About once in each century, the British allow themselves to hope. The humorous resignation slips away; the people described as the only nation to feel Schadenfreude about themselves sense that they can transform their lives; the air of a rainy springtime fills British lungs. The last time this happened was in the years before and after the end of World War II: Labour’s electoral victory, the coming of free and universal health care, education, and social security, the attempt to expropriate the economy’s “commanding heights” in the people’s name.
But that was a brief, cool springtime, controlled from above and—in spite of the visionary rhetoric—cautious in scope. Louis MacNeice had written: “If it is something feasible, obtainable,/Let us dream it now,/And pray for a possible land.” Something feasible was indeed obtained: a new and long-lasting measure of social justice. But the possible land turned out to be a gray, austerely disciplined landscape, and the dreams and prayers were over by the early 1950s.
Fifty years before, there had been another season of hope that lasted longer and was far more ambitious. This was the upwelling of an enormous shoal of protests and visions that began to break the surface in the 1890s. Especially after Victoria’s death in 1901, the impact of these movements changed British culture, transformed intellectual and political expectations, and undermined all certainties in the course of the Edwardian decade. In its final phase, this surge entered a crescendo of direct action, street violence, and millenarian demands that seemed to both its participants and its foes like a prelude to revolution. But then came World War I, and an age of optimism was drowned.
That age forms the setting for Antonia Byatt’s majestic and immensely ambitious novel. It was a moment when Britain’s thinkers and creators looked back on the last, incredible century, which had brought their country to world leadership in manufacture and trade, to naval supremacy across the globe, and to dominion over a gigantic overseas colonial empire. But it was also a century in which Britain itself had changed beyond recognition, visually and socially. As these fin-de-siècle intellectuals perceived it, the “green and pleasant land” had been invaded by raw industrial cities that spouted their smoke over a new class: the proletarian millions who lived short lives in a squalor and a poverty that seemed to deepen as the wealth and comfort of the middle classes increased. The cultural and economic gulf between “the two nations” had widened until it seemed unbridgeable.
At the end of the Victorian century, men and women with ideas felt that this society they had inherited was monstrous and, as we would now say, unsustainable. It was, above all, unnatural—as much in its stunting of human instincts and potential for happiness as in its severing of human bonds with earth, trees, and fresh air. So it must be changed, and there was determination and confidence that it could be changed.
But in which direction: forward or back? Back to an imagined medieval world of green rural life, simple needs, and individual craftsmanship? Or forward to a society of the future: just, healthy, and planned by the enlightened few on socialist principles? Many wanted to combine the best of both visions, perhaps in garden cities where working-class producers would grow their own food, appreciate artistic beauty, and learn not to be ashamed of their own bodies. Others grew impatient, suspecting that middle-class intellectuals were merely seeking to add moral to material comfort. When the workers did finally rebel, they would make their own new world without much reference to aesthetic wallpapers or daring experiments in bed.
The families whose relationships and secrets make up the action of The Children’s Book move between these poles: nostalgia for a more “natural” past and the longing for fresh experiment. An aspect of these longings was the “invention of childhood,” elevated into a supposed “golden age” in which the sensibility of children was represented as a secret, magical world that adults could adore but not enter. “Progressive” parents opened the door to this world and then stood back. Byatt writes:
Children in these families, at the end of the nineteenth century, were different from children before or after. They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed…And yet, at the same time, the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent lives, as children. They roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees, hunted, fished, rode ponies and bicycles, with no other company than that of other children.
But to give freedom is also to withdraw from the freed. Russian writers earlier in that century recalled how their own “enlightened” parents had followed the principles of Rousseau’s Émile and withdrawn from their children to allow Nature to perform their education—leaving them, often, to feel unloved and abandoned. Some of the boys and girls of The Children’s Book, set so free and made to feel so enchanted, also grow up suspecting that they have been cast loose in order to decorate their parents’ fantasies. They could have done with a bit more intervention and correction.
At the heart of the novel is the large Wellwood family, vigorous, talented, and bohemian. Neither Humphry Wellwood nor his novelist wife Olive belongs to the traditional English upper class, but they have bought a roomy country house in Kent. There they throw high-spirited parties with fancy-dress and puppet shows, attended by Fabian intellectuals, experimental potters, and Russian anarchists. Violet, Olive’s unmarried and less beautiful sister, tidies up after the seven children and runs the house while Olive writes, with increasing success, fairy tales for the young. Olive, the novel’s central character, is charming and loving, happy to be pictured as a Mother Goose. And yet at her core is a writer’s heart of tungsten. She will evade any family crisis that threatens to put her off her next chapter (“I can’t work if there’s a mess”). She can exploit any such crisis for next-story ideas. Although she writes a serial fairy-tale book for each child in her family, she regularly plunders their plots and images for her published work.
The bohemian family Wellwood are friends with the haunted family of Benedict Fludd, a hairy tyrant who is a potter of genius and inhabits a crumbling Elizabethan manor near Dungeness. Byatt is too fastidious a writer to post up hints of ghastly revelations to come. But the entry of Fludd’s pallid, shell-shocked wife and their two strangely silent girls instantly recalls the household of the sculptor Eric Gill and his infamous use of his own daughters’ bodies. A third family cluster is headed by Major Prosper Cain, widower and retired army officer. Cain is the most unexpected figure in the book. A conventional military Victorian in his moral standards, he is also a sophisticated patron and collector of the arts, and—as the book opens—working as special keeper of precious metals at the old South Kensington Museum, predecessor of the Victoria and Albert. A loving father to his difficult daughter Florence and his uncertainly gay son Julian, Prosper Cain gives steadying counsel to Wellwoods and Fludds as one emotional tempest after another breaks over them. His unselfishness is growing almost tedious when, unexpectedly, his long chastity breaks down in passion for a damaged Fludd daughter some thirty years younger than he is.
Edwardian England is remembered as a society of impenetrable class frontiers. But in reality the barriers were lower than they seemed, and much of the energy of that time came from men, and some women, who escaped from “lowly origins” to enter the intellectual elite of southern England (at the price of narrowing their vowels and using the larger spoon for soup). These arrivals from “out there,” or the real world, fascinate Antonia Byatt, and it turns out that Olive herself is a class stowaway. It’s no accident that her fairy stories constantly use a trope of underground tunnels and creatures crouching in darkness. Long ago, she and Violet had escaped to London from a coal-mining village in Yorkshire where the pit took the lives of their brother and father and poverty killed their mother.
This is a past she has wrapped up and sealed away from her happy, spacious present. But then another refugee arrives, a boy named Philip who has run away from the slums of the Staffordshire potteries. Olive’s son Tom has found him half-starving in the South Kensington Museum, sleeping in a tomb and creeping out to sketch the exhibits. Fed and washed and taken down to Kent, he is soon apprenticed to Benedict Fludd and, later in the novel, will grow close to Olive’s daughter Dorothy. It is not long before Philip is joined by his sister Elsie, defiantly proud of her working-class origins. She takes over the chaotic Fludd household, contemptuous of these impractical southerners who want to change the world but don’t even know how to change their sheets. Elsie, in turn, will be pursued and eventually won by Charles Wellwood, a young nephew of Humphry’s who is trying to live down his privileged Old Etonian background. He flirts with anarchism and sits at the feet of Emma Goldman, but eventually finds that Elsie is what he needs. Although she jeers at Charles and gives him a hard time, love wins in the end.
It’s worth noting that love wins all over the place in this novel. Among all the children, and the reader will meet something like twenty of them as they grow up, I can think of only one true lover who is denied his lass. So much for Byatt’s reputation for taking a dim view of human attachments. Especially in the later sections, many knots are untied and unlikely lovers led together, while wronged wives and husbands forgive each other in the background. It all begins to resemble the happy finale of a Shakespeare comedy. But then, at the novel’s finish, comes the war, a black blade that crashes down across all hopes and lives. Byatt’s laconic, terrible accounts of what happens to these grown children in the next four years are unforgettable, more eloquent than any of the “trenches” novels that cram the bookshops. In the end, a few survivors gather in a London drawing room after the war, to find out whether loving and living are still possible.
Around the three core families of The Children’s Book move a crowd of other figures. Some are “real.” Auguste Rodin chats to Humphry Wellwood at the Paris Universal Exposition, Olive is congratulated for her work by George Bernard Shaw and J.M. Barrie, and in Munich, during a midsummer festival, Dorothy falls in with a slightly drunk young woman dressed as a Valkyrie whose name is Marie Stopes. Several other characters draw traits from cultural players of the day. Bernard Fludd may have something of Eric Gill; the odious Herbert Methley, priapic novelist and seducer, is at least a variation on the themes of H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence. Methley (“a stringy sunburned man, with a crimson silk handkerchief round his prominent Adam’s apple”) gives lectures on the importance of physical pleasure, followed by private demonstrations with pretty students. What he demonstrates more clearly is the peril of free love in an age without effective contraceptives. Herbert Methley devastates several lives through pregnancy, and the survival of the Wellwood family itself is tested all through the novel by a succession of shattering revelations about parentage. Not all Olive’s children are by Humphry, it turns out. Dorothy finds that she is the daughter of a German puppet-master. And of the seven living children in the household (two died or were stillborn) two discover that their real parents are Humphry and Olive’s sister Violet.
Olive resentfully accepts both babies as her own. Nobody must know who their mother really is; in the 1890s, scandal on this scale could be annihilating even for bohemians. But all these secrets, with their very unbohemian sense of locked rooms and buried passions, feed into her story-writing. Olive’s tales don’t only reflect her own suppressed childhood of dark tunnels and subterranean dangers; they speak too of magical transformations in which a small human can become a fairy prince —or a hedgehog. It’s not only in Elfland that shapes can shift and identities change.
These Olive stories, or Olive in her stories, form a background to the whole novel. Byatt inserts some of them in full or at length over many pages, accomplished pastiches of fin-de-siècle whimsy that recall the tangled illustrations of Arthur Rackham but test a reader’s patience. The larger point here is that Olive’s sort of tale-telling, the fond furnishing of goblin worlds, is as much a retreat from what is happening in the turbulent England around her as is the construction of childhood as a walled garden in which nobody has to grow up. The young in The Children’s Book become in different ways aware that their parents’ generation—for all their “Fellowship of the New Life” ideals —are fleeing from reality rather than confronting it.
In 1904, Olive and all the Wellwood clan go to the first night of Peter Pan on stage. Olive adores it. But her favorite child, Tom, detests it. He sees that this is “a play for grown-ups who don’t want to grow up,” a patronizing mockery of his own feelings, for Tom himself, traumatized by sexual bullying at an English public school, is determined not to join the adult world. Instead, he turns himself into a Nature Boy, withdrawing into the woods to live with small animals and birds. Olive, a few years later, fails to warn Tom that she is writing an adult elf-play called Tom Underground, borrowed from the fairy story she once wrote for him in which a boy loses his own shadow. The play is a fashionable success. But at its first night, the real Tom walks out of the London theater in silence. Heading out of the city, he tramps by day and night across the countryside until he reaches the sea. There he walks into the water until the current sucks him under. When his body is washed ashore, Olive collapses, broken by grief and remorse. There will be no more stories.
Muriel Spark, a Catholic convert who never ceased to appreciate the Calvinism of her native Scotland, once remarked that writers commit the ultimate mortal sin. They create human beings incapable of achieving their own salvation, and so usurp the prerogative of God. There are moments in The Children’s Book when Byatt’s method of fiction suggests that she too is enthroned above the clouds, turning the pages of a book in which all fates are written. We are told what almost all her characters are thinking and feeling; she enters almost every head and turns on the lights to show us what is going on inside.
She does this with masterly skill and literary tact; there are no jolts as she moves from one brain to another. And yet, as this long story proceeds (it covers nearly seven hundred pages), the sense of a distant yet supreme authorial being, a divinity from whom no secrets are hidden and no sinful thoughts concealed, grows more obtrusive. By the end, one could almost wish these people to be allowed some privacy. It’s not surprising that there is a great deal about puppet-makers and marionettes in the novel. As children and as young adults, the characters are constantly watching sophisticated puppet shows, most of them frightening rather than comic. One possible way of reading the book, in fact, would be as a Pinocchio struggle of puppets to escape their creators and win independent life.
It’s interesting to look at the few characters who are excused all this inspection. The tormented Fludd family moves along the spine of the narrative, almost as prominent as the Wellwoods. And yet only one of them, the son Geraint who escapes to get a life in London, has his thoughts revealed. The others, the brutish father with his wife and daughters, stay closed to us. Violet, Olive’s long-suffering sister, is not “entered” either. One knows these and other less important figures only through what they look like, wear, do, or say. It’s true that with Byatt’s talent those details are enough to give them convincing life. Yet why the difference? Economy for the sake of elegance? Or stage lighting—characters left in shadow to contrast with the brilliantly lit Wellwoods and Cains? It’s not clear.
The book would sag under its own weight if it were not supported by five set-piece episodes, each described in luxuriant detail. These are the Wellwoods’ midsummer party, the visit of all three families to the great Paris Universal Exposition in 1900, a summer camp in the New Forest, another “craft camp” of pageantry and performances set around the Fludds’ pottery kilns, and the ball thrown in the museum by Prosper Cain for his daughter Florence. Each of these occasions not only lets Byatt mark a moment in changing lives and relationships, but simultaneously registers the culture of this confident, optimistic age.
The account of the visit to Paris, more than thirty pages long, is a masterpiece in itself. The exposition, spread over central Paris, was “gigantic and exorbitant,” Byatt writes, “covering 1,500 acres and costing 120 million francs. It attracted 48 million paying visitors, [and] took over four years to build.” It was the pinnacle of an epoch when French genius led the world in painting and sculpture, in decoration and ceramics, in armament design and sheer mechanical innovation. The English party visit the Palace of Electricity, the Hall of Dynamos, and the display of hundreds of new automobiles. They venture onto the three-speed moving pavement, soar above Paris on the Great Wheel, wander through the Palace of Mirrors and the Upside-Down Palace, stare overwhelmed at the thousands of modern paintings in the Décennale show at the Grand Palais, and in the Rodin Pavilion meet the great artist himself. Charles Wellwood, the would-be revolutionary, goes to the Palace of Woman to hear Emma Goldman explain why women must take control of their lives and their bodies; Tom Wellwood fails to notice that the lovelorn Julian Cain is trying to seduce him on the Wheel; Benedict Flood takes his apprentice Philip to a brothel.
That section on the exposition is only one example of A.S. Byatt’s almost stupefying command of historical and material detail. There seems to be nothing she doesn’t know about contemporary dress, ceramic techniques, early medical education, the development of the Dreyfus case, splits in the Fabian Society, or the geological origins of explosive gas in coal mines—to name only a few topics. In the first few pages, when Olive calls on Prosper Cain in his museum, the reader learns that she
was dressed in dark slate-coloured grosgrain, trimmed with braid, with lace at the high neck and fashionably billowing sleeves above the elbow. Her hat was trimmed with black plumes and a profusion of scarlet silk poppies, nestling along the brim.
Houses and cottages are described room by room, each with its furniture and wallpaper. Mention of an old church near the Fludds prompts a concise account of the medieval history of Romney Marsh. Pages are given over to the tortuous office politics around the design and construction of the Victoria and Albert Museum. And people get inventoried too. There is, for example, a slow, sensual appraisal of just how Rupert Brooke looked at Cambridge:
His skin was milky and his eyes—long-lashed—small and grey-blue. He wore his hair long, parted in the middle, and was always tossing it back. It was bright gold, with a shade of foxy russet in it. He did not often meet your eye. His voice was less lovely than his face—too high, too light, with a squeak in it.
It’s beautifully done. And yet Rupert Brooke is making only a cameo appearance; he plays almost no role whatever in the story.
Some readers of The Children’s Book in Britain, where it was first published, grew mutinous about all this omniscience. Why did they have to learn how pottery glazes are applied, or digest the entire scene-by-scene plot of some forgotten German puppet play? When Byatt provides a comprehensive account of labor unrest in 1911 and the Liberal government’s attempts to quell it, carrying on to insert selections from Margot Asquith’s correspondence, followed by a shrewd summary of the 1912 “silver scandal” in the City of London, is she simply allowing her own knowledge and research to overflow into lakes of irrelevance?
But these are not digressions, still less lapses into self-indulgence. Byatt can be daunting, especially in her rather donnish assumptions about what she expects her readers to know. (What did grosgrain look like, and what is it meant to tell us about the wearer?) But she knows what she is doing, in supplying these rich backgrounds of politics and culture to the enthusiasms and delusions of her characters. And none of these passages entirely deserts those characters. On the contrary, they give them room to breathe; the close-up tracking of their feelings would grow claustrophobic if they were not from time to time released into the broad context of their times.
The young women, especially, struggle through personal calamities and sexual restrictions to find out who they are and what they can become. (Florence Cain, one of the first women students at Cambridge, reflects: “The truth is…that the women we are—have become—are not fit to do without men, or to live with them, in the world as it was. And if we change, and they don’t, there will be no help for us.”) All in different ways are actors and sometimes victims in the struggles for women’s education, for “The Vote,” for sexual liberation, which Byatt records so vividly.
“Backwards and forwards, both. The Edwardians knew they came after something…. They stared and glared backwards, in an intense, sometimes purposeful nostalgia for an imagined Golden Age.” But by the end of The Children’s Book the nostalgia is giving way to a passion for the future, a fury for change. On the eve of war, the suffragette Emily Davison throws herself to death under the hooves of the King’s racehorse, and young Hedda Wellwood, possessed by the need to strike out and suffer, tries to smash those same golden treasures that Philip had sketched in the museum so long before. Soon will come the slaughter of the boy-children in France and Flanders, while their sisters and girl cousins dig shrapnel out of the maimed survivors. The time of hope is over, and in pages written with an agonized economy of words, this monument of a novel comes to its end.