The Man Who Loved Children: A Novel
(1940) is so unknown and rarely read or discussed. Without setting this as a goal, Stead's novel is a feminist manifesto of an incomparable and breathtaking power. This book could be handed out to students instead of an entire course on the history of gender relations. No amount of numbers, figures and historical data could give a fuller understanding of the tragedy of female existence before reliable birth control.
Samuel Pollit, the main male character of the novel, is obssessed with the idea of having children. He baselessly believes himself to possess valuable intellectual and personal characteristics that he wants to pass on to posterity at any cost. He professes to love his 7 children but doesn't invest much effort into feeding or clothing them. These burdens fall on the shoulders of his wife Henrietta (or Henny, as everybody knows her).
Henny hates her husband. She hates her life and she hates her body that keeps producing children, the children that chain her forever to the man she despises. There is a suggestion that in the early days of Henny's and Sam's married life Sam raped his wife to achieve the central goal of his existence: making her pregnant.
The contrast between the lives led by Henny and Sam is striking. Having seven children doesn't prevent Sam from travelling the world, participating in scientific expeditions, pursuing hiis social and intellectual interests, etc. The children adore him because their father isn't burdened with much work and can spend a lot of time playing with them and making up stories and adventures for them. Henny, however, has none of these things to brighten her life. She has to worry constantly about putting the food on the table and keeping the whole family out of financial ruin. She is miserable, angry, loud, and unkempt. She beats the children and they hate and fear her.
Henny experiences her own body as a prison, as a dark force that keeps her subjugated to the man she hates: "Look at me! My back's bent in two with the fruit of my womb; aren't you sorry to see what happened to me because of his lust? . . Didn't he fix me up, pin me down, make sure no man would look at me while he was gallivanting with his fine ladies? . . What do I care, Jinny? You're a mother yourself. Haven't you done the horrible thing three times yourself for a man?" As you can see, Stead's novel is brutally honest. There is no mellifluous bleating about the joys of motherhood. For a woman who has absolutely no control over her reproduction, childbearing is "the horrible thing" that pins her down and locks her forever in the prison of her physiology.
I cannot recommend this beautiful novel highly enough. It's a heartbreaking, cruel, painful and messy text. And you will never be sorry you read it.
P.S. Here I want to add a very pertinent quote from a discussion at Hugo Schwyzer's blog (thank you, Anonymous reader, for bringing it to my attention): "Whatever the exact figures, childbirth has probably killed more women than any other single cause in human history. Until very recently (a miracle two millenia ago in Palestine notwithstanding), the only possible cause for pregnancy was heterosexual intercourse. So if childbirth kills women, and sex causes pregnancy, then by the logical transitive property, heterosexual intercourse has been, not so indirectly, the most lethal of all human activities for one-half of the population. To put it even more bluntly, men have killed far more women by ejaculating inside of them than they have by any other method." You can go here for the rest of this insightful post.