Forgotten classics: Letty Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead
About the book
Letty Fox: Her Luck is a novel like no other. Funny, tangled and complex, it is a book of contradictions. At once romantic and pragmatic, our heroine, Letty, is a single, intelligent, independent woman, determined to relinquish all these things and find a husband. Letty is flippant and yet politicised, romantic yet pragmatic, a sexually voracious being who longs for the security of marriage.
First edition cover
The novel follows her escapades in London and New York as she tries out—with relish—various men in her search for the ideal mate. Letty Fox is a book to fall in love with—the perfect romantic comedy, if only we could rid ourselves of the preconceived notions this label now conjures.
"Funny books have to work a lot harder to get emotional responses from their readers"
When it was first published in 1946, the book received some nice reviews—some not so nice—but, as was ever the author’s frustration, it was far from celebrated. Stead’s work is too tricky, perhaps, for such a straightforward reaction. Reading Letty Fox, even now, opinions are often split: Is Letty our hero or antihero? Is she a feminist icon or anti-feminist nightmare?
But it wasn’t just the complexities of character that made Stead’s early readers unsure. 1946 saw the world in recovery from the Second World War and on the brink of another, cold, one. Christina Stead was a pacifist married to a Marxist. According to Hoover’s FBI, Letty Fox herself was a communist. Stead and her husband were under investigation. In hindsight, the book launch could have been better timed.
Christina Stead. Image via hubpages
Aside from the politics of the time, the book had plenty of other barriers to the rave reviews Stead longed for. The book is long, very long. It is not a debut—it is, in fact, Stead’s sixth—so when it was released critics believed they already knew Stead and her writing. They couldn’t brand her as a new exciting discovery, nor was she a recognised success, this was just another interesting novel by another interesting writer.
Letty Fox is a funny book, written to make people laugh (and then think). It's brilliantly successful at this, but funny books have to work a lot harder to get emotional responses from their readers. If a book makes you cry, it has meaning; if a book makes you laugh, well, it’s provided a nice distraction, but has it left a mark?
"You won’t have read a book like it before"
In my opinion—and what else can I offer—Letty Fox is a great read, not despite these barriers, but because of them. It is long (a joy when what you're reading is this good); it is complex (again, I think we readers can handle this); it is not a debut, but the work of a writer at full speed and full strength; and it's funny, outrageously, knowingly, deliciously funny.
Angela Carter admired Christina Stead, branding her as one of our greatest writers. Carter called Letty Fox "a fully achieved comic novel of a most original kind" and this is, exactly, what the book is. You won’t have read a book like it before. This will lead some to dislike it, but others (including you, I hope) will rejoice and revel in Stead’s—and Letty’s—originality.
Angela Carter. Image via angelacarter.co.uk
It is a novel about youth set free from family; a daunting, invigorating, vivifying moment, experienced by all lives lived. Apollo is extremely proud to have Christina Stead join our lost library. Overlooked on first publication, remembered fleetingly in the intervening decades, we hope this outing will finally see Letty Fox: Her Luck truly celebrated.
"One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarrelled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad. My first thought was, at any cost, to get company for the evening.
"My fur coat, got from my mother, and my dinner dress, got from my grandmother, were things of the past and things with a past, mere rags and too well known to all my friends"
In general, things were bad with me; I was in low water financially and had nothing but married men as companions. My debts were nearly six hundred dollars, not counting my taxes in arrears. I had already visited the tax inspector twice and promised to pay in instalments when I had money in the bank. I had told him that I was earning my own living, with no resources, separated from my family, and that though my weekly pay was good, that is sixty-five dollars, I needed that and more to live. All this was true. I now had, by good fortune, about seventy dollars in the bank, but this was only because a certain man had given me a handsome present (the only handsome present I ever got, in fact); and this money I badly needed for clothes, for moving, and for petty cash.
During the war, I had got used to taking a taxi to work. Being out always late at night, I was sluggish in the morning; and being a great worker at the office, I was behindhand for my evening dates. Beyond such petty expenses, I needed at least two hundred and fifty dollars for a new coat. My fur coat, got from my mother, and my dinner dress, got from my grandmother, were things of the past and things with a past, mere rags and too well known to all my friends. There was no end to what I needed.
"My men, at least during the war years, had been flighty, spoiled officers in the armed services, in and out of town, looking for a good-timer by the night, the week, or the month"
My twenty-fourth birthday was just gone, and I had spent two hours this same evening ruminating upon all my love affairs which had sunk ingloriously into the past, along with my shrunken and worn outfits. Most of these affairs had been promising enough. Why had they failed? (Or I failed?)
Partly, because my men, at least during the war years, had been flighty, spoiled officers in the armed services, in and out of town, looking for a good-timer by the night, the week, or the month; and if not these young officers, then my escorts were floaters of another sort, middle-aged, married civilians, journalists, economic advisers, representatives of foreign governments or my own bosses, office managers, chiefs, owners.
But my failure was, too, because I had no apartment to which to take them. How easy for them to find it inconvenient to visit me at my hotel, or for me to visit them at theirs when they were dubious or cool. It seemed to me that night that a room of my own was what I principally lacked."
Letty Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead is published by Apollo.
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