The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt
I should declare an interest. Nineteen years ago, I believe that A. S. Byatt saved the lives of my unborn twins. When I went into premature labour at 22 weeks, I was rushed into hospital, put on a drip, and told it was absolutely vital Not to Panic. Useless advice. So I took to fiction, as narcotics for the unquiet heart and brain. On that first long night, day and night, I read Possession, at a single sitting, or rather lying; and it worked, magnificently. The twins were not born until eight weeks later, and survived.
The point of this confession is to remind readers that Byatt’s novels, at their best, are tremendous page-turners. Few other modern novelists could have absorbed me in such circumstances. This is a quality far too often overlooked when reviewers describe Byatt as a heavyweight, high-brow, rather daunting novelist, implying that because she is undoubtedly intellectual she is somehow difficult to read.
Of course, it cannot be said that the Dame wears her formidable learning lightly. Readers of her novels can expect serious disquisitions on Van Gogh, literary theory, snail-shells, or whatever; and even a fan will sometimes find that these excursions into art or science or social or political theory unbalance her fictions. Yet they are so much part of her work that one cannot wish them away. Her fiction is so engaging partly because it is both powerful and lop-sided. Her novels are never merely slight and perfectly self-contained because they are constantly reaching out towards comprehensiveness — sensuous and emotional, as well as intellectual. Above all, like any true novelist, she never forgets the importance of what the heroine in Possession calls ‘narrative greed’.
It did cross my mind to quip, when 617 pages thumped onto the doormat, that narrative greed was impacting on Byatt’s narrative waistline. Her publishers were evidently worried. I have rarely been sent a proof copy so long before its publication date. But if Chatto & Windus imagined it would take months to read The Children’s Book, they were mistaken. It took three days of what I can only call narrative bingeing. The Children’s Book is compulsively readable.
The blurb on the cover describes it as a saga: the high and bloody deeds of Icelandic heroes have mutated, via Forsytes and Agas, into publishers’ shorthand for any fatly comfortable tale tracing the fortunes of a few generations within a family. Byatt’s book, however, re-animates the cliché, for it combines the high seriousness of the old sagas with the pleasures of a good read. The Icelandic family sagas explored human morality, sexual and political, on the fragile edges of an emerging civilisation; their ‘king’ sagas chronicled mythical history; and a strain of ancient fantasy told of fabulous monsters and adventures. Byatt’s novel chronicles the fortunes of a handful of families in the years leading up to the first world war — exploring human morality, sexuality and politics in a civilisation on the edge of primitive violence. She charts the history of the period; and she engages in its fantasy.
The main heroine of the novel is Olive Wellwood, a writer of fairy tales. In this, as in the disturbing tales she writes, she is tellingly of her era. The late Victorian and Edwardian age was a golden time for writers for children — George MacDonald, E. Nesbit, Rudyard Kipling, Kenneth Graham — but the fairies at the bottom of their gardens were not the kind that Kipling’s Puck despised as ‘little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, … and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones.’ Edwardian fairies, in particular, could be disturbingly amoral: Maurice Hewlett describes a fairy in a wood in the ‘semblance’ of a 12-year-old boy, throttling a rabbit ‘the way children squeeze a snapdragon flower to make it open or shut its mouth’; Peter Pan, heartless and without memory, has the pure cruel amorality of innocence (he still has ‘all his milk teeth’ which is strangely sinister); Algernon Blackwood’s spirits of nature prowl the edges of civilisation. In Lucy Clifford’s tales mothers cannot always save their children: an autistically withdrawn child is taken away by a sinister puppeteer; a goaded mother becomes the monster, heard horribly dragging her tail down the stairs towards the children.
Olive Wellwood loves her children, but may not be able to save them, and may even have a monstrous influence. Children’s authors do not always make perfect parents (the fates of Kenneth Graham’s son, of Kipling’s boy Jack, and of three of the five boys adopted by Barrie haunt these pages. They were lost to suicide, as well as to war.)
In 1895, however, when the novel opens, the world of Olive and her husband Humphrey, a Fabian lecturer and essayist, appears enviable. They live ‘in the magical Garden of England’, where children ‘run wild in safe woods’, and have large midsummer parties, at which ‘their guests were socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, free-thinkers and writers.’
They have an apparently ‘open and pleasantly complicated’ family, with, at the outset, five surviving children, ranging from Tom (born in 1882), through Dorothy, who already wants to be a doctor, pretty Phyllis, cross, nosy Hedda, who wants to be a witch (but will become a suffragette), and the baby, Florian. Two more children, Robin and Harry, will follow.
Even early on, there are signs that complications in a large family are not always ‘pleasant’. There is favouritism and neglect; there are secrets of parentage. Dorothy comes to feel her parents are ‘snakes’ in this Eden.
Tom is Olive’s favourite; but he becomes a lost boy. Tom is a superb and fresh creation; but he is reminiscent of an earlier boy with a clever sister in Byatt’s fiction — Marcus Potter, who is also abused, and also becomes lost in a world of his own strangeness. Tom is a child whose innocence and beauty, ‘running with a purposeful absence of purpose’, have an unworldly edge of otherness. He retreats from trauma into absorption with nature, retaining a ‘golden, slightly maddening innocence’, and it is impossible to tell how damaged he is.
Innocence and art are both desirable and ambiguous (there is a sly nod to Lud-in-the Mist on page 553). So, too, is idealism, which is fraught both with longing and naivety. The novel charts the exhilarating, liberating rise of the New Woman; but also shows emancipation exploited by a loathsome sexual predator, Herbert Metheley, first encountered sun-bathing repellently nude. His quoted fiction — a sadistic boy-fairy skinning a slow-worm alive — is transposed from Hewlett; but his morals (or rather mores — high-minded lectures followed by unscrupulous seduction) are reminiscent of H. G. Wells. And the high-minded ideals of Fabianism lure the young generation — Tom’s cousin Charles — to dangerously revolutionary meetings in Germany.
Every character in this extraordinarily rich book is superbly embedded in the thoughts and beliefs and feelings of the period — and indeed in its interior decor. Furnishings, wallpaper, pottery, clothing are lovingly described. Everything is there. It is sometimes a bit like reading a pre-war Army and Navy Stores catalogue (utterly riveting, if you can find one — usually in the top-floor lavatory of a large country house.)
At times, the impulse toward comprehensiveness does lack balance. There is, perhaps, too much of Olive’s story of ‘Tom-Underground’; the superb descriptions of exhibits in the Grande Exposition Universelle de Paris go on just too long …
But this is ungrateful. We are given characters that live through, witho ut being merely defined by, their times; and engrossing narrative arcs that draw in the reader. The novel has a fairy-tale beginning: a waif is found by Tom and an older companion in the South Kensington Gallery. Philip, a working-class boy, who wants to be a potter, is scooped up by the Wellwoods, and introduced to Bernard Fludd, a potter of genius who lives in squalor near Rye. But fairy tales have their dark side. Is Fludd, with his drifting, distrait wife and weirdly fey daughters, marsh-magician or marsh-monster? There is a locked room in his studio …
The only drawback to this novel is that you may well read it late into the night, and when it eventually falls from your nerveless fingers you will be woken by the thud of 617 pages hitting the floor.