I am a long-time fan of Byatt’s work, and you will recall how pleased I was to have finally met her last October. I am admittedly not unbiased in my opinion of her work. Do I like everything she has ever written? No, of course not, and I suspect she would agree that in retrospect there are some books in her oeuvre that are better than others, in terms of plot or characterization, or in the strength or weakness of her writing. In that vein, let me say upfront that although The Children’s Book is an incredible book, it is not a perfect novel. If you compare it to Possession, the novel for which she will always be best known (and which is my favorite novel), The Children’s Book lacks that earlier book’s plot twists. It has so many characters that you will need a cheat sheet and might want to draw a few family trees. The problem is that readers may feel like they never get to know any of them the way they got to know Possession’s fictionalized Victorian authors Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Even more surprisingly for a novel that centers around a children’s author, there is nowhere near as much of the in-writing (i.e. literature written by the fictional authors) that made Possession so brilliant in its construction and storytelling. In short, The Children’s Book is not Possession.
But of course that is exactly the point. Byatt obviously wanted to write a novel that drew on her evocative sensibilities about the Victorian period, but needed to present it to readers in a new way or run the risk of becoming trite. In this she has succeeded, for The Children’s Book is a novel about British social and cultural history in which the numerous characters act, interact, and react, with one another and in response to environmental stimuli. This is a novel about people responding to changes in their world. It is a book about learning and education and training. The Children’s Book is about growing up.
Taking place from the year 1895 through World War I, The Children’s Book recounts the lives of an extended family centered around Olive Wellwood, a successful children’s writer who, with her socialist husband, her spinster sister, and her bevy of seven children, resides matriarchally in an Arcadian estate in southern England called Todefright. Early in the novel, the Wellwoods are celebrating their annual midsummer festival, and carriage after carriage arrive with other family members and friends who gather to perform Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on an outdoor stage and partake in all the excitement of the fete. This is the Wellwood children’s world, a place where magic and fantasy orchestrated by their mother’s storytelling and celebrity makes them believe anything can happen. The Wellwoods are a progressive family. They are members of the Fabian Society, which was in favor of peaceful but radical democracy for the working classes, and they encourage the Arts and Crafts communities that create beautiful handcrafted goods over mass production. With such progressiveness comes an open mind, most notably about sexuality, for many of the adults in this group. And that is perhaps one of the most important parts of Byatt’s tale, for what better way for children to learn about themselves and others but to consider their own sexual awakenings and awarenesses. Indeed, these aren’t Victorian children who only speak when spoken to. The Wellwood children and their friends masturbate with guilt, spy on others, question everyone’s parentage, encounter incest and adultery, discover first love and inevitably feel the pain that follows. More importantly, Byatt adeptly shows how this progressive environment was changing the social fabric of England itself at this time, and thus these children become microcosms for a new generation of English boys and girls on the brink of modernity.
Byatt’s creative writing is of course highly polished. She has a strong command of the English language and knows how to manipulate it to suit her storytelling. She breaks the rules of fiction writing, frequently telling us what characters say instead of actually having them speak their own lines, interrupting the flow at times with the narrative first person which serves to remind us of not just any authorial voice but her authorial presence. And yet, most skillfully, she comments about writing itself, by setting us in the mind of Olive, the children’s author, allowing us to sense at times what it feels like to be a writer and to be conscious of what an author needs to say, how it will be received, and how it may overtake the writer herself. Here is a scene (which Byatt read at the book signing last October) in which Olive, pregnant and bed-ridden, struggles over her writing, what she wants to say and what she knows she cannot say.
She wanted to write that—the wading through blood—the absence of sun and moon, and the roaring of the sea—but she had never done so, for her tales, though they were getting darker and stranger, were meant to be for children. There was a proliferation of Christian stories at that time, about the exemplary deaths of little children, looking upwards to the skipping little angels in the fluffy clouds of heaven. But there was nothing like red blood to the knee. She thought briefly about the coming birth, the blood that would flood, the pain that would gripe, the possibility that the emerging stranger on the flood of blood would be mottled, waxy and inert, a tight-lidded doll, like Rosy. She knew about amniotic fluid—the unborn creature did not really float in blood—but blood went to it, her blood, down a livid rope that could give life, or could strangle. These things were not spoken of, or written about. They were therefore more real, and more unreal, intensely, simultaneously. (p.157)
As a literature professor, Byatt’s own education pours through this book more so than in others as she educates readers about everything from the decorative arts to international politics of the day. Sections of the book read mostly like scholarly essays, but sometimes like Wikipedia entries, as she moves us through time. We learn about the Fabians, the history of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the death of Queen Victoria, the premiere of James Barrie’s Peter Pan, and the sinking of the Titanic. We travel to Munich to learn about the advanced skills of marionette theater artisans, and we travel to Paris for the 1900 Exposition Universelle and see modernity in design and the decorative arts (the chapters on the Expo are among the most sumptuous in the book and demonstrate Byatt’s skill at synesthesia, using words to evoke the multi-sensory experience of contemporary Paris and the sensuality of Art Nouveau design). We learn about Sigmund Freud and Edward Carpenter along with the characters. We stand beside them as they fight for women’s suffrage, and we learn how to make ceramics as they mold the clay and sweat before the hot kiln. We meet a decrepit Oscar Wilde, a provocatively talented Auguste Rodin, a sexually inhibited Rupert Brooke, among other historical figures. We become, in fact, part of the world of these characters. Indeed, the way they enter and exit, with some characters diminishing to the background while others move to the foreground, all of it mirrors the very realistic way in which people come and go in our own lives and play significant roles for brief periods of time. These characters are not just figments of Byatt’s imagination; they are meant to be representations of real people at this time.
There is Dorothy Wellwood, who is determined to become a woman doctor but is forced to face secrets about her own life along the way. There is Julian Cain, the half-Italian son of a museum curator who struggles to understand his homosexuality and what he wants to do with himself once he goes to study at Cambridge. There is Charles/Karl Wellwood, who finds himself rejecting his family’s money and social status in favor of societal anarchism. There is Griselda Wellwood, who endures all the social niceties for young women of her class but desires instead to do so much more, to earn a university degree. There is Philip Warren, the impoverished boy from the north brought into the Wellwood circle when his artistic talent and skill as a potter earns him the respect of the entire community. There is Tom Wellwood, who shares a strong bond with his literary mother but finds himself growing more and more distant from her and everyone else as nature becomes his only source of comfort. And of course there is Olive Wellwood herself, a woman who escaped her own horrific childhood in the coal mines of the North to become a successful children’s author, a woman whose private adventure books written for each of her children reinforces her connection to them, but inadvertently leads them to question their own pathways in life.
Yet, for all of Byatt’s ability to engage with the reader about how these children are growing up, one cannot help but sense the harbinger of doom that one knows is at the end of the novel’s pages: World War I. The reader has the hindsight to know that for all that these children are learning and how they are growing up, none of it will prepare them for what is coming and what one knows may happen to many if not all of them. The Great War will shock them as it truly shocked the world. Men went to fight in what they believed would be a simple skirmish, easily won, easily accomplished, simply one’s patriotic duty for King and Empire. Instead, the Great War killed off 1/3 of the male population in Britain, and those who did return suffered from shell shock, nerve gas damage, and other ailments because of trench warfare.
This brutality and abject realism then demonstrates where Byatt’s talents truly lie, because we read more than 600 pages of The Children’s Book knowing what is looming in the distance for these characters whom we’ve grown to love and identity with, but Byatt never foreshadows these events. She propels us through the story by focusing on what these children experienced as new, exciting, adventurous, and life-changing, none of which could ever prepare them for the Great War. Only in retrospect would they be able to see how innocent they really were. The Children’s Book then is not just another novel with fictional characters. It is a historical recounting of art, literature, psychology, sexuality, and politics in England and abroad over a twenty-year period, and how everyday people were part of these events and affected by them. That is Byatt’s accomplishment in this book, for these are more than just characters. They are people. They are you and me.