Venetian Red Bookshelf: A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book
A. S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book is a complex tapestry of a book. It begins in 1895 and ends during the Great War. It is woven through with sensuous descriptions of textiles, pottery glazes, art, clothing and sexual longing, as well as musings on what it is to be an artist or a writer.
As usual, Byatt’s writing is erudite, some would say to a fault. The Children’s Book is unrepentantly intellectual, filled with long, complex digressions on art and nature—and it basks, unashamedly, in the life of ideas. In The Children’s Book, Byatt mines all of her interests—history and natural history, the visual arts, literature, fairy tales, the decorative arts—and weaves them together in an epic tale of two generations of several artistic families (including nearly 20 children) who live in the Kentish countryside.
How could I not love a book that begins in the South Kensington Museum, (later the Victoria & Albert), and immediately engages us with lush descriptions of the forms, ornamentation and glazes of gorgeous decorative objects? The main characters live in a house decorated in the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement, with furniture and wallpaper by William Morris and his cohorts. Their lives are, at first glance, idyllic—Midsummer parties on vast lawns, with theater and puppet shows, open conversation about sexuality, talk about the suffragette movement, the Fabian Society and Socialist idealism. But there’s a dark undercurrent that quickly becomes apparent—a web of adultery, selfishness and secrecy.
Byatt is particularly good at illuminating the irony in the disparity between her characters’ professed beliefs and the way they live their lives—whether in the social, sexual or artistic realm. Byatt also doesn’t shy away from showing us the destructive effect that parents’ misguided creativity can have on their children. Most ominously, the carnage of the coming war looms unseen, and many of the children we meet in the opening chapters will be casualties of that war. We feel tragically helpless, even as we worry about the ill effects of their haphazard upbringing, we suspect these children will not live far into adulthood.
1895 was the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian age, when the cult of childhood began. It was the heyday of children’s literature—J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and E Nesbit were writing their masterpieces. In fact, Byatt’s heroine, Olive Wellwood, who lives with her husband Humphry and their seven children in a country cottage called Todefright—a beloved children’s writer of dark, somewhat Germanic versions of English fairy stories—is largely inspired by E Nesbit. Olive says:
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.
Other characters suggest hybrids of H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence—and writers Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde have cameos. It is also a conflicted age. As Byatt writes, “people talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex,” at the same time showing “a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.”
This novel has a multi-stranded narrative, touches on many complex issues and has an enormous cast of characters. Among the interesting characters are Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, and Benedict Fludd, a tempestuous and visionary potter (based largely on Eric Gill), who is also a monstrous, sexual predator. (Byatt’s choice of names, such as Cain and Fludd, seem somewhat biblical.) The book is filled with artists and political idealists. Midway through the book, many of the characters, in various combinations, attend the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, and there are riveting descriptions of the exposition and its exhibits—including the work of Klimt, Rodin and Lalique.
The action often grinds to a halt while Byatt lectures us about pottery glazes, the history of puppet theater or discourses on social issues. Each character’s clothing is lovingly detailed, works of art are described, fairy stories told, historical facts abound. Many find this surfeit of digression an irritant in Byatt’s work, and think the book overstuffed with ideas and descriptions. I can’t really dispute Byatt’s verbosity and her tendency to lecture. Nevertheless, Byatt’s descriptive abilities border on the sublime, and I relish a novelist who thinks—no, knows— that art is important, and who invents characters, for all their serious flaws, who are engaged with the moral struggle to define (or evade) their responsibilities, assess their gifts and search for (or resist) some kind of enlightenment through creativity.
If you decide to read the book, I recommend you slow down and enjoy the ride, including the numerous side-trips and detours. It may, as some critics argue, be too much, but in my opinion, most contemporary novels offer way too little—so I’ll vote for an excess of ideas, beautifully described, any day. If you’ve read The Children’s Book, please share your thoughts with Venetian Red.