It is one of the great ironies of our literature that Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, a novel steeped in autobiography, should be set in Washington rather than Sydney. The change was imposed by its American publishers, who believed this would make the book more marketable there. Unfortunately, Stead’s deployment of local geography and idiom rang false with many American critics, who saw no further into her novel. Meanwhile Oz Lit’s eternal preoccupation with cultural DNA testing ensured that this ‘un-Australian’ masterwork was ignored here for decades.
Reissued next month to mark the seventieth anniversary of its publication, Stead’s novel is now packaged with an appreciative essay by Jonathan Franzen. Yet even in 1940 perceptive readers noticed what is obvious today. The true setting of Stead’s novel is Pollitland. It maps a family: Stead’s dystopian one transformed through blackly imaginative genius into a monstrous clan. The Pollits orbit around “sun-haired” Sam: at work, an idealistic public servant in the Roosevelt administration; at home, the self-styled “Sam-the-Bold”. Henny, his embittered wife, more accurately calls him “the Great I-Am”; or, in an inspired putdown, “the little, tin Jesus”.
Sam declares that he loves children and proves it by going on fathering them despite the family’s worsening poverty. This is self-love, for Sam is a child. He has the egotism and deluded ambitions of a child, its predilection for nonsense and games. His younger children, recognising this, are delighted by their father. But they fear him, too. Sam is a child with power – which is to say a tyrant.
The opposition is led by Henny, once a Southern belle, now worn out by child-bearing and the grind to make ends meet. Sam and Henny’s epic fights rage through the novel. Her fury is the greater because, unlike Sam, she sees her situation clearly and resents it. Stead knows very well that oppression breeds cruelty as well as resistance. Henny hits her children, lashes them with words, steals from them.
Louie, the eldest child, is Stead’s autoportrait. Fat and unlovely, Louie longs to shine in her father’s eyes. But she is also starting to pull away from his influence. The poems and plays she writes, even her diaries, demonstrate the independence of her mind. They are ridiculed by Sam, who intuits that books will provide Louie with her passport out of Pollitland.
Stead’s powerful, headlong style carries us through scene after harrowing scene. It creates an impression of sprawl and chaos so close to life it can feel unbearable. Like Louie, forced to endure yet another parental tirade, we silently plead, “Shut up, shut up, shut up—”. But Louie escapes. Her sister, an obedient, pretty child, “browbeaten for life”, remains in domestic slavery. For every liberation, another lock fitted to the door. Evie’s fate is one of the truthfully depicted miseries that torment us long after we have fled Pollitland and this brilliant novel.
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