The Man Who Loved Children
is a novel by Australian author Christina Stead. Originally published in 1940, it went largely unnoticed for many years until it was reissued in 1965 with an introduction by the poet Randall Jarell, in which he praised the novel’s incisive depiction of family struggles. Following this, the book gained critical acclaim and has since been recognized as one of the great English-speaking books of the century.
The book centers on the highly dysfunctional Pollit family, headed by Sam and Henrietta, known as Henny. When the book begins, the couple has been living almost separate lives for many years, despising each other and only communicating through the children. There are seven children in total, the oldest, Louisa (Louie), from Sam’s first marriage. She is eleven years old when the book starts and is the focus of the story along with the parents.
The family lives at Tohoga House, a large, but crumbling estate in Washington that they rent from Henny’s father. The book opens as Henny returns home after a few hours out of the house, her children immediately wanting to know about her day. She yells at them – which they seem to be used to – and retires to play solitaire by herself.
Sam comes home from a work event, announcing that he has been selected to go to the Pacific as part of an American anthropological expedition. The only person at home is Louisa, to whom he explains his appointment.
The next Sunday, Sam wakes up his children and gets the boys – Ernie, twins Sam Jr. and Saul, and Tommy – to help him paint the house. Sam loves spending time with the children, passing the afternoon entertaining his sons and the nearby neighborhood kids with stories. He announces that Ernest is in charge while he is gone, which upsets the other boys. Sam actively encourages Ernest and Saul to fight each other, taunting Saul for his weakness. Henny spends Sunday with Bert Anderson, a rich bachelor who gives her the attention she craves.
Meanwhile, Louie goes to visit an elderly couple, the Kydds. Despite some neighborhood gossip that Mr. Kydd abuses his wife, Mrs. Kydd is always kind to Louie and speaks fondly of her husband. Mrs. Kydd tells Louie that they have taken in a cat, but they can’t afford to keep it, and she does not have the physical strength to kill it. Louie agrees to drown the cat as a favor.
Sam’s older sister, Jo, comes to see him with news of their younger sister, Bonnie, who lives in Tohoga House as a maid. Bonnie is sleeping with a married man, and Jo and Sam try to get her to stop. When Henny comes home, Jo tries to engage her with the gossip, but Henny is uninterested. After Jo leaves, Henny gets into an argument with Sam over their finances. After a long evening spent fighting, during which Sam hits her, they agree to make another child.
Louie goes to spend the summer with her mother’s family and is happy there. When she returns, Henny takes her and Evie, the other daughter, to her father’s house. He is a rich man who lives on a lavish estate. While there, Henny discusses suicide methods with her mother. Meanwhile, the maid mocks Louie, calling her an orphan, which, eventually, leads to her being fired.
While Sam is in Malaya, the family struggles with money. The house is unheated and Henny, now pregnant, is miserable. The children write to Sam often and Louie comforts them with stories she invents about his adventures in the Pacific.
Sam has a hard time in Malay. He cannot stand the heat and gets a Chinese man Lai Wan Hoe to run his office. He misses his children, who are the only people who enjoy his stories and ramblings. When Lai Wan Hoe runs away because of money problems, Sam realizes he is in over his head and decides to go back home.
A big party welcomes Sam home, which includes his parents and siblings. He is angry when he realizes that his brother has spiked the punch since he does not allow any alcohol in the house. This leads to another vicious fight with Henny, this time in front of all of their guests and family.
Soon after, Henny gives birth to a baby boy named Charles. Henny’s father dies but does not leave an inheritance, having wasted the family money. Henny was counting on that money to settle her debts. Even worse, Tohoga Place has to be sold off to cover her father’s debts. The influence of his father-in-law had also protected Sam at work, and with his father-in-law dead, rumors start to circulate about his incompetence and possible affairs. He is put on unpaid leave.
The family moves to a dilapidated house in a poor area of Annapolis. Sam insists he can make all the repairs the home needs with the help of the kids. Notice of his formal suspension comes, and he is happy at the chance to spend more time with his children.
Louisa starts finding herself at school, discovering a talent for writing and making a new friend, Clare. They bond over their creative talents and their love for their teacher, Miss Aiden. Sam makes an effort to meet Clare, bringing her out with him and Louisa to have ice cream.
Soon after, Ernie tells Sam that Louie has a secret diary. Sam fetches it to entertain the family but finds it is in code. When Louie returns, Sam forces her to translate and read her diary out loud. Humiliated and furious, she lashes out at Sam and, after a lecture, mocks him for his ignorance and naivety in the same way as Henny often does.
Henny spends most of her time with her sister, while Sam spends most of his time with the kids. A similar incident to the one with Louie happens with Ernie, when Sam discovers that he has been storing lumps of coal under his bed to sell and mocks him for this in front of the other kids. After this, Ernie notices that many items have disappeared from the house. When he asks his mother where they are, she lies and says they are with the family. He realizes that she has sold them, and discovers she has emptied his moneybox of his savings, replaced them with foreign money.
Louisa writes a play about a clueless father who alienates his daughter and has Ernie and Evie perform it on Sam’s birthday. He is furious, which she does not understand. Miss Aiden comes to dinner that night and is shocked by the living conditions in the house. After she leaves, Sam decides to build a bookshelf for Louisa and finds a book of poetry she has written about Miss Aiden. It contains deep feelings of love and admiration for the woman, and once again, Sam entertains the family with its contents, embarrassing Louie.
An anonymous letter to Sam is discovered, accusing Henny of having an affair while Sam was in Asia, also implying that his youngest child is not his. While the parents argue about the letter, Louie distracts the other children with stories. The next morning, Henny screams at her family, threatening to either kill them or herself. She goes to meet Bert Anderson, who, shocked by her appearance, promises to meet her again. When he doesn’t show, she goes to stay at her sister’s.
She returns home after a few days; the family has descended into complete chaos. Sam has neglected the kids, letting them feed themselves raw bacon and nuts, and Henny finds the baby in the yard eating its own feces.
Sam is given a huge fish by his friend and chooses to boil it down for fish oil. The only way to do this is to set a fire under the bathtub, which he does, getting the kids to take turns watching the fire at night. The next morning, he has the kids take the rest of the fish to a garbage heap; the smell makes Sam Jr. vomit. Sam mocks him for his weakness, dumps the rest of the fish’s remains onto his son, and tells him to wash the tub.
Meanwhile, Louie, desperate to get out, thinks the only way is to kill her parents. She tries to poison them with cyanide in their morning tea, but Henny arrives and knows something is up. When Sam arrives, Henny tells him not to blame Louise and drinks the poison. She dies instantly. Louie finds a mannequin hanging from Ernie’s ceiling from a rope, which she assumes is a trial run for a suicide attempt.
The family finally discovers the extent of Henny’s debt. People in the community become more sympathetic toward Sam, and he takes a job at a radio station telling his stories. Louie tells Sam about her plan to kill him and Henny and then leaves the house. Now fourteen, she does not have any real plans but has finally gotten away.The Man Who Loved Children
was originally set in Australia, but the setting was changed to Washington when the book became successful with American audiences. Among the many authors who have praised the book, Robert Stone, in particular, has claimed
that what fascinates him is that it seems to capture a certain type of American man and American family, without actually having been written about Americans.