A.S. Byatt: The Children’s Book (Knopf, 2009)
A.S. Byatt is a very clever woman, more well-read than I can ever dream of. She has humour and intelligence and I’ve been fascinated, intrigued and intimidating by her for some years now, since she held the 2005 Hans Christian Andersen Academy annual lecture. Her lecture was called Ghost and Documents: On the Writing of Historical Fiction and she talked among other things about Possession and I’ve been wanting to read it ever since. However, the Lady in question is so clever that I’ve been afraid that I wouldn’t get it so I’ve been postponing reading it now for 5 years. So when The Children’s Book was published, I thought that this was the opportunity for me to start reading Byatt.
I started out nervous but soon I realized that I didn’t have to be. Yes, she does mention a lot of subjects and yes, in the beginning I googled some stuff (who knew that the Fabian Society is a socialist movement who was part of the foundation of the Labour Party?). And she certainly does know a lot about pottery, about the Victoria and Albert Museum, basically about everything happening in England and Europe around the turn of the century. But at a certain point I decided, that most of this stuff was just to add flavour to her story and so I started just letting the story take me along and not care that I didn’t get each and everyone of her hints at current events – especially since these did read a bit like name dropping at times.
Now, I did say that I let the story take me along – and that’s not entirely correct because this is not a plot driven book. This is a slowly enfolding book about four families, mostly their children.
We follow the Wellwoods, both Humphrey’s family of Fabians and artists and his brother Basil who’s a business man, the Fludds where the father is a famous artist creating amazing pottery, and the Cains – and all the children. Especially the family of Humphrey Wellwood is rich in children and it’s this family and these children who are the center of the book.
These are the children of author Olive Wellwood who writes fantasy books for children – and write a separate, somewhat secret, book and story for each of the children in her family:
“The story books were kept in a glass-faced cabinet in Olive’s study. Each child had a book, and each child has his or her own story. It had begun, of course, with Tom, whose story was the longest. Eacch story was written in it’s own book, hand-decorated with stuck-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 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, daisies and pansies. Hedda’s was striped in purple, green and white , with silhuettes of witches and dragons. Florian’s book was only little, a nice warm red, with Father Christmas and a yule log.” (p. 80).
I just loved this! How amazing is this that the mother takes time to write a story for each child? Of course, it turns out that the children aren’t completely ecstatic about this.
Byatt has stated that the idea behind the book was that writing children’s books isn’t good for the writer’s own children. And that’s certainly true in this book. But in fact, being a child isn’t good in this book. These are children growing up and coming of age just as World War I hits with all the dire consequences we as readers can predict. While reading the fairytale beginning, we know that World War I is around the corner and that this will put an end to the kind of life, these people live.
The further you get in this book, the less fairytale it is. The endless summers of childhood are replaced by an adult life in the shadow of a war, and even before the war, the children slowly realizes that life is definitely not what they thought it was and that their parents have more secrets that one could think possible.
I really loved this book. I was envious of the lives these people led, the almost magic childhood some of these children had, a life surrounded by art and artists, people caring about what’s going on in the world and how to help those less fortunate. And then slowly, slowly, you start realizing that something is wrong. Firstly, in the Fludd house where the mother and two daughters walk around like shadows. And then in the other families as well where the children grow up and make disastrous choices as do the parents – and some of them pay dearly.
This is a book about relationships between children and their parents, it’s about how parents try to influence children to see their point of view as the right one – and how children no matter what the parents think will rebel at all time, to some degree at least. It’s a book about women’s right, sexual freedom, socialism and anarchism – and art; pottery, puppet theater, books.
It’s a rich, beautiful tapestry of a book – almost Russian in it’s immense scope and number of characters – but well worth the time it takes to read this huge novel.
And now I have the courage to read Byatt in the future!