I feel as if I’ve been circling around The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead, ever since I entered the blogging world. I’d never heard of it before then, but once I began reading other literary blogs, it seemed to be everywhere: on TBR lists, on best-novels lists, on critics’ lists. Well, all right. I’d read it, too.
This novel is about a family that has been pushed over a decade or so to its final pitch of psychological stress. The father, Sam Pollitt, is a big, genial narcissist, who (a little like Napoleon encouraging the women of France to create soldiers for his future army) has fathered six children on his unwilling and resentful wife, Henny. The children revolve around the father as, literally, around the sun (Sam is resplendently white and tow-haired), obeying his wild whims and strictures. The parents have not spoken for months. Henny leaves notes (addressed to “Samuel Pollitt”), except when she unleashes horrifying floods of obscene rhetoric on her husband, execrating him and her life, threatening to kill herself and the children, threatening to take away everything he holds dear. The children have heard this so often that it is part of the fabric of their lives, and they mostly ignore it. The only exception, the only one who hears it more acutely, is the oldest girl, Louie. Louie is the ugly duckling: she is down-at-heel, heavy and frumpy, but her heart is tearing free. On the wall beside her bed she has written, “By my love and hope I conjure thee: throw not away the hero in thy soul!”
The world of the Pollitts is one of the most profoundly engaging I have ever entered — a narrow world, but completely immersive — and part of that is Stead’s prose. Her descriptive prose is beautiful, showing small crystal details that make us see and hear.
When a quarrel started (Henny and Sam did speak at the height of their most violent quarrels) and elementary truths were spoken, a quiet, a lull, would fall across the house. One would hear, while Henny was gasping for indignant breath and while Sam was biting his lip in stern scorn, the sparrows chipping, or the startling rattle of the kingfisher, or even an oar sedately dipping past the beach, or even the ferry’s hoot. Exquisite were these moments.
On the other end of the scale (or perhaps it’s the same end of the scale, the good end), Stead fills the book with the private language Sam creates for his family. It’s a bit like baby-talk, and a bit like dialect, but the effect is that only Pollitts know what Pollitts mean when Pollitts speak. Sam, here, is awakening little Evie, whom he calls his little woman, or Little-Womey:
“Womey, Womey, c’mon, c’mon, giddap for your pore little Sam.”
Evelyn giggled. He heard it all right and insisted: “C’mon, Womey: come on, do my head, come, scratch my head. Come, do m’head: do m’yed, do m’yed. Come on, Penthestes, co-ome on, Penthestes.[...] Womey won’t come en scratch m’yed: Womey is mean to her pore little dad.”
This kind of talk, pervasive especially when Sam is talking to his children, brings the reader entirely into the intimate world of the book. It’s not only this dialect, either. Henny’s tirades, full of the words “vile” and “rotten,” and Sam’s long, meandering fantasies about the universal brotherhood of man have the same effect: it is family language, as familiar as anything you’ve heard your own parents say a thousand times, and Stead draws us into the heart of it. In one scene, Sam torments Louie with his long, self-aggrandizing, self-justifying speeches as she does her homework, and, becoming curious about what she is writing, looks over her shoulder. This is Louie’s defense against the assault of his language:
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.
This book is deeply, painfully true to psychological life, to the way family dynamics work and the way people can seek for power even over the small and helpless, and still consider themselves good and pure. C.S. Lewis said, “It is easier to be enthusiastic about Humanity with a capital H than it is to love individual men and women, especially those who are uninteresting, exasperating, depraved, or otherwise unattractive. Loving everybody in general may be an excuse for loving nobody in particular.” This, of course, is Sam Pollitt: he is the man who loved children-with-a-capital-C, the man who wishes he could father children of all races, be the Great I-Am, literally the Great White Father, and yet routinely mocks and humiliates his own actual children. (Always, of course, in the name of making them better people, which means more like him.) So often, monsters in literature are so sadistic as to be unreal. Sam is utterly real. His undisturbed good opinion of himself, his love of humanity and distaste for individuals, his adoration of femininity and his squeamish dislike of actual women, make him completely credible.
Henny, too, is real. She is a vortex of hate and venom, dragged down by this man who loved children en masse so much that he gave her six. She is so desperate to get out of her life that she will abuse and betray her children, but she won’t leave: she won’t do anything that will tip the balance of power an ounce in Sam’s direction. And Louie, the ugly duckling, awkward, clumsy, and noble, looking for the affection of a father and mother who have no love to give, is not “a real adolescent girl.” She is Louie. Just Louie, slowly developing an armament of self-understanding that will come to protect her from both parents.
I have not begun to touch the riches of this book. It is a marvel. It has a happy ending, of sorts; a happy ending that perhaps only Stead would think of, or perhaps the only happy ending that this family is capable of. If you want to know more about it, I cannot suggest anything better than for you to get a copy of it and read Randall Jarrell’s 1965 introduction to it, and then read the book itself. If you must, you could also read Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 NYT essay on the book, though he makes an unnecessary swipe at Stead’s looks (what is it with Franzen, anyway?). Read the book, though: it will be a long time before you forget the Pollitts.