THE CHILDREN’S BOOK by A. S. Byatt

Book Quote:

“She lives in a perfect house for a writer at once so enchanting and so down to earth. I suggested to her that there was something witchy about the name Todefright and she immediately put me right. Todefright comes from the amphibian and an old Kentish word for ‘meadow.’ No death or spectres! And it is such a mellow pleasant house….Mrs. Wellwood has seven children, ranging from young men and women to schoolboys, all of whom are the privileged first listeners and readers for Mrs. Wellwood’s spellbinding tales!”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew (OCT 7, 2009)

The excerpt above is part of a woman journalist’s article after she came to interview storyteller Olive Wellwood, who, with her banker/financial writer husband, Humphrey, presided over a seemingly magical household built on legendary riders of the “Paracelsian four elementals: sylphs in the air, gnomes in the earth, undines in water, salamanders in fire.” The building blocks came in the form of old, blended and new fairy tales; ornately ghoulish museum pieces such as the ancient and kobold-studded Gloucester Candlestick; and a secret pastoral tree house where the children could run wild. The Wellwoods and their friends were well-off, fashionable Fabian Society (and other related organization) members who, in the late 1800′s and beyond, believed in raising their children with a minimum of discipline in a rustic but artistically rich environment.

As in every family, the Wellborn children fitted in differently: “No child, it is said, has the same parents as any other. Tom’s parents had been younger and wilder than Robin’s parents would ever be. Harry had never known a family where there were not older children who seemed free and powerful, came and went mysteriously, were not confined to the nursery. The little ones experienced the family as a flock of creatures who moved in clutches and gaggles, shared nurseries and also feelings and opinions. Tom and Dorothy were old, and separate enough to have started thinking about their own futures, away from Todefright, full of tenuous hopes and fears….” However, at some juncture each child must reconsider their place and whether their family life was a lie….

Todefright, each year became the locus of a Midsummer’s celebration, complete with fairy costumes (although, if a child insisted on being a witch instead, she could) where many gathered, including Humphrey’s brother’s family, a neighbor genius potter’s brood, a puppeteer Olive had not seen in years, and a colorful and diverse international group of socialists, anarchists, and Theosophists — including a German sister-in-law and a Russian revolutionary. They put on plays, ate delicious dishes, and talked philosophy, politics, and art.

The idyll conjured at Todefright, the idealism and apparent optimism behind it, was, at first glance, a thing without shadow, without the harsh reality that many British faced just to survive during the late Victorian and the Edwardian periods as well as the early reign of George V. Olive’s unstilled imagination created a separate book for each child and wrote stories for and about them that they could hear and read. In a story for her beautiful, innocent son Tom, called “Tom Underground” his paper alter ego lost his own shadow. Could Olive’s imaginary story also envelop and perhaps predict the real life of her son? As in this story, The Children’s Book gradually reveals ominous shadows that inevitably must have shaped and haunted the Wellwoods and the many with whom they were friends, associates, lovers, and relatives. Idealism clashes with the inescapable murkiness and tragedy of human nature. Despite a desire to live on the high plane of beauty, the novel demonstrates, the human sex drive and other “baser instincts” intrude and mar the rosy picture.

This struggle between shadow and light in life is a major theme in A. S. Byatt’s nearly seven-hundred-page novel. If pressed, one can say it is the dominant theme. However, The Children’s Book also deliberates with professorial thoroughness on the times from 1895 to 1919. Displaying meticulous research and knowledge on each page, the author has provided a broad window through which the reader can learn of many things whilst following the characters: the Bimetallism vs. the Gold Standard debate; the struggle for women’s rights; the unchecked brutality of boys in English public schools; the British war with the Boers; the “enlightened” ways of dealing with unmarried pregnant women; homosexuality and asexuality in that period; class chasms; the beginnings of psychology and psychiatry with Jung, Gross, and Freud; and the horrific “meat” grinder that was the Great War.

On the artistic side, the nuances of throwing, firing, and glazing fine pottery are explored. Some exegetical insights into writing are shared too — for instance, one character gives a lecture on “The Conventions of the Novel,” declaring, “Everything in a novel must end with a marriage — this was still so, although the great novelists had already revealed that life, and love, particularly love, continued after marriage and were not confined by it.” It is interesting to discover whether The Children’s Book adheres to this literary “rule” or whether Byatt disagrees with her character. And Olive confides this about her stories: ” ‘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 the 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.’ ” Naturally, the question is, does she hold it all together?

Travel too occupies many characters. A passel of them goes to see the Grande Exposition Universelle de Paris at the turn of the century, admiringly ogling the Palace of Electricity, the Tyrolean Castle, the Water Tower, and the Palace of Woman. Some find it essential to get to Munich, and others to the village of Ascona in Italy. Still others do their duty and fight in Ypres, Belgium. Again, Byatt’s descriptions of most of these trips are filled with vivid images and myriad facts. Often the location is further imprinted on the reader with food. For example, in Germany: “There was soup, full of cabbage, and sausages and large pork cutlets, and a heap of potatoes and a delicious pudding of red berries and cream. Much beer was served in large earthenware jugs.”

The perfect morsels of the moment also serve as deep comfort, as in this touching scene: “She gave more soup to Dorothy, who gave more to Philip, who said it was delicious. Delicate dumplings lurked beneath the golden surface on which a veil of finely chopped parsley eddied and swayed. Steam rose to meet the fine smoke from the candles, and all their faces seemed softer in the quavering light.”

Dorothy, as mentioned previously, belonged to the Wellborn clan, but Philip Warren was an outsider at the beginning of the novel. He had run away from a sickly family that was disintegrating. In a delightful opening chapter that slyly and eruditely salutes Harry Potter and others of that genre, Philip was tracked and cornered by Tom Wellborn and Julian Cain in the bowels of the museum where Julian’s father, Prosper, was Special Keeper of Precious Metals. Olive, who had come to soak up some inspiration at the museum for her books, then took Philip back to Todefright with her and Tom. After a stay there so that he (and the reader) could become familiar with the Wellborn household, he was sent to potter Benedict Fludd, a master craftsman with whom Philip could apprentice as he so dearly desired. Benedict was a man of great passions and no practical business ability, and he overshadowed his own family, stunting them. But Philip persevered there, and in time was joined by one of his siblings.

Philip, Julian, Tom, Dorothy, and other young Cains, Wellwoods, Warrens, and Fludds grew into adulthood during the nearly fifteen years covered in The Children’s Book. They struggled with their fears, their aspirations (or lack thereof), their sexuality, their families, and the wider world. Dorothy and Tom represented best a dichotomy, two sides in which one wanted to grow up and take on a responsible position and negotiate with society as it existed, while the other was a Peter Panish innocent (or a down-the-rabbit-hole Alice) who loved nature but not the often unrelenting, harsh world of men and women. Although this brother and sister did not encompass all the facets of human nature contemplated in this panoramic novel, they best symbolized Byatt’s running theme about the unavoidable tension between the ideal and the real, between compromise and rigidity, between the dreamers and the accomplishers.

The Children’s Book obviously represents enormous toil on the part of its author. Byatt clearly poured countless hours into the completion of this tome. And there are many reasons to admire it and even adore it. It contains a wealth of history, tantalizing studies of artistic minds, several Olive stories shot through with symbolism and a hair-raising dread worthy of the Grimm brothers. It traces families, centrally the Wellwoods, and stokes in the reader a need to know what fates they meet. This Byatt novel is also worth lingering over and re-reading because it is so chock full of all kinds of clever and wise little conversations and observations. In many ways, this is a tremendously accomplished work, and one likely to stay with the reader quite some time

However, it is not without flaws. In its determination to instruct readers on so many aspects of life during the critical years leading up to World War I (treatment of the war itself and a bit of aftermath was almost an epilogue constituting only slightly more than forty pages), the novel sometimes loses focus and wanders away from more important characters to illustrate a slice of life with secondary ones about whom the reader may not care. As the book progresses, Bohemians Olive and Humphrey slide into near non-existence for the reader, which is a disappointment because earlier their feelings were important plot pivots. One can argue that Olive was always an uninvolved, distant mother who was too busy with make-believe that her gradual near-vanishing was poetic justice. One can argue that the universe handed Humphrey more than enough punishment for the way he fell short. However, there were more issues that Olive and Humphrey could have been allowed to grapple with. Instead more than one of their “problems” just conveniently died without fuss. Burying too much, keeping too much silence, while acknowledged as Victorian traits, don’t always good storytelling make. Elsewhere, another major death was also under-dramatized, leaving unanswered potential.

Speaking more broadly, understanding the novel’s characters and who they love or don’t love can be confusing because some were not as fully drawn as they could have been, and the narrative skips (out ot design or necessity?) some crucial milestones in everyone’s lives. A prime example is Julian whose flagrant sexual preferences seemed fixed and voracious, but then underwent change with rather scant underpinning. Furthermore, for Americans the un-remarked-upon evident acceptance of homosexual behavior even in Victorian England is something not necessarily easily adjusted to, but that is perhaps less a criticsm of the book than a divide between cultures.

Then too the density, the sheer lushness, the perspicacity of descriptions of locales, art works, cuisine, clothes, etc., is often beautiful word-smithing but sometimes leads to impatience about getting on with the plot. Not to mention fomenting a suspicion that what plot exists does so more as a framework for educating readers about the times than for its own sake. One can get “lost” in the author’s excursions into “theories about children and childhood” or the strange behavior in 1906 of Margot Asquith, wife of the British Prime Minister. For some readers, tackling and finishing this novel could become a chore.

But then again, as one character notes, ” ‘To be frivolous is to be human…To be pointlessly skilful is to be human.’ ” The Children’s Book wants to make that point in the form that is more like the rather meandering novels of Jane Austen than some modern fiction that emphasizes non-stop action plots. It is a meditation on being human in a certain by-gone time, and it brings to the fore the worth of people who create both lasting and ephemeral things. Every person ought to be valued for his or her uniqueness and the gifts only he or she can impart to those around them and to posterity. But, Byatt seems to be imparting, the real world, although it provides space for the human need to conjure the mythical and the miraculous, can just as easily function on a plane that plows the sensitive — and the strong — under. Despite the reassurance in the opening quotation about the benign sources of the name “Todefright,” it is an appellation fraught with “death and spectres” too. In German, “Tode” means death. So, deathfright. Sometimes a fright of life too. The Children’s Book warns us with recurring and echoing themes as well as human ensorcelled charm that even when we may strive for high-minded reform and a more utopian society, our humanness, our nature, has other ideas and so do the vagaries, the hardships, and the choices of the lives we are dealt.

If this era in Britain (and European) history and its avant garde intrigue you and you have time to immerse yourself in a “moral enchantment” (to borrow from Jane Schilling’s back cover blurb) of grand proportions, A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book is for you.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 106 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (October 6, 2009)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: A. S. Byatt
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and ExcerptA.S. Byatt on The Children’s Book
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Late 19th century:The Jungle Law by Victoria Vinton

Another prolific and smart British author:

Iris Murdoch

Bibliography:

About:

October 7, 2009 В· Judi Clark В· 2 Comments
Tags: , ,  В· Posted in: Facing History, Literary, Man Booker Nominee, Reading Guide, United Kingdom, y Award Winning Author

2 Responses

  1. Bonnie - October 9, 2009

    Kirstin, What a wonderful review! I read the first 200 pages of this book and couldn’t get past that. It was so disappointing, especially considering that Possession is one of my all-time favorite books. The minutiae of descriptions held me back. It just seemed way too much for a novel. Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed review. Bonnie

  2. Kirstin - October 9, 2009

    Hi, Bonnie. I’m happy you enjoyed the review. I can certainly understand your having trouble ploughing through, because, as you noted, the minutiae can be heavy going. Perhaps at some point you’ll decide you want to continue. For myself, I have a copy of POSSESSION that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, but haven’t found the time. Your recommendation of it renews my determination to make time! :)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.