The Man Who Loved Children is one of Australia’s neglected classics, even though Time Magazine included it in their 100 Best Novels from 1923-2005. (You can find the rest of them on Lists of Bests). It’s never in any of the bookshops, but I’ve always meant to read it so I was pleased to find a not-too-battered paperback copy of it in the Op Shop last year to read it for the 2010 Classics Challenge (which I like to participate in by choosing only Australian classics).
I was initially pleased to find in another Op Shop, a second copy, the Angus & Robertson Classic Edition, because the text was bigger and easier to read. However I furious to find, too late to avoid it, a huge spoiler in the introduction. Perhaps Randall Jarrell, the author of this introduction and his editors at A&R thought that the plot was so widely known that spoilers didn’t matter. Maybe that was so in 1968, but foreknowledge of what happens at the end of the novel has coloured my reading of it and influenced my sympathies for one of the characters. Wikipedia credits Jarrell (an American poet & literary critic) with promoting the book to a wider audience but I’m still very cross about this. Very cross indeed.
So I shall do what Jarrell and A&R should have done and alert you to my spoilers with a warning, though nothing I write here will reveal what was so carelessly revealed by them.
The title is ironic. Sam Pollit does not love his children at all. This novel is a withering dissection of a dysfunctional family, a story to challenge any Brady Bunch stereotypical ideas about family life forever. Sam is a scientist who travels the world and (at least initially) enjoys the respect of his colleagues; his wife Henny is trapped at home, having babies she doesn’t want, and worrying herself sick about money. Louise is Sam’s adolescent year old daughter by his first marriage; the younger children are a miscellany, and mainly there to create the impression of a brood. Henny and Sam are constantly at war, haranguing each other about everything and anything – and mostly using the children to ferry their poisonous messages to each other.
The first time we encounter Henny’s violence comes as a shock, and Stead wastes no time in revealing it. In Chapter 2 Louisa has been reading late at night and Henny comes in to harangue her about lights blaring. Her verbal abuse is bad enough, but when she ‘rushed at her with arms outstretched and thrust her firm bony fingers around the girl’s neck, squeezing and saying ‘Ugh’ twice‘ it is Louisa’s lack of reaction which adds to the horror. She ‘looked up into her stepmother’s face, squirming, but not trying to get away, questioning her silently, needing to understand, in an affinity of misfortune’. The child is used to being attacked like this. More horrific still is that Sam, her father, witnesses all this from the window outside, and yet when he enters the house he is merely peeved that Louise hasn’t stayed up so that he can brag about his triumph at work.
It’s an extraordinary book. While on the one hand Stead’s prose is an extravagant waterfall of words tumbling over each other, image upon image building up to a crescendo of sound and fury, on the other she can be as economical as Jane Austen:
At three in the afternoon Aunt Josephine Pollit, tall, blue-eyed, with hail-fellow-well-met dental set came through the gate at a lively pace, though she was putting on a hearty middle age. She carried herself as if she were a yellow sold valise cheerfully borne by a successful commercial traveller. (p96)
Is anybody reading this novel now? Not if the blogosphere is anything to go by. I found a terrific review at Clarissa’s Box, and there’s some scholarly writing at one of those impenetrable academic sites that you can’t read unless you subscribe. (Why don’t they offer access on a one-off Pay Pal basis for a peppercorn fee so that you can read just the article you found through your Google search, eh?) Jonathan Franzen was re-reading it at the same time as me and makes an impassioned albeit pessimistic case for it to be more widely read. But apart from that, there’s not much enthusiasm about.
I think I understand why that is so. I made heavy weather of it myself, abandoning it at the least provocation for other less demanding books. By demanding, I don’t mean ‘difficult’ or challenging, I mean that great slabs of text dense with torrential words and phrases can be wearisome. Henny and Sam’s endless tirades made me want to react like Louisa does one night when her father launches a tirade in a weeping tone for two pages without a break. He thinks she’s idly scribbling on a bit of paper. She’s not, she’s writing what she cannot say aloud:
Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, I can’t stand your gassing, oh what a windbag, what will shut you up, shut up, shut up. And so ad infinitum. (p363)
The irony is that she’s adopted the same pattern of ‘gassing’ herself.
Louisa (said to be modelled on the author herself) is the most interesting character. As intermediary between her warring parents she is often caught between them but she also takes sides because she doesn’t understand how she is being manipulated. At school she becomes the ringleader of a bizarre cult in adoration of one of the teachers and has precocious talent as a writer, but like her strange father she uses invented language and a kind of baby talk (the profusion of which is the most irritating aspect of this book). Louisa is the only one who ever seems to have any conception of other people’s feelings, but is also pathetically unaware of the spectacle her family inflicts on the appalled Miss Aiden.
She was … so used to hearing of her mother’s rich family, and of her father’s superiority in intellect and feelings to the rest of mankind, that she believed they all occupied an enviable position in the community. They had been brought up in Washington, and if the nation only knew of Sam’s capacities it would clamor for him – what more could be needed by a family? (p422)
As the story moves towards its ghastly climax, Ernie, the eldest boy emerges from the undifferentiated brood. Young as he is, he has more awareness of the family’s perilous finances than the adults seem to have, and his small initiatives have resulted in a money-box with a few dollars in it and a collection of lead which can be sold when the price is right. In different ways his parents sabotage his plans and break his heart when he realises he is powerless and insecure; the scene with Henny is a coming-of-age moment to break a reader’s heart too because to Ernie, life seems just as hopeless as it does to her.
It seems impossible that these children could ever recover from the psychological damage done to them…
There is, as DKS says below, a beaut review of this book at Nigeness, and I recommend you follow the other links from her comment, and the links in comments at Nigeness too.
Author: Christina Stead
Title: The Man Who Loved Children
Publisher: Angus & Robertson, Australian Classics Edition 1979
Source: Personal copy. $3.99 from the Salvos Op Shop.