The Children’s Book
This long-awaited novel, A.S. Byatt’s first since 2001, is extraordinarily difficult to encapsulate and to do full justice within the confines of this short review. It straddles the last five years of the 19th century and the period leading up to the First World War, narrating the various stories of a related group of disparate intellectuals, writers, artists and bohemian folk associated with the Arts & Craft movement.
The novel allows numerous readings and interpretations. It is a splendid historical novel, a family saga, a study of a cultural and artistic movement, as well as a gimlet look at society and family politics, of sex, betrayal and fidelity and the importance of one’s past and one’s parents to shape a life – as Philip Larkin so pungently observed. It is narrated with the same element of eccentricity that the characters display; it is detailed and slow-paced. Artistic endeavours and clothes are described in minute detail and the historical content is comprehensive and impressive in its depth and accuracy.
I will not attempt to describe the plot, for it is too ramified to adequately summarise. Save that Byatt gets the reader to care passionately about her large cast of characters and what happens to them, and the ending is moving and sobering. The children’s author Olive Wellwood is based very much on E. Nesbit and her complicated domestic arrangements, and Eric Gill can be seen in the eccentric potter Benedict Fludd and his sexual peccadilloes.
Occasionally basic history is dumped somewhat awkwardly on the narrative and there a few typographical errors; Rupert Brooke is described as being “beautiful” on a number of occasions within a few pages. But this does not detract from the delights of reading this challenging and demanding book – a work that demands time and dedication from the reader, and repays it fully.