A literary tapestry
In her latest, A.S. Byatt weaves together a multitude of characters, ideas, and fabricated texts
Imagine that you are climbing a tower. The steps spiral round, broad and shallow, so that you climb without effort, pausing often to look out of the windows, which show the surrounding countryside from many different and fascinating angles. Eventually, you reach the top and are rewarded with an exhilarating panorama, from the nearest oak to the farthest lake. This is how I felt reading A.S. Byatt’s prodigious new novel, “The Children’s Book.’’
Antonia Byatt first came to the attention of most American readers in 1990 with the publication of “Possession.’’ She had at that time already written a number of wonderful novels and works of criticism. Since then she has written many more, but “The Children’s Book’’ will undoubtedly be compared most often to “Possession’’ because of the scale of the enterprise, the historical setting, and the deft intertwining of fabricated texts. In “Possession,’’ for example, Byatt included a narrative poem, and in “The Children’s Book,’’ she includes stories written by one of the novel’s characters, children’s writer Olive Wellwood.
One of the significant pleasures of “The Children’s Book’’ is also what makes it hardest to summarize: The novel has no main character, no hero or heroine. Instead, Byatt follows four families and numerous minor characters from the summer of 1895 to the summer of 1919. In a recent interview she remarked that “the minor characters became major characters when the book turned its gaze on them.’’ The result is a richly peopled narrative that encompasses an unusual breadth of artistic, intellectual, social, and political concerns as the book also turns its gaze on children’s literature, pottery, Fabianism, the suffragist movement, sexual mores, banking, politics, and the roles of women and artists.
Woven throughout, both a part of and a comment on the so-called real world, are motifs from fairy tales: lost children, changelings, sleeping beauties, two versions of Cinderella, secret rooms, mistaken identities, underground kingdoms, and surprising transformations. In researching the novel, Byatt made a discovery that seems emblematic of this weaving: During World War I soldiers named trenches and redoubts after children’s books: “Peter Pan Trench,’’ “Hook Copse.’’
The “Children’s Book’’ opens in June 1895 when two teenage boys, the beautiful Tom Wellwood and the sharp-faced Julian Cain, discover a third, sketching in the South Kensington Museum. Philip Warren has run away from the potteries in the Midlands where he used to work and has taken up residence in the crypt of the museum because he wants “to make something.’’ It is his good fortune that Olive Wellwood is visiting the museum that day, searching for an artifact she can use in a new book. On the basis of Philip’s faltering explanations and brilliant drawings, she invites him to Todefright, the Kentish farmhouse where she, her husband, Humphrey, and sister, Violet, live with their many children. (Later we will learn why Olive is particularly susceptible to Philip’s situation.) The Wellwoods are getting ready to celebrate the summer solstice, and the sumptuous and playful party that occurs soon after Philip’s arrival brings together many of the significant characters in the novel, although several only gradually emerge as such.
Byatt manages her large cast and many plots by using a magisterially omniscient point of view capable of giving us the broad facts of history and geography and also of creating considerable intimacy. Describing the Wellwoods, she writes that they all “walked about the house and garden, the shrubbery and the orchard, the stables and the wood, with an awareness that things had invisible as well as visible forms. . . . Any bent twig might be a message or a sign. The seen and the unseen world were interlocked and superimposed. You could trip out of one and into the other at any moment.’’
But Todefright, too, is changing. At the party, Humphrey, who works at the Bank of England, indiscreetly reveals to his brother that he is the author of a radical column that criticizes many of the bank’s policies. He feels honor bound to resign, which places increased pressure on Olive’s writing, and that writing, in turn, puts pressure on her beautiful son. One of the starting points of “The Children’s Book,’’ Byatt has said, is “the idea that writing children’s books isn’t good for the writer’s own children.’’
After the midsummer party the characters scatter again. Philip is dispatched to the lonely household of the master potter, Benedict Fludd, and becomes his assistant. He succeeds in navigating, though not easily, both Benedict’s manic moods and the attentions of the three Fludd daughters, who sleepwalk through their days, and nights. Slowly Philip makes himself indispensable and begins to create the pots and tiles of his imaginings, beautifully rendered in Byatt’s prose.
The novel continues to follow Philip, the Wellwoods, the Fludds, the Cains, and the children of Humphrey’s brother, as well as their teachers, neighbors, and friends, including a young minister, a seeker after utopia, and a family of German puppeteers, through the next two decades. The result calls into question many of the conventions of realism whereby life is ruthlessly streamlined and characters organized into strict hierarchy, yet “The Children’s Book’’ is never less than artful. Every step of the journey is necessary. As I turned these passionate, intelligent pages, I found myself thinking of Byatt not as a weaver, or a potter, or even a children’s writer but a master builder, laying each brick of her tower with consummate skill. Here is a novel in which everything matters, and no one is ever lost for more than 100 pages, or two.
Margot Livesey’s most recent novel, “The House on Fortune Street,’’ was published in paperback this spring. She teaches at Emerson College.