The Virtues of Capaciousness
At 675 pages, The Children’s Book demands a rare thing from today’s readers: an undivided, well-cultivated attention span. For those up to the task in this world of twittering, tweeting texts, the rewards are many.
For those no longer able to sit themselves down with a good book, and I mean a book, dammit, not some computerized booklike object or a fancy telephone the size of a card deck, well, friend, the loss is yours. Turn everything off except your reading light and try to start reading again, before you lose the ability to concentrate on anything longer than than a byte. And start with The Children’s Book, a behemoth with paper pages and an exquisite cover based on a Lalique jewelry design.
Despite Byatt’s often formidable erudition, The Children’s Book is far more accessible than Posession or the Babel Tower trilogy. Encompassing such diverse interests as pottery, decorative arts, women’s rights, bank fraud, the demise of Victorian England, German puppetry, fairytales, and war, The Children’s Book sets itself amidst the Wellwood family and their acquaintances, running from 1895 through the end of World War I.
The book opens in the South Kensington Museum, where famed children’s book author Olive Wellwood is visiting the museum’s Keeper of Precious Metals, Major Prosper Cain. As the adults flirt decorously, their adolescent sons, Tom and Julian, run about the galleries, where they discover a stowaway: young Philip Warren, who has fled the Potteries, where his impoverished mother and siblings paint designs on Minton China.
Philip is immensely talented, starving, and unwilling to return to a life certain to end early via lead poisoning. Olive Wellwood, who inhabits a country estate with her sister, Violet, husband Humphrey, and numerous children, takes the ruffian home. There Violet, an unhappy spinster who runs the enormous estate, dubbed Todefright, scrubs, feeds, and clothes the young man.
Preparations for the Wellwood’s annual midsummer festival are in full swing. Laterns must be designed (a task Philip proves excellent at), costumes sewn, a play put on. At thisfin de siecle party we meet most of the book’s large cast: the aforementioned Cain, with Julian and daughter Florence, the London Wellwoods, consisting of Humphrey’s brother Basil, Basil’s German wife, Katharina, and their children, Charles and Griselda. Also attending are tutor Toby Youlgreave, theatre director Augustus Steyning, and German puppeteer Anselm Stern.
The famous, erratic Benedict Fludd, a brillliant potter, has not come, but his distracted wife, Seraphita, appears, along with daughters Imogen and Pomona. Other characters include the Fludd family’s circle of acquiantances: Fludd’s hapeless apprentice, Arthur Dobbin, local curate Frank Mallett, schoolteacher Marian Oakeshott, who has a son but no husband, suffragist Patty Dace, randy writer Herbert Methley, and his wife, Phoebe.
The characters are initially difficult to track, but as the book unfolds, and the threads between families twist and twine, it becomes easier. Philip is taken on as Benedict Fludd’s apprentice, a development beneficial to both but not without difficulty. Today we would call Fludd bipolar, and stuff him with Lithium; in 1895, he is simply lunatic, prone to destructive rages, manic episodes of work, and monstrous personal habits.
Yet he is a genius with clay, and Philip is an apt learner. When his elder sister Elsie appears, having walked halfway across England to inform him of their mother’s death, she takes one look at the disordered Fludd household and the absent, scatterbrained women inhabiting it and immediately takes charge. Though this is the furthest from what she wants: Elsie, an intelligent, talented young woman, longs for an education. The idea of going into service horrifies her.
Meanwhile, life at the Todefright Wellwoods is tulmultuous. Humphrey, who worked at a bank with brother Basil, has taken to penning satiric articles about the corrupt financial schemes he encounters. Though he uses a pseudonym, Basil recognizes his brother’s words. The ensuing fight leaves Humphrey jobless: though he also becomes a writer, it is Olive who must support their large family. Tom, the eldest, Olive’s favorite, wanders the woods in a perpetual haze he has no interest in escaping. Like his mother, he feels the imagined and real worlds are contemporaneous:
“The seen and the unseen world were interlocked and superimposed. You could trip out of one and into the other at any moment.”
The other children are more realistic, particularly Dorothy, whose relentlessly analytical mind annoys Olive. Dorothy wants to be a doctor. The younger, perpetually angry Hedda isn’t certain of her future, but spends much time listening at doors and keyholes, learning numerous unsettling secrets about the adult Wellwoods, which she shares with her horrified siblings. Those familiar with Byatt’s work will recognize recurrent themes of free love, incest, a fascination with the natural world, and an ever-present , embittered spinster—here, Violet Grimwith, whose intelligence and sexuality are subsumed by mending and childcare.
The Children’s Book is set against a broad historical backdrop, encompassing the problems of the English underclass, the Anarchist movement, well-meaning Fabians, would-be Socialists, the Boer War, banking scandals, women’s suffrage, and ominous rumblings leading to World War One. Against these often violent, unsettling events, the nursery Fabians, with their summer camps consisting of earnest literary discussions, covert sexual glances, vegetarianism, gymnastics and nude swims, seem childishly naive.
As Olive moves from comely youth to middle age, she continues writing furiously, both scrambling for income and in the private Tom Underground. Each Wellwood child has his or her own unpublished book, specially kept in a glass case, but it is Tom’s—Tom Underground—that Olive continues, even as the children grow up and begin pursuing adult lives. But when Augustus Steyning and Anselm Stern press Olive for a play, she is drawn up short.
After much casting about, she reaches for that favorite child’s book, failing to tell the child in question, now an aimless adult. The ensuing play is a public masterpiece and personal disaster, one that speaks to the perils of writing about family, particularly when the family in question is yours.
Byatt’s own facsination for fairy tales in much evidenced here, as it was in the earlier Sugar and Other Stories and Elementals. This is interesting given her disgust at J.K, Rowling’s work: I suspect she dislikes Rowling’s lack of scholarship. Her own creation, Griselda, grows up to study fairytales, the ancient, bloody versions of Cinderella, stolen souls, and little people, as German puppeteer Anselm Stern beomes increasingly famous for his gorgeously surreal puppets and stage sets, often rebuking conventional happy endings.
Sexual repression is everywhere, vociferously preached against, with resultant behaviors creating numerous fatherless offspring. Male homosexuality is covertly accepted, though Julian Cain’s early infatuation with the virtually sexless Tom soon finds a female object, albeit an equally hopeless one.
Byatt slides in much about the writing life: “All writers perhaps have talismanic phrases which represent to them the force of the intrinsic nature of writing.” Then, a variant on Hemingway’s dictum about leaving off a day’s work with the next sentence in mind:
“Always leave writing in medias res.”
Byatt also mentions that Olive Wellwood suspects her characters, once created, continue living their lives elsewhere, beyond the pages. I doubt Olive is alone in this notion. Then there are character names: writers, Byatt asserts more than once, have little control over them.
As World War One draws closer, the Wellwood, Fludd, and Warren children are all pursuing ends meshing with the Victorian era’s close. The women fight for college matriculation rights and the vote. A few become pregnant and must work out solutions. Dorothy goes into medical training, saving many lives come wartime. Angry Hedda becomes a suffragette. And the men—many who begin The Children’s Book as boys—go to war. As in all wars, many—whom we have come to know over 600 pages—do not return.
Yet despite the death, the heartbreak, and the wrenching beginnings of a new era, marriages are made, children born, familial ties strengthened in surprising ways. The book ends with a dinner—hardly an innocent misummer’s feast of old, but a heartening meal nonetheless, with silver candlesticks and infants at table. Despite the horror, the loss of life and innocence, life continues moving inexorably forward.