Jen Padgett Bohle's Reviews > The Children's Book

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
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Sep 04, 09

Recommended for: it's an English teacher/Lit Professor's dream
Read in August, 2009

I savored this novel every evening for the 2 months or so that I chipped away at its formidable length. A.S. Byatt has written a whopping, inimitable masterpiece of a heavy handed Victorian England succumbing to the blithe, jaunty Edwardian era which in turn gives way to the disillusionment and terror of trench warfare and World War I. Byatt, so unapologetically erudite, gives us a labyrinthine novel that is both devastating and whimsical. It's full of complexity and contradictions, stories within stories, and an abundance of detail, both historical and literary, so that people and objects d' art almost become palpable.

Byatt can be a bit pedantic at times, and in this work she is often overly descriptive and uses authorial elucidation too much, so that it seems she's doing our research work for us, especially with regard to historical background. Generally, though, her lavish descriptions and exposition work because we're invited, through her garrulity, to live in this world she has built and conjure it according to her exact instructions. Moreover, when she interrupts her narrative fervor it is always exposition concerning historical and social mileposts or facts about the arts and crafts movement, art noveau and pottery. It's pardonable, perhaps appropriate, because so much of the novel centers around modernization --- the shift in art and politics away from Victorian values to modernist art and liberal politics. There are so many beautiful sentences in The Children's Book and the narrative brims with flesh and blood characters and ideas one can mull over and over, that she more than makes up for any shortcomings.

Suffice it to say that, in my humble opinion, she has created nothing less than an Edwardian epic. As in Possession, Byatt fully displays her considerable academic talents. In this work, she writes pastiches of World War I poems and victorian children's tales. The novel is so brilliantly infused with fairy tales and children's literature ranging from Perrault and the Brothers Grimm and ETA Hoffman to J.M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, and Kenneth Grahame that I'm still, weeks after finishing, working out the intertextuality. Fairy stories, allusions, and sinister tales of children simply inundate the reader. Through the German marionette master, Anselm Stern, Byatt alludes to the darker force of fairy stories, and art in general, a force that will eventually lead to the death of one of the characters. It is also through Stern and his family that Byatt presents German English relations on the eve of WWI and delves into the avante-garde German art and political scene.

At the heart of the novel are five families and a cast of dozens, tied together in various ways (blood, art, friendship, politics). Byatt traces their lives and entanglements through more than twenty years and several locales, evoking the effervescence of the 1900 Paris World's Fair, the haunting loneliness of Romney Marsh and Dungeness, the bustle of London, the subversive edges of Bavaria, and finally, the killing fields of Belgium.

Vivacious and attractive Olive Wellwood, a children's author and mother of seven (modeled after E. Nesbitt [remember Five Children and It?:]), is at first the central focus of the work, but Byatt regularly shifts between the families and deftly illuminates the lives of both parents and children. Olive and her husband Humphrey Wellwood are socially progressive Fabians, intellectuals, writers, and proponents-not-quite-agitators for social justice,and through them Byatt portrays the complexities of marriage, sexuality, what it means to be a father and what constitutes motherhood. The Wellwoods are also a vehicle for the author to explore the dissonance between creativity and family life, the destructive toll of creativity and art, as well as the melding of the political with the personal. Byatt fleshes out the eldest Wellwood children, the Peter Pan-like Tom who never wants to grow up; serious, tenacious Dorothy; and violent suffragette Hedda, while glossing over the rest of the brood. Olive gives each child a fairy story of his/her own that is obviously an allegory for the child's life.

As a foil for Olive and Humphrey's exuberant family, Byatt gives us Humphrey's brother and sister-in-law: the London Wellwoods --- Basil, a banker and Katharina,a wealthy German heiress, along with their children Charles/Karl and Griselda. Basil and Katharina are everything Olive and Humphrey are not: concerned with social conventions, conservative, wealthy, and part of the old Victorian establishment. Charles and Griselda, though, rebel against their parents' ideals and dabble in feminism, anarchy, and socialism. Through Charles/Karl, especially, Byatt develops a theme dealing with hidden identities, masked identities and transformation, as Charles becomes the anarchist Karl.

There is the disturbing and tragic Fludd family, with their laudnum-addicted, vacuous mother and (in)famously bizarre, brilliant, and wanton sculptor father who damages his daughters, Pomona and Imogen, in countless cruel ways. Geraint, the oldest sibling of the family, manages to escape the marshes and dilapidated Fludd home, entrenching himself in the London world of finance. Patriarch and artist Benedict, like Olive Wellwood, embodies the dangerous self-absorption and self-destruction art can engender. His brand of fatherhood squarely aligns him with Bluebeard or the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, but throughout the novel Humphrey, Prosper Cain, and other male characters will, to varying degrees, echo this characterization.

In juxtaposition to Benedict Fludd is Major Prosper Caine, a curator at the South Kensington (Victoria and Albert) Museum in London, and an expert in the decorative arts, who befriends the Wellwoods and Fludds. He is the embodiment of Victorian chivalry and philanthropy, and it is his charitable actions that often advance the plot. Seemingly the deus ex machina of the story, he is perhaps a bit contrived. Prosper's daughter and son become part of the cast of children that fill the novel, as readers watch them all move from the buoyant naivete of childhood into hapless adulthood.

One of the best threads in this novel involves Philip Warren (and eventually his sister, Elsie), apprentice and heir to Benedict Fludd, and an escapee from poverty and the lead-filled air of the potteries. Although the Victorians invented the concept of childhood, the notion that children were developmentally different from adults and should be allowed to play, explore, roam about and speak freely applied only to middle and upper class children. In The Children's Book, Philip and Elsie (and Olive and Violet, by means of flashbacks) are the only glimpse readers get of what childhood is like for impoverished Victorian children. In a notable and poignant opening scene, Cain's son Julian and Olive's son Tom catch Philip in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum, (where he has been sleeping for weeks) with a stack of expertly rendered drawings of the museum' holdings. Eventually, upon discovering Philip's unparalleled talent with pottery, Olive and Major Cain install him with the Fludd family, where he promptly makes improvements in Benedict's pottery studio, working his way up to master craftsmen and artist.

Philip's sister Elsie eventually runs away from the potteries and joins him at the Fludd's home, and becomes a focus of Byatt's narrative primarily due to her relationship with Herbert Methley, (modelled on, it seems, the promiscuous Mr. H.G. Wells) a lubricious libertine who has a knack for impregnating young women. Elsie's redemption comes in the form of her very own fairy godmothers, three women from around the marshes who help her become an independent Edwardian "New Woman" in the vein of Ibsen or G.B. Shaw.

And so the story goes. And goes. All the way to Belgium and the machine guns and trenches and mass casualties of World War I. Our Edwardian summer is over; the children have been sacrificed, marching to war for the fairy tale ideals of honor, country, duty, and glory.



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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Cassie (new)

Cassie An impressive review. You have convinced me that I absolutely must read this as soon as it is available in the U.S.


Angie Maybe Prosper is Prospero, in a Shakespearian allusion suggested by the first play performed in this novel of plays, stories, and puppet shows? The arranger of all, the creator of a child by the air (Geraint), who produces money as well as himself; a child of the flesh (Julian); and Griselda, a daughter who seems ready at the end to boldly embrace life, a la Miranda.


message 3: by Jen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen Padgett Bohle Thanks so much for the comment, David.

Angie, I think you might be right about Prosper being Prospero --- good thought!


message 4: by Jacinta (new)

Jacinta Hoare Great review, inspired me to purchase and enjoy the book. thanks


message 5: by Jen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen Padgett Bohle Thank you Jacinta!


Michael Jen, I found your review while browsing. I couldn't get into The Children's Book myself, though I am interested in Nesbit and the period in which she lived. So I got something of value from your review of the storylines. But I did have one question: do you really believe that honor, country, duty and glory are all nothing but "fairy-tale ideals"?


message 7: by Jen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen Padgett Bohle I think that Byatt attempts to show in this work that, to some extent, these ideals are used as fairy tales by the older generations to drive scores of young men into an unprecedented war of mass killings due to the advent of machine guns and trench warfare.
As you likely know from history books, and what WWI poems and other authors such as Erick Remarque also show us, the guys in WWI had no idea what they were in for and whole towns were left with no men under the age of 40.
These are valiant things, but is anything really so clarion or simple? In the grotesqueness of war and killing (especially as it was then), are these myths to justify killing a whole bunch of people and maybe yourself? It's complicated.


message 8: by Michael (last edited Sep 18, 2010 06:49AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Michael No, I don't agree that those virtues are myths or fairy tales. Which is why I had to write to respond to that part of your review. The people in WWI had no clue what they were getting into, true -- and that extends to the powers-that-be. No one knew what was coming. So does that not also mean that those leaders cannot really be accused of evil in calling upon some of people's highest values to help persuade them to fight, risk injury and death, and make the most extreme of sacrifices?

It seems to me that your comment denigrates these virtues (three of them are, at least; glory more an accidental consequence) because they proved so inadequate compared to the harrowing history, as it eventually played out. Still, I don't think those calling on those virtues in their populations were evil, devious, or malevolent; I think they were just people operating as we always do, without knowing what exactly lies ahead for us. But let's take the hypothetical case that the political leaders WERE cynically evoking these ideals..... I think that it is a mistake to dismiss the ideals because someone misused them.

We know that honor is a real ideal, not a fairy-tale one, because we see it most clearly when it is absent. For example, isn't Bernie Madoff a perfect example of a man without honor? Very differently, didn't the passengers of United flight 93 demonstrate the virtue of concern for country? What touching patriotism! Thank goodness most people DO feel it!

I agree that some plans do not turn out right.... what an understatement, eh? But I think sometimes we impute to those involved a cynicism that is not warranted, and that cynicism -- it is really our OWN cynicism -- fails to give history, and the people who lived that history, the full truth of their lives. And that same cynicism inclines us to error, too. It is (at least arguably) not the real truth of the event. And making it a yardstick for our own judgments only compounds that error, I believe. We then imagine we see it operating similarly in other situations; it can become like a set of blinders that prevents us from seeing a situation fully. Like using a bumper-sticker philosophy to make a serious judgment.


message 9: by Jen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen Padgett Bohle Yeah, that was a rhetorical question. I got your point :)
My point was not to denigrate anything; in fact I kind of tried to dodge the question because I find that,too many times, engaging in discourse about patriotism and the values which accompany it is something akin to discussing religion --- these things usually lead nowhere except to flared tempers. (and one person questioning the other party’s patriotism and accusations of ill will toward men and women in uniform etc)
Anyway, do I think honor, country, and duty exist? Yes, but…
(Almost nothing is black and white to me). It’s simplistic and naïve to believe that these things exist as pure, isolated virtues in most people and that they are uninfluenced by a myriad of other factors. One never knows what someone’s true motivation is, and in fact, most people are a muddle of conflicting values and are constantly shifting sides of the integrity spectrum. Assuming that all men and women who fought/fight in wars act(ed) out of positive incentives and self-sacrificing altruism is just as much a failure “to give them the full truth of their lives,“ as you so eloquently stated. In my own life I’ve experienced this tendency to simplify things and make them unequivocally moral --- my father insists on sentimentalizing my university years (for various reasons) and making me into a saint for all the hardships I endured. That denigrates my true experience which was a mixture of hardship but also of excess and a little debauchery. The point is, the entire story needs to be told. Honor and duty and country can also go along with paychecks, the GI bill, insurance, and other factors that may influence one’s decision to make sacrifices for one's country (or family, or whatever).

In The Children's Book, note the way Karl/Charles is treated for NOT going off to war. He’s ostracized by society, his manhood is questioned, and he’s a bit of an embarrassment to his family, so much so that he questions his pacifism and moral position. He would be going off to war with negative motivations/incentives --- to avoid the unpleasant consequences of staying home. I daresay this negative motivation plays into human decisions and actions quite often. Frankly, men and women who are unquestioningly and unflinchingly patriotic are disturbing. We should question, reflect, and think about everything, including what our duty to country and fellow people should be, the nature of honor, and why/if we should feel obligated to our country. Blind patriotism leads to dangerous consequences.

Again, I think that honor exists, but there are always other factors involved that we simply can’t overlook. Is a person who donates time and money to the less fortunate any less honorable because she does those things to increase her own social status or to feel better about herself? How are we defining honor? Pure selflessness, pure honor, is absolutely a rare thing, which is why, on the opposite end from Madoff, people like Mother Teresa end up making the news as exceptions to the norm.


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