Sometimes called Australia's "lost" novelist, Christina Stead went long unrecognised in her home country, and even had one of her books banned as too salacious. So when the US best-selling author Jonathan Franzen wrote a lengthy essay in The New York Times last year, calling for her to be included in the Western literary canon, he sparked a massive resurgence of interest.
Stead's most famous novel, The Man Who Loved Children, which Franzen called "a masterpiece", was based on her own childhood, part of which she spent in a house overlooking Sydney Harbour. Now her former home has become the focus of a bitter dispute between local residents and its current owner, the Fulham footballer Mark Schwarzer, who is also goalkeeper of the Australian national team.
Schwarzer and his wife, Paloma, want to carry out extensive renovations to the five-bedroom Victorian house in the historic suburb of Watsons Bay, which they bought two years ago for A$10.2m (£6.63m). However, their neighbours say the plans – which include building a three-car garage and a glass pavilion – are out of keeping with the area, and do not respect the house's literary heritage.
The Watsons Bay Residents Association has launched a petition which has been signed by Franzen himself, and also by Fay Weldon, who wrote a screenplay of one of Stead's novels, For Love Alone. Residents have lodged 13 objections to the Schwarzers' plans, which the local council is expected to approve or reject later this month.
Stead, who died in 1983, was born in Sydney and returned to Australia in later years. However, she spent much of her adult life in Europe and the US. The author of 15 novels, she was unpublished in her own country until 1965, more than 30 years after her debut novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney.
Franzen – who has written an introduction to a new edition of The Man Who Loved Children, about a dysfunctional family – describes it as "one of the truly great novels of the 20th century". The author of Freedom and The Corrections says that although Stead's original US publishers insisted that she set it in America, "its heart is clearly in Watsons Bay... Her childhood home therefore seems to be a literary heritage site of the first order."
The house, which dates back to the 1880s, has had a series of owners over the years, and undergone numerous facelifts. According to a heritage consultant engaged by the council, very little of the original fabric remains, other than floorboards, ceiling panels, and concealed timber framing. The Schwarzers want to install a swimming pool and home entertainment room.
Roger Bayliss, the convenor of Watson Bay Residents, said last week: "We don't think that the additions and alterations are consonant or sympathetic with the structure or with the area. The house is highly significant because of its history and its associations with one of Australia's greatest literary families."
However, the Schwarzers' architect, Nick Tobias, defended the plans, saying they had been praised by six heritage experts. "The site has been treated with the utmost sensitivity since we were first briefed on it. Although it's not a heritage listed building, we've always treated it as if it was." The Schwarzers, Mr Tobias added, had "fallen in love with the property because of its historical charm".
In a letter to The Sydney Morning Herald, one of Stead's nieces, Elizabeth, said that while she admired "the efforts of Jonathan Franzen and so many others... to stop ugly changes" to the house, it should be remembered that Christina had spent much of her childhood in another area of Sydney.
Another niece, Margaret Hanks, wrote that the house "bears little, if any, resemblance to the house in which she [Christina] grew up". She suggested that a commemorative plaque be put up – which, according to Mr Tobias, is part of the Schwarzers' plans.