The Children’s Book starts in what for readers of Possession will be familiar territory: Victorian England, artists and writers, families and love affairs. However it rapidly expands to encompass a large cast of characters and takes place over twenty years, chronicling a period of massive social change in Britain, ending in World War One. It lacks some of the features that made Possession such an enthralling read; where Possession was a focussed, intense novel with a tight narrative, The Children’s Book is sprawling, complicated and unsentimental. While it took me longer to get into the book, this ends up being its strength, as A.S. Byatt successfully brings both the period and the characters to life.
Olive Wellwood is a successful children’s author, born into a mining family she has married well, and lives with her husband Humphrey, sister Violet and her large brood of children at Todefright House in the Kent countryside. They are members of the Fabian society, a socialist movement that was popular amongst many literary figures of the day. They live a somewhat bohemian lifestyle at odds with that of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil and his German wife. At the novel’s start, Olive is visiting her friend, and admirer, Prosper Cain at his workplace The South Kensington Museum, which we now know as The Victoria & Albert. There they stumble upon a teenage Phillip Warren, a runaway from the industrial ceramics industry who nonetheless dreams of making his own pots. They help him to be apprenticed to Benedict Fludd, a ceramicist, with some dark secrets. All these characters attend the Wellwoods’ midsummer party where they are entertained by Anselm Stern, a German puppeteer. Still with me? That is only the adults; as the book continues we focus more on the younger generation. It is complicated but if you can get to grips with all the characters the pay-off is terrific.
Myth and fairytale are important themes running through this novel. As with the poets in Possession we get to read some of Olive’s stories, and many of Stern’s plays are familiar German fairytales. These are not sanitised Disney stories, but dark tales of sad children, sad parents, separation from family, and cruelty. The marionette performance at midsummer is Aschenputtel (Cinderella), wonderfully described by Byatt; we can imagine the performance, both the beauty of it, and the uncanniness, culminating in the rather gruesome image of the sister’s feet being hacked by a cleaver to fit inside the shoe. Byatt knows how to use metaphor well. Amongst the many metaphors running through the novel, the cuckoo is discussed by the Todefright children, leading us to question - who will be the cuckoo in this nest? The answer to this is more complicated than first expected, and will tie together the many characters in some interesting ways.
By having such a large and disparate group of characters Byatt is able to include differing views on many important events and movements of the time. The Boer war, the Fabians, Marxists and Anarchists all feature. Of particular importance is the growing Women’s liberation movement. One Wellwood daughter becomes a suffragette, and the right of women to sexual freedom is a recurring theme that involves many characters with varying consequences. The eldest Wellwood daughter, Dorothy, and her cousin Griselda both choose to educate themselves. Griselda is at Cambridge University, where she can attend classes and sit exams, but never graduate, and must live her life cloistered in college despite reaching adulthood. Dorothy becomes a doctor, even though she will only ever be allowed to work at a women’s hospital with female colleagues and patients. Their struggles with the disapproval from family and society, and the sacrifice of never having their own family or husband is very moving, and a stark reminder of the days when very few women where able to have any life outside the domestic sphere, and even then at great cost to themselves.
The book begins in 1895 and as time passes Byatt often steps aside from the plot to bring us up to date with historical context. These are useful passages, as the events of history filter down to the characters’ lives. However there were moments were she brings in historical figures to the periphery of the book, even quoting letters or poems, such as those of Cambridge contemporaries Virginia Wood and Rupert Brooke. At times I found these jarring. Of course it is realistic that they would meet these people if they were moving in the same spheres. But to an extent it reminded me that everyone else was fictional. I found the use of quotations particularly difficult. While I could accept on all-knowing narrator of fictional lives, giving access to a real person was a step too far for me.
The great strength of this book is the way it gave a real depiction of people’s lives. They are often complicated and messy; people make mistakes, people die, children are born. Byatt is unsentimental towards her characters. This is perhaps most strongly shown in the final act of the book, set during World War One. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say many characters die. Unflinching and thankfully brief, it is one of the most affecting depictions of war I have read. Byatt avoids any mawkish sentiment; war is impersonal and so is her depiction of it. And just as in real life, there is no neat ending here. Many survive World War One, but as we the reader know, looming on the horizon is World War Two. If you like books with neat, happy endings this may not be the one for you. I however found it to be moving without relying on sentiment, a satisfying and compelling read.