Reprint: Latest Fiction: "The Man Who Loved Children" by Christina Stead

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"The Man Who Loved Children" by Christina Stead. (Peter Davies, London).  

Australian-born Christina Stead, in "The Man Who Loved Children," has written an extraordinarily good novel of the disharmonious life of an American family.

It is a grim story set in an atmosphere of hatred, a realistic presentation of a ruthless egocentric and his unfortunate, harassed wife, who quarrel brutally and bitterly in front of their children.  

But it has many amusing moments: the dialogue, of which there is a great deal, is witty, strikingly original, and some of the situations are riotously and robustly comic.  

Sam Pollit, a fantastic figure, dominates the book. Head of a Scientific Department in Washington, he is a boastful buffoon, an idealistic egoist, who struts and performs before the appreciative audience of his six young children. He is forever talking, demonstrating bis love for the children, whining for sympathy against the im- possible conduct of their mother.

The mother, Henrietta, belongs to a wealthy family of Baltimore people, but, like the other Collyers, is wasteful, improvident and unreliable. She is a beautiful, headstrong creature when she marries the handsome, good-living widower, Sam Pollit, but marriage soon changes her. Finding Sam ungenerous with his money, she quickly gets in the toils of moneylenders, and for the rest of her life is dunned by them, always borrowing more to pay off interest, never having enough money for household expenses, always deceiving Sam about where the money goes.

At the beginning of the book the Pollits are living in a lovely, large house outside Washington, a house belonging to Henny's father. Here Sam revels in the garden, the little menagerie he has, and, of course, always the children. Henny, condemned to do the housework and the children's mending, complains bitterly, never speaks to Sam, lives on cups of tea, curry and aspirin, and has frequent trips to town to enjoy the company of a young admirer.

Then Sam, who is an anthropologist, is sent on an expedition to Malaya. His ways so irritate the head of the expedition that numerous complaints are made to Washington, with the result that, on.his return, Sam is suspended without pay. But worse is to come. Henny's father dies hopelessly in debt, and the Pollits have to move out of their grand home and take a tumbledown old house in a poor district outside Baltimore.

Here, while Sam potters happily about with his growing children, repairing, pulling down, and making himself generally a handyman, Henny frets, sells all her treasures to get money to meet the demands of the usurious lenders, and becomes more and more desperate.

All the time frightening quarrels go on, quarrels that lead Henny to the verge of insanity, that make Sam feel more righteous than ever. The end, of course, is tragedy for Henrietta, but some promise of a future for the overbearing Sam.

That is the bare outline of the book, but there is much more in it than that. It is a novel over which Christina Stead must have slaved to provide the right quality of scene, dialogue, characterisation. Her Sam Pollit is a memorable, larger-than-life figure, a contemptible character if ever there was one, yet a man whom we cannot wholly despise. Henrietta, on the other hand, is drawn as a rather sympathetic character, but we cannot keep patience with her dramatics, her threats of murder and suicide, and her flamboyant show of self-sacrifice.

The children are only sketched in on this large-size Pollit canvas, but their inclusion adds life and color to the picture.

The only gentleness in the book is in the chapters about the adolescent Louie, Sam's child by his first marriage, an ugly, clumsy girl, a slovenly drudge in the house, who yet has some thing of the poet in her, has her soul uplifted by her devotion to her teacher, and is the only one of the children to draw completely away from her domineering father.

It is on Louie that the atmosphere of hate in the house has the greatest effect: Louie precipitates the inevitable tragedy.

Besides the Pollit household, Miss Stead brings a number of other characters into the story--Sam's sisters, the large Collyer family, Louie's mother's relations, all oddities; and the more prosaic figures of the neighborhood, and Sam's office cronies and enemies.

Miss Stead is a writer with remarkable literary creative power. With this novel she comes to the peak of her career, assumes a place among the greatest novelists of the day. "The Man Who Loved Children" is a book that merits unqualified literary appreciation as well as providing rich and original reading entertainment.

First published in The Advertiser, 13 September 1941

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 23, 2012 8:53 AM.

Australian Bookcovers #307 - The Demon Bowler and Other Cricket Stories by Dal Stivens was the previous entry in this blog.

2012 Kibble and Dobbie Literary Awards Shortlists is the next entry in this blog.

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