The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt is a huge, sprawling multi-family saga set in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Olive Wellwood, a children’s author, lives with her husband Humphrey and their seven children (ages zero to 13 years) at Todefright – a huge mansion whose grounds edge the forest. Olive writes each child their own story – fairy tales which have no end.
They were like segmented worms, with hooks and eyes to fit onto the next moving and coiling section. Every closure of plot had to contain a new beginning. There were tributary plots, that joined the mainstream again, further on, further in. Olive plundered the children’s stories sometimes, for publishable situations, or people, or settings, but everyone understood that the magic persisted because it was hidden, because it was a shared secret. – from The Children’s Book, page 89 -
The stories Olive writes parallel reality. The secrets she alludes to also exist outside of the books, lurking in the dark corners of Todefright waiting to be discovered.
There are several other families which comprise Byatt’s ambitious novel. Benedict Fludd, a barely sane potter, hides his perverse fantasies about his two daughters, while Fludd’s wife escapes reality by sinking into a drug induced state of complacency. Humphrey’s brother Basil and German wife Katharina are raising the beautiful Griselda and rebel Charles (ages 11 and 14). Prosper Cain, a museum owner and widow, also has two children – the independent minded Julian (age 15) and conflicted Florence (age 12). Finally, there is Phillip who is found wandering in the basement of Cain’s museum and is taken in by Benedict Fludd when he realizes that Phillip is a budding artist (later, Phillip’s sister Elsie joins the cast).
Despite the sheer number of characters introduced, Byatt does an admirable job at developing them – giving them distinct personalities, strengths and weaknesses. I did stop reading early on in order to create a character chart, but found that by the time I got 100 pages into the novel, I no longer needed to refer to it. Later I found this terrific list of characters on Wikipedia.
Byatt uses the historical and political backdrop of the Women’s Suffrage movement in England, Socialism and the inside workings of the Fabian Society, and the build up to WWI to frame her novel which begins in 1895 and ends just after WWI in 1919. Byatt skillfully shows the transition from the Victorian Age to the Edwardian age.
It was a new time, not a young time. Skittishly, it cast off the moral anguish and human responsibility of the Victorian sages Lytton Strachey was preparing to mock. The rich acquired motor cars and telephones, chauffeurs and switchboard operators. The poor were a menacing phantom, to be helped charitably, or exterminated expeditiously. The sun shone, the summers broiled and were brilliant. The land, in places, was running with honey, cream, fruit fools, beer, champagne. – from The Children’s Book, page 431 -
During this time, the reader follows the lives of the children as they grow into young adults, make mistakes, search for their identities, go off to fight in the trenches, and begin their own families. Olive’s eldest children (Tom and Dorothy) take center stage as characters from the Wellwood family. Tom is Olive’s favorite child and is stuck in Olive’s fantastical world of boys without shadows and underground tunnels – he roves the woods and lives in a dreamworld. Dorothy wishes to be someone more than someone’s wife and sets her sights on becoming a doctor. One of my favorite Wellwood characters is Hedda, whose spunk and determination eventually leads her to becoming a Suffragette. The reader also comes to know Julian Cain well…a boy who early on recognizes he prefers the company of men to that of women and is not afraid to acknowledge his sexuality. I especially felt myself drawn to Imogen – the eldest Fludd daughter – who manages to escape her wretched father and make a life for herself.
At the turn of the century, the young were about to be adults, or some of them were, and the elders looked at the young, with their fresh skins and new graces and awkwardnesses with a mixture of tenderness, fear and desire. The young desired to be free of the adults, and at the same time were prepared to resent any hint that the adults might desire to be free of them. – from The Children’s Book, page 252 -
Interspersed throughout the novel are snatches of Olives stories which provide insight into the background of the characters…and the secrets. It seems every character has a secret: infidelity, sexual identity, incest, and political aspirations. As each secret is uncovered, another aspect of the characters is revealed – a bit like peeling off the layers of an onion.
In case you have not already figured it out, I loved this book. I loved its density. I loved the character development. I loved Byatt’s gorgeous use of language and the care she took in getting the historical details correct. I especially enjoyed the fairy tales and the theme of not growing up which weaves through the story (Byatt references Peter Pan in this novel and the idea of staying child-like forever is played out in the book). I found the historical background on the Women’s Suffrage movement in England to be fascinating…and yes, Byatt’s female characters are immersed in the drama and conflict of that time.
“It is a terrible thing to be a woman. You are told people like to look at you – as though you have a duty to be the object of … the object of … And then, afterwards, if you are rejected, if what you … thought you were worth …is after all not wanted … you are nothing.” – from The Children’s Book, page 357 -
They were troubled, as intelligent girls at the time were troubled, by the question of whether their need for knowledge and work in the world would in some sense denature them. Women worked, they knew, as milliners and typewriters, housekeepers and skivvies. They worked because they had no means, or were not pretty or rich enough to attract a man. - from The Children’s Book, page 358 -
This novel is so intricate and far-reaching, it is hard to do it justice in a review. This was my first experience with Byatt’s writing and it has made me eager to read more of her work. But, if you just read one novel this year, let it be The Children’s Book…a wholly satisfying and enjoyable read from start to finish.