The Man Who Loved Children

I have finished the last essay for this semester, which calls for some kind of celebration. Thankfully, my brother has returned from work and, like the good designated cocktail makers they are (mostly because they suggest it, I just drink them), has provided me with an Edisonian. It is a rather pleasant drink, and helps pass the post-essay time, when you cannot be bothered doing absolutely anything, but feel you really ought to be doing something worthwhile. Anyway, the cocktail has given me enough Dutch courage to get back to the old blog, after far too long an hiatus.

Luckily, this coincided with me having just finished, last night, the novel I’ve been reading, The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. Now, I discovered this book at the local-ish library just by chance, since the name grabbed me. Since then, I have learnt that Stead was apparently an Australian author, whom I have never heard of (though, amusingly, she was denied the Britannica-Australian prize, since she had lived in the US for 40 years, and so wasn’t considered ‘Australian’…). Anyway, she wrote this novel in the late 30s, and it was published in 1940, while she lived in Washington. The book was originally set in Sydney, but her publisher insisted it would never sell, and so had to be transported to Washington and her old environs. Sadly, I don’t think the novel was a great success, though there was an article about it in the New Yorker a few years back, which  apparently led to a surge in sales again – though, this was perhaps a few years too late for old Christina Stead.

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The novel’s story is, really, quite simple. It is about an absolute narcissist of a father (whom, I must say, caused me to put down the book on several occasions, simply because he is so incredibly full of himself and awful), his children, especially his daughter Louie, and his new wife (and Louie’s stepmother), Henny – a rich “Georgian beauty” who feels worn and depressed in life with her husband, Sam. It must be said that most of the characters are not loveable – Sam is awful, Henny, for whom one feels incredibly, takes her rage out on the children; yet one cannot help but sympathise. Even Sam, the absolute worst, is treated sufficiently well in the novel that one gets a sense of his own mind. The book is fascinating in its handling of the domestic relation, and driving the characters, with their own distinct personalities, to the inevitable conclusion of such emotional violence. The prose is good, and Stead paints pleasant scenes and pictures to contrast the violence of home; she is especially good at showing us the world as seen by the characters. For example, one does not realise how poor they have become till one sees their home through a visitor’s eyes; one does not realise that Henny has sold all the precious and nice goods the family has, till the children realise and press Henny for the truth (in an absolutely heartbreaking scene, when one wants to weep and sympathise with child, Henny, and spurn the whole awful world).

The dialogue is well done, and creates a violent scene through the language, the reactions, the world of the family. The introduction of my copy gives a good description – Stead has transported the dramatic world of Greek tragedy to a simple domestic land. Henny, with her lover, describes her hatred for Sam as “I would drink his blood, but it would make me vomit.” One can see Elektra talking her vengeance and hatred in such words of violence and horror. There are more; even Sam, talking about his world and how he has suffered; Louie, weeping for the life she sees around her. How Sam describes his vision of a perfect eugenic society – irony that Louie and Henny are far from his ideal, and would end up being those euthanised. The eulogy for Henny describes her best – she was alive, through everything sacrificed for family, all her work, good and bad, she lived, but Sam simply dreams and sees the world he wants, ignoring the suffering and horrors, the despair and pain of his children.

One thing that has stayed with me the strongest from the novel, though, is the shocking, in-your-face sexism of their world. One feels the injustice, as Henny and her two daughters spend their days slaving in the home, while Sam grumbles about ‘the womenfolk’ and talks of how men and science would organise the house better – though he lifts no finger. Henny, in despair, refuses to teach her daughters good graces – why bother, when they will only grow up for marriage, and “be ruined” by a man in a God-forsaken marriage. The poor aunt, who falls pregnant to a married man, and is kicked out by her sister and disappears to find her bastard son, who has been sent away to hide “the family’s shame.”

The book, though, overall, is fascinating. Stead paints well her picture of violent life; her world, filled with the sexism and eugenics and dreams of utopia; so perfectly realises each individual character, even the young children. It is not necessarily the happiest book to read; its ending is by no normal means ‘happy’ but is satisfying, and pleasing. Yet it is a grand novel, and well worth reading. Since Everyman Library (my edition – “Everyman I will go with Thee and be Thy guide; by your side in your most need” – I’m sure you know them), it should not be too hard to find. My library had it, so should yours, and I recommend you all to pick up and read.

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