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Reviews: Past Books The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt

A.S Byatt’s new novel The Children’s Book is not for children. Her first high-profile work since the incomparable 1990 Possession, it is a vast, masterful piece of pastiche fiction replete with colorful fictitious characters; cameo appearances from the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Rupert Brook, to name only a few; and a suspenseful plot.

Set in Edwardian England, the historical narrative begins in June 1895, and concludes in the aftermath of World War I, in May 1919. Rich and sprawling in scope, and ambitious in depth, it traces the interlocking stories of three families, the Wellwoods, the Cains, and the Fludds. Byatt displays her signature flair in sketching the era’s middle-class cultural, artistic and literary dimensions. Though her characters live in remote areas of Kent, near the lonely expanse of Romney Marsh and the Kentish Weald, they are educated and enlightened, urbane and sophisticated people. The men hold influential positions in London, and the young people attend public schools and Cambridge. The ferment of Edwardian culture with its Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris furniture, and the Fabian Society’s influence provides the backdrop for their personal lives.

Much of the novel’s action takes place at Todefright, a rambling cottage in Kent in which Olive Wellwood, her husband Humphry, her sister Violet, and seven children reside. Every June Byatt’s characters stage an elaborate Midsummer theatrical on the lawns of Todefright, and the cottage is, as well, the site of craft camps and German puppet shows.

Secluded in her room at Todefright, Olive Wellwood – who is modeled on Edith Nesbit, the celebrated children’s author of Edwardian classics such as The Railway Children – writes fairy tales for children. Byatt points out that “Olive had never supposed for one moment that fairies or spirits existed.” The seven young children believed to be hers serve as an invaluable source of inspiration for Olive. She creates a separate tale for each child, each story appropriate for the specific child’s developing character, and each one heavy with allegorical and psychological features. The work of J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan influences Olive, but it is the German writers like E.T.A. Hoffmann and the dark layers of the Grimm brothers’ folktales that truly fascinate and inspire her. Byatt’s novel is, in fact, generously sprinkled with German fairy-tale motifs.

The first tale Olive writes is the most momentous and upsetting, the one she works on with the most emotional investment. It is for her oldest and favorite child, Tom. It is also the tale with the most consequences for the unfolding of Byatt’s plot. Titled The Sandman, it casts Tom in “an apparently endless quest to find his shadow.” Olive begins Tom’s story by describing an imaginary door in a Todefright cellar full of coal and cobwebs. “It was,” she writes, “a small, silver trap-door that would take a child but not an adult, and it could be seen only by the light of the full moon. It led into an underground world full of tunnels, passages, mines, and strange folk and creatures, benign, maleficent and indifferent.”

The tale Olive writes for her oldest daughter, the sensitive Dorothy, is about a prickly hedgehog, while the one she pens for another daughter, Hedda, who is impulsive and rebellious and who later becomes a rabid Suffragette, is about caged children. At times Olive plunders these stories when she needs to come up with something for a publisher’s deadline. As the book progresses, Olive’s fairy tales proliferate, becoming darker and stranger.

In an altruistic gesture, Olive’s husband, Humphry Wellwood, gives up his London job at the Bank of England to become a journalist so that he can promote his radical Fabian views. This new endeavor pays practically nothing, and as a result the financial burden of the Todefright household, which includes Olive’s sister Violet as well as Humphry and the seven children, falls exclusively to Olive.

Because of a childhood spent in the South Yorkshire coal-mining district, one stamped with poverty and shuffling from one home to another, Olive is determined to achieve commercial success as a writer. She had been a miner’s daughter and an orphan forced into Service by the time she reached her teen-age years. She was, in a word, deprived of a childhood. But she has risen from the lower class to respectability and fame, and she refuses to relinquish this status. She is determined to hold on to Todefright and to provide her family with an affluent lifestyle. “The world she had constructed in, through and under [Todefright], the imagined, interpenetrating world, with its secret doors into tunnels and caverns, the other world under the green fairy hill,” is the very bedrock of her stories.

But Humphry is not much help to Olive’s endeavor. He is a womanizer. Olive is not the only one who knows about his mistress, Marian, and their child. More disturbingly, he and Violet have carried on a clandestine relationship that has produced more than one of the seven children that Olive raises as her own. Midway in the novel, a drunken Humphry attempts to seduce Dorothy, who understandably assumes he is her father. His actions seem only slightly less egregious when Byatt reveals that Dorothy is not actually Humphry’s daughter. She is the daughter of the German puppeteer, Anselm Stern, maker and operator of lifelike marionettes, with whom Olive once had a liaison.

There is another branch of the Wellwoods that often takes center stage as primary characters. Humphry’s brother, Basil, is a more conventional person than Humphry. He is faithful to his German wife, Katharina, and a loving father to his son Charles and daughter, Griselda. Byatt furnishes both Charles and Griselda with complex and compelling coming-of-age stories that involve Olive’s and Humphry’s offspring as well as myriad other minor characters, some of them German, once had a liaison.

In the very opening paragraphs of her book Byatt establishes the link between the Todefright Wellwoods and the Cains. In the course of conducting research for one of her tales, Olive, with her son Tom in tow, visits a Kensington museum – the precursor to the Victoria and Albert – to meet with its curator, Prosper Cain. Present, too, is Prosper’s young son, Julian who befriends Tom. The two boys discover a third boy surreptitiously sketching a vase displayed in one of the museum’s glass cabinets. His name is Philip Warren, and he is a run-away from London’s East End. Olive insists on bringing Philip home to Todefright and promises to find a home for him. Once fed and cleansed the boy vagrant proves his exceptional talent for drawing.

Olive arranges an apprenticeship for him with Benedict Fludd, a temperamental but exquisitely gifted sculptor and potter. Fludd sometimes flies into rages, smashing his precious pots. His rundown work compound, situated deep in the Kentish countryside, resonates with madness and sinister secrets. “Fludd’s mood moved in repeated – though unpredictable – cycles from rage to geniality, from grim, inactive despair to superhuman efforts of work and invention,” notes Byatt. “Between the extremes things got done, pots got made, even with luck, sold to keep off starvation.” Byatt has created in Fludd a man of many dimensions, but his malevolent relationships with two young-adult daughters reveal a basic wickedness. [Philip noticed]…the perpetual quality of watchful fear, or at least anxiety, in the curiously inert female members of the family…Fludd appeared, even in a good mood, to have no small talk,” writes Byatt. Several subplots spin off from the Philip Warren/Benedict Fludd connection.

To depict the Edwardian era’s interest in, and nostalgia for, childhood, Byatt puts words in Olive’s mouth as she speaks with Prosper Cain: “You know it’s a truism that writers for children must still be children themselves, deep down, must still feel childish feelings and a child’s surprise at the world.” According to Byatt, writing from her amazing grasp of social history, Edwardians understood, in a way earlier generations had not, “that children were people with identities and desires and intelligences. They saw that they were neither dolls nor toys nor miniature adults. They saw… that children needed freedom, needed not only to learn and be good, but to play and be wild.” While this Edwardian attitude is praiseworthy, it becomes clear that several of Byatt’s adult characters of this persuasion have never themselves grown up.

Byatt blends a restrained yet vivid and affecting account of World War I with the fates of her characters, both English and German. By the end of the book, characters who are children or infants when the novel opens find themselves precariously mired in trench mud at Ypre and the Somme.

While Byatt eschews preaching, ideas have always been seminal in her novels. In The Children’s Book, her underlying arguments, which serve as unifying themes, include the notions that artistic talent and profound moral weakness often coexist in one human; that there are frightening aspects to childhood; that parents must refrain from exploiting their children; and – as E.M. Forster so famously underscored – nothing is at it appears.