I have been a great fan of A S Byatt’s books ever since discovering her writing in the early 1980s first reading her initial “Frederica” novel The Virgin In The Garden. She blew me away then and still continues to do so.
Over the past three weekends I have been making my leisurely way through The Children’s Book, A S Byatt’s new novel. I finished it last Sunday, though I wanted it to last forever.
The Children’s Book is a wonderful, richly textured, multi layered reading experience where one metaphorically wallows joyously in the historical setting, following the fortunes of four families and their friends and associates - a huge cast of characters in fact. It is up there with her best work, and may be her best book yet. If it doesn’t win any major prizes, one can only wonder at the stupidity and lack of taste of prize judges.
A meticulously researched period novel, it opens in the late Victorian period and follows the lives of the Wellwood, Cain and Fludd families through to World War 1 – approximately 25 years.
It is a fascinating period, one that is rarely considered these days, but Byatt certainly illustrates that the late Victorian and Edwardian era was not without interesting events. She covers the political and artistic movements of the time and cleverly interweaves her characters lives into the framework. There are Pre Raphaelites, the Fabian Society, Anarchists and Socialists, the Art Nouveau movement, Symbolists, German Expressionism and Suffragettes to name a few of the major strands.
Central to the novel is Olive Wellwood, who is a writer of children’s books and mother to seven children who may or may not be fathered by her husband, Humphrey Wellwood or even born to her. Olive writes somewhat sinister fairy tales and also authors a separate tale for each of the children to which she adds additional adventures through their growing years.
The title of the book says it all. The theme of children’s books runs through the entire novel. Famous children’s novels of the time, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows and E Nesbit’s fantasies especially, haunt the novel. The Children’s Book itself is not by any means meant for children to read. It is intelligent, mature and thoroughly adult.
The Humphrey Wellwoods lead an idyllic sort of hippy existence inhabiting a house called Todefright (delightful name) in the countryside. Humphrey’s brother, the banker Basil lives in London, but the families are close. Close neighbours to Todefright are the Fludds, headed by the formidable Benedict Fludd, a brilliant but erratic master potter, who dominates his family of two daughters Pomona and Imogen, and son, Geraint. Seraphita his wife, a former artist’s model for a Pre Raphaelite painter, I imagine looking like Jane (nee Burden) Morris. In fact the female Fludds are constantly defined in Pre-Raphaelite terms – in their names, clothing, and appearance, they all reference art works of the period. The other family, Prosper Cain with his son Julian and daughter Florence become acquainted with the Wellwoods early in the novel when Olive visits the V & A Museum where Prosper is curator of the precious metals collection. This visit also introduces Phillip Warren, a working class boy with artistic ambitions who becomes a protégé of Benedict Fludd. My favourite character is Phillip’s sister Elsie – a self made woman with great esprit.
Byatt uses her comprehensive research to explore all sorts of topics as is her usual want, and her fascination with fairy tales is very much catered to in this novel, with some dazzling stories interspersed throughout the novel.
She is a beautiful prose stylist and I love the way she uses colour. She does this in all her novels and it makes them glow with meaning. The colours of The Children’s Book are predominantly Pre Raphaelite hues. If you’ve ever seen a Pre Raphaelite painting in the original you’ll understand. I feel like visiting the National Gallery here in Melbourne to see their collection again, such was the impact of Byatt’s book on me.
My review cannot do justice to The Children’s Book as I am as usual lost for words, but there are many other reviews out there (see below). Or don’t bother with the reviews, just get yourself a copy of the book and read it – it’s a fantastically good book, quite the best I have read this year. Well, equal to, or just as good as John Crowley’s Four Freedoms.
A tip: You can buy a hard covered first edition of The Children’s Book on Amazon UK at a cheaper price than you would pay for the paperback.
I also recommend listening to Ramona Koval interviewing A S Byatt on The Book Show on ABC National Radio. You can read the transcript online, but you really should download the audio file and listen to A S Byatt herself.