In the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax, ‘I aten’t dead’. On the contrary, I’m clawing my way out of a period dominated by the noble (but absolutely demented) effort of writing an exhibition catalogue, from scratch, including research, in three months. (A word of advice: don’t ever do this.) There’s been lots of other stuff going on, some delightful, some rather gloomy, but holidays are now less than a month away and I’m starting to get a grip. I have been reading and seeing operas and concerts and plays, and I fully intend to write about as much as I can remember through the fog. First up is an easy one: I’ve just finished A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I first read ten years ago and which enchanted me just as much second time around. Byatt is a rare writer: erudite, intellectual, compelling and technically brilliant, with a profound but unsentimental sense of compassion. I’ve read several of her novels, but The Children’s Book is my favourite for the way it vividly evokes bohemian life at the turn of the 20th century in England. It captures the magic of childhood before going on, ruthlessly, to show how adults create children, only to destroy them.
Think of a classic children’s novel and there’s a good chance that it was published in the last years of the 19th century or the first years of the 20th: The Jungle Book; Five Children and It; and Peter Pan are all good examples. There was something very special about this period, when childhood was regarded as a special, almost sacred state. Adults, locked out of that childish Eden forever, strove to recapture some of the magic by poring over fairy tales and fairy lore, folk stories, myths, ballads and stories. At the heart of Byatt’s novel is Olive Wellwood, a children’s author who lives with her rambling family in an equally rambling house in the wilds of the Kentish countryside. Olive and her husband Humphry are Fabians: idealists: wealthy enough to let their children roam in the woods, holiday at the seaside and enjoy their innocence. The children have been erratically home-taught; life is sprawling and generous and full of love. The magic of the age is captured by the set-piece of the first part, in which the Wellwoods hold a glorious summer fancy-dress garden-party, full of lanterns and coloured lights, performances of pieces from Shakespeare, clever conversation and puppet-shows. It is, quite literally, a midsummer night’s dream. But the problem with dreams is that you must wake up. And sometimes, on waking, you discover that you aren’t really who you always thought you were.
Olive’s eldest son Tom is a dreamer. When we first meet him, he’s a puckish, half-wild boy who roams happily in the forests around his home, and who lives mostly in his fantasy world that his mother has helped create. He feels nature and the natural world in a way that none of his siblings quite seem to grasp. Dorothy, his sister, is practical, stolid and growing bored with Olive’s incessant fantasising. Phyllis, a little younger, is happy to be pretty and domestic and helpful. Hedda, one of the youngest children, is fiercely individualistic, driven to make herself felt amid the mass of infants. The children’s cousins, Charles and Griselda, add their own subtleties: Charles’s increasing idealism, which challenges his own father’s conservatism; and Griselda’s quiet inner strength. Then there are Florence and Julian, the children of Prosper Cain, an elegant curator at the South Kensington Museum, whose passion for arts and crafts gives much of the novel its flavour. It’s thanks to Prosper that one of our heroes, Philip Warren, is given a chance. Discovered by Tom and Julian in the Museum, drawing from the collection and living illegally in the cellars, Philip has escaped from the poisonous gloom of the Potteries and dreams of making his own pots. To his astonishment, finds his talents embraced by this eccentric group of people, who talk down to him, but mean well, and send him off to become a kind of factotum to the brilliant but monstrous potter Benedict Fludd,
The novel’s cast of characters first gather at the Wellwoods’ summer garden party and we follow them over the next twenty years. The children grow up; the world around them changes its face, shrugging off the complacency of late-Victorian empire and taking on the horrors of the First World War. Byatt somehow manages to embrace a mass of themes by making her characters socialists, intellectuals, anarchists, dreamers, artists and art-lovers. At the beginning, social concerns are those appropriate to a Victorian world: doing good by giving lectures to working men and women in the East End; trying to give the deserving poor a way out of their lives; trying to introduce the underprivileged to beautiful art and ideas. We watch the South Kensington Museum undergo its transformation into the V&A, and the struggle to define what the Museum should mean. Should it provide inspirational beauty, to encourage the poor to develop an artistic sensibility, and to help them escape their hardscrabble world? Should it be less about aestheticism and more a functional catalogue of forms? As the book continues, these early, rather patronising desires to ‘improve’ the poor give way to more urgent campaigns: to give women the vote; to unsettle the entrenched elites with anarchist action; to recognise workers’ rights. Before long, that dreamy garden-party seems to belong not only to another century but another age altogether.
Art is central to the novel, as it is to all Byatt’s works. She is a formidably knowledgeable person and part of the reason I love her books is that I learn so much. Here you find out about German and British fairytales, and how they correspond; the work of the dreamer-ceramicist Palissy; Shakespeare; Wagner; the development of the puppet theatre; the different artistic worlds in London and Munich; utopian literature; anarchist and socialist polemic; Symbolist art and thought. Woven in with all of this is an authoritative history of the period, which helps you understand how we ended up tearing Europe apart with the First World War. It’s strange to think that, at one moment, there were so many ‘universal exhibitions’ bringing together the arts and crafts of Europe in various capitals; at precisely the time that Europe was becoming more divided than ever before. Byatt also emphasises the less familiar story of the extraordinary intellectual sympathies and connections between Britain and Germany, at the turn of the 20th century – when young people would go off to study, hike, share angry dreams, or gently debauch themselves, in a kind of proto-Erasmus scheme that made the later gulf between the two nations even more strange and striking.
But I don’t want to imply that all this fascinating stuff somehow prevents there being a damn good story at the heart of it all. The pervading mood of the book is one of sombre tragedy shot through with beauty, like a dark silk which gleams in the light. So many of these children, whom we first meet as innocent creatures, are broken or traumatised by their route to adulthood. Secrets and lies are unearthed; trust traduced; promises broken. This bohemian age sets childhood on a pedestal, but has no satisfactory way of easing the transition into grown-up life. Tom’s passage is, perhaps, the most brutal – and features the greatest betrayal, which is all the more tragic because the betrayer doesn’t realise the magnitude of what they’ve done – but the girls suffer too. Despite the fine sentiments about innocence, there’s an unpleasant number of predatory men lurking in this circle of friends – men who feel that their sensitivity to youthful female beauty entitles them to its first fruits, and are adept at getting their way, through seduction or otherwise. Byatt isn’t judgmental – she portrays things, I think, very much as they would have been handled at the time – but she does allow the reader to make their own judgements and, especially in today’s moral climate, you do judge.
Byatt’s books feel grander and longer than they actually are, not in an oppressive sense, but because you fall so happily and deeply into her world. There’s so much to take in, so much to think about; mental lists to make (visit the V&A; read that biography of Augustus John, who moved so easily in this world; find out more about the Fabians). In fact, I have very much the same feeling on reading Byatt that I do on reading Dunnett (“How did she come to know so much about everything?!”). The Children’s Book is a meaty, glorious, satisfying, thought-provoking feast of a novel and I’m very happy to have read it again. (I took it from the shelf because I’ve had a bit of a rush on Victorian art recently, and wanted to relish the flavour of the times.) It is not easy, but great books aren’t easy. It is, however, infinitely rewarding, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
P.S. Only now have I found out that A.S. Byatt is Margaret Drabble’s sister. Now there’s a family with intellectual power…