One of the good things about reading A.S. Byatt’s novels is that one gets the feeling that she is a novelist one can really trust; nothing happens by accident, and the plot is so well crafted that it always feels as though everything is in the right place. Also, I’m always amazed by the minute detail in which everything is apparently recorded in her work, and the intense research which must go into it. I can never read one of her books without wishing I’d written it myself.
The Children’s Book is set around the turn of the century, in a now mythical Edwardian golden age, particularly remembered for its children’s fiction. A vast array of characters feature in the book, including Humphry and Olive Wellwood, whose family is central to the plot. Olive is a writer of children’s books, and writes a story for each of her children, which she adds to from time to time. These stories, parts of which are included in the novel, cleverly give the reader an insight into the children’s characters and their relationship with their mother. The family, unconventional in many ways, takes in a young boy, Philip, who has run away from his home in the Potteries to come to London, hide out in the V&A, and make pots. Eventually he goes to live with the Fludds, as assistant to the master potter and unreliable and temperamental patriarch, Benedict Fludd. In these two homes, Philip sees a world he had never dreamed of, in which creativity and productivity are crucial, but which mean very different things.
One of the things that especially captured me about this book is Byatt’s uncanny rendering of the historical moment. She captures the period in a way which is both somehow exactly how it is now enshrined in popular mythology, and yet manages to deflate precisely that myth. And then she delivers an excellent social and cultural summary of the period, explaining the feeling of belatedness (that is, after the more serious and significant Victorians) that the Edwardians themselves seem to have suffered, combined with the way in which we now see the period, as a brief golden moment which arose between the Victorians and the First World War (p.391, if you’re interested). The plot is absolutely tied to the period, and yet somehow that seems to free it, for the events are both generally quite believable, and also utterly magical.
The war, of course, is the elephant in the room for much of the book; it doesn’t take much maths to work out that the children were born at just the right time to be part of the generation most affected by it, and though we remain uncertain of their eventual fates until the end of the book, somehow our knowledge adds a dramatic irony to the text. Yet the novel is woven through with fairy tales, pottery (in the spirit of Morris’s arts and crafts), Fabianism and museum culture alongside the trials of growing up in extraordinary families. Byatt’s novel weaves its magic spell, and is totally irresistable.
There is an excellent podcast of Byatt reading an extract from the novel and discussing it on The Guardian website here.