The Children’s Chorus: Sibling Soundscapes in The Man Who Loved Children


The voices of children in The Man Who Loved Children allow Christina Stead to re-imagine her childhood and also to provide a platform for representing the struggles of children more broadly. Using a diverse range of narrative techniques Stead orchestrates the voices of the siblings to provide a soundscape for the Pollit world that dramatizes and at times directs the eccentricities of adult behaviour. In so doing Stead grants the children a type of agency that is unusual in the framework of adult fiction and thereby offers readers a new way to think about children. The tonal qualities created by Stead to represent the collective voice of the Pollit siblings are of strategic importance to the narrative and an important strand in the array of language strategies that Stead uses to open a space for the child’s perspective. This essay examines the ‘sound’ of the children in Stead’s novel and comments on connections with Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in which children also frame narrative action. The novels present a family at a moment of social change and create an opportunity for readers to listen to the voice of the child as mediated by writers who worked with sound as a component of their experimental fiction.

Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children is widely acknowledged as an extraordinary representation of family dynamics. Stead re-casts childhood memories to examine her own childhood and in so doing offers new strategies for the representation of children in mid-twentieth century fiction. This essay examines the role of the Pollit children in the novel, arguing that an analysis of the collective voice of the children reveals the scope of Stead’s manipulation of noise and silence to create a soundscape that is important to the novel’s originality. The emphasis here is on Stead’s development of the sibling voice and the way in which this voice acts as a type of chorus that comments on the actions of the adult world. In building this soundscape Stead engages a diverse range of human sounds and speech patterns to illustrate the growing dysfunction of the Pollit family and to allow the children’s voice a diegetic agency that advances prior representations of children in adult novels.

The focus here is on Stead’s fictional children, however Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse offers a point of reference for this examination. Woolf and Stead each sought to represent the thoughts, and voice, of the child in experimental language in adult fiction. Louise Yelin said in 1990 that Stead ‘appeared to be haunted by the spectre of Woolf’ (‘Fifty Years’ 476).1 Both authors attempt to capture the intense visions of childhood in techniques that demonstrate their respective engagement with modernism, but these novels also represent changing perspectives on childhood in contemporaneous culture. Scholars have long discussed the enormous growth of scientific and social science literature on the topic of childhood and child-parent relations since 1900. Juliet Dusbinerre argues that ‘[t]he growth of social anthropology at the turn of the century contributed to a new awareness of family power structures by depicting their dependence on cultural patterns which varied from society to society’ (19) . Woolf and Stead, while producing interpretive acts of memory in radically re-working their approaches to the representation of children, also provide an insight into early twentieth century understandings of childhood (Woolf) and mid-century change in this field (Stead). In her memoir A Sketch of the Past, Woolf writes about the constraints of her Edwardian upbringing; she depicts the Ramsay children of To the Lighthouse struggling to rebel against the long-established rituals of class and family, even after the social and political changes that take place during the novel.

In contrast, Stead’s Pollit children live in Roosevelt’s America, just prior to World War 2, in an era in which beliefs in behaviourism and scientific training of children were being replaced by new concepts of child-rearing. According to Hugh Cunningham, children were now encouraged to stay at school rather than leave education early to enter the labour force, and parents were being advised to ‘enjoy parenting rather than to look on it as an intimidating scientific task’ (Cunningham 184.) In The Man Who Loved Children we see the Pollit parents and the older siblings in conflict about child-rearing, work and education. Woolf and Stead each address the shifting balance of power between adults and children in their narratives of family life, thus allocating greater agency to the child than was usual in adult fiction of the early to mid-twentieth century.

In these novels readers register both the children’s perspective, as well as the point of view of adults, on family codes of behaviour. The Ramsay and Pollit children are shown to acquiesce initially with parental demands to follow the explicit and implicit rules, or codes, of intra-family engagement. However, as the narratives progress this compliance changes and we see a challenge to the centres of family power that is characterised by the way the children speak, think, and make other sounds, or indeed retreat into silences in which their thoughts are available to readers.

This movement from compliance to resistance works to build different soundscapes: Woolf’s children experience trauma silently or their feelings are filtered through the perspective of an adult’s impression of the child’s emotions. The Ramsay children are heard mostly through their inner consciousness rather than direct speech, as befits Woolf’s modernist engagement with the representation of impressions. In contrast, the Pollit siblings bring a loud and forceful immediacy to the narrative as Stead mixes direct speech, free indirect prose, and a range of other language devices to represent a noisy and rambunctious family. In order to examine the strategic importance of this ‘noise’ and ‘silence’ in Stead’s work, I discuss the positioning of children in Stead’s novel, bearing Woolf’s literary legacy in mind, and then examine three activities that demonstrate Stead’s sonic techniques: the performance of ‘buzzing’ and song in the particular sequences; the impact of sibling collusion in Louie’s dramatic performances; and the way in which the children collectively express a growing unease with Sam Pollit’s discourse, seen in the children’s challenge to his ‘nonsense’ with ‘sense.’

In her diary Woolf wrote that she attempted to develop ‘the child’s vision’ (360), a process that Juliet Dusbinerre says involves a focus on ‘pure sensations, interaction, separateness and rhythm’ (11). In To the Lighthouse Woolf attempts to capture the sensations she remembers from her childhood at St Ives in Cornwall when ‘sound and sight seem to make equal part of these first impressions’ (‘A Sketch’, 66). 2 The sound that she associates with her memories is not ‘sharp and distinct’ but instead is formed of ‘the buzz, the croon, the smell,’ which ‘all seemed to press voluptuously against some membrane’ (‘A Sketch’, 66). Just as nature merges into a state of ‘voluptuous sensation’ in the rhythms of the novel, the children, according to Woolf, are to be ‘undifferentiated’ in order to emphasize the continuity of life. As described below, their voice remains muted and their challenge to their parents is indirectly expressed, yet the free indirect discourse and focalization gives the children their own narrative space. The tensions between child and father are qualified, again in their inner consciousness, when two of the children make the journey to the Lighthouse after World War I. Cam recognises that her brother, James, finally receives praise from Mr Ramsay. The young adults remain outwardly submissive: ‘Ask us anything and we will give it to you,’ Cam thinks (236), but the acceptance of their father at this point indicates that parent and child may be emotionally reconciled.

Stead undertakes a very different stylistic project in The Man Who Loved Children and for at least one child, Louie Pollit, there will be no reconciliation. Like Woolf, Stead aims to represent the intensity of childhood experience but the Pollit children are granted diegetic agency in their interaction with parents and siblings. Stead’s children live in an environment in which shouting and singing, and arguing, is normalized. They are not always unhappy but at times they suffer greatly. Joan Lidoff comments that ‘in the formative opening metaphors of the novel, Stead introduces the Pollit children as a collective vital force, dashing, tumbling, steaming and popping like a bubbling volcano, as they flood Henny’s room’ (206). The children maintain this vitality as the narrative progresses and they emerge as a quasi-chorus that comments on, and prompts, action in the increasingly dysfunctional household.

Stead’s novel therefore uses sound to provide a deliberately discordant texture that is quite different to the rhythmic discourse that characterises Woolf’s modernist enterprise. Towards the end of her life, Woolf described her sense of those structures thus: ‘there was in every family a code, a religious code that penetrated, somehow or other, to the children. It was secret; but we guessed’ (‘A Sketch’, 108). This code is described through the interior consciousness of the children and often expanded on or repeated later in the narrative. Outwardly, the Ramsay children accept family rituals but they often rage inwardly against parental strictures or show astonishment at adult behaviour. During the dinner party scene at Talland House, Mrs Ramsay reflects on her position at the centre of the occasion while noting that her children sit, in a row, ‘almost silent, but with some joke of their own going on’ (125), although at another point she says they are ‘excitable children’ (133). Despite this ambiguity, the children remain, for Mrs Ramsay, ‘like watchers, surveyors, a little raised or set apart from the grown up people’, the ‘undifferentiated’ group as noted above (126).

In creating her undifferentiated group, Woolf moves away from an earlier emphasis in fiction on the importance of the individual child seen in nineteenth century realist narratives. Dusinberre writes that the ‘shift of consciousness at the turn of the twentieth century loosely christened “modernism’’’ led to children’s authors and adult writers, such as Woolf, asking questions of language and narrative form in relation to fictional children (xvii). They drew their consciousness of childhood ‘not only from their own memory but from a cultural context which placed the child at the centre of many different forms of awareness’ (4). In To the Lighthouse, says Dusinberre, Woolf’s children make ‘their presence felt by a process of silent disruption’ in interior monologue and free indirect speech (xv). This disruption challenges the ‘cult of the child’ as a repository of innocence in which, as Jacqueline Rose identifies in relation to literature written for children, ‘the child is constantly set up as the site of a lost truth and/or moment in history’ (43).

In asking questions about the representation of fictional children in literature for adults Woolf challenged prevailing norms of writing for, and about, children. Adrienne Gavin says that in children’s literature, modernism is ambivalent about the power balance between adults and children, with the effect that:

adults in children’s literature virtually disappear. It is only in post-1945 literature that power swings in a sustained way in the child’s favour. This power does not come without cost, however, as adults without authority often become a burden to the contemporary literary child, or the child itself is pictured as a disruptively Gothicized figure. (16)

Gavin writes of children’s literature but a similar ‘swing’ can be seen in the representation of children in adult fiction. Stead’s representation of the Pollit children indicates a comparable interest in granting greater narrative agency to children, perhaps linking her own desire to revisit her childhood with wider ideas about the changing status of children in literature. Lidoff uses the term ‘domestic Gothic’ to discuss the way in which Stead develops specific literary techniques to illustrate rage, arguing that Stead uses ‘fantasies’ of the ‘subterranean psychic world’ and that she ‘never entirely cedes her fiction to the forms of inner consciousness’ ( 203). In Stead’s work this intermingling of inner consciousness and external sensibilities is supported by dynamic and challenging speech patterns and sounds that supports the tactile and earthy sensibilities of the characters.

In the increasingly disputatious Pollit household the siblings are expected to uphold the codes of family behaviour. The Pollit parents are from vastly different family cultures and their children provide a space to jointly represent the codes of their own, ostensibly united, Pollit tribe. At the start of the novel the children are happy to endorse these codes: they willingly take up Sam’s outlandish language and it is clear that they have developed their own discourse with Henny, their ‘Moth’. The chorus of singing and whistling that Henny labels ‘Pollit buzzing’ is the sonic accompaniment to the interaction of child and parent. Stead can be, as Angela Carter observes, a ‘rebarbative’ writer and the rages of Henny and Sam allow Stead the opportunity to illustrate uncomfortable ideas in ferocious language. In order to immerse the reader in this domestic battleground Stead experiments with a naturalism that uses direct speech and free indirect prose to develop a discordant soundscape. The children’s voice provides an important framework and support for the individual battles that take place centre-stage, as it were.

Near the start of the novel, watching from the sidelines, ten-year-old Ernie Pollit is hopeful for the future: ‘he knew he was a child and children had no rights, but he did not fret as time would cure him’ (109) and he recognizes that adult commands are ‘enforced by power alone and obeyed by weakness alone’ (110). Unlike the young Ramsays the Pollits tell tales on and about each other in a dynamic discourse. Helen Groth argues that in Seven Poor Men of Sydney Stead develops an ‘acoustic topography’ that allows the author to ‘mediate sounds, voices and sensory experiences that had previously fallen outside the auditory and aesthetic networks of Anglo-American modernism and its precursors’ (3). In The Man Who Loved Children Stead intensifies this process to focus on the discordant phrasing and chaotic language structures to reach into her own past but also to alert readers to the stresses of childhood experience in mid-twentieth century America.

Stead’s original use of language structures has been a constant source of scholarly interest. Randall Jarrell suggests that ‘Stead was unusually sensitive to speech-styles, to conversation structures … she knows just how family speech is different from outside the family, children’s speech different from adults’ (xxiv); and further, ‘[s]he gives her children the speeches of speakers to whom a word has the reality of a thing: a thing that can be held wrong-side-up’ (xxvi). Within the family’s coded speech Sam and Henny express alternative language orders that Jonathan Arac identifies as different performance modes: ‘There were excitement, fun, joy, and even enchantment with both mother and father, and it was just a question of whether one wanted to sing, gallop about, and put on a performance (“showing off like all Pollitry,” said Henny), or look for mysteries (“Henny's room is a chaos,” said Sam)’ (32). For Fiona Morrison, Stead’s speech is an ‘intense form of action in any Stead novel, trumping plot or purpose or narration … And the rhetorical marketplace in which Stead’s characters exchange speeches, positions, comments, silence, was a symptom of her naturalist’s detachment’ (176). This discourse, I argue, is framed by the collective sibling voice drawn from Stead’s own memories and integrated into this narrative to amplify the excesses of the Pollit family.

These memories recalled Stead’s father’s clear and concise scientific writing and his ‘at home’ stories that he told his children which were an odd combination of fancy and scientific observation. Her recall of David Stead’s discourse informs the ‘code’ of Sam Pollit that is based on his children’s submission to an intra-family language of nonsense that also includes an acceptance of the primacy of science over imagination. The children recognize as well Henny’s code, which is based on a constant challenge to Sam; the value of possessing secrets, and a fascination with the grotesque in everyday life that is the ‘the wonderful particular world’ (9) of Henny. When they are with Henny they see ‘the fish eyes, the crocodile grins, the hair like a birch broom, the mean men crawling with maggots, and the children restless as an eel, that she saw’ (9). As Anne Pender writes in relation to Stead’s late works: ‘In descriptive prose, direct speech and in free indirect discourse Stead revels in excess’ (125).

This excess is seen at close quarters in the battles between Sam and Henny that are loud and often physical. At times the children function as ‘watchers’, much like Woolf’s children, as they move in and out of the foreground occupied by Henny and Sam, placing themselves out of sight, around doorways or on steps, as they listen to the adults argue, creating a collective and watchful audience. At other times they intrude on the action, shouting for the fighting to stop or (in the case of sibling interaction) increasing the tempo. Sam often draws the children into a circle around himself in order to issue instructions or explain his position, a strategy that sometimes unites the group or at times sets the children against each other. Whenever Sam undertakes a new activity at Tolhoga House there is a collective response, as we see in the scene when Sam returns from Malaya and gathers the children around to watch him opening his boxes: ‘They had been straying and now they began circulating slowly but regularly in groups like creatures swimming around an aquarium’ (271). There is no room for the children, when positioned as Sam’s creatures, to develop an independent, or imaginative, voice.

When the siblings do move away from collective action they often continue to perform and rehearse adult behaviour. Evie plays ‘mother’, Ernie secretly collects money, and Louie writes poems and plays in the hope of becoming a writer or performer. From the perspective of the children’s collective voice this pattern of movement allows the children to prosecute their choral role as commentator on adult drama and their actions in leaving their siblings, or re-forming as a group, prompts narrative action, a movement signified by sound. This process is made explicit in the ‘Sunday a Funday’ section of Chapter One. Here the children respond to Sam’s whistles and song to start the day:

A burst of song came from out of doors, the father and his fledglings starting up with ‘Mid pleasures and palaces’; and when they came to the chorus, Evie could be heard fluting away, ‘Home, home, sweet, sweet home!’ The birds, cheered by all of this began to sing madly like a thousand little harmless brass devils under the leaves; hearing which, Louie at once put on the record that always made the birds begin to cheep, ‘Papengeno, Papagena!!’. Henrietta sang out, ‘He can’t open an eye without having the whole tribe jigging and buzzing round him. (31)

Pollit buzzing

Pollit buzzing, the background sound that so distresses Henny, is central to the development of the soundscape. We meet the two eldest children, Ernie and his step-sister Louie (aged just over eleven) early in the novel. During ‘Sunday’ Ernie listens to a discussion about money between his father Sam and his aunt, Jo, but he is not especially worried about his future for, as stated above, ‘he did not fret as time would cure him’ (109) and he accepts that ‘he really liked power and privilege’ (109). But within several paragraphs Louie is said to be obeying her parents ‘less and less’ and began ‘refusing to do things in open revolt’ (110), telling them ‘I will not because it is not right!’ (110). She is developing her own sense of right and wrong, because ‘she was already entering their world of power’ (110). In this schema who talks, how, and when, is critical. Judith Gardiner says that ‘Louie’s two parents speak separate languages. Sam platitudinises about love, virtue, patriotism; Henny spits vile, vivid, epithets … Although her parents cannot understand one another, Louie understands them both and can speak like either’ (160). Amy Richlin has traced Stead’s use of Latinate and the way in which Louie consistently references high culture authors in contrast to her father’s vernacular leanings. Richlin argues that throughout the novel the control of language usually belongs to Sam and that ‘his canting speech, based on American aw-shucks bucolic humor, scientific jargon, the Latin names of birds and plants, and baby talk, belongs peculiarly to him and [that] Louie’s desire to learn real languages battles with Sam’s pretences’ (272).

Stead gives vital space to the children to allow their voice to support and then contest Sam’s cant. They draw attention to his lack of logic and although at the start of the novel they join their father in his language games, this unity dissipates over the course of the narrative. Franzen calls Sam’s language ‘not baby talk exactly, something weirder – an endlessly inventive cascade of alliteration, nonsensical rhymes, puns, running jokes, clashing diction levels, and private references’ (Farther 59). This clash of sounds and language systems presents Stead with the opportunity to step aside from the ‘silent disruption’ of modernism and depict the dramatic energy that is at the base of this dysfunctional family. This energy demands singing, which is used by Pollit adults and children to punctuate scenes of intense drama or to unite the tribe after an argument: the reader becomes familiar with Old Charlie’s ‘cracked baritone’ (258), Auntie Bonnie’s songs at the piano, Sam’s snake dance song that ensures ‘the rafters rang’ (261) and the ‘Invocation to the free State’ chant that gathers the children together.

In her attempt to block out her family Henny only opens her ears when ‘Louie’s song ceased’ (51). Sam has a whistle for each child so that he can control by sound, as well as words, and Louie constantly attempts to assert order and control over this process, as Franzen has shown. Singing and whistling is therefore one of the ‘codes’ of family interaction demanded by Sam, and the point is made early in the novel that ‘Sam and the boys were all excellent whistlers’ (50). When the baby Charles Franklin is born Sam assigns him a new whistle, that of a bird, an oriole, that he can hear in his garden: ‘That’s for me; the bird sends me its song and that will be Charles-Franklin’s whistle,’ and he went through the whole range of whistles, adding last six sweet warbling notes which he now called ‘Charles-Franklin’s whistle’’ (296). Song is a controlling device for Sam but also a way in which the children experience the world. Louie visualizes her future in grandiose terms: she will be a performer in an opera that will be unlike the Pollits’ usual ‘harlequinade of scenes’ (51) or Auntie Bonnie’s ‘comic-opera’ (51). Early in the novel the children support their father’s rhymes that poke fun at neighbours such as ‘Old Mother Bannister’ (65) but some also oppose his mockery and withdraw from the activity. In order to bring the children back into his sphere Sam announces a ‘powwow’ (68). The children also respond to their mother with song but in a different vocal register:

They turned towards her, inwards, two similar red and yellow apples, and Saul began to sing falsetto, I would not marry a butcher, I’ll tell you the reason why/He’d chop me up for mincemeat and put me in a pie.

‘Let Mother sing it,’ they clamored.

‘Let Mother alone,’ said Henny. (200-01)

But Henny consents to sing ‘very low, for them’ (201). This call and response between parent and child is a musical pattern that allows Stead to arrange the sound of various scenes to support plot developments. Over the course of the narrative the children begin to separate from parental control, much as they begin to distinguish sense from nonsense, but voice remains a controlling device. After the move to Spa House, Louie is embarrassed by Sam when he takes Louie and Clare out for ice-cream but Stead’s narrative shows that she is still swayed into acceptance: ‘she loved her father at present: and when he began to speak again, in that low, humming, cello voice and with that tender, loving face he had when beginning one of his paeans or dirges, she listened as well as Clare’ (352).

Performance: the Aiden Cycle and Tragos Herpes Rom

The Pollit siblings are both audience and actor for several of Louie’s literary performances. The Aiden Cycle scenes frame another important event, the performance of Louie’s play called ‘Tragos Herpes Rom’. When Louie begins writing the Aiden Cycle her siblings collectively sit quietly ‘with rosy, greedy faces upturned, listening’ (341) while she attempts to have the children ‘act with her’ in performing the poems (341). But in the next chapter, when the children perform the play with Louie, they are eager participants.

Louie’s decision to write a one-act play based on Shelley’s The Cenci highlights the growing intensity of the battle between Louie and Sam. The references to Shelley’s work will not be identified by Sam who reads only non-fiction, but the mere fact of Louie writing in a ‘made-up’ language is enough to enrage him and call her ‘crazy’ (404). Brigid Rooney discusses this play in terms of another type of code, that of a relationship between playwright and audience, which of itself forms a challenge to the code of submission to the father. Rooney argues:

The coded language of the play effects a specific relationship between the playwright and her audience. Stage directions written in English, inserted within the coded dialogue, remind the reader that for the duration of the performance bodies and voices rather than words carry the significance. (133).

In this performance the Pollit siblings take orders from Louie’s stage-directions, an implicit challenge to patriarchal dominance. This focus on Louie’s control is an important change from the beginning of the novel where Sam orchestrates both sound and body movement, for example when he encourages his sons Saul and Sam to fight in front of the other children because ‘[w]hen there is bad blood in this family, I want you to get it out of your system by a man-to-man fight’ (86).

Now Ernie responds to Louie’s stage directions to act as a snake: ‘At this point Ernie began to writhe and hiss, poking out his tongue instantly at all present, imitating a snake’ (402). The children’s performance has changed to represent a mix of embodied form and written English that supports Louie’s challenge to Sam. They giggle at Louie’s script and enter into the performance with gusto. This classically inspired work deeply disturbs Sam. After the performance he exclaims ‘what the devil was the use of writing in Choctaw?’ ‘What language was it?’ ‘Why couldn't it be in English?’ (401) and denounces ‘Euripides or any other Dago playwright’ (404). According to Yelin, Louie’s play as protest against parental despotism is ineffective because no one understands ‘the invented language in which it is expressed’ (25). Yet the children are enthusiastic participants in the play and Ernie joins in with Louie’s distress at Sam’s reaction to the play: ‘Unexpectedly, Ernie burst out crying’ (405). They do not understand Louie’s invented language but they entirely understand her attempt to speak in her own way to ‘the horror of everyday life’ (405) and they use their voice, calling out to each other, to take their roles. This phrase echoes the voice of Nancy in To the Lighthouse, who retreats to her room at Talland House ‘to escape the horror of family life’ (85). Sam is affronted by sounds that he does not understand and finally he can only respond by asking the children to join in a song which is an ‘invocation to the Free State … a barbarian chant with which they raised the roof and restored good humour’ (406). The siblings are as happy to perform for Louie as they are to join in with their father’s chants but their engagement with the play speaks to the way in which they can now be co-opted by family members other than their parents.

Indeed Louie at this point still seeks Sam’s approval because she gives her father a grammar with the text of the play’s vocabulary ‘to prove that her translation and the words were quite correct’ (404). Shortly after this performance Sam discovers Louie’s diary containing ‘The Aiden Cycle’. He immediately decides to read the diary out loud to the children but also to make sure that Louie hears his performance. He mocks her writing thus: ‘Looloo,’ he said turning away to the children, ‘is trying to practice poickry without a poick’s license, and I think she ought to be fined or go to jail’ (427). Sam’s taunts are only silenced by the receipt of a letter that includes a cutting from a newspaper with a message of ‘insulting words’ (427) that libel both Henny and Sam. In the ensuing night of fighting between the parents Louie tells the children the story of ‘Hawkins the North Wind’ in an attempt to protect the children from the arguments, although Evie cries that ‘there is too much noise’ (433) as the children lie in their beds attempting to block out the sound below.

Sense and nonsense

At the beginning of the book the children gather around Sam and listen to his talk but later in the novel even the very young ones, who try to gain approval, provide a chorus of sensible queries (299). It is the children who apply logic when Sam refuses to publicly confront his detractors, with Louie exclaiming ‘Why do you let them say it?’ (134). By the point of Aunt Jo’s visit to Tohoga House, about a third of the way into the novel, Louie starts to speak up in family discussions (107) and the children voice questions about unstable adult behaviour (105): ‘What are you crying for?’ Evie asks Aunt Jo (107). The anti-intellectual Sam addresses the children in his child-like language and he reacts angrily when Louie quotes Confucius (277), just as he denies her longing for a Welsh grammar or an Egyptian dictionary. By half-way through the novel Louie and Ernie begin to ask ‘How do you know?’ (301) as they start to query Sam’s nonsense. By the end of the book even the twins begin to sound a note of caution about Sam’s treatment of his eldest daughter (425). Sam increasingly accuses Louie of being hysterical but she becomes more assertive and confident in her language, saying ‘There is one thing that I am sure of … Not one of the children will ever confide in you’ (478). Sam’s delusions are such that he has no ability to understand that Louie is telling the truth when she recounts her story of Henny’s suicide, telling her that her ‘tale’ was ‘child’s play, horseplay’ and that ‘she was out of her senses’ (523). Likewise he will not admit that Ernie rehearsed a suicide by making a figure of pillow cases, pyjamas and a shawl with a piece of string around the neck (508). These events are overtaken when Sam tells Louie that ‘you must stay by me forever’ (482) and she retreats into silence, which Sam takes to be submission, but is in fact the beginning of Louie’s plan to change her future, starting with her thoughts about killing her parents.

Stead wrote The Man who Loved Children with the assistance of some of her father’s letters from Malaya to help with idiom and tonal qualities, but she also had an excellent ear for speech. Near the beginning of The Man Who Loved Children Louie reflects on the value of secrets that allow her to go ‘through a door into another world’ (59). The child’s need to keep a secret is seen in Louie’s fury over the disclosure of the Aiden Cycle and Ernie’s anger at Sam’s discovery of his old lead collection under his bed (392). Childhood studies scholar Elizabeth Goodenough argues that access to a story or secret space is critical for it allows children to show off or share private spaces on their own terms (Secret 9). Stead’s use of speech and sound provide a cue and tonal register for the degree of distress suffered by the children in the narrative when their space is displaced, for example when Ernie screams wildly, bellowing ‘like a bull calf’ (396) when Sam attempts to remove his lead collection. Stead’s narrative shows the impact on children when that space is displaced. Stead’s innovation is to show how speech and sound can act as a structuring device in fictional narratives in which we learn how to negotiate power through language.

The battle for control of the family language-codes in The Man Who Loved Children is exhaustive and, for the reader, often exhausting. In 1945, after completing the work Stead said that she had expatiated (a David Stead word) some of her troubled memories and that her father was an ‘egoistic humanitarian’ (Modern 247). In Ocean of Story she pays tribute to her father’s formative influence on her imagination, saying he was ‘an unusually gifted man’ with a ‘genius for verbiage’ (‘A Waker and Dreamer’ 493). At this point in her life her memories of childhood were tempered by what she called a longer view of ‘the homestead.’ Stead’s extraordinary display of childhood language is a memorial to this verbiage as well as to the codes that the Stead siblings both accepted and fought during their youth. Stead reproduces her father’s ‘family’ voice in the novel and writes dialogue for the Pollit siblings that in turn mimics their parents’ respective language orders. In so doing, Stead demonstrates the process of language acquisition noted by Goodenough: ‘young vocalists rehearse, first inaudibly with themselves, then aloud with others, the lifelong process of negotiating boundaries between what is real inside themselves and the world outside’ (Secret, 8–9). Like Woolf, Stead is aware of twentieth century scholarship in anthropology, psychology and education and new understandings of childhood that provides a context for such acts of remembrance.

In To the Lighthouse Mrs Ramsay asks why her children must grow up and ‘lose it all’ (91). As James and Cam depart on the long delayed visit to the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe looks at their faces and says: ‘And it struck her, this was tragedy – not palls, dust and the shroud: but children coerced, their spirits subdued’ (169). The long delayed visit to the Lighthouse is a vehicle for a revelation of the damage inflicted by a parent who is at the same time well loved. The Pollit children, however, must face another future and one that appears to offer a measure of independence from the generation of their parents. Woolf famously wrote in the essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ that human relationships changed in 1910, and these relationships included those between ‘parents and children’ (5). The Ramsay children recognize their traumas and battle internally against the control of both parents but they remain within the family structure. Louie Pollit, however, begins her ‘walk round the world’ (527) away from Spa House to Harpers Ferry and her mother’s family when she recognises that her father will have ‘the same old story’ (521). The legacy of nineteenth century representations of the ‘cult of the child’ and sentimentalized representations of children are challenged in Woolf’s writing and tested again by Stead as she positions her own memories in a society that is undergoing major social change. As Stead makes clear, the children remember Henny’s death ‘for a few weeks’ but, given support from family and friends, they quickly adapt to their new circumstances (514).

As the eldest sibling Louie Pollit presents one way forward when she decides to leave home. She will leave the siblings to establish her own future and her own voice and her childhood discourse can be left behind with her step-brothers and step-sisters at Spa House. Stead’s novel and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse both strike to the heart of the way in which children perceive their role in family life, although the authors use differing language techniques to reveal the struggles of children. The soundscape that Stead creates in her novel adds to the fabric of this childhood by bringing the bang and clash of this family to the page and offering readers a new way to think about children. Louie reflects that ‘Sam had a voice, she had an ear, and these struggling, poor people, gasping just at the surface of the river, had lives’ (72) and understands they are only one of many unhappy families. The collective voice of the children speaks from one family at a point of crisis but their struggle is representative perhaps of the challenges faced by many children in the rough and tumble of family life.


  1. Louise Yelin stated in 1990 that ‘Stead herself appears to be haunted by the spectre of Woolf, as she herself was haunted by the figure of the Angel in the House’ (page). Yelin argues that Stead ‘is an early instance of what Jane Marcus identifies as a recurrent theme in the recent history of feminist criticism, a repression of Woolf as the mother of the enterprise’ (‘Fifty Years’ 476), also noting Stead’s contempt for the politics of Woolf’s Three Guineas (‘Fifty Years’ 491).

  2. In Alice to the Lighthouse: Children’s Books and Radical Experiments in Art, Juliet Dusinberre states that when revising To the Lighthouse in 1926 Woolf wrote: “The idea has grown in the interval since I wrote the beginning. The presence of the 8 children, undifferentiated, should be important, to bring out the sense of life in opposition to fate – i.e. Waves, Lighthouse” (Woolf qtd. in Dusinberre 146).

Published 7 December 2016 in Rediscovering Christina Stead. Subjects: Childhood, Christina Stead.

Cite as: Carson, Susan. ‘The Children’s Chorus: Sibling Soundscapes in The Man Who Loved Children.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 6, 2016.