Aug 3, 2009

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

The story told in The Children’s Book begins in 1895, when two boys find a third hiding in the cellar what it is to become the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it ends when WWI comes to a close. It’s a story whose scope is so large that it can only be described as being about life. It’s a family saga, and a portrait of life in late Victorian and Edwardian times. Most of the main characters are the members of three families: the Wellwoods – both the Todefright branch, whose matriarch is Olive Wellwood, a writer of fairy tales and children’s adventure stories reminiscent of E. Nesbit, and the London branch, where Basil Wellwood lives with his German wife Katharina; the Fludds, who tiptoe around the brilliant craftsman Benedict Fludd and his explosive temperament; and the Cains – Prosper Cain, a widower, a military man, and a museum curator, and his two children

This isn’t much of a summary, I know, but The Children’s Book is difficult, and indeed almost pointless, to summarize. Though there is a story, and a good one, the book’s appeal is not so much the plot as it is the period detail, the passing of time and the changes it brings, and how involved the reader becomes with the characters’ lives. The cast of characters is very large, but A.S. Byatt handles it with complete mastery. This passage, from the beginning of chapter three, will give you a good idea of the social world these three families inhabit:
This was the Wellwoods’ third Midsummer Party. Their guests were socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers and writers, who lived, either all the time, or at weekends and on holidays, in converted cottages and old farmhouses, Arts and Crafts homes and working-men’s terraces, in the villages, woods and meadows around the Kentish Weald and South Downs. These were people who had evaded the Smoke, and looked forward to a Utopian world in which smoke would be no more.
Among other things, the title The Children’s Book refers to the books Olive Wellwood writes for each of her children:
The story books were kept in a glass-faced cabinet in Olive’s study. Each child had a book, and each child had his or her own story. It had begun, of course, with Tom, whose story was the longest. Each story was written in its own book, hand-decorated with struck-on scraps and coloured patterns. Tom’s was inky-blue-black, covered with ferns and brackens, some real, dried and pressed, some cut out of gold and silver paper. Dorothy’s was forest-green, covered with the nursery scraps of small creatures, hedgehogs, rabbits, mice, bluetits and frogs. Phyllis’s was rose-pink and lacy, with scraps of gauzy-winged fairies in florid dresses, sweet-peas and bluebells, daises and pansies. Hedda’s was striped in purple, green and white, with silhouettes of witches and dragons. Florian’s book was only little, a nice warm red, with Gather Christmas and a yule log.
I’m sharing this passage not only because I find it lovely, but also because I want to give you a fair idea of how descriptive the book is – I realize this is something not everyone will be as enthusiastic about as I was, but I loved all the details about pottery, jewellery making, children’s literature, Art Nouveau, the Arts and Crafts movement, etc. I loved accompanying the characters to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. I loved immersing myself in the cultural climate of the Edwardian period, which has always fascinated me.

Let me tell you what some of the people and things that are mentioned in this book are, whose appearance filled me with joy: Kenneth Grahame, particularly The Golden Age and The Wind in the Willows, Oscar Wilde, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, William Morris, Walter Crane, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, D.H Lawrence, Peter Pan’s opening night, E. Nesbit, Hope Mirless, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.

But of course, it’s not all art and innocence and pretty things. This was a time of change, of strikes, of social agitation, and these are portrayed just as accurately as the artistic movements: the Boer Wars, the suffragist movement, anarchist bombings, conflicts within the Fabian Society, the increasing political tension that eventually leads to WWI, new ideas, new ways of seeing the world, new challenges brought on by new expectations.

Ah, it’s all so satisfying. The Children’s Book is everything I could ever want from historical fiction: it shows not only what happened, but what it felt like for those who were living it. These were interesting times, but there’s of course a reason why “may you live in interesting times” is a curse. Most of these characters do not live very happy lives.

I was especially interested in the girls: Dorothy Wellwood, who wants to be a doctor, Griselda Wellwood, who wants to be able to think, Florence Cain, who wants to think and to live, Imogen and Pomona Fludd, who hide a disturbing secret, Elsie Warren, a working class girl who swore she'd never go into service and yet finds herself waiting on the Fludds, Hedda Wellwood, who joins the suffragist movement. I find that The Children’s Book deals with gender more satisfyingly than any of Byatt’s previous works. Most of these girls come from progressive families, families who believe they should be educated and yet still invest more in their son’s schooling. They want to think, but they don’t want to have to give up love, sex, a family if they wish to have one to be able to do so. And yet at women’s colleges, that was what was required of them most of the time.

There’s more: there are family secrets, there are births and deaths, joys and sorrows, losses and disappointments. There’s the transition from Victorian to Edwardian society. There’s the emergence of the concept of childhood as we know it today. There are class struggles, and social consciousness, and the role of art and idealism in the real world. And I’m barely scratching the surface: like I said, this novel’s scope is immense.

And there are, of course, fairy tales: some of Olive’s are included in the book, and, as is to be expected of Byatt, they’re nothing short of wonderful. I loved seeing Olive’s mind at work; I loved watching the process through which she turned things into stories. This was frequently her way of coping with what was happening in her life, but sadly a day comes when she’s hit by a tragedy so great it no longer works.

The last section of the novel, “The age of lead”, is devoted to WWI. It’s only about forty pages long, and while it could have been as long as the rest of the book, the fact is that it doesn’t need to be to fully convey the horror of the war. You almost think—you want to think—did she have to kill so many? But the answer is yes, she did, because this many died. It’s not there for dramatic effect; it’s how it was. And we know all along, watching all these characters grow up, that this is what it will come to. There’s a scene early on, during a Midsummer’s party, where the adults ask the children what they want to be when they grow up. They give their answers, and all along you know what so many of them will grow up to do: to go to Ypres and the Somme, to crawl in the mud, to kill or be killed. You know all along, and yet, like them, you get lost in the golden haze of the time. I cried without pause all through the last section of the book.

I think I’ll say it: The Children’s Book is probably my new favourite Byatt. It’s possible that a re-read of Possession would set me straight, but I can safely say I love it at least as much, which is saying a lot. I’ve mentioned before that as much as I love Byatt, I often respond to her work more intellectually than emotionally. This was not at all the case here – I was fully engaged, and I was often moved. What an absolutely stunning book.

A few more of my favourite passages:
He hadn’t ever considered the fact that the earth was round, that he stood on the curved surface of a ball. Here seeing the horizon, feeling the precariousness of his standpoint, he suddenly had a vision of the thing – a huge ball, flying, and covered mostly with this water endless in motion, but held to the surface as it hurtled through the atmosphere, and in its dark depths, blue, green, brown, black, it covered other colder earth, and sand and stone, to which the light never reached, where perhaps things lived in the dark and plunged and ate each other, he didn’t know, maybe no one knew. The round earth, with hills and valleys of earth, under the liquid surface. It was pleasant, and frightening, to be alive under the sun.

She said, in a different voice, staring into space
‘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.’
She gave a little shrug, and pulled herself together, and said, ‘Poor Elsie,’ in an artificial, polite, tea-party voice, though she had not offered, and did not offer, to make tea.

‘Toby Youlgreave talks a great deal about the Brothers Grimm and their belief that fairytales were the old religion – the old inner life – of the German people. Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really – is really what holds it all together.’

These children, Julian thought, had been charmed and bamboozled as though some Pied Piper played his tune and they all followed him, docile, under the earth. The Germans had sunk the liner, Lusitania, and Charles Frohman, the impresario who had staged Peter Pan, had drowned with gallant dignity, apparently reciting the immortal line which had been judiciously cut from wartime performances: To die will be an awfully big adventure.
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  1. I'm definitely wanting this one. It a chunkster though, so I'll probably have to set aside a whole week for it!

  2. I should not have allowed myself to be put off this book by long quotes about pottery. It sounds like something I could possibly love and now I am not so daunted about reading it for the Booker challenge.

    Thank you :).

  3. That is a GORGEOUS cover. And you totally had me when you mentioned the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau and William Morris. This sounds like a Must Read. :)

  4. Lenore: It did take me a whole week to read, but it was so worth the time investment!

    Claire: I loved the pottery myself, but even if you don't, there's so much else here to love. I hope you do enjoy it!

    Court: It is, and it suits the book perfectly. If you're interested in those things, I really think you'll enjoy this.

  5. Oh Nymeth. This just sounds so beautiful and adorable. I loved the passage about the children's own books. They sound like original types of scrapbooks, similar to what I do now, only with photos.
    I loved that this book is full of description. I like to immerse myself completely.
    Now do I wait to buy it in paperback or just go out and get the hardback copy now!!!

  6. This sounds wonderful - maybe I should give it a go.

  7. Byatt's short story "Cold" was one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking tales about marriage that I have ever read. Glorious, glorious stuff.

  8. Like I said on Twitter the other day, I don't think any book can really replace Possession for me, since it's so personal to me and my favorite book of all, not just of Byatt's, but I've been afraid to try any of her other books after the one failed attempt. This one sounds more palatable to me. When I get the courage to try another Byatt, it'll probably be this.

  9. *...complete and utter book lust.*

    I feel as if this might be the book that Possession could never be for me.

  10. Wow, better than Possession for you?! I need to give this one a try.

  11. oh goody! I can't wait to read this!

  12. Wonderful review, Nymeth, and I can't wait to get to this book! I hope it comes in at the library for me soon. I will be reading it right away, though I must remember to savor it.

  13. "book’s appeal is not so much the plot as it is the period detail, the passing of time and the changes it brings"

    I think this sums up the book perfectly. The writing is beautiful and the descriptions are so vivid, but after reading a few hundred pages the continual descriptions bored me. I need more than this to enjoy a book and the lack of a real plot meant I didn't really engage with it.

    I'm pleased to hear that you enjoyed it, but it wasn't for me.

  14. I can't wait to get my hands on this. Your review just magnified my anticipation by about 100%!

    "I think I’ll say it: The Children’s Book is probably my new favourite Byatt. It’s possible that a re-read of Possession would set me straight, but I can safely say I love it at least as much, which is saying a lot. "

    That IS saying a lot, because Possession is up there in my top three for sure! Oh dear, I see a Book Depository UK order in my very near future.

  15. Oh boy. Super review -- really. I am going to add this to my list for next year. I have some reading goals for this year and I need to stay focused. 2010 is going to be more freewheeling.

  16. So, does the book respect the period? A lot of books (Ragtime, for instance), talk about the Edwardian/Belle Epoque/Golden Age world like it was just a big lie, a sort of pretend time between the real history of the 1800's, and the real history of World War I. Like it was pretty, but fake, and in the end, sort of perverse. I'm just curious of AS Byatt takes that tack, or not.

  17. That's one of the most beautiful book covers I've ever seen...I love it!

    Such a wonderful review, Nymeth. I couldn't help but keep thinking about The Jungle, as I'm reading it now. Not that the two books seem to have much of anything in common, but for time period. It sounds like there is beauty to be found amidst the heartache in The Children's Book...something sorely lacking in The Jungle, where moments of beauty and tenderness are few and far between.

    I'm sure I've told you before that she's one of those authors who inexplicably intimidates me. But you know, this book doesn't sound "scary" to me at all. Maybe. Just maybe.

  18. I am so looking forward to reading Elementals this year and am trying to wait patiently for this to come out in paperback. It sounds like it has all the elements of my favourite kinds of story.

  19. I've decided to save this for my 3 week holiday in October so I can fully savour it!

  20. Wow, how can I not want to read this book after your great review! The artistic details sound wonderful to me.

  21. okay, I'll read it. Fantastic review. I love Possession and have been a bit disappointed with everything else I read of Byatt. This one, I'll have to check out.

  22. I really want to read this eventually, but it will probably be a while! Great review!

  23. You've certainly caught my attention with this review, Nymeth. I'll have to look for this one. It sounds so good!

  24. I haven't read anythingg by A.S. Byatt - but it seems I will have to give this a try.

  25. This book sounds wonderful. I'll have to expand my reading list again. Thanks for this great reading suggestion!

  26. Thanks! I'm definitely going to be on the look out for this one!

  27. Anything by Byatt is stunning, I think - this sounds even more layered than Possession, and how can that be possible? This is on my "buy as soon as you see a copy" list. Great review - thanks for the quotes from the book. They do set a tone that only Byatt can create -

  28. I tore through Possession like a ravening fiend and then couldn't ever get interested in any of Byatt's other books - but this sounds so perfect for me! Totally my time period, and I love the passages you excerpted. And, um, yeah, it is very difficult for me to resist any book that talks about Oscar Wilde...

    Great review!

  29. Vivienne: I hadn't been this immersed in a book in a long while - it's that kind of read. I don't normally get hardcovers, but this time I couldn't resist!

    Verity, I think you should!

    Loren Eaton: YES! One of my all-time favourite stories. Also "The Story of the Eldest Princess", from The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. Have you read that one?

    Amanda: An all-time favourite is indeed hard to top! But anyway, I do think this would be a great one to try next :)

    Aimee: I hope it turns out to be!

    Rebecca: It's hard to say for sure as it's been a long while, but I know I love it at least as much!

    Nicola and Amanda, I hope you both enjoy it :D

    Meghan: I hope it does too! I think you'll enjoy it a lot.

    Jackie: While I disagree that it lacks a real plot, I understand that the fact that the plot is more in the background isn't to everyone's taste. Sorry it didn't work for you!

    Heather: Possession is also one of my all-time favourites - and now, so is this. I hope you enjoy it!

    Beth: I really ought to focus for the rest of the year too, namely on my tbr pile :P I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Jason: I know what you're saying, but don't worry, she respects it completely. She writes with compassion, with love even, and I don't think the book would have worked otherwise. If the tone had been along the lines of, "look at these silly people, wasting time with childish things...if only they knew what's in store for them", the book would have been cold and cruel and brutal. But exactly because she writes with such respect, it's very powerful and moving.

    Debi: It is a beautiful cover :) And no, this isn't scary at all, and it is beautiful and tender despite all the sadness. One day I'll sneakily give you one of her fairy tale collections so that you lose your fear of her ;) I can't imagine you not enjoying those!

  30. Rhinoa: I do think this is right up your alley. Also, can't wait to hear your thoughts on Elementals.

    brideofthebookgod: It's a book to be savoured, yes :)

    bermudaonion: I thought they were wonderful too :)

    C.B. James: Though there have been other books of hers that I loved, nothing did come close to Possession to me - until now.

    Kailana: Have you read Possession? I can't remember if we ever talked about it :P

    Wendy: I'm glad to hear I got you interested in this book :D

    Lena: This is a great starting point, I think :)

    Andreea and Jenclair, I hope you both enjoy it!

    teabird: Her tone really is unique, isn't it? You know, I do think it's even more layered than Possession, though that sounds impossible indeed!

    Jenny: I thought of you when Wilde was mentioned :P It's mostly sad stuff, though: first his trial, and then some of the characters meet him shortly before he dies and he's not looking good. Have you ever tried her fairy tale collections? Elementals is so good!

  31. And now this is on my list, too.
    Sigh. ;)

  32. There's been a lot of hype on this book, and I can fully understand why. :) I almost picked this up when I visited the bookstore yesterday, but I put it down (being intimidated by the thick volumn and all) but I guess I need to pick it up again during my next visit!

    Excellent review, Nymeth! :)

  33. This is the best review I've seen of this so far. I'm definitely going to have to pick it up!

  34. Yeah, I did NOT want to read this review since I can't get my hands on it until October, but I did :( And I'll be getting it!

    You know, I still haven't read any Byatt at all, but I know I'll love her just from those gorgeous passages! I'm the kind of reader that just loves detail. So many people dislike Anne Rice because of her lengthy descriptions, but that's why I love her! Great review Ana :)

  35. I hadn't heard of this book before reading your review ... it had me from the beginning, at the future home of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Covering half a century and so much territory; it looks fantastic!

  36. this cover is beautiful! and it does sound like a good book.

  37. This sounds like such a beautiful book! I really need to go and read Possession, too.

  38. You're killing me!! lol Why do American publishing dates have to lag behind?! Why?!

  39. Also "The Story of the Eldest Princess", from The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. Have you read that one?

    No, I haven't. I actually read "Cold" in one of those Year's Best collections. I keep meaning to pick up Elementals one day.

  40. I just added her fairy tales to my TBR list, actually! I feel like the time is right to give her another go - especially if she is writing about Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde! Hooray!

  41. Yep, another one for the list! Only I may put this on Mary's list as I'm sure she'd love this and then I can 'borrow' it from her!!!

  42. Must. Have. This. Book. Not just to read--but to own. I know I could dive right in and feel at home. Thank you for the wonderful review!

  43. Hmm, maybe I'll have to read this after all. Not really sure why I've been resisting. The cover is beautiful!

  44. I love A.S. Byatt, but she is difficult to summarize! Great job. The book sounds really good... I will put it on my list of 'if I happen to come across..."

  45. Maree: Sorry :P

    Melody: It's been widely anticipated, yes :) I know it's a scary tome, but while it's not exactly a quick read it actually has a faster pace than her other books. I wanted it to be twice as long!

    J.T. Oldfield: Thank you! I hope you enjoy it.

    Chris: You must learn to enjoy the pleasure of anticipation :P And I never minded description either, especially when it adds to the book - which I think it does here.

    Dawn: It's amazing how she covers so much territory and makes it work so well!

    Naida: It's as good as the cover :D

    Belle: They're both brilliant :)

    Eva: Sorry! But hey, you did get The Graveyard Book first last year :P

    Loren Eaton: I hope you do! It's an excellent collection.

    Jenny: Great :D I hope you enjoy them.

    Carl: Sounds like it would make an excellent Christmas or birthday present ;)

    ds: I too felt immediately at home. It's like she picked a handful of my interests and wrote a book about them :P

    JoAnn: I hope you enjoy it if you do :)

    Daphne: I hope you do come across it!

  46. This book sounds incredible! A lot going on, and a lot of threads, but if I know anything about Byatt, she handle it all amazingly. I am going right now to grab a copy of this book. Fabulous review as well!

  47. I've been undecided up to now about buying and reading this one but I think you've finally persuaded me. Terrific review.

  48. Yes, yes...patience is a virtue ;)

  49. I really ought to get started on Possession (and so many other books as well). This is a great review and one that I've been waiting for quite a while for this book. Thanks, Ana!

  50. I want to read this book so much! I've been told repeatedly that Byatt's writing is difficult and that always turned me away from her books. Reading the excerpts you posted though, I think I would like it. It looks beautifully written and I don't mind a slower book when the language pleases me!

  51. You know, I didn't even realise this was out until a few days ago when I stumbled across it in the bookshop. A stunning cover and intriguing blurb got my attention, but it is a chunkster indeed! I was going to wait for the paperback but your review is far too irresistible..

  52. This sounds like something I would love, but I never tried Byatt before and I'm a bit intimidated/scared, because some people say her book is hard to read. I'm not sure how true that is (it's probably very personal for each person). Would you recommend to start with Posession first or this book?

  53. I agree that this is the only Byatt since Possession that I really loved. It's so gorgeously dense.

  54. Nymeth - another great review - I have linked to you in my review of the same book. Happy reading, Hannah

  55. I've been reading some of the reviews that appeared back in 2009, which is how I reached this blog. I'm fascinated that no one mentioned the (to-my-mind) awe-ful punishment rendered on Olive and Humphrey's family by Byatt\WW1, in contrast to his brother's (Basil) family. One was almost decimated and the other was saved.
    I can't refrain from thinking that this was intentional on Byatt's part - drumming in a terrible moral - see what happens to those who don't abide by the moral imperative (Humphrey and Olive, each in their own way).
    It really tastes old-testament !

  56. The part you quote with Olive saying that stories are the inner life of her house is what seized me about this book. You can see where that goes wrong for her, and maybe how to keep yourself from being similarly immolated.


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