The Man Who Loves Soccer v ‘The Man Who Loved Children'

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, has weighed in on a debate surrounding a proposed development of a house in the picturesque waterside suburb of Watsons Bay in Sydney’s east. Socceroo Mark Schwarzer, who paid over $10 million in 2009 for a house called Boongarre (also known as Stead House, Christina Stead’s childhood home), is planning a $3 million renovation, to which some local residents are opposed. The SMH report has all the relevant details, including this quote from Franzen: “Christina Stead gave the world one of the truly great novels of the 20th century, and although she moved the setting of it to America at the insistence of her American publisher, its heart is clearly in Watsons Bay'‘. Some Australian authors have already issued protestations, including Alex Miller and Nikki Gemmell. Franzen, who has previously tried to resurrect the reputations of novelists Paula Fox and William Gaddis, last year championed The Man Who Loved Children in the New York Times.

We love soccer, and we love the Socceroos. Mark Schwarzer has distinguished himself many times on their behalf, and ours. But consider some of the details of Christina Stead’s life. Her father was a marine biologist and a pioneering conservationist - a man ahead of his time, though with a dark side, if The Man Who Loved Children is any indication. In 1928, at the age of 26, Stead went abroad. In the early 1930s, while working in a Parisian bank, Stead became involved with the great love of her life, William J. Blake, a writer himself, as well as a stockbroker and a Marxist political economist. He was a married man and he was Jewish, at a time of pervasive anti-Semitism. They didn’t marry until 1952, when he finally obtained a divorce from his first wife. Stead considered herself a Marxist although she never joined the Communist Party. As the fog of war descended on Europe, she moved with Blake to the US.

Throughout her remarkable life, Stead earned her living as a writer. She wrote 15 novels and many short stories. During the war, Stead taught writing at New York University. She also wrote for Hollywood, including a John Ford and John Wayne propaganda movie called They Were Expendable. But it was her 1940 novel, The Man Who Loved Children, a novel now often cited as among the greatest novels ever written, that would establish an enduring literary reputation. Based on her own childhood, the novel is one of the most heartrending depictions of family dysfunction ever committed to the page. At the insistence of her US publisher, Stead moved the setting of the novel from Sydney to turn-of-the-century Baltimore.

Many readers consider her 1946 novel, Letty Fox: Her Luck, to be just as good. Australia was the only country in the world to ban the book on grounds that it was salacious, although the Censorship Board noted “[t]he author has a powerful intellect… It is all the more regrettable that she should have used it injudiciously.” The ban was lifted in 1958.

Both novels were largely ignored at the time, but a 1965 reissue revived interest in The Man Who Loved Children. After her husband died of cancer in 1968, Stead returned to Sydney, where she lived until her death in 1983.

The Twitter handle of the campaign to stop the development is @savesteadhouse.