The Man Who Loved Children

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.

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9 Responses to The Man Who Loved Children

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful review of Christina Stead’s book. Though I have not come across this one, I do own several other Stead books, which are in my TBR stack. Maybe now knowing what I do I’ll get to them a little sooner.

    • Jenny says:

      I am still poleaxed from this book. It’s something to return to: I think it would benefit a lot from re-reading, when I have more chance to notice the workings of it.

  2. Scott W. says:

    I picked this up at a book sale a few weeks ago; thanks for the prompt to move it higher up in the to-be-read stack.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I keep hearing about this one too, but this is the first review that has gotten me at all interested–the family language is a very interesting touch.

    • Jenny says:

      The parents are dreadfully unsympathetic, Jeanne, but (unlike your review of A Casual Vacancy, which I liked a lot) they are not cliched or stereotyped. Nothing like that. They are their own exact selves. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

  4. Pykk says:

    That “family language” is an outstanding invention, forceful, clever, confident, even flexible, as the language in Dickens (comparing her to another author who tags his characters with their speech patterns) is not. She modifies Sam when he’s outside the family; he gets back from Malaya and his language is “rusty” because he hasn’t used it in so long; he’s been an adult in an adult world. I’ve heard people dismiss that trip as if it’s an extraneous optional extra that should have been cut, but I think it’s vital if we’re going to understand that he didn’t have to be the way he is, as Henny didn’t have to be the way she is; Sam, also, is a kind of tragedy, in the Greek-drama sense; his character is an act of fate, and he drove the fate (by marrying, by having children) but he is also the victim of that fate. He may be patronising when he’s dealing with the Malayans, but he is more adult, more honest, more thoughtful, than anything we see from his superior, Colonel Willetts (if I’m remembering that name correctly). Willetts behaves like a baby. Which is a subtle touch.

    • Jenny says:

      Greek drama (did Euripedes write in English?) features heavily here. And it’s interesting that you mention Dickens, because quite apart from the language, I kept mentally comparing Sam to Skimpole.
      I’m not at all sure he’s very honest or thoughtful in Malaya, even if he is more so than Col. Willetts. He’s still pulling the old Samuel Pollitt trick: love the Chinese for their inscrutable sagacity, but don’t help Wan Hoe. And so forth. But I would agree that he becomes more adult there, even to the extent of feeling vaguely uneasy about himself.

      • Pykk says:

        He doesn’t have Willetts’ spitefulness — he doesn’t plot. “Childish” might be a better word than “babyish.” He’s babyish — he protects himself against Naden’s description of his race, and babies protect themselves too, they push back immediately when they think they’re being hurt — but I don’t think Stead makes him stew over little jealousies, and invent playground revenges, the way Willetts does. Willetts is consciously petty, Sam is unconsciously petty, and an unconscious person might one day become conscious, but a conscious person is already finished and grown. That possibility of development, the “vaguely uneasy” — the lie he tells the police — is what tantalises me about this Malaya episode. Sam could change. Keep him in Malaya for years and you’d have another Sam. (This, I believe, is how the lie functions in the book. It’s a little root of New Sam poking out.) But he’s rescued from this difficult period of growth, his work sends him back to his family, where the possible grown-up genuinely adult and aware Sam, is drowned.

        Dickensishly he’s Skimpole and also Micawber, and maybe William Dorrit accepting the tribute of his condensed kingdom, all those blithe Dickens fathers.

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