The Children’s Book is such an exceptional creative achievement, I’m rather tempted to describe it as a ‘tour de force’. It has the shape of the so-called family saga , (614 pages, covering three decades) but it’s not like any of the genre that I’ve ever taken on a plane. How could it be, when the erudite A.S. Byatt, D.B.E. is the author, with her recurring interest in naturalism, realism and fantasy? As you’d expect, when it’s written by the Booker Prize winning author of Possession, the book has been widely reviewed, but not always kindly. Nevertheless, it was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize and in my opinion was unlucky to have been pitted against Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
I found The Children’s Book fascinating. Reading it is a bit like reading the grand old ‘masters’ of 19th century fiction, Eliot, Dickens and Trollope, whose big, baggy novels-with-a-social-conscience feature numerous characters and a sprawling plot. However there are also so many intriguing references to all kinds of historical figures and events that I often found myself happily sidetracked into online searches as well. (This made it take longer to read than usual and lured me away from other stuff I should have got done during the Easter break. Too bad!)
The Children’s Book begins as a charming, seemingly innocuous story about an Edwardian writer of children’s tales, her family and the families that cross their path. They live in a rambling Garden-of-Eden house in the country called Todefright where children innocently play and adults seem insulated from change despite their professed Fabianism. Before long, however, this epic novel begins to create a sense of unease …
BEWARE: SPOILERS BELOW (but nothing critical to the plot)
Who is the narrator? Not the omniscient 19th century observer it may at first seem to be for there are sharp comments here and there to remind us that there is a 21st century sensibility at work. Olive – complimented by Herbert about the way she manages her large brood and yet writes her stories – simpers something inane about feeling like a mother hen. It’s Violet (Olive’s unmarried sister) who is tending to dirty faces and scraped pants retorts the narrator. It’s this same narrator – with her astute awareness of the way the lower classes are invisible to their ‘betters’ – who reminds us that it’s Elsie who is tidying up the Fludd household, carelessly unpaid just as Phillip is. The characters – and then only some of them – come to a belated recognition about this and other inequities later on. The treatment of class differences in this novel is more modern than anything you find in the 19th century classics.
Who really belongs in these big baggy families? They’re certainly not as respectable as the grand old novels of the 19th century imply. The Wellwoods are but one of a number of ‘shifting, insecure Bohemian households’ (p402). The word changeling keeps cropping up, amplifying the recurring arguments between Olive and Humphry that the children witness. Phillip becomes the son that Benedict Fludd has always needed; but it’s Dobbin who ‘fathers’ the boy, while Fludd’s own son Geraint – prematurely ‘man of the house’ and a begging breadwinner – becomes the sort of son that Basil Wellwood ‘would have wished to have’ (p405). Marion ‘mothers’ Elsie, but no one mothers Imogen or Pomona. Questions of identity and how it is shaped when parentage is a bit messy (to put it mildly) are intrinsic to the novel as well.
Who suffers for art in an age when the middle classes buy it with apparent ease? Phillip abandons his family and doesn’t tell his frantic mother where he is for a fortnight; thereafter he sends postcards with no return address because he needs solitude to work. The Fludd children are neglected and shabby and subjected to their father’s rage and despair when his pots don’t turn out right, and the girls’ role as models is something else again. However, I think that Byatt is most interested in the intersection between the creative impulse and motherhood – and the potential for damage to the psyche of both mother and child. The fairy stories Olive writes for her children – apparently their only personal possessions – are appropriated when they are needed because they suit the market. Olive is uneasy about this herself, but she is the breadwinner, and professionally, she needs to develop her creative range when she starts writing plays. Would she have still done this had she known its potential to damage her children’s sense of self? Byatt explores the choices that must be made for art and ambition with some intensity. She knows about the fragility of inspiration and the temperamental muse…
Who recognises the creative impulse, and nurtures it? Phillip’s journey is a series of happy circumstances. That these are barely credible is intended: it is luck, luck and luck again that brings him to a place where he can fulfil his destiny. The scanty education Phillip had had fitted him only for work in a factory; but middle class education doesn’t succour Tom’s creative needs; and all the girls struggle to get an education of any kind, much less one in the arts.
These characters emerge from a fully realised political, social and economic landscape; we are learning about the underside of the late Victorian/Edwardian era as we read. There are interesting contrasts with German culture when the story shifts to Munich: satirical political theatre and puppetry, Grimm’s dark tales compared to British storytelling for children. There are also portents of both 20th century world wars as Byatt explores the dark side of naturalism. Fascinating stuff!
Who takes responsibility for putting things right, and when? The fairy tales are prescient (don’t skip them!):
‘This appears to be my fault, but I have done nothing’ cried Thomas.
‘Harm can come about without will or action. But will and action can avert harm.’ (p192)
In Olive’s fairytale, Thomas, ready or not, must go underground with the Elf Queen to retrieve his shadow identity. In the narrative, Tom’s cousin Charles must go to Eton to see how the world works before he tries to change it. Dorothy, the ‘sensible one’, goes to Munich to tidy muddled relationships. Women take on responsibility for unmarried mothers and babes because the men responsible don’t. Young men must go to war because it is expected and women nurse the shattered veterans.
This, by the way, is the Gloucester candlestick with which the book begins. It’s in the V&A Museum, which was the South Kensington Museum at the time this story opens. The V&A is one of my favourite museums and it’s fascinating to read about its development, not least the curatorial arguments about how objects should be arranged. This is a conflict which in many 21st century museums seems to have been won in favour of making a jazzy display at the expense of showing the development or scientific significance of objects, (described by some commentators as the ‘Disneyfication of museums’) – but Byatt visits the controversy with sophistication (and almost converted me).
Inside the building there was dissension between those concerned primarily with the beauty of the objects to be displayed, and those concerned with their utility as teaching aids for craftsmen. There was a movement on the Continent to construct or reconstruct rooms or settings …in which beds, tables, chairs, carpets and ceramics could be seen as the museum designers imagined their makers might have seen them…’thus a piece of tapestry is seen…over a bed, a chest, or a seat, not placed on a line between an earlier and a later specimen’. This was what Prosper Cain wanted to achieve. But it was not to be. The Museum’s fate was decided by …Robert Morant…He believed that it was the duty of the curators to make an educational order – spoon after spoon, banister next to banister, dishes in rows and carpets side by side. p407-8.
The Children’s Book is full of tempting descriptions of all kinds of artwork and artists, everything from ceramics to sculpture, painting and marionettes. (The cover image, the dragon woman brooch by Rene Lalique, is relevant to the story too.) At left is the Minton Prometheus Vase that captivates Phillip at Nutcracker Cottage on p68, and here’s a link to a bio of Bernard Palissay who makes as appearance on p130, and to Samuel Palmer’s watercolours on p404. (Scroll down to the bottom to the link to the Tate, where you can see just how moody those paintings are). The net-book lived beside me on the bed as I read this book, so that I could Google its treasures as I came across them. I hope I can fit in another visit to the V&A and the Tate next time I’m in London, so that I can see these artworks properly, but in the meantime I am very grateful to museums which freely share images of their collections online. There is such generosity on the net these days!
There is a very large cast of characters in The Children’s Book and as the book progresses Byatt doesn’t always remind us about the relationships. Someone will probably end up listing them all on Wikipedia one day…but in the meantime, if you’ve lost track, try Mmegi Online, (but there are spoilers there, and no warnings). Interesting reviews are at The Guardian, and The Times Online but be warned – they all have spoilers. I’ve warned about spoilers above, but mine are minor: I’ve actually been quite evasive in order to avoid giving away any critical plot elements. Some of these ‘professional’ reviews do, and they don’t give any warnings at all. The one at the LRB is unnecessarily expansive: it’s as if, having decided he didn’t like the book, the reviewer decided to be unkind and ruin it for everyone else by telling all.
A.S. Byatt’s website includes her ‘diary’ with links to some interviews that she’s done, but the Wikipedia entry is more informative. I also found a useful article called The Golden Age of Children’s Books at the Times Online, which is well worth reading as a background piece. (There aren’t any spoilers in it.) There are reading group questions here.
Author: A.S. Byatt
Title: The Children’s Book
Publisher: Chatto & Windus 2009
Source: Personal Library