The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

The Children’s Book – A S Byatt

The Booker shortlist for 2009 featured an unusually large quota of historical fiction.  While this caused consternation in some quarters, it was fine by me and I’ll be working my way through The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters), The Quickening Maze (Adam Foulds) and Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel) in months to come.  It was The Children’s Book by A S Byatt though, which caught me eye; partly because I thoroughly enjoyed Byatt’s previous Booker winner – Possession – but mostly because the fairy tale / children’s lit angle piqued my interest, suggesting the possibility of overlap with more speculative works.  Could Byatt – one of our foremost living authors – have written a nominated book which falls right into the Jub Jub’s literary fantasy niche?

The beautiful cover art (see diagram) depicts an ornament – supposedly on display at the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1900 – ‘in the form of a turquoise woman’s bust rising out of the mouth of a long, long dragonfly, it’s narrowing gold body studded with shimmering blue and green jewels’. Intricate and delicate, it is appropriately representative of the Victorian artistic age, where every-day items were still painstakingly hand-produced, with the emphasis on decorative abundance and attention to detail.  Byatt, it seems, set out to write the Children’s Book with the same ethos: 600 plus pages of diligently researched, finely wrought prose, embossed with a wealth of period flourishes.

So this isn’t a light read and the commitment requirement is leveraged by the absence of any real plot or lead character to drive the narrative.  The Children’s Book is more of an ensemble piece, charting the lives of various extended families across a few decades, spanning the end of the nineteenth century.  The families in question are loosely related by political and social convictions – an assortment of fabians, socialists and anarchists – by libertarian lifestyles and a shared passion for artistic pursuits.  These pursuits take a number of forms: pottery, jewellery, antique collections, theatre (writing and performing) and literature.  Gatherings usually involve informal performances – of live actors or puppets – group creative sessions, topical lectures and philosophical discussions.

The pastoral setting – family homes are predominantly rambling country houses in the Kent downs and marshes – and inspiring pass-times, combine to create seemingly idyllic conditions for the up-bringing of the children, who together form the focus of the book: Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis and Hedda Wellwood, who’s mother Olive is a successful children’s writer and who’s father Humphry works in the Bank of England; their cousins Charles and Griselda Wellwood; Julian and Florence Cain, who’s father Prosper is the Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum; Gerraint, Imogen and Pomona Fludd, who’s father Benedict is an eminent, if rather eccentric, potter; and Phillip and Elsie Warren, who’ve left their native Staffordshire to work as apprentice and house-keeper for Benedict.

It turns out that life is far from perfect for these privileged youngsters.  Byatt has said that she wanted to explore the noted phenomenon of miserable childhoods for the real offspring of children’s authors; how the writer’s innate immaturity and devotion to work, can lead to damaged relationships with their own progeny, who won’t stay true to their parent’s generalised, projected image of a child.  A large early section of The Children’s Book, sub-titled The Golden Age, recounts the children’s early formative years, before the turn of the century.  Kenneth Graham’s book of that name is famous for its depiction of children at odds with adults, who have grown-up, assumed responsibilities and forgotten what it was like to be young.  Byatt’s golden age turns this idea on its head: the adults are portrayed as ‘grown-ups who don’t want to grow up’; while the children rebel against this, by taking on responsibilities and setting themselves goals, be they educational or work related.  From the start, it’s clear that the children in the Children’s Book aren’t simply those under the age of 16.

At the same time, children’s books – fairy stories, as read by the youngsters, written by Olive and performed by everyone – permeate the text.  Olive writes a private, never-ending tale for each of her children, which draw heavily on classic precedents: Andersen, the brothers Grimm, Shakespeare.  Some of these tales are reproduced in full in the text, an echo of Byatt’s approach in Possession, albeit less prolifically and without the narrative-driving significance.  Children’s literature of a more contemporary – to the period – nature, is also prevalent: Kenneth Graham, J M Barrie, Hope Mirrlees, Lewis Carroll (hurrah!) and E Nesbitt (on whom Olive is loosely based) all make an appearance of one form or another.  Less explicitly, fairy story themes and tropes abound in the protagonists themselves.  Theses will be written about the parallels between these characters and children’s archetypes.  No doubt I haven’t picked up on half of the allusions but I did spot a Peter Pan, two Cinderella’s (depending on whether you prefer the English or German version), a Dick Whittington, some Babes in the Wood and most of the characters from a Midsummer Night’s Dream (or at least a large pot of love potion).  There’s also a multitude of less specific fairytale refrains: changelings, suicides, wicked step-parents, run-aways.  The list goes on and the combined effect is to turn an already dense text into a super-rich blend of historical, social and literary themes; some referred to explicitly but many more buried in the subtext, for the inquisitive (and knowledgeable) reader to unearth.

To give just one example Tom Wellwood, Olive’s favourite and the subject of her lengthiest private work – Tom Underground, a story in which the protagonist loses his shadow and must descend into the underworld to recover it; itself a reflection on childhood lost – rejects his peers’ desire to get on in the world.  Tom’s early experiences of boarding school are far from pleasant and he soon drops out, setting the tone for the rest of his life as increasingly, he withdraws into himself and the natural world he loves; ‘there just – simply – to take all this in, and know it.’  Tom of course is the Peter Pan of the book but he becomes more like a Lost Boy as the book progresses, unwilling to engage with the adult world but unable to hold on to that nostalgic life as a carefree youngster.  His mother’s inability to see beyond her glorified image of Tom and the story she is writing for him, alienates him further. ‘She could not, and did not, imagine any of the inhabitants of this walled garden wanting to leave it, or change it, though her stories knew better.’

This phase of later childhood – adolescence loosely – is documented in the second section of the book, sub-titled The Silver Age.  While Tom’s story takes an exceptional turn, the underlying theme: youngsters growing up, following their own path and becoming ever more remote from their parents, recurs throughout the book.  Byatt makes the link explicit by reproducing in full, one of Olive’s short stories – The Shrubbery – in which an errant child – Pig – finds a whole world of little people in his back-garden and chooses to stay rather than return to his old life.  Pig promises to visit his mother from time-to-time but his mother knows that she has lost the child she once knew.  This is an inversion of conventional fairytale narrative, where for instance, Dorothy seeks desperately for a way back to Kansas. For me though, the inversion speaks a greater truth: that each new step a child takes in life, pulls them further away from their parents and their past, however much both parties attempt to resist.

I’ve focussed on the children’s angle but there are many more facets to The Children’s Book; from interpreting the golden age as referring to nostalgic yearnings for a simpler, more bucolic life, to recording the birth of many of the concepts and ideologies which dominate the world we live in today. Electricity is the great new wonder at the Paris exhibition; there is debate, between Humphry and his brother, about the success of the gold standard, the introduction of the silver standard and the workings of capital and high finance in an increasingly globalised world (gold and silver, another recurring motif); we also witness some of the earliest stirrings of the Labour and women’s suffrage movements.  Byatt recounts all this, as the narrative demands, in passing and from a period perspective, the reader is left to make the modern day associations.  Near the end of the book, many of these thematic strands are thrown into sharp relief, by the advent of the First World War.

Byatt has said that she didn’t write the Children’s Book with the war in mind, instead she created the characters and their lives and eventually, war arrived.  For the reader however, it’s clear that this is where the characters are heading – history dictates – and there is an increasing sense of events-overshadowed-by-impending-hostilities, as the novel progresses.  When the war does arrive, as the book reaches its conclusion, it is all the more shocking because we have spent so much time with these characters and come to know them so well.  Its impact is of course immediately sobering, to children and adult-children alike, obliterating any lingering attempts to keep the real-world at bay.  This section of the book – The Lead Age – in contrast to the rest, is told in short percussive bursts and in a very matter-of fact style, which brings to mind the way in which fairy stories are told: grandmothers are eaten, true mothers die, children are left to fend for themselves but no emotion is attached to the events as the tale is told.  To paraphrase Byatt herself from a recent interview: this happens, then this happens, then this.

This surely reflects the sense of numbness and emotional detachment that individuals must feel when confronted by such horrific and over-powering events; perhaps fairy tale language ultimately derives from a time when life was considerably more harsh, violent and short.  From a narrative perspective it makes for a fittingly climactic, if dreadful, denouement to a book about childhoods lost and adult attempts to hide from the real world. But a part of me felt that the subtle complexity of the book’s message was overpowered by the extreme events at the very end.  After all, lives lived in comparatively peaceable times still entail facing up to the consequences of birth, growth, loss and death; whether these come through extraordinarily violent means or otherwise.  Either way though, it’s profound and thought provoking stuff.

Has Byatt written a book for the Jub Jub’s niche?  Well, in the most obvious sense, no.  Literary and fairy-tale elements remain off-screen; either in books and imaginations, or on stage.  There’s no cross-over between the worlds – Alice In Wonderland style – no moments of magic realism or suspended disbelief.  That said, the Children’s Book exudes classical literature and story-telling from every pore; multilayered and multifaceted, there’s plenty to keep the thoughtful reader occupied, making links and spotting themes, well beyond the turn of the final page.  It is also a richly detailed, thoroughly researched and lovingly embroidered evocation of life in the decades leading up to the First World War.  It meanders at times and gives away few clues en-route, regarding its destination but by the end, I felt almost overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of ideas, in plain view and below the surface.  Undoubtedly a great work of literature – Wolf Hall has some way to go to justify its superior claim to the 2009 Booker prize – but also a work about literature of a speculative nature: myths and stories told for generations to keep the dark at bay, but still surprisingly relevant to lives lived a century ago and ultimately to our lives today.  If that’s not literary fantasy, I don’t know what is.


February 9, 2010 - Posted by | Reviews |

1 Comment »

  1. […] – and described in a matter of fact way.  The theme and style invite comparison with the Children’s Book but where Byatt remains steadfastly in the real world, Valente crosses the border into Faery and […]

    Pingback by In The Night Garden – Catherynne M Valente « The Jub Jub Bird | April 9, 2010 | Reply

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