'The Children's Book': A.S. Byatt's opus of the Edwardian age
"The Children's Book" is English novelist A.S. Byatt's richly detailed saga of a free-spirited English family in the Edwardian age.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Children's Book'
by A.S. Byatt
Knopf, 688 pp., $26.95
There is a story in "The Children's Book," and it is a good one, but the reader must persevere to find it. In a style that can only be described as über-rococo, A.S. Byatt has brought to life the Edwardian age, that period named for King Edward VII, preceded by the Victorian era and followed by World War I, and there are generous slices of both those times as well. Nothing gets by Ms. Byatt. This novel is as lushly detailed as "Possession: A Romance," the 1990 Booker Prize winner which tells a richly textured story, through poems, journals and letters, of two academics in search of the buried truth about two Victorian poets.
In "The Children's Book" there are disquisitions on German puppetry, the building of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Fabian Society, Women's Suffrage, Midsummer's Eve celebrations, the art and politics of Germany, France and England, to name just a few, and finally, the end of all frivolity with the beginning of World War I.
Olive Wellwood, the center of the tale, is a children's author styled somewhat after Edith Nesbit of "The Railway Children" fame. Writing at the time of "Peter Pan" and Kenneth Grahame, she is the mother of seven children and nearly the sole support of her brood, despite her loving husband, Humphry's, financial forays. They are both free-spirited and freethinking members of The Fabian Society, a British intellectual socialist movement. Olive has created a book for each of her children, a special volume unique to each child's temperament and personality; indeed, as their lives unfold, the books become eerily self-fulfilling prophecies.
The lives of each child, cousins and friends are examined. One of the tenets of The Fabian Society is that children are people and ought to be taken seriously. One daughter strives to become a doctor, another a suffragette; Tom, Olive's favored child, wants only to track foxes through the woods; Phillip, an adopted son, is a boy saved by Olive from dire poverty and is now an aspiring potter; cousin Charles/Karl, enamored of German revolutionaries, flirts with danger. These lives and others are told in intimate detail, interwoven with events of the day, both large and small, in the world beyond Todefright, the Wellwood home.
Fairy tales abound, parties of grandiose dimension are given, flirtations begin and end — and not just between and among the younger generation. That fact is the underside of the story. In the face of this "Edwardian Summer," a halcyon time, family secrets swirl around. Little by little they are unearthed: surprising, sad and painful.
Byatt has painstakingly recreated a time, not with broad strokes but with each political theory, character, field of flowers and event richly and carefully embroidered and re-embroidered. Every stitch of this tapestry is connected to the whole, all coming to a head with the devastation of World War I, when all the young men went off to war and the world was forever changed.
This magnum opus was one of six finalists for the 2009 Man Booker Prize (won by Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall"). Let us hope that this is Ms. Byatt's magnum opus because if her next opus is any more magnum, this gentle reader will not be able to lift it.