The Children’s Storyteller’s Children

Born Antonia Susan Drabble, A.S. Byatt is a renowned literary critic and scholar. Apart from being a prominent literary scholar, Byatt is also an esteemed novelist. Long-regarded as a critic and scholar by the time she published her works, it wasn’t until her third novel, The Virgin in the Garden (1978), that she made her long-awaited breakthrough. At this juncture, the reading public started recognizing her capabilities as a novelist. More success ensued in 1990 when her novel Possession: A Romance won the Booker Prize; it was her most successful and renowned work. Her prolific career also featured a plethora of accolades from various parts of the world, including a slew of literary awards and a long list of honorary degrees.

As a writer, Byatt is renowned for her works of historical fiction that explored different historical figures and events. One of these works is her 2009 book, The Children’s Book. The story commenced in late Victorian England, with the opening sequence set in South Kensington Museum (the present-day Victoria and Albert Museum) where Major Prosper Cain was the curator. He also served as the “Special Keeper of Precious Metals for the Prince Consort Gallery”. When the readers meet him, Olive Wellwood, a popular children’s story writer, paid him a visit; she is also the heart of the story. As described by Byatt, Olive was the author of “a great many tales, for children and adult” and is also an “authority on British Fairy Lore.” Olive and Major Cain have never met before but she sought his assistance for a story she was working on. Olive brought along with her Tom, her oldest born. While the adults go about their business, Tom joined Julian, Major Cain’s son, who toured him around the Museum.

During their tour, Tom uncovered the presence of Philip Warren. Same age as Tom and Julian, Philip has been living incognito in the subterranean parts of the museum, unnoticed until he was unveiled by Tom. While being interrogated by the adults, it was revealed that Philip ran away from his family in Burslem. Unlike the affluent Cains and Wellwoods, Philip was born into the working class and, with his father’s untimely demise, he was forced to work in the pottery to support his siblings. He didn’t mind sleeping in the crypt, in the company of bones as the place provided him the solitude he was yearning for. He was also talented, a good drawer with keen attention to detail. In awe of his talent, Olivia invited Philip to their Kentish Weald home, called Todefright, to celebrate Midsummer Eve along with the rest of her family. With no other recourse, Philip agreed.

“She didn’t like to be talked about. Equally, she didn’t like not to be talked about, when the high-minded chatter rushed on as though she was not there. There was no pleasing her, in fact. She had the grace, even at eleven, to know there was no pleasing her. She thought a lot, analytically, about other people’s feelings, and had only just begun to realize that this was not usual, and not reciprocated.”

~ A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

An Eclectic Set of Characters

Staying true to its title, the story involved a vast cast of children; after all, it was a “children’s book”. Todefright was teeming with children as Philip was introduced to the Wellington brood; Olive would bear a total of nine children, two of whom passed away. The Wellington children were an eclectic mix of varying personalities. Dorothy, the eldest Wellwood daughter, was of a similar disposition as Philip’s; he was understandably more reserved. Of the daughters, Dorothy was the most serious and tenacious. Phyllis, on the other hand, was Dorothy’s antithesis, shallower. while her older sister dreamt of becoming a physician, Phyllis preferred keeping house. The rest of the Kent Wellwood is comprised of Hedda, Florian, Robin, and Harry.

Byatt introduced London Wellwoods, Charles/Karl, and Griselda, the children of Basil, Humphry’s younger brother, and Katharina Wildvogel Wellwood, a wealthy German heiress. A seemingly unwilling participant, Philip was caught in the whirlwind of the Wellwood household; his world was inevitably expanding beyond his imagination. With the turn of each chapter, a new character was introduced, among them the Fludds. Due to Philip’s talent in pottery, he was sent to Dungeness, to the Purchase House, the dilapidated home of the Fludds. The patriarch, Benedict Fludd, a master potter lauded for his unmatched talent, was to be Philip’s mentor. Benedict and Seraphita had three children: Geraint, Imogen, and Pomona. It was in the Purchase House that Elsie was able to track down her brother. Like Philip, she fled from home following the demise of their mother.

From the twilight years of the 19th century until the First World War, the story tracked the story of these children and several others they encountered. Equally fascinating and vast as the children were the set of adult characters. Like the children, the adults and their varying personalities provided distinct textures to the story. Olive was the initial backbone of the story but it was her sister, Violet Grimwith who acted as the emotional backbone of Olive’s children. Like Philip, the sisters were born into destitution and trauma, growing up in the coal mines. Benedict, while talented, was an eccentric character while his wife was addicted to laudanum and spent her days doing embroideries. Joining the mixes are tutors, Fabian scholars, and a German puppeteer and his family.

Arts and Crafts

The Children’s Book is a multilayered story that myriad subjects and themes that it has grappled with. Arts and crafts were amongst the most prevalent themes in the story. Writing takes the center stage, with It Olive drawing inspiration from her disadvantaged childhood for her fairy stories and folktales. She also started working on a story for each of her children. These stories were boundless, infinitely expanding as the children grew. Extracts of some of her stories accentuated the novel. We read of rat-like creatures snatching the shadows of babies in their cribs. There was also the story of a girl who imprisoned a group of miniature human beings in her dollhouse; the girl was also incarcerated by a larger girl. These stories provided a distinct layer to the story sans obscuring or waylaying the main storyline.

“She thought about the relation between readers and writers. A writer made an incantation, calling the reader into the magic circle of the world of the book. With subtle words, a writer enticed a reader to feel his or her skin prickle, his or her lips open, his or her blood race. But a writer did this on condition that the reader was alone with printed paper and painted cover. What were you meant to feel – what she was meant to feel – when the orginals of the evanescent paper persons were only to a solidly present in flesh and bone and prosaic clothing? A gingery tweed jacket, a faded cotton skirt with lupins on it, and an elastic waist that clumped oddly?”

~ A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

Olive acted as Byatt’s conduit. Through her, Byatt dwelt on children’s literature of the time, hence, the appearance of prominent children’s story writers such as J.M. Barrie, Edith Nesbit, and Kenneth Grahame. Nesbit’s family, in particular, was an inspiration for the Wellwoods. The relationship between the reader and the writer was explored while Byatt astutely probed further into the motivations for and the process of writing children’s literature, particularly during the transition from the Victorian to Edwardian era. Byatt opined that the greatest writings of the period were written for children but can also be read by adults. Furthermore, the idea for writing the novel was born out of Byatt’s desire to explore the impact of writing children’s stories on the writers’ own children. As for her own children, Byatt was referred to by her penname rather than more endearing terms such as mother.

Other forms of arts and crafts permeated the story. The creative processes of puppetry and pottery were described in intricate detail. There were references to the theater and artworks. The novel was brimming with descriptions of art exhibitions, puppet shows, and craft camps while the readers also encounter different artists. As we read about the children’s growth, we read of how the craft of these artists has shaped them and their ideas of the world; the artists have different views of their craft. There were artists who were reserved and used their craft as an escape. There were those who masqueraded as artists in order to earn a living. There were also those who were eccentric and chaotic, almost mad scientist-like. There were also those who were indulgent, fully aware of their craft.

Family Dynamics

The seemingly idyllic lives of the Wellwood children belie the dark shadows that were lurking in the corners. The novel grappled with several subjects prevalent in the ambit of the home, in alignment with the writer’s intention. As family dynamics take the fore, it was apparent that not one family was picture perfect as dysfunctional families abounded throughout the story. There were parents who were constantly arguing. The men were adulterous or abusive or both. The women were incompetent with compunction for tactlessness. The adults were unreliable and, oftentimes, selfish. There was inherent favoritism in some of the households. The self-indulgence of the adults contributed to the growing chasm between them and their children. In a cathartic moment towards the end of the story, some parents learned how their children perceived them.

As the rift between parents and children grew wider, some of the children fled from their turbulent abodes. There were some who, like Peter Pan, refused to grow up. Because of the favoritism that was subtle but prevalent, some of the children sought love in other avenues. The story also examined the relationships between siblings, while unspooling their relationships with the other children. There were inappropriate relationships, some almost semi-incestuous, which resulted in illegitimate births and unwanted pregnancies. Not everything was as rosy or as transparent as it seemed. Secrets, including those buried by time, jealousy, and hypocrisy abounded.

“Potters, like gravediggers, are marked by clay. We work with the cold stuff of Earth which we refine by beating and mixing, form with our fingers and the movement of our feet and then submit to the hazards of the furnace. We take the mould we are made of and mould it to the forms our minds see inside our skulls – always remembering that earth is earth, and will take only those forms proper to its nature. I hope to show you that those forms are infinitely more extensive than most people imagine – though infintie, as earth is infinite.”

~ A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

As the individual strands collide, clash, intercept, and overlap, a plethora of seminal subjects were underscored by the novel. Beyond family and the arts, identity was a prevalent subject. Some of the children, particularly the girls, grew up with no preconceptions of their bodies. While some wanted to epitomize “Englishness”, some children wanted to ditch it. The search for identity then takes a plenitude of shapes. It was not limited to the future that the children envisioned for themselves. Identity was inevitably anchored to the past and to their origins. Gender and sexuality were two subjects inevitably underscored in relation to the exploration of identity.

History and Social Reforms

At its heart, The Children’s Book was a work of historical fiction with historical events such as the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 and the First World War providing contexts. The Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal, was repeatedly mentioned. The novel was graced by the presence of writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, and Rudyard Kipling. However, the more prominent elements were the social movements that were shaking the ground as the Victorian era transitioned to the Edwardian era. Different cultural movements that were shaping the era formed an integral part of the story; these movements also played seminal roles in molding the children’s personalities.

Of these cultural movements, the rise of Fabianism was vividly explored in the story. It paved the way for the discourse on badly needed social reforms. Social concerns such as sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution, women’s rights, and women trafficking were underscored by the novel. Another seminal cultural movement explored in the story was the rise of feminism and the increasing call for equal rights and women’s rights to vote. This was a salient part of the story as the daughters were shackled by archaic ideologies. This discussion between two of the children summarizes the women’s fate: “It is different for women. There’s this huge thing coming – getting married – all the lace veils and stuff, as Mrs. Elton said – and then what? Choosing patterns, and menus, and telling servants what to do, and worrying that they won’t and can’t do it. What I’m trying to say is you can’t plan a future without making a decision about all that – which is hard to do, in the abstract.”

The daughters of the novel were raised believing that marriage was their means to an end, that it is their ultimate destination. Their role is limited to organizing dances and living the romanticized realities of prose. Overall, women struggled with the lack of opportunities as their choices were limited by the patriarchal society. Nonetheless, the novel did not run out of strong independent women. In Dorothy, we see a woman who overcame society’s prejudices to achieve her dreams. In Elsie, we see the portrait of a woman who fought against the odds, such as poverty, to pursue her dreams. Hedda, meanwhile, joined the Fabian movement and became a suffragette.

“Part of her wanted simply to sit and stare out of the window, at the lawn, flaky with sodden leaves, and the branches with yellow leaves, or few, or none, she thought, taking pleasure at least in Shakespeare’s rhythm, but also feeling old. She took pleasure, too, in the inert solidity of glass panes and polished furniture and rows of ordered books around her, and the magic trees of life woven in glowing colours on the rugs at her feet.”

~ A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

Labyrinthine Masterpiece

The convergence of different subjects and the cast and diverse set of characters made up for a spellbinding read that only Byatt can conceive. The Children’s Book, with all its details and the vast territory it has cast its net on, was certainly an ambitious book. It has a lush tapestry, the finest qualities of which were carefully and dexterously woven together by Byatt’s masterful writing. She had the knack for reeling in the readers with her wealth of information. The arts, from the simple stageplays to the elaborate theatrical performances, were riveting because of the descriptive quality of Byatt’s writing. Her writing made the readers experience firsthand these different forms of arts and crafts. But even the most mundane of objects such as ceramics, pieces of clothing, meals, and modes of transport came alive because Byatt’s writing captured their contours vividly.

But what made the novel compelling was also the attributes that were the book’s undoing. The plethora of subjects it has grappled with also made up for an unwieldy reading experience. As the story moved forward, the main plotline was muddled by the vast set of characters and the plethora of subjects that were constantly piling up. With the storylines meandering, some were left unresolved or were resolved unsatisfactorily. While the different storylines individually absorbing, downsizing would have tightened the novel’s looser parts without adversely affecting its overall message. Else, a couple more chapters to see through the resolution of these storylines would have also been a viable alternative.

For all its fault, The Children’s Book was a spellbinding book. It was labyrinthine as it was absorbing. Losing one’s self in its maze is a literary treat. Byatt gifted literature with a story that captured the transition between the Victorian and Edwardian periods. It was a time marked by cultural and social movements. The intersections of these movements were vividly captured through the stories of the Wellington, Fludd, Cain, and Warren children. At the same time, we read about a myriad of subjects and themes, including the intricacies and complications of families, the place of arts and crafts in our lives, the sensitivities of identity and sexuality, and the rising consciousness of the role and rights of women.

Also playing a seminal role in the story is the exploration of the impact of children’s literature, and the arts in general, on the readers, the writers, and the artists’ children. With its lush tapestry and diverse cast, it was an unconventional children’s story but it was their story nonetheless. Shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize and the winner of the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, The Children’s Book was a reiteration of the power of Byatt’s skills as a storyteller.

“What one gives to one’s art is taken out of the life, this is so. One gives the energy to the figures. It is one’s energym but also kinetic. Who is more real to me, the figures in the box in my head or the figures on the streets?”

~ A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book
Rating

77%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

A.S. Byatt first caught my attention about four years ago. Back then, I barely had any iota of who she was. I only knew of two things. One of her novels won the Booker Prize and some of her works were listed as part of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Luckily, I had a copy of Possession: A Romance Story, the aforementioned Booker Prize-winning book. It took me some time to warm up to the story but once I did, I started appreciating Byatt’s prose and wanted to explore her prose more. It took almost four years later before I finally had the opportunity to make good on this promise. Early this year, I was able to obtain a copy of The Children’s Book, and, without more ado, I immersed myself in the story although I was a bit daunted at first by the book’s thickness. I am not one to buckle down to a challenge; I especially like lengthy books.

Like with Possession, I had a slow start with The Children’s Book. I was able to overcome this but a new challenge presented itself: the book was a wealth of ideas and information. At times, these ideas had tenuous connections, thus, they muddled the plot. With its diverse cast of characters and endless plot arcs, it was almost Dickensian in scope. It was a labyrinth. But despite these challenges, I rather liked the story, strangely enough. The wealth of information and Byatt’s prose reeled me in. I guess what many pundits have said is true. Byatt’s prose is an acquired taste. Nonetheless, I can’t wait to read more of her works. Her Frederica Potter quartet comes in highly recommended it seems.

Book Specs

Author: A.S. Byatt
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Publishing Date: 2009
Number of Pages: 615
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

Olive Wellwood is a famous writer, interviewed with her children gathered at her knee. For each of them she writes a separate private book, bound in different colours and placed on a shelf. In their rambling house near Romney Marsh they play in a storybook world – but their lives, and those of their rich cousins, children of a city stockbroker, and their friends, the son and daughter of a curator at the new Victoria and Albert Museum, are already inscribed with mystery. Each family carries its own secrets.

Into their world comes a young stranger, a working-class boy from the potteries, drawn by the beauty of the Museum’s treasures. And in midsummer a German puppeteer arrives, bringing dark dramas. The world seems full of promise but the calm is already rocked by political differences, by Fabian arguments about class and free love, by the idealism of anarchists from Russia and Germany. The sons rebel against their parents’ plans; the girls dream of independent futures, becoming doctors or fighting for the vote.

This vivid, rich and moving saga is played out against the great, rippling tides of the day, taking us from the Kent marshes to Paris and Munich, and the trenches of the Somme. Born at the end of the Victorian era, growing up in the golden summers of Edwardian times, a whole generation grew up unaware of the darkness ahead. In their innocence, they were betrayed unintentionally by the adults who loved them. In a profound sense, this novel is indeed the children’s book.

About the Author

To learn more about Dame Antonia Susan Byatt, or more popularly known as A.S. Byatt, click here.