The Man Who Loved Children (1940) – Christina STEAD

This has been sitting on my shelf for years – I found a rather battered copy in a second hand bookstore, tried to get into it and failed, and since then, it’s languished on my to be read pile. When Melbourne University Press recently reissued it, I bit the bullet, and picked it up again to try and battle my way through it. It only took me about three months, in between exams and essays, but I finally finished it. And boy, I can’t quite believe what I’ve just read.

Samuel Pollit is the head of the family. His wife, Henny, is long-suffering, and seems to rather despise her own husband. And her own children. The gaggle of offspring Sam has amassed around himself adore their father, for he is always here for them, playing with them all hours of the day, seemingly inexhaustible. But something is about to change. The eldest daughter, Louie, is growing up fast, and she is beginning to see behind Sam’s act. And when she finally realises the true nature of her parents’ marriage, nothing will ever be the same again.

It slightly terrifies me that Christina Stead stated she never needed to write an autobiography, because her fiction was her life. The completely dysfunctional nature of the Pollit family presented here is an environment in which no child should be brought up, no matter how much Sam proclaims to love them.

Samuel Pollit is expertly drawn. At first, he comes off as nothing more than a loveable, slightly idiotic buffoon, a man clearly in love with his children perhaps slightly too much. But as Louie grows up, and slowly becomes the focal point of Sam’s anger and rage, we begin to realise that actually, he’s quite unbalanced, and really is not a big fan of women in general. His desire to have lots of children seems to stem from two places – the first, he is in love with the idea of childhood, the idea of innocence in a child. And in the eyes of these innocent child, he can make himself a hero, a father to be idolised with unconditional love. The second, and slightly more creepy place, is the idea that he sees mature women as nothing more than a baby making machine – his refusal to listen to Henny’s pleas for lenience, or indeed, for money to feed and clothe the children, highlights his complete contempt for the female of the species.

Louie – the Christina Stead surrogate character – is born from Sam’s first marriage, to a wife who died soon after Louie was born. As such, her relationship with Henny is not close. And since her father is a raving loony, she feels alone and isolated in the family unit. It is not until she arrives at school that she finds even one friend, and develops a slightly unhealthy attachment to one of her teachers, in an attempt to find a parental figure who will shower her with the love she so desperately requires.

Sam’s slow rejection of Louie as one of his children is directly related to her growing up – both mentally and physically. As she enters puberty, she is drawn to Henny, the only woman in the house, and becomes more interested in her mother’s side of the story, something none of the younger children have ever taken an interest in. It’s overly simplistic to say that it becomes a man versus woman kind of debate, but questions of gender do dominate Stead’s writing. Physically, too, Louie is becoming a woman, and she is constantly reminded, particularly by her father, that she is not an attractive young girl. This is, of course, not good for anyone’s mental health, but for a young girl who already has issues with her parents, this is perhaps even more damaging.

We were talking at work the other day about endings, and how a bad ending can ruin an otherwise excellent novel. This is not the case here – if anything, the last 150 or so pages of The Man Who Loved Children are the highlight. For it is not until the end of the novel that the full horror of Sam’s inability to even vaguely care for anyone other than himself is made clear. The impact this man’s hatred of the two women in his life – his wife, and his eldest daughter – has pushed them over the edge. The animosity between Sam and Henny is no longer under the surface  – they begin to fight in front of the children, and so so in such a manner that would put even Matthew Newton to shame. And as the fighting begins, the children begin to suffer. Louie begins to think that it is all her fault, and takes action to try and stop the fighting. I won’t tell you what that action is, but it is truly shocking, and actually, is a rather perfect ending.

I’m not sure anything I say about The Man Who Loved Children can be topped by Jonathan Franzen’s love letter to the novel in the New York Times from 2010. Having read The Corrections last year, it is clear just how much of an influence Stead has had on his own writing. I’m not sure I quite at the level of adoration Franzen clearly has for Stead, and her novel, but I think I’m probably pretty close. This is a novel that cries to be read, and though written more than 70 years ago, retains a sense of timelessness, perhaps even more pertinent at a time when the functional nuclear family is widely considered to be a myth.

And, on a completely unrelated note, this is the 150th novel I’ve written about here. That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?

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