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Christina Stead: Cotter’s England (US: Dark Places of the Heart)

Cotter’s England is the story of a working class family in post-war England. It is Stead’s only novel set exclusively in England. It is mainly told through the eyes of Nellie Cotter, who marries Labour leader, George Cook. Nellie is a very talkative and excitable woman who works for a left-wing newspaper and is a firm supporter of the underdog. Like Henny, in The Man Who Sold Children, Nellie is by no means inherently bad but she comes across as a monster as she bullies and organizes those around her – her husband, her friends and her family. Her relationship with her brother, Tom, is particular interesting. They seems to argue whenever they are together and she accuses him of lacking ambition, yet it is clear that she is desperate to cling to him – she is particularly jealous of his relationships with other women – in a way that is more than a sister should do.

The key scene in the book is the visit to the Hall of Mirrors at a country fair. Tom and Nellie dance together and then see their image in the mirror, not as funny images as we might suspect but she as the spindling hatchet witch and he as the playing-card king, which we know them really to be. As well as her brother and her husband, it is her friend Caroline whom we see devoured by Nellie. Caroline is getting over a failed marriage and the last thing she needs is Nellie but, when she gets Nellie, the end can only be tragedy. Nellie is a superb portrait of a woman who naively but inexorably destroys all around her.

Publishing history

First published 1966 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston