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|The Man Who Loved Children
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1940 (1965: revised edition)
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|One of the few novels that come close to attaining the grandeur of tragedy is The Man Who Loved Children, and the tragedy it most recalls, perhaps, is Medea. It is also a thoroughly modern novel and a fascinating social document. Christina Stead's father was a Fabian socialist, and she was born in Australia. She lived for many years in the United States, was married to a prominent Marxist writer, and was up-to-date in her understanding of all the myriad subjects and ideas that come up in the course of this long and dense work of fiction. Most important, though, is that she actually does give her ordinary government bureaucrat and his unhappy wife that sense of unstoppable and fated intensity that literature usually reserves for kings and queens.
Sam and Henny Pollit, husband and wife and parents of six and then seven children (the eldest, Louisa, Sam's child by his former wife, is the novel's protagonist), live in a large house in Washington DC. Henny is a former southern belle, one of 12 offspring of a wealthy and influential man, David Collyer. Sam is self-made, also from a big family, but a big family without money or status (one of his sisters is a schoolteacher). Sam is smart but impolitic, and Stead is masterful at communicating the maddening excesses of his demeanour. He is drunk on his own words, on his own elevated ideas, on his grandiose sense of himself and his mission. In a normal novel he would be a comic blowhard waiting for his come-uppance, something of a clown, but with the dark addition of unmitigated narcissism.
Henny is dissatisfied and angry, disappointed in her marriage, and unsuited to her role (though more capable of performing it than Sam gives her credit for). She is maternal but not kind; toward Louisa she is often cruel and openly unloving. Toward the other children she is irascible and unpredictable. Sometimes she seems fond and indulges them, but at other times she is rejecting and impatient. At the outset of the novel she hasn't spoken to Sam in some years (they communicate by notes or through the children), and she has a lover named Bert, a large career bachelor she goes out with from time to time (Sam also has his flirtations). In the course of the novel, Sam and Henny enlarge. At first eccentric, they grow beyond dysfunctional, neurotic and even psychotic until they eventually become simply, irreducibly, hugely themselves, as beyond help or even diagnosis as King Lear or Prometheus.
Not every novel that wants to be a tragedy gets to be one. Usually novelists and readers have to be content with melodrama or sombre realism, but Stead avoids both, and her techniques are very specific. Most commentators, including the poet Randall Jarrell (who resurrected The Man Who Loved Children 25 years after its first failed publication), complain of Sam's and Henny's excess - they have no sense of decorum, and they parade their disagreements openly in front of the children, their families and the neighbours while all the time protesting that they prize discretion. For another thing, both are more than eloquent - Henny specialises in arias of invective, while Sam never shuts up about anything, but especially about his ideas and projects. He pries constantly into the private lives of his children and also, when he feels like it, holds children who don't please him up to the ridicule of the other children. He is a smiling tyrant, all-seeing, all-questioning, an atheist god in his own mind and in the minds of the younger children, who have no defence against either his crimes or his charms. Henny is the anarchist, or the nihilist, since no system, no government, no order, and, eventually, no life at all are preferable in her mind to the interminable presence of Sam. Sam and Henny are as dramatic as any stage characters, always demonstrating the progress of their inner lives to an audience. The excess is what saves their story from sober realism or Zolaesque naturalism. The only character who has an inner life is Louisa, the witness, and in many ways the consciousness through which the action is distilled.
What saves the Pollits' story from melodrama is the presence of the chorus, the five younger children, who respond with exquisite sensitivity and evenhanded affection to each parent. Ernie, the oldest boy, is especially fond of Henny, even though she betrays him repeatedly. Evie, who looks like Henny, is always being enlisted by Sam to do such things as come into his bed in the morning and scratch his head. He baby-talks her and woos her or criticises and abuses her by turns, ensuring her future, according to both Louisa and Henny, as a wifely doormat or worse. Little Sam and Saul, twins, are no less transgressed upon and invaded, but they have solidarity with one another and serve mostly as an audience for the ridicule of the older children. Stead is wonderfully adept at individualising the children
| and showing how each reacts to and is molded by each parent. The reader's constant sense of this chorus, of the damage the parents are doing individually and together, is finally overwhelmed but never suppressed by excess and relentlessness. There is no sense by the end of the novel of cause and effect, no understanding of the specific costs the children will have to pay as adults for the storm of their childhoods. Stead wisely doesn't even address this question. It is enough to present the storm. The reader coexists with the children in the inescapable and enormous world that Sam and Henny have made, a family as horrible, irredeemable and incurable as the family of Agamemnon or Atreus.
Nevertheless, Stead has a lively and informed political consciousness. What is at stake in the Pollit household is power, and even given Pollit is an absolutist who desires not only to invade his children's every thought, but also to have all their love and devotion. Big Brother in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is no more totalitarian than Sam Pollit. One of his more unsavoury habits is to call himself "poor little Sam", to make the children pity him as a victim, usually when he has just finished ordering them around or been challenged by Henny or Louisa. He is a constant fount of propaganda about himself, about the neighbours, about unnamed hostile strangers, about history, culture, science, geography, religion and the proper way to live. At the end of the novel it appears as though he is going to have a radio show and become a media celebrity, thus unstoppably expanding his audience far beyond the family circle (Stead hardly seems to be a satirist in The Man Who Loved Children, but this is surely a quietly satirical moment).
Stead clearly understands that the family is not sentimentally walled off from politics, but is the source of all political feeling and understanding. When Louisa runs away at the end of the novel, Stead explicitly shows that her sense of who she is, what the world is, and what her "home nation" is, shifts as soon as she crosses the bridge that separates the house from the other side of the creek. For Stead the good news is that freedom of thought is possible - at least it is if Big Brother has had to live with an opposition, even an opposition that has been wrong-headed and unwise. The presence of the opposition allows at least some of the chorus (or audience) space for constructing notions of reality that are independent. At the same time, only Louisa escapes. She has to leave the other children to their fates, which is not a collective solution and reaffirms the underlying premise of tragedy that when kings and queens do battle, the general outcome for most of mankind is not a happy one.
The Man Who Loved Children was a critical and commercial failure when it was first published, and it is easy to see why. In the first place, it was unprecedented in its seamless integration of politics, psychology and tragedy. Stead was a true heir to Charles Dickens in her understanding of how personalities project themselves outward and create symbolic worlds that are limned by eloquence. Most of Dickens's heirs intuitively grasped the truth of his depictions of the power of mental universes, but only Stead was able to do what Dickens did routinely, which was to have two or more of these universes abut and challenge one another. But Stead the sociologist was colder and more honest than Dickens, whose sentimental attachment to a Victorian ideal of family comity was sometimes shaken but never destroyed. Stead seems never to have had such a thing. At the opening of her novel, Sam and Henny are way beyond the point where most people (including Dickens himself) would have sought separation or divorce.
This novel is not for everyone, nor for every mood. I have read it twice with great admiration. When I tried to read it a third time (when I had a young family myself), I couldn't stand it. If Hamlet runs four hours and Lear almost five, well, The Man Who Loved Children runs 14 or 15 hours, and though the plot is actually quite neat and progresses steadily, novel-readers are not used to 15-hour storms. The catharsis here, compared with any other tragedy, is a long time coming. Nevertheless, Stead's novel is like Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier in its power to astonish and compel with each reading. It is sui generis among novels, and Stead, too, never wrote anything else like it.
Commentators have wondered why this novel has not entered women's studies or even 20th-century literature curricula. I think it is because The Man Who Loved Children is so anomalous that it can't easily be accommodated on a list with other novels. I would teach it along with some Greek tragedies or maybe a Russian novel or two written about Josef Stalin.
- Jane Smiley, The Guardian, 10 June 2006
|BOOKS BY CHRISTINA STEAD:|
The Man Who Loved Children
1940 (1965: revised edition)
Sam and Henny Pollit have too many children, too little money, and too much loathing for each other.
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht, email@example.com
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn
Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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