Fairly early on in A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, Olive and Humphry Wellwood throw a huge, Bohemian costume-party, patterned after A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They are friends with all sorts of people: artists and artisans, Fabians and fabulists, socialists and socialites, and of course there are children flitting about the garden everywhere. As one person after another arrived at the party, I thought to myself, “I wonder how many of these people I’ll be expected to remember?” And then I thought, “This book’s nearly 800 pages long. Probably all of them.”
I wasn’t wrong. Every single person at that party showed up again, as a character of importance. In The Children’s Book, Byatt has created a historical novel with dozens of characters, all set during the dizzying, dazzling post-Victorian, pre-war time that gave us the Art Deco and Arts and Crafts movements, the suffragist and Fabian and communist movements for social justice and equality, books that looked to the future and others that leaned nostalgically toward childhood, and the stirrings of revolution. It ought to be a confusing book. It’s packed full, absolutely full; Byatt is constantly giving us literary and social history, when she’s not showing us her characters living in that history. But somehow I didn’t wind up confused. Instead, I was deeply engaged, and found myself wanting (even?) more.
The Wellwoods, of the garden-party, are, I suppose, the emotional center of the book, if anyone is. Olive is an author of children’s fiction, and she also keeps a long-running private story for each child. Humphry quits his bank job early on to be a journalist and speaker, so Olive is the main breadwinner for the family. (Gender roles are a major theme — Dorothy, one of Humphry and Olive’s children, wants to become a doctor, and her determined trajectory is one of the most engaging in the book.)
Olive’s work as a creator, and particularly the idea that she sustains the house and family — perhaps literally sustains them in existence — by writing, is one of the more interesting parts of the novel. What would happen if she stopped writing, or betrayed the story in another way? We actually do get a chance to find out. This theme is echoed by the recurrence of puppets and marionettes in the novel. The creator may pull the strings — or think she does — but it’s the character who has the life on stage, and may, in the end, run away with the author.
There are many, many other artists and creators in the book, owing to the circles in which the Wellwoods move. Benedict Fludd, a bipolar genius ceramicist, has nearly destroyed his family by the time Philip arrives, determined to be his apprentice. (the destruction is more than just financial.) There are puppeteers, producers and directors of plays, jewelers, silversmiths, embroiderers. No woodworkers; that surprised me, given the vital importance of furniture to the Arts and Crafts movement, but I suppose Byatt couldn’t do everything. Everyone is also politically involved: radical communists, suffragists, workers for better human conditions in one way or another. Art and life go hand in hand. Of course, not everyone wants to be an artist. Geraint Fludd (how does one pronounce Geraint?), Benedict’s son, would do anything to escape that life; he wants to be a banker, and have money, and lead an ordinary well-off life. Dorothy wants to be a doctor; she, too, is tired of make-believe. It’s no mistake that Byatt refers regularly to Peter Pan, who was written just at this time, and appealed to just these people, and who never wanted to grow up: Byatt’s adult characters begin as innocents, but their choices are adult choices, with consequences they often don’t want to take.
The men don’t come off very well in this book. While it’s not universal, I’d say that far more of the men in The Children’s Book are weak, womanizing, selfish, or clueless than the women are. The women tend to be intelligent, ambitious, sensible, and direct — even if not selfless, which I certainly don’t require. I wondered about this: if Byatt was making a point about social structure, it worked. Certainly class functions in the same way in the book as gender does: Philip, who comes from the working class, takes nothing for granted, and is ambitious and direct in some of the precise ways Dorothy is when she is seeking her degree in medicine. (Yet he’s willing enough to see his sister remain a servant.) In a book in which so many people are working for reform and equality, it’s interesting to see how unpleasant and entitled many of the wealthy and patriarchal people are. Principles are one thing, but…!
There’s a long and heartbreaking story line about one of the Wellwood children, Tom, which is linked to Olive’s writing about him, and her story, “Tom Underground.” He has a terrible and damaging experience at prep school, and he’s never quite able to find himself afterward; his fate is painful and dark. But I was never able to connect with Tom as a character, because Byatt paints him as unable to connect with anyone at all, including himself. He has no interiority, no responsibility, no sense of what he wants. He avoids all thought, and tries to be completely physical. While I pitied him, I couldn’t touch him. And you know, I puzzled over this, but it comes to me just now, writing this, that perhaps that was Byatt’s aim: when you lose your shadow, you have no weight in the world, even with yourself.
There are dozens of references to pieces of art and literature in this novel: fairy tales, The Wind in the Willows, paintings, even buildings. Perhaps someone one day will put up a website, annotating this book, with pictures of all the works of art, and pictures from the Exposition Universelle at Paris, to which some of the characters travel.
I loved this book. It was dense and brilliantly detailed, sprawling, intricately crafted, very much like a piece of art from that period. It was intensely enjoyable reading, satisfying in every way. This was the first of the books I read for this year’s Book Swap, suggested by Teresa, and I couldn’t be more pleased.