A Harmless Affair: Christina Stead

Lisa at ANZ Litlovers announced Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20, and I selected a short story at random from Ocean of Story.  A Harmless Affair takes a look at the ambiguous relationship between the happily married Lydia and a journalist/author/soldier, Paul Charteris. Lydia, married to Tom, is in a strange mood, aware of spring, aware of love, when she is invited to a party full of “distinguished people who had all arrived at their destinations.” Lydia meets Charteris, she owns all of his books, and invites him to meet her husband sometime.  He makes a comment that he didn’t know that she was married and that he has ‘no luck.’


A week later, Charteris phones and asks if he can visit sometime. He’s given an open invitation, and a month later, he rings again and says he’s coming over. Tom and Charteris appear to like each other, and gradually a relationship forms–mainly between the two men–although there’s something in the air between Charteris and Lydia. Charteris says things to Lydia that he doesn’t say to Tom, he sends Lydia these “rare golden smiles.”  How is Lydia to interpret the things Charteris says, the looks he sends her?

Lydia and Tom move to another state for two years, but they return to New York and run into Charteris again. There’s something doomed about this man. He seems in a downward spiral, tired, and unkempt. The absence and the reunion forces Lydia to consider that “this is the man I nearly lost my head over,” but the inexplicable enchantment Charteris weaved over Lydia before, begins again.

This twenty-five page story is disturbing, and yet there’s nothing ostensibly that should disturb any reader. Perhaps it’s the way that Stead conveys how Charteris, obviously a damaged soul, burrows under Lydia’s skin. She thinks she’s in love, but is she really? The title “A Harmless Affair” is, like the story, somewhat ambiguous. We are left with the idea that Charteris irrevocably alters Lydia’s life, but is this for the better or for the worst? How much of all this germinates in Lydia or her projection? Stead argues that just a few looks, a few words casually thrown out, can lead to unsettling consequences that have no closure. Anyway, a strangely unsettling story. …


Filed under Fiction, Stead Christina

15 responses to “A Harmless Affair: Christina Stead

  1. Thanks so much for the contribution to #ChristinaSteadWeek, I think that between you and Sue from Whispering Gums, you will have sold this collection of short stories to many readers!

  2. Stead seems to have been bothered (or maybe inspired) by her affair with Ralph Fox – when she was in a permanent relationship with Bill Blake – during the pre-war Paris years, and explores it over and over in her stories.

  3. I’m a little ashamed to say that I’d never heard of this author until Lisa posted her plans for the reading week a little while ago. My shelves are a bit full up right now (especially with books by other women writers), but I’ll keep her in mind for the future.

  4. The title “A harmless affair” sounds like it could be ironic? That on the surface it seems harmless in that nothing really happens (if I’ve read your description correctly) but that in fact it’s been quite harmful in the way it has unsettled Lydia?

  5. I agree that the title sounds ironic – Stead’s titles often are when dealing with the subject of love.

  6. I’ve been meaning to read The Man Who Loved Children for ages but it seems it was out of print. It’s available again, so I’ll give it a try. I’ve only heard good things about her so far.

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