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Reading List > The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt - the discussion

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message 1: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2074 comments THE CHILDREN'S BOOK by A.S. BYATT

I am posting this a bit early. Please keep in mind that this is a book discussion and not a review, so there are spoilers all over the place. Also keep in mind that I will be at the Constant Reader convention for several days and will be unable to lead the discussion. Here is a link to Byatt's homepage http://www.asbyatt.com/biography.aspx. There is also an article about her on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._S._Byatt. In addition, here is the link that Hazel posted earlier www.guardian.co.uk/books/asbyatt . Byatt states in that interview that she was inspired to write the book by the fact that many children's authors treat their children horribly. In particular, she mentions Kenneth Grahame who wrote THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS. There is much to discuss about how Olive treats her children. Several times in the novel, one of the characters mentions how dark the endings of German fairy tales are and that the endings of the English/American versions have been turned into happy endings. The CHILDREN'S BOOK seems at first like a lovely tale of a perfect English family. Here is this beautiful English family that lives in a lovely country home. They are so kind that they take in homeless boy named Philip and help get him an apprentice position with a famous potter named Fludd. Then we learn that there are many things hidden in this family and in the other families. There are many illegitimate children and there are fathers who sexually abuse their children and there are mothers who ignore their children. I found it strange that of all of the many children mentioned in the book, the only one who gets married is Florence and that is because she feels she has to. There is a lot to discuss.


message 2: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1375 comments I go back and forth in my thoughts on this book. Byatt did manage to keep lots of balls in the air -- so many characters to whom she gave equal weight and who were distinct personalities to me. So many plots and/or subplots. So much stuff -- social history, political history, pot throwing, puppet-making, hunger-striking...

I just think Byatt took on too much and then got tired of it. With all that she started, this could have been a 700-page or 800-page book, but she just rushed through the end.

Olive certainly falls into the mold of artists who sacrifice everyone around them to their art. A real narcissist and, so, a pretty horrid mother. But we have lots of bad parents (or parent stand-ins) here. The incestuous Mr. Fludd. The technically-not-but-sure-seemed-like-it would-be-incestuous Humphrey. The once-a-father-figure-now-a-bridegroom Prosper Cain ... (geesh, how many incest plots need one book have?) And what about Violet? Even when the cat was out of the bag, she still did not acknowledge her children, as her children. And Mrs. Fludd (forgot her first name), drugging herself into oblivion to avoid the dark troubles of her family.

I kept wondering what the point of all this was. It did not seem a tale (or tales) told for the sake of telling the tale. Are we simply to appreciate the irony that these adults who so delighted in the things of childhood -- fairies and puppets and make-believe -- were so much less appreciative of the real, live children in their homes?


message 3: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer | 48 comments There are parts of this book that I just adored but at the end of the day it was just all too much. Too many characters, too many plots, and way too much historical context.

Byatt kills off characters at the end that I hardly cared about. She kills Violet off so quickly that if you'd been skimming you might have missed it. It was so perfunctory.

Mary Ellen I agree with you. What was the point ?

The mothers in this book are horrible and the fathers are incestuous.

Why focus on the parents if at the end we're left with WWI mourners.

This book could have been so much better than it was if it had remained focussed on a core group of characters.

I have more to say but I don't want this post to become too long.


message 4: by Hazel (new)

Hazel | 363 comments Mary Ellen wrote: "I go back and forth in my thoughts on this book. Byatt did manage to keep lots of balls in the air -- so many characters to whom she gave equal weight and who were distinct personalities to me. S..."

I've been told that Byatt's characters were representations of historical figures, and that the incest/abuse/neglect of their children is historical fact for several artist/writer figures of the period.


message 5: by Carol (last edited Sep 17, 2010 04:53AM) (new)

Carol | 7176 comments I think this is a book to absorb in segments. I too found it quite a lot to remember. I know I really liked it though. I found the historical aspect interesting. Hazel I had not read that about Byatt's characters. I would like to find out about that. I think Byatt was portraying a period of thirty years filled with many changes in society in Europe at that time. The industrial revolution was in full swing and these various movements was a desire by the populace to go back to a pastoral simpler life.

I got the feeling that change was scary for these people. There was much going on politically and socially. What intrigued me was Byatt's skill at taking a look at the everyday life of the artistic community and condensing it into 700 or so pages.. She included the arts&craft movement , fabaism and other movements in the artistic communities of Europe at that time. She explored the political movements as well and the effect of the political environment of the era had on the artists of those years before WWI . She did bog down in some places but i overlooked those. I think she wanted us to feel a part of that community for all of it's decadence and grandeur. I think she did a wonderful job getting that across.


message 6: by Hazel (new)

Hazel | 363 comments Carol (Kitty) wrote: "I think this is a book to absorb in segments. I too found it quite a lot to remember. I know I really liked it though. I found the historical aspect interesting. Hazel I had not read that about Bya..."


I said in my review that this was a good history lesson. I can imagine sitting through a course of lectures on the period. (And what a turbulent period, and so full of new ideas..) Instead, we get all the information woven into the stories of these characters. I think that was quite a feat.

I don't agree though, that the artistic community had grandeur. It seemed intensely creative, but also very messy, even tawdry.


message 7: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7176 comments I defer to you Hazel on the grandeur point. I tried to recall artwork of the period and you know I could not think of any. I am sure others will remind me.


message 8: by Hazel (new)

Hazel | 363 comments Carol (Kitty) wrote: "I defer to you Hazel on the grandeur point. I tried to recall artwork of the period and you know I could not think of any. I am sure others will remind me."

Carol, I was thinking of the community as portrayed in the novel. I'm not at all knowledgeable about the period. :-)


message 9: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1375 comments Honestly, whether or not Byatt based her story on "real" incestuous artists does not affect my assessment of the quality of the book or the choices, for good or ill, made by the author.

What I find interesting is that the book begins with its focus on the artsy bohemian Wellwoods of (what a name!) Todefright. After the author kills most of them off (in rather cursory manner, for the most part, and I agree w/Jennifer: her introduction of the younger boys, just for the purpose of killing them off, was artless and, for me, pointless), we are left with the dull, banking Wellwoods of London. And they turn out to be far more humane.

Is that Byatt's point?


message 10: by Hazel (last edited Sep 17, 2010 02:25PM) (new)

Hazel | 363 comments Mary Ellen wrote: "Honestly, whether or not Byatt based her story on "real" incestuous artists does not affect my assessment of the quality of the book or the choices, for good or ill, made by the author.

What I f..."


I doubt she had a single point. And I doubt this was simply meant as a history lesson. The message that I got most strongly was how dangerous artists can be in the pursuit of their art; how callous they can be to the needs of those around them; how amoral. I'm thinking particularly of Olive and the potter (forgot his name). Perhaps, those who seek the grandeur of art do (can?) lose some of their humane-ness.

In the interview, Byatt talks about some authors of children's books, usually assumed to be wonderful, giving people, and how their children can be starved, or neglected. She suggests that art can be a perilous pursuit.


message 11: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer | 48 comments Hazel wrote: In the interview, Byatt talks about some authors of children's books, usually assumed to be wonderful, giving people, and how their children can be starved, or neglected. She suggests that art can be a perilous pursuit.

I think that this idea - the perils involved with being an artist - is wonderfully portrayed in the first half of the book. But then the book seems to veer off course and we end up with political anarchists and WWI.

For me the links between the two in the novel are tenuous.

Is she saying that political anarchy and artistic bohemianism are similar? What is the connection?

Why are the Basil Wellwoods the ones that survive the best?


message 12: by Hazel (new)

Hazel | 363 comments Jennifer wrote: " I think that this idea - the perils involved with being an artist - is wonderfully portrayed in the first half of the book. But then the book seems to veer off course and we end up with political anarchists and WWI.

For me the links between the two in the novel are tenuous. ..."


Perhaps it was that the artists/writers she was focused on were working in that period, a period rich in social change, as well as artistically rich. (I have read something about a tendency to fetishize childhood in that period.) Once she started writing about social change, it may have been difficult to leave out WW1. I do agree that she included too much, and lost focus by doing so. I think the book would have been far more powerful at about half its length.


message 13: by Gail (last edited Sep 17, 2010 03:29PM) (new)

Gail | 295 comments Hiding inside this 700-page book is a 400-page novel waiting to come out. Particularly in the scenes at the Paris World's Fair or Exposition, the endless repetition of details became not only boring but soporific. On and on and on with the fabric, the artwork, the shows...zzzz...

Oh, er, pardon me. The best parts of this novel were, for me, the sections of Olive's writings. I read "Five Children and It" just to get a feel for what Byatt may have been trying to do here. As it did in "Possession", her ability to take on the voice of a very different wrtiter almost makes the reader gasp with surprise. But, oh, how she needed a stern, firm but kind editor to say, "Looky here, Dearie, you've done some stuff really, really well in this doorstopper, but you must ruthlessly cut almost all this historical stuffing and get on with the stories."

Just one woman's opinion.


message 14: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer | 48 comments Gail: Thank you for that description of the Worlds Fair scenes. I needed a good laugh.

I enjoyed Olives writings as well but again I kept wondering at their purpose. I was looking for more than just the hiding in childhood theme. It was almost like Olive remained stagnant and the rest of her life moved on without her.


message 15: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1375 comments Gail: Hiding inside this 700-page book is a 400-page novel waiting to come out.

Thank you, Gail! Loved it!!

I am not much of a fan of anything with fairies in it, so Olive's (creepy) writings did nothing for me. I did love the ending of Dorothy's story -- the ultimate kiss-off by one's fake mother when one has committed the unforgivable sin of inadvertently discovering the truth. What a self-important, self-obsessed horror story Olive was.

Still, Olive is a pretty fully realized character. (We even get insight into her obsession with the underground of "Tom Underground.") Alas, poor Violet is not. Byatt treats her with as little respect as everyone else does. She's just the nanny in the background until her one-line death notice. I felt that she deserved better!

Similarly, I thought Tom was not a real person, just a collection of tics in response to a bad, bad public school experience. Honestly, he couldn't wade into that water soon enough for me...nothing would stop him, so why prolong it? Can someone explain the reason for his unbelievable overreaction to having "his" story put on stage? I get that Mom-and-Tom added to the incest theme a bit, emotionally if not physically; but after coming back from school, Tom seemed to pull away from Olive as much as he did from everyone else. (And found his new foxy love interest.) I felt that Byatt didn't know what else to do with Tom, so she killed him off.

The story that worked the best for me was Dorothy's. She was a real person, and one of the more admirable ones.


message 16: by Gail (new)

Gail | 295 comments I liked Dorothy too. She was a much-put-upon soul who just tried to find her own way in an extremely odd, to say the least, family. I thought Elsie was a pretty well-developed person and her story seemed somewhat closer to reality than some of the others.

Olive was quite a horror, at least as a mother. I think, as has been mentioned, the self-absorption of the artist was being portrayed. And too, I thought there was a pretty damning indictment of the era where children were just adjuncts to the parents, to be displayed when convenient. The scene where Hedda is told to disappear so Mother could talk to her friend was a telling one.

One of the things that seemed to be going on here was, perhaps, the use of the endless descriptive repetition to illustrate what that age was really like. If one looks at the work of Bourne-Jones or Morris or some of the others, one sees a huge intertangled mess of figures; so intertwined are they, that the background disappears and the viewer is lost. And their lives were that way too: many tangled, sort of sickeningly interwoven relationships went on among that whole set. One quote I read was that a lover/model of Morris's was "a beginner's Janey" (Janey being Morris's wife).

If that was Byatt's intent, to give the reader that feeling of looking at/being in a labyrinth, she was certainly successful. Unfortunately, to the modern eye, at least this modern eye, the work simply becomes overwhelming, drowning the reader in tides, even tsunamis, of words.

I am a great fan of fairy tales and children's lit. in general, particularly from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. This may have saved the book for me.

It's really too bad, as Byatt has a unique talent that was just squandered here.


message 17: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7176 comments Unfortunately, to the modern eye, at least this modern eye, the work simply becomes overwhelming, drowning the reader in tides, even tsunamis, of words.

Love the description Gail


message 18: by Sheila (last edited Sep 17, 2010 10:43PM) (new)

Sheila | 1355 comments Gail, I loved your descriptions - the 400 pager waiting to get out and the tsunami of words. It sums it up for me. Maybe my expectations form my first Byatt, built up from others thoughts mainly on Possession, were too high, but I was left generally disappointed for all the reasons mentioned above.

I agree the characters of Dorothy and particularly Elsie rang true. Re the question of coping with sweeping change and the artisitic boheme, I can understand why that group survive well - they are seeing, responding to and instigating changes.

I've been struggling with the point of the novel, I think what would have been a fine novel about the impact of artist work on family life novel of the title got lost along the way, by a perhaps more ambitious pursuit of trying to turn it into a sweeping historical sociopolitical family saga - thinking Mafhouz's Cairo Trilogy, GGM's 100 Years of Solitude, Waugh's Brideshead Revisted and that fpr me didn't work. I absolutely agree passages were fine, and I actually like the trenches part listening to it on audio was most effective, but why it was there other than to kill of the generation she had invented in anther historical reality explained, I don't know


message 19: by Michael (last edited Sep 18, 2010 05:47AM) (new)

Michael (MichaelCanoeist) The banking Wellwoods were the most humane because they were the most responsible, as individuals. Wasn't that part of the equation, according to Byatt? The other part might be that those who most advertise their concern for society as a whole -- thinking of the Fabians -- showed the least concern for their own personal pieces of society.

Did that come through? I have to ask, because I was one of those who could not read the whole book. I was interested in Olive Wellwood as an imaginative recreation of E. Nesbit, but I found the writing somehow deadening, right from the get-go. The dialogue also gave me trouble. I tried jumping around to see if I would get caught up in the story further along, but didn't.

The "extra-textual" relationship I was unaware of was that Susan Byatt is Margaret Drabble's sister. I read that they are estranged from one another. (This has nothing whatever to do with this book; but I read a Drabble book years ago and found it tedious, too, in a different way. Curiously enough, because its scope was so small!)


message 20: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1375 comments Funny, I would have said the banking Wellwoods were the most humane because they were the least self-involved and the most capable of empathy. (I have not quite made up my mind about Prosper Cain, who seemed rather decent. But I got tired of reading about the petty politics of the museum & how they were going to rearrange the hand-made spoons, though....) Most of the adults, with their summer art camps and vague do-gooding, world-changing fancies, spent most of the time self-consciously proving how marvelous and right-thinking they were.

Gail, great comparison of the book with the visual arts of the period.

Anyone have any thoughts about Tom? I had a feeling he was supposed to be a key figure and symbolic as all get-out, and I just didn't get him.


message 21: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2074 comments Here is your absent discussion leader, just returned from Minnesota. I see you all did fine without me.

I seemed to have enjoyed the book more than the rest of you, but that is OK.

The incestuous theme seems to carry over into world politics of the time, too, with the Kaiser and the King of England both being descendants of Queen Victoria. I find the whole English-German theme to be fascinating. We have the art and politics of the time interwoven throughout the novel. Does Charles/Karl represent this theme?


message 22: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7176 comments I suppose it could. As we know Edward the VIII after abdicating his crown , had German sympathies in WWII.


message 23: by Mary Ellen (last edited Sep 20, 2010 12:07PM) (new)

Mary Ellen | 1375 comments I'm not sure Byatt had one character "represent" the theme of English-German connections. After all, C/K's whole immediate family was an English-German mix (and the most functional of all the families, as has been noted).

Of course, if C/K was supposed to have some symbolic significance, that would explain Byatt's choice to keep calling him "Charles/Karl" long after it was necessary to help her readers remember that C&K were the same person. This idiosyncratic use of dual names and her odd way of writing dialogue were further evidence that her editor (if she had one) was truly wimpy.


message 24: by Hazel (new)

Hazel | 363 comments Mary Ellen wrote: ".This idiosyncratic use of dual names and her odd way of writing dialogue were further evidence that her editor (if she had one) was truly wimpy. .."


Agreed. she really got carried away with that.


message 25: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1375 comments Sorry to double-post, but I was musing a bit more on the Anglo-German theme and wondered about two things.

First, the Boer War. Byatt wrote that this strained English/German relations a bit. Were the Boers of German descent? (For some reason, I thought they were Dutch. Maybe Deutsch?) If not, were the Germans critical because they thought the war an unnecessary imperialistic exercise? (If so, how ironic was that?)

Second, we've mentioned that Byatt brings in the 4 youngest boys -- Florian, Harry & the 2 Robins -- at the end, just to kill them off. If she were trying to give us a sense of how utterly wasteful WWI was, would it not have been more meaningful to her readers had she killed off characters we'd actually come to know? True, poor Geraint met a sorry end, but the young men we knew best, Philip, Julian & C/K, all came home wounded but alive. I hate to be callous, but I think it would have been a better choice to leave C/K actually dead - more poignant, plus I found the melodrama a bit taxing, coming so close to the end of so long a book. (This though something somewhat similar happened in my own family: a great-uncle at first falsely reported dead.)

In any event, all the Anglo-German references also inevitably cast this reader's mind ahead to WWII. Byatt's too, no doubt, and that is probably the reason she makes fleeting reference to the fact that Dorothy's real dad (Stern) is of Jewish descent. Clever on Byatt's part, or just one more thing she had to stuff into this book? I couldn't decide.


message 26: by Gail (new)

Gail | 295 comments Did anyone besides myself notice the incessant name-dropping not only of almost every notable person from the arts of the era, but also political movements, cultural mores, etc. Why was that, do you all think?

I did think about later German/British relations (no pun meant) while reading. However, I'm very sorry to say this, but it felt as though, as someone has mentioned, she wanted to stuff every single thing she could think of into this book. It just made for a mess that wasn't too readable.


message 27: by Barbara (last edited Sep 20, 2010 06:46PM) (new)

Barbara | 6308 comments I just finished the last word of this tonight and will be back to say more later. However, I absolutely loved the book. Of course, there are flaws. But, it felt to me that Byatt beautifully conveyed a time of great idealism and curiosity. This period at the turn of the 20th century reminds me of the 1960's when so many people thought they could learn about everything and change the world. This time, the surge was followed by WWI and so much of what they thought they could do came tumbling down. I liked seeing this period through the eyes of all of the groups that Byatt included. I've only read Possession, Angels & Insects and The Matisse Stories, but The Children's Book is my favorite of all of these.


TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments Barbara wrote: "I just finished the last word of this tonight and will be back to say more later. However, I absolutely loved the book. Of course, there are flaws. But, it felt to me that Byatt beautifully conv..."

Wow, I'm happy to hear you say The Children's Book is your favorite, Barbara. I adored Possession and Angels and Insects and I've been following this discussion, wondering if I should read The Children's Book. It sounded good, but I wondered if it could live up to her other works. I guess it can.

Sorry to digress, but the discussion is fascinating.

By the way, "Boer" is a Dutch surname. It's a very common name in South Africa, left over from the Dutch. It derives from the Dutch word for "farmer." The German for "farmer" is "Bauer."


message 29: by Hazel (last edited Sep 21, 2010 12:07AM) (new)

Hazel | 363 comments Gail wrote: "Did anyone besides myself notice the incessant name-dropping not only of almost every notable person from the arts of the era, but also political movements, cultural mores, etc. Why was that, do yo..."

My sense, Gail, is that Byatt was trying to make an exhaustive treatise on the history of the period. She covered social/political movements, developments in the arts, military history... You may notice that I called it a history lesson. I expect that it's quite accurate.


message 30: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7176 comments Hazel wrote:"You may notice that I called it a history lesson. I expect that it's quite accurate."



That was the feeling I came away with in reading the book. I liked it because I like history and Byatt covered quite a lot. She tweaked my interest enough so that I read more about the various themes in the book.


message 31: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer | 48 comments Our internet was down all of yesterday and I felt lost without all of you.

I think the English/German connections are interesting.

There was a lot of discussion in the book about class and the exclusionary nature of class and I think that once the war started we started to see that idea of exclusion at work in how the Basil Wellwoods were treated by "society".

I agree with those of you who felt that the Charles/Karl thing was a bit much after the first little while. I think it behooves a writer to believe that her readers can keep up with her.


message 32: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2074 comments Barbara wrote: "I just finished the last word of this tonight and will be back to say more later. However, I absolutely loved the book. Of course, there are flaws. But, it felt to me that Byatt beautifully conv..."

Barb,
I think you and I are in the minority here. I loved the book, too, in spite of its flaws.

Some of you called the book "stuffed" with facts and characters. I prefer the word "brimming". It seems a kinder word, and it seems to fit my feelings better than stuffed.

I am interested also in the titles to the various sections. 1) The Beginnings in which we learn about the characters 2) The Golden Age which deals with the explosion of art and industry and ideas 3) The Silver Age that Byatt calls "a new time, not a young time" and a perpetual childhood 4) The Age of Lead which pretty much wiped out a generation of European men and put an end to that perpetual Peter Pan-like childhood.


message 33: by Barbara (new)

Barbara | 6308 comments Jane, thank you for highlighting the titles of the sections. Somehow, I breezed right by those and they truly are meaningful.

Have any of you been in the Victoria & Albert Museum? It's an amazing place. I didn't expect to like it as much as I did, but the history that is conveyed from the stuff that people owned is fascinating. When they talked in the book about the controversy about how to display the objects, I groaned for Prosper Cain when his superior won and simply lined things up by date. That would kill the magic.


message 34: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1375 comments Jennifer: There was a lot of discussion in the book about class and the exclusionary nature of class and I think that once the war started we started to see that idea of exclusion at work in how the Basil Wellwoods were treated by "society".
Good point about the class references, Jennifer. I think Olive's "backstory" and Elsie's story really hit the class theme. But I think the harsh treatment Basil & Katarina (sp?) was not a class thing. It was an anti-German thing. After the Guns of August started firing, the propaganda war really ramped up and for the English (and Americans, and French...etc.), the cultured, educated Germans became the vicious Bosch who bayonetted Belgian babies and committed like atrocities. (Since there was no real reason to be fighting the war, it was important for the "common man" to really, really hate the "other side.")

Barbara: what did you think about the gulf between the "idealistic" era Byatt was portraying and the generally horrible behavior (at least toward their children...or the people who thought they were their children) of the alleged idealists?

MrsSeby, thanks for the Boer info.

One review I read pointed out Byatt's use of doubles (or more!) for most of her plot devices: two people commit suicide by walking into the same bit of ocean; two dads get a inappropriate with daughters; two young women move on up from poverty; two unmarried young women get pregnant. Taking a tip from Gail: is this mimicking the patterned designs that Philip (and, I guess, Morris et al.) favors?


message 35: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7176 comments Symmetry is pleasing to the eye, but is it really pleasing to the readers mind?


message 36: by Jennifer (last edited Sep 22, 2010 05:04AM) (new)

Jennifer | 48 comments Mary Ellen: I didn't mean to suggest that the Basil Wellwoods difficulties were about class but that there were parallels between the theme of class as seen through Olive and Elsie and the sense of nationalism and anti-German sentiment we see taking it's toll on the Wellwoods. Both involve excluding groups of people for things which they do not control.

There is a great sense in this novel that people aren't really in control of their own lives.


TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments You're welcome, Mary Ellen.

Barbara, I've been in the Victoria and Albert and I, too, didn't expect to like it as much as I did. History used to be something I wasn't much interested in, but I'm coming around. Hillary Mantel changed that for me.


message 38: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1375 comments Jennifer, I see what you mean in the parallels of prejudice v. nationality as well as by class. (Certainly Elsie had a real prejudice against anyone better-off than she was!)

It's true that things happened to some of the characters beyond their control, and that events on the world stage affected all of them profoundly. But in some ways, characters had a bit of control over their lives: I think Dorothy is the prime example of this, but Philip, Olive, Elsie, Florence, Imogen, Prosper, Hedda, Humphry all made decisions to shape their lives in certain ways. Tom and the Fludd guy too, of course, "took control" over their lives at the end.


message 39: by Sherry, Doyenne (last edited Sep 22, 2010 04:22PM) (new)

Sherry | 7882 comments I really liked this, too. I felt immersed in the art and the history and the families. I've just had time to come here and read the thread. I finished right before I went to Minneapolis and I hope having so much time elapse won't make me forget the ideas I wanted to address. There are so many huge themes; I'm better at talking about small pieces. I wondered what you all thought of The Boy Without A Shadow. Poor Tom. What would it mean to not have a shadow. Did his "story" predict him, or cause him? To me, not having a shadow means that you're invisible yourself. You don't have any effect on the world. What do you all think?


message 40: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2074 comments Sherry wrote: "I really liked this, too. I felt immersed in the art and the history and the families. I've just had time to come here and read the thread. I finished right before I went to Minneapolis and I hope ..."

Sherry,
I thought that not having a shadow meant that half of Tom was missing. The Tom of the story seemed to reflect the real Tom in that there seemed to be something missing from his life. He and Olive meant so much to each other that he felt betrayed when he was sent away to school. Then when he was abused by the other boys, he lost a chunk of himself. And I think that you are right. After he was older he was invisible to Olive. She was more engrossed in writing about the fictional Tom that in taking care of the real Tom. After his tree was chopped down and after his mother took his story away from him, he was lost. He was the boy who never grew up.


message 41: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1375 comments Jane & Sherry, thanks for your comments about Tom. Jane, as you summarized it, it makes so much sense. As I read the book though, Tom did not seem any more real than "Tom Underground." But maybe he was not "real" because so much had been taken from him.


message 42: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9581 comments It's interesting that when Wendy first meets Peter Pan (the boy who never grows up) he's lost his shadow and is trying to stick it back on.


message 43: by Barbara (last edited Sep 22, 2010 07:19PM) (new)

Barbara | 6308 comments Mary Ellen said: Barbara: what did you think about the gulf between the "idealistic" era Byatt was portraying and the generally horrible behavior (at least toward their children...or the people who thought they were their children) of the alleged idealists.

I thought that this relationship between Olive and Humphry and their children was fairly classic. Frequently, people who want to accomplish big things in the world miss what is happening right at home. The big ideals are appealing. The day to day work of living up to the needs of the people who love you is quite a different thing. This is one of the reasons that I try really hard not to idealize people whose work I admire. They can rarely live up to it.

Tom was such a tragedy for me. He started out as the one who was closest to Olive. They had a special connection and trust. But, she wasn't able to maintain what she built with him. She taught him to love the land as part of her political ideals. But, after giving him that basis, she broke with it to send him off to that atrocious school where he had none of the personal tools that he needed to cope. Survival there was iffy anyway, but Tom was doomed from the start. Olive had no idea what she was doing because she had never lived that life herself.


message 44: by Barbara (new)

Barbara | 6308 comments Excellent point, Ruth! Would the shadow make Peter real?

When Olive started selling the children's stories, it felt like she was selling her relationships with them. I thought that the others could cope, but, for Tom, it was the last straw to see it on the stage, probably in his view, perverted in comparison to his own vision. On the other hand, I'm trying to remember his reaction to reading the stories when she sent them to him at school. He seemed to cling to them and yet maybe doing it more for Olive than for himself.


message 45: by Hazel (last edited Sep 23, 2010 01:18AM) (new)

Hazel | 363 comments Barbara wrote: "Excellent point, Ruth! Would the shadow make Peter real?

When Olive started selling the children's stories, it felt like she was selling her relationships with them. I thought that the others ..."


As I recall. Barbara, at school, the stories were his only link to her, and to any kind of life of his own.

Jane wrote: "Sherry wrote: "I really liked this, too. I felt immersed in the art and the history and the families. I've just had time to come here and read the thread. I finished right before I went to Minneapo..."

I had similar ideas about Tom. I thought his suicide was inevitable, and I expected it long before it came.

You know, I detested Olive. Reading this discussion now, I'm finding it hard to remember her as an idealist, with big goals. I found her completely self-absorbed, with no sense of the value of her children, as individuals, nor of her relationships with them.


message 46: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7882 comments I didn't hate Olive. She had come from that coal-mining town and made herself into a children's author. Her imagination was what kept food on the table for all those people. She let herself get carried away, though, and didn't observe signs that were right in front of her. I really disliked her husband. He made no effort to support the family, and impregnated anything that was half-way attractive (as did Methley). Tom never grew up and suffered for it. Olive was able to live in the fantasy world and create stories out of it; Tom was abandoned there.


message 47: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7176 comments Sherry wrote: Olive was able to live in the fantasy world and create stories out of it; Tom was abandoned there.

That was my feelings also. Tom had stunted emotions and Olive nor his father could see it. Do you think Tom's transition happened with the debacle at school? Were all schools a nest of viper's with the weak getting eaten alive. It would make for interesting statistics don't you think?


message 48: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1375 comments When I was in high school, I read (and watched) Gone with the Wind, and I thought Scarlett O'Hara was a horrible person. My mother (a child of the Depression) commented, without Scarlett, they all would have starved. Sherry, thanks for pointing out that the same was true for Olive. Her waste-of-time husband decided to quit his bank job because of his integrity (a quality not much in evidence in his life otherwise!), and all the financial responsibility fell to Olive.

I'm with Hazel, though, in that I didn't see Olive as an idealist. She was something of a narcissist as well as a first-class survivor. Her beauty was frequently mentioned; that beauty helped her, and Violet, move up from their childhood poverty. But I think it also accustomed her to being admired without actually having to do anything admirable. At one point, Byatt mentions Olive's concern about her diminished beauty.

I thought "Tom Underground" was Olive's way of redeeming the tragic story of her younger brother (name escapes me), who wss so afraid of going into the mines, and who died in a mine accident (flooding, I think; a pretty horrible death). So she might have thought of it as her story more than Tom's (although Byatt alludes to Olive knowing she ought to prepare Tom for the shock of the play, and doesn't, out of lack of courage).


message 49: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2074 comments Mary Ellen wrote: "When I was in high school, I read (and watched) Gone with the Wind, and I thought Scarlett O'Hara was a horrible person. My mother (a child of the Depression) commented, without Scarlett, they all..."

Mary Ellen,
That is a good point about Olive's brother. I had forgotten about him. The story seems to combine the fears of both Tom and Petey(?), I guess.


message 50: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2074 comments I was looking through my notes that I took on the book, but I couldn't find the page I wanted to mention. Somewhere, near the beginning, Byatt lists may of the acts of terror that were committed in England in the 1890s. I was amazed at the long list. Another thing I learned from the historical parts of the novel was that the Kaiser expected the war not to happen. The history of this whole era is fascinating.


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