The Book Club

The Way Big Beings Appear to Smaller Ones

Dear Katha,

I loved your use of the word “relish”: It’s the perfect noun for Stead’s unblinking, energetic, vivid approach to her subject. As I read, I also had in the back of my mind the sort of ghostly specter of what this novel might have been in the hands of a contemporary student of family psychodrama. I can’t think of anyone who writes about family relations with the confidence that Stead does, the straightforward confidence that the hundreds of little vectors she follows into this one family’s incoherent heart will add up to a more realistic picture than all the careful, deterministic constructions that so often make up stories about upbringing. (The daughter is like this because her father did that to her; one son turned out this way because he was his mother’s favorite, and the other son turned out this other way because of the family’s focus on his little sister’s dyslexia.)

And I agree that the portrait of Henny is oddly loving. It does mitigate the claim of Stead’s biographer that she wrote largely out of revenge. It is so clear that Henny’s bleak force shoves Louie toward her freedom. Her force and, of course, her example. The imagery suggesting Henny’s imprisonment is some of the most powerful in the book: “Henny muttered in her room; it was like the rusty stirring of some weed-grown sea animal, bottom-prisoned by blindness.”

But I want to defend my claims for this book’s extraordinary treatment of money. (Why am I obsessed with this, I wonder?) It’s true that 19th century novels often turned on money and social class, but they didn’t often do it with the same deep materiality that this novel does. I mean, we know abstractly that Jane Eyre’s poverty completely determines the cruelty with which others treat her, and that money has corrupted Ralph Nickleby, and that Elizabeth Bennett’s friend Charlotte has to marry the odious pastor because she has no other prospects. But money rarely gets its due as the daily medium and irrational force it really is in human life.

Yes, there are exceptions. (Your dispatch reminded me of Forster’s wonderful disquisition, in Howards End, on what it means to be a man so strapped that the accidental theft of your umbrella is catastrophic, as it is to Leonard Bast.) But I think Stead is onto something genuinely rare. So much of what the characters say and do to each other is boundaried by money or its lack (when “butter-hearted Bonnie,” Sam’s indentured sister, singes Henny’s finest blouse, we get a very specific sense of how completely futile is her promise to replace it; hence we get to understand exactly how Henny’s fury is deepened by the promise itself); the clarity of the book’s financial dimension is one of the big ways we apprehend Henny’s rage at her husband, who manages not to be at all burdened by the same set of facts that have completely enslaved her.

Before we close, I want to comment on one other element of the book that we’ve only touched on, which is its extraordinarily sure sense of the ways that children perceive the grown-ups around them. I can’t begin to fathom how Stead knows what she does, but she strikes me as having perfect pitch for the way we big beings appear to smaller ones and a singular respect for the haphazard way that adult behavior affects children. In our modern, Penelope Leach-ish way, we’ve come to think of ourselves as all-powerful, predictably molding children (for good or ill) with our every pronouncement. But Stead has it right: One awful episode with Henny or Sam may cut to the quick; the next one runs away like water, its residue invisible. (The coda to the awful banana-feeding incident runs: “Clouds were passing over, swiftly staining the garden, the stains soaking in and leaving only bright light again. Louie forgot the incident completely as a dream.”) But they are always watching, watching. And what mysteries parents are to their children:

And down the table, [there were] three large pitchers, one transparent, one blue, and one pink, containing a rose-colored liquor with fruit floating in it. This mysterious drink intrigued the children beyond expression. They kept swallowing and looking at the glassware. Before the children were only lemonade glasses, but before the adults were wineglasses. The children suspected that even on this occasion the sherbet of paradise was to be drunk under their dry lips by the loudmouthed, money-pocketed monsters who had them in thrall. Why didn’t these giants ravish the table, send the food flying besides, gobble, guff, grab, and gourmandize? To be bestial giants with the power of sherbet and also to exhibit such mean-spirited stinginess towards their own appetites was a conundrum the children could never solve.

It’s not an incidental pleasure of this book, just glimpsing again at what it’s like to puzzle out that mystery. As Jarrell writes in his intro, “God is, I suppose, what our parents were; certainly the giant or ogre of the stories is so huge, so powerful, and so stupid because that is the way a grown-up looks to a child. Grown-ups forget or cannot believe that they seem even more unreasonable to children than children seem to them.”

I’m going to try to bear this in mind the next time my daughter’s unreasonable hatred of her toothbrush is driving me to Henny-ish distraction.

Thanks again for suggesting this book. Last time we met in the “Book Club,” we were discussing Eric Schlosser’s grand guignol tour of the fast food industry, which now looks to me like the sunniest thing in the world. (Don’t forget, when you teach it, to take up the cat-drowning scene. …) But I wouldn’t have missed my tour through the Pollit-with-one-“t” family, and again I’ve been grateful for the chance to see through your shrewd reader’s eyes.