AS Byatt’s last major work was the 1990 Booker Prize-winning Possession, a tale of romance set in the highbrow London academia. She has been a major writer of our age, churning out novels, short stories and poems with commendable fecundity. Her quartet about members of a Yorkshire family, begun in 1978 with The Virgin in the Garden, and completed in 2002 with A Whistling Woman, is a sprawling account of mainstream British life in mid-20th century.
Byatt’s work has tended to jump around the edges of fiction, melding commentary on the age — its culture and passions, its secrets and darkness — with the storyline. In The Children’s Book, her latest work on which she worked the last few years, her gaze turns to the Edwardian era, evoked recently in Jill Dawson’s The Great Lover and David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk.
Olive Wellwood is the writer of children’s books and mother to a large brood, not all of whom may be her own. With her Fabian husband Humphry and sister Violet, she presides over Todefright, their house in Kent. At the novel’s beginning, Tom Wellwood, Olive’s son, and Julian Cain, the son of a museum curator, discover an indigent boy, Philip Warren, hiding in the basement of the South Kensington Museum. Philip is brought home and later sent to work with Benedict Fludd, famed potter under whose tutelage Philip will find great fame.
The story revolves around the three families: the Wellwoods, the Fludds and the Cains, and is set in the period from 1895 to just after the First World War. Byatt dips in and out of their lives even as she draws an elaborate portrait of the age—that innocent pre-war period, when artists discovered new modes of thinking and being. The Fabians, including poet Rupert Brooke, tried to usher in a gentler world, where socialism would be the guiding force of life. Women campaigned for equal voting rights and for the right to earn degrees at university, and artists tried to live in new, dangerous ways.
The characters in The Children’s Book all grapple with these momentous political changes, even as they discover dark truths about their identities. Benedict Fludd may be a world-renowned potter but he is also a sullen father with an untoward attraction for his daughters. Dorothy, the daughter of Olive and Humphry, discovers that she is not Humphry’s daughter after all, but of a German puppeteer. Tom, most gifted of the Wellwood siblings, discovers that he is ill-suited to life in the real world, and spends his time in the marshes and greenery surrounding Todefright.
But really, the novel is about Olive. She writes stories for each of her children, and keeps them in a case, to be picked and read and added to at random. The stories are supposedly for the reading pleasure of the children, but the writer in Olive frequently uses them as starting points for more elaborate fictions. This ploy of a story within a story allows Byatt to showcase the wickedness of all art. The stories that Olive writes are about monsters and fairies, dark corners and sudden joys—all childhood territories. Yet, in their evocation of a perfect time, the stories are also reliquaries of nostalgia and pain.
The one for Tom, concerning a young boy who has lost his shadow, is developed by Olive into a critically and commercially acclaimed play, Tom Underground. Tom, having confined himself to his pastoral paradise, cannot bear the publicising of his most cherished story, with devastating consequences for the Wellwoods’ personal happiness.
Byatt’s writing is so well-researched that The Children’s Book could well have been a consummate history of the era. Since the characters are potters, writers and general art enthusiasts, the book brims in rich pictorial description, which includes a guided tour of the Paris Exhibition of 1900. But more than that, Byatt’s book is an astute moral lesson. Amidst the confetti of fame and glory that is liberally sprinkled on the characters—who wander in search of an anchor, one can’t help wonder what price a place in history books?
By the end, Todefright has become a ghost of its former self, and even though Byatt, given as she is to breaking stereotypes, may not like it, nostalgia for an unquantifiable past has taken over the novel. Most men have been lost to the War, and most women carry on forth, but lacking the lustre that imbued their former lives. There is something satisfying, but also tragic about the best hopes for retaining something, as it were, always ending up as just hopes. The Children’s Book, then, is about that: our failed tendency to believe that anything, anything at all, can be preserved.
THE CHILDREN’S BOOK
Chatto & Windus
617 pages; £18.99