So yes, that one person that reads this blog on a regular basis (although sorry… have you died?). You have waited some time for this post. You will hopefully not wait quite so long to hear what Netty has to say, but seriously, who would know…?
I can’t say I think Christina Stead is Australia’s best writer ever (I wouldn’t say that about Patrick White either, just quietly). I think she’s a very good writer, but then I Virginia Woolf left me impressed but not hugely keen to read her every last word. E.L. Doctorow left me wanting everything, now. Thea Astley wasn’t quite that orgasmic but she wasn’t far off.
Stead sits somewhere between Woolf and Astley, keeling pretty seriously towards Woolf.
The longer this blog goes the more we or at least I tend towards comparison. That’s probably a bad thing. Anyway.
The Man Who Loved Children is a classic of Australian fiction written by an Australian-born woman who spent most of her life anywhere but Australia, set in and around Washington, DC, in the United States. The titular Man is apparently based on Stead’s dad, who was apparently as appalling as you eventually realise Sam Pollitt is, and is the reason Stead spent most of her life overseas.
So, sorry. Sam is the man who loves children, which is not code for pedophile, it’s code for a fuckwit self-absorbed father who can only get a sense of his own self-worth from the worship he receives from very young children who do not realise just how shallow, just how pathetic, he really is. He isn’t actually stupid, he’s well educated, intelligent, but ultimately a big kid himself, and regards other children – most obviously his own – as potential worshippers who need to be won over. He’s not from what would in other times – oh! maybe even the time this novel was written! – not from what might be regarded as “good stock”, whereas his wife, Henny – ah, Henny! – is totally from good stock. it’s just that she has no money and her family isn’t exactly in a place to help her any more and so she, ah… she just keeps buying, and the debts keep piling up.
Henny seems to have seen Sam for what he is long before the novel opens, although that doesn’t stop her from – ahem, No spoilers. His children on the other hand do indeed worship him – except for Louie, Sam’s eldest, his daughter from his first marriage, his first wife having (arguably quite fortuitously) died in childbirth – Louie, who is stormily embracing her approaching adolescence, whose blossoming independence Sam realises must be crushed. Henny hates Louie and Louie hates Henny. They have no genetic link, after all, and you know, evolutionary psychology long ago explained the whole step-mother/step-daughter thing. That said, they occasionally share a common front in their battles with Sam.
Over three or four hundred pages this novel engaged me for the most part, amused me, annoyed me, bored me a little. But it was only Sam’s realisation of Louie’s approaching adulthood, and his determination to subvert that, that snagged me completely. None of these charactrers is particularly sympathetic – Henny is a wondrous monster, with every reason to be a monster, but even at the end when she – Oh, yeah. No spoilers. Even Louie, who apparently is based on Stead herself (born in 1902, although she sets the novel in the 1930s), even Louie is described two or three times as ugly and fat and stupid and arguably these particular words should not alienate readers but in Stead’s hands they do. This is perhaps the modernists’ influence at work. Stead was writing autobiographical fiction, but she didn’t want her readers to know that.
But Sam’s hostility to Louie’s growing independence is seriously repulsive, and perhaps the first time that I actively disliked him, rather than just finding him really annoying. Louie is his child, but she is his eldest child and she is a child who is reaching towards a life of her own – and he can’t tolerate that. She must be dependent on him, always, in some way or other.
My favourite Australian novel ever ever is Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. He’ll have read Stead before he wrote Cloudstreet, I have no doubt. There will be those who say his novel owes too much to Stead’s to be regarded as superior. Bollocks. Both novels are autobiographical – well, Winton’s isn’t autobiographical, it’s about his grandparents, and he really did have a nanna who lived in a tent – but Winton’s is better. It’s a more enjoyable read, it’s Australian, it’s more inclusive. Stead is a arguably a little bound by her Marxism (although her Marxism is so compassionate, so inclusive, so inherently decent it would’ve got her a bullet in Moscow at the time she was writing). She’s arguably also bound by the opinions about what was good writing at the time she was writing. She transcends some of the modernist strictures with wit and humour. But still.
Unlike Woolf, I might seek out some other Stead. Or at least I am more likely to seek out some other Stead. Because there is only the vague possibility that I will seek out some more Woolf.
But look, I can’t give you a guarantee on either.