The Man Who Loved Children

by Christina Stead

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Written by Australian writer Christina Stead and first published in 1940, The Man Who Loved Children is a novel initially set in Sydney, Australia, but the setting was changed to Washington DC to suit an American audience. The novel tells the story of the dysfunctional Pollit family. Father Sam and mother Henrietta, known as Henny, have been married for ten years. Henny is an heiress from a wealthy and influential family. Sam is smart but without the status of his wife. The family is very poor and they rent their home from Henny’s father.

Sam and Henny loathe one another, and their only communication is through their children. They have seven children, six of their own as well as Louisa, Sam’s eleven-year-old daughter from his first marriage. Louisa’s mother died when she was just six months old. Henny is an unpredictable and cruel mother, while Sam, who claims to love them, torments them mercilessly.

The novel opens in 1936 and follows the family over a period of several years. Not long after the birth of their child Charles, Henny’s father dies. He has spent all his money, leaving nothing for Henny in his will. Their house needs to be sold in order to pay off his debts. The family moves to a run-down house in a low-income area, and Sam is suspended from work. Sam resolves to work on the house with the help of the children. Despite encouraging them to be “splendid men and women,” he bullies them regularly.

Louisa, thinking the only way to escape is to kill Sam and Henny, puts cyanide in their morning tea. Henny drinks the tea and dies. Sam does not, and he proceeds to get a job at a radio station. Louisa tells him that she planned to kill him as well as Henny. At age fourteen, she leaves to start a new life.

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