Reflections: The Children's Book

A narrative, a history lesson, a treatise on the material culture of Europe before WWI, a reflection on the various burdens of the woman's condition: A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book defies a basic generic descriptor. For whatever else it may be, it is a surprisingly long novel in the contemporary market, and quite an ambitious one at that.

The novel takes place in England, and spans the years between the establishment of the Fabian Society and the end of the first World War. It casts its net over a broad cast of characters, from the working class potter Philip and his sister Elsie to a German puppeteer to an egocentric author of children's literature, Olive Wellwood, and her unconventional family. Like the fairy tales of Olive (and of most good children's fiction writers), Byatt's world is peopled by adults who are largely unimportant except insofar as their actions, beliefs, ambitions, and interests shape the generation of children who celebrate Midsummer's Eve in 1895. It is a generation that grows with the promise of equality among the classes, better opportunities for women, and more sexual freedom than the Victorian era had afforded. It is a generation that crumbles under the pressure of failed social movements and unspeakable violence in the trenches of Europe.

To recount the particular actions of individual characters would be to miss the point. In fact, when Byatt goes wrong, it is by getting too particular (usually in a way either unbelievable or mawkishly sentimental) with the telling of her characters' lives. At no point do any of them stand out as fully-developed subjects. Rather, they each stand in for a way of life peculiarly open to this particular generation. The personages of the story come in and out of the reader's awareness, briefly personifying a dilemma, a freedom, or a theory that shaped the age.The broad cast buoys up this unique narrative style, and successfully creates the era itself as the protagonist--a not unimpressive feat.

Byatt's vision of an era alternatively propelled by the mystical  or the Utopian and the supremely practical is impressive. It is occasionally marred, however, with the sudden narration of unrelated historical facts, or with a ham-fisted psychologizing of these characters otherwise defined for the reader through action. The useless insertion of incest and suicide suggest a grasped at, and missed, profundity in the creation of a character. Worse, these moments, for a short time, destroy the truly interesting creation of the collective psychology that is this novel's real innovation. Although not perfect, The Children's Book has a great deal to offer.


Matt Kresse said...

You make me sound smart at parties--a not unimpressive feat.

Candida said...

Glad to have read your review. As for me, a not very long passage of time, but several books intervening, has somewhat misted the memory of what Byatt had done, but your comprehensive and generous portraitt of this massive story brings it back more pleasurably than I remember encountering it. Vive la difference in literary taste! Who can explain it? Meanwhile, let it be noted that I have just read "Summer will Show" by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a book I think is remarkable, lovely, and imperfect, but in such a way as to make you wish you had known the writer. And yet will anyone else like it as much? Dunno.

Mille Feuille said...


Thanks for reading. I agree with you about the razor edge of literary recommendations; we take a lot of responsibility when we advocate one book over another. Your experience with Sylvia Townsend Warner feels so familiar.

miriam said...

Candida is signing off because her cover has been blown, but she wishes to say upon leaving (..and she may return under a different name) that in loving a book it seems to be all about (1) loving the syntax and diction (in which case Byatt's last probably should have prevailed, don't quite remember) and also about (2) loving the story - which needs in some way to feel new in spite of all stories being retold and retold. So, to feel new, there has to be a different edge that feels, ever so briefly, that it hasn't been encountered before in quite the same way. And that's what feels increasingly difficult to find as one reads and reads and reads. Warner's work struck me that way. But, alas, no one agreed with me in my reading group.