Elvira and Oliver have a co-dependent relationship, and one fraught with uncertainty and distractions – political, sensual, and sexual. 

Elvira is complicated and intelligent, indecisive and frustrating, sick and self-sabotaging – ‘she changes everyone’ – but it is Mapurgo, the traditional villian, that sucks up the limelight in this novel, slowly and insidiously. 

A revolutionary and controversial novel for its time with love triangles that intersect and entangle, it is dense and intense. The characters are unlikeable for their self-indulgence, pretentious intellectualism, pessimism, and self-absorption. Far from ‘the city of light’, Stead depicts Paris as ‘the city of night.’

But that – and the themes of political, sexual, and emotional emancipation – and all the virtues and vices of Paris in the 1930s – make The Beauties and Furies an outstanding novel.

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