Jarrell’s ‘unread book’: The Man Who Loved Children 

Stead-Man-Children

Noting that it’s Christina Stead’s birthday, I wondered how long ago it was that I read her. Quite a few years is the answer. She was born on 17 July 1902 (and died in 1983), and wrote a dozen novels plus some shorter fictions but the best-known (yet not that well-known), periodically reissued, gathering distinguished champions but never quite breaking free into the sunlit uplands of general appreciation or even acknowledgement, is The Man Who Loved Children (1940), the story of a family, many children, little money and two extraordinary, appalling parents, Sam and Henny Pollit. Sam Pollit was, it seems, closely based on Stead’s own father, a marine biologist, and the setting of the novel when it was reissued was moved from Stead’s native Australia to the United States (Washington) to better suit an American audience – who, after all, would be interested in Australians?

The writer C. K. Stead (a New Zealander and no relation) observed that The Man Who Loved Children ‘is indisputably an Australian novel which only pretends in a very perfunctory way to be set in America’.[1] Another Australian, Patrick White, was an enthusiastic admirer. ‘Do read Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children if you haven’t’, he wrote to Frederick Glover in 1966. ‘It is one of the great novels of the world.’ And, almost a decade later, to Marshall Best: ‘The three novelists writing today who interest me most are all women! Christina Stead, Nadine Gordimer, and Doris Lessing.’[2] Stead returned to Australia towards the end of her life but wrote little more once she’d done so. White’s admiration for her work was not returned though she kept that opinion to herself and they got on well enough when they met.

Few novels have been reissued so often: The Man Who Loved Children has been, among others, a Penguin Modern Classic, an Everyman Library Classic, a Flamingo Modern Classic, launched in editions with forewords by Angela Carter, Jonathan Franzen and, famously, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, whose championing of Stead’s book did have a significant impact at the time. Jarrell could be ferocious in his hostility to writers or books that he didn’t like but he also had a real genius for praise, and could convey wonderfully what made a poem or a novel or a story work, how it affected its readers, seized and held them. He wrote passionately and perceptively about Kipling, William Carlos Williams, Whitman, Marianne Moore and many others, including Stead.

Christina-Stead-c1940s  RandallJarrell_poets.org

(Christina Stead: https://australianwomenwriters.com/ ; Randall Jarrell via The Poetry Foundation)

His 1965 introduction to her novel, uncompromisingly entitled ‘An Unread Book’, includes one of my favourite observations, that a novel is ‘a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it’.[3] Jarrell successfully grasped and conveyed the complex of feelings that the novel can arouse in its readers, in some readers: admiration and fascination, yes, but often combined with discomfort, irritation, impatience, even a tinge of disgust. I remember finding another Stead novel, Cotters’ England, again oddly powerful but a bit, what, dislikeable. Clearly, not every reader has similar responses – Virago Press eventually published nine Stead titles in their series of modern classics.

Why dislikeable? I’m not quite sure. Is it the monstrous characters or the author’s attitude to them? I’d have to go back to her books and look again. There are writers that we read and admire and acknowledge as good or even great while never warming to them or liking them as much as we expect to or feel we should, certainly not feeling that peculiar sense of connection that we experience with some writers, some painters, some people. With Stead, I think it was not quite that but more a kind of chilliness coming off the pages, more, an antagonism. Whatever it was, she’s certainly an extraordinary writer – and The Man Who Loved Children is a remarkable book. It’s on my already ridiculous re-read pile – if that’s still standing.

 

 

Notes

[1] London Review of Books, 8, 15 (4 September 1986).

[2] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 297, 452.

[3] Jarrell, ‘An Unread Book’, introduction to Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (Penguin Modern Classics 1970), 37.

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