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The Children’s Book by A S Byatt

Prospect, May 2009

In the pageant of English fiction A S Byatt stands at the head of one especially successful writers’ guild: the literary-historical novelists. Other distinguished members include Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and Ian McEwan. All write in a lushly empirical, historically informed, richly narrative vein, but none strives for quite the same density of effect as Byatt, whose work is equally steeped in the splashy colours of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the long dignity of the English literary canon, and the liberated, free-flowing style of feminism and fairytales. It is also difficult not to imagine her matronly, watchful eye trained on all aspects of her contemporaries’ work, weighing and assessing.

For Byatt is a very exact and exacting—a controlled and a controlling—storyteller. Her Booker-winning Possession: a Romance (1990) showed off all her skill at contrivance in its parallel setting of the story of two 20th-century academics alongside that of two Victorian poets, whose work and romantically tangled life they are researching. The novel used this mirroring device to explore notions of love, dependence and independence, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—the means by which people seek to control each other emotionally and intellectually. If Possession had a fault, it was that it tried to control its relations with its readers every bit as much as those with its characters: to steamroller the audience into consensus. For the majority of Byatt’s readers, though, the dazzling ventriloquism of her Victorian re-creations and the dexterity of her plotting carried the day.

Of course, if one believes E M Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927), “Yes—oh dear yes—the novel tells a story.” In this respect Byatt’s new novel, The Children’s Book, bests even its predecessors. Over more than 600 pages, covering the years from 1895 to 1920, it tells a skein of stories: of multifarious English families, Fabians, anarchists, artists, bankers, each with their failings and secrets. At the centre of the skein are the Wellwoods, Humphry and Olive: he a junior banker who resigns and turns to radical journalism, she a writer of children’s stories of growing fame. They live at Todefright, an idyllic country house near Romney Marsh. One of Byatt’s skills is the direction of large casts—and so the Kentish Wellwoods’ many children are cousins to the richer London Wellwoods; while there are also Fludds (the family of an unstable potter-genius, Benedict Fludd), Cains (that of a Keeper of the South Kensington Museum), Oakeshotts, Sterns, and diverse others.

This being Byatt, each strand of the story also stands for an important historical attitude or trope. The ubiquity of educated middle-class English attitudes is, for instance, alleviated by Philip, a talented runaway from the potteries who is found a place as Fludd’s apprentice and for whom Byatt manages some of her most arresting insights. “When [Philip] got to the church, he looked around at the endless sky, the flat horizon, the apparently endless sheep-studded meadows, and felt peaceful. He didn’t think exactly in language. He noticed things. The dabbing movement of a duck. The awkwardly beautiful, almost crippled look of the trailing legs of a flapping heron. Fish squirming in mud.” In this effortless inhabitation of her characters, Byatt is at her best.

The children’s growing-up, and their budding and intermingling passions, occupy a large space in the narrative. But their parents’ part is more ambiguous, and a persistent theme of The Children’s Book is how incapable most adults are both of facing up to their own weaknesses and of foreseeing apocalypse. These leisured grown-ups disport themselves, in fornication and interesting betrayals, in the afternoon glow of the last years of the “widow of Windsor.” Their ease is lightly interrupted by the Second Boer War—but no one envisages the fire and ruin that will arise on the coming battlefields. The era’s self-indulgence was based—like all self-indulgence—on absent, or too-distant, memories of human pain and loss. And most of Byatt’s readers—having the benefit of hindsight—will understand within the first 200 pages how the Golden Age must end for its eventually grown-up children, in the trench-hell of Ypres and the Somme.

To render this panoramic canvas, Byatt opposes a painterly eye—sometimes Sargent, seldom Bruegel—with some heavy scene-shifting designed to set the human picture inside the historical. There is a hint of George Eliot in this, though I cannot say the result is all masterpiece. Many significant moments came and went in the period she is writing about—from the rise of socialism and female suffrage to the founding of the LSE and the Tate Gallery—and she gives us them all. There is a reasonable sense of the writer making a point, in order to show, for one thing, how history repeats itself (with ample parallels between the selfish myopia of this era and our own, a century later). At the same time, Byatt’s chronological doggedness might remind the reader of a Wikipedia entry, or a Christmas round robin: “1896 was a gloomy year. William Morris died in October…”

The characters themselves are, rightly, enmeshed in the shape of their era. The Apostles (and Forster) are introduced into the Cambridge career of one of the young men, and their baneful aestheticism is appraised. Emma Goldman, Wilde and Rodin make appearances, while we are apprised of the growing public influence of Freud, the Fabians, the anarchists and the socialists. All of which makes for the “sudden density of life” that Milan Kundera cites as the essential property of fiction. And yet, when another crucial property of novels—their sense of their own fictitiousness, as it were—is absent, this density is also manipulative. Byatt certainly believes in her story. But not, the reader feels, because she intuits its emotional inevitability and wants us to intuit likewise; rather, because she knows it to be true. Her readers, it seems, have no choice but to believe in this novel—because its author is in possession of all the facts.

And there are trunks and trunks of facts unpacked here. This is not to say that nothing human stirs, because Byatt is both dependable and stimulating on, for example, relations between women and men and the dynamics of marriage. She understands family conflict, and can write coolly about passion, revealingly about infidelity. Yet, periodically during my digestion of this enormous novel, its intentions puzzled me. Was it an English Buddenbrooks? An allegory of our own end of century? A novel to teach us a history we have forgotten? Or just a plain history book? Take this paragraph:

“In September 1910 the Second International Workingmen’s Association held its Congress in Copenhagen. Joachim Susskind and Karl Wellwood went together and attended groups on anti-militarism…  The resolution was proposed by an Englishman, Keir Hardie… Hardie was supported by the Belgian, Vandervelde, and by the charismatic Jean-Jaurès. He was opposed by the German socialists, who were established in the German government, and whose unions had money and investments which they feared to put in jeopardy.”

When you have been reading such passages, on and off, for 550 pages, you may find yourself struggling, and failing, to remain engaged with the text as a novel. And surely if you want detail about Keir Hardie’s prosposal for an international general strike, it can be found in most histories of the Labour Party, or in Caroline Benn’s biography? Where you will also, incidentally, be reminded that Hardie was in fact a Scot, born in north Lanarkshire.

A mistake is not a crime, and nor is possession of all the facts. But the novelist’s need for facts is always partial. Events, episodes grab their sonority and impact from the emotions they reveal as they pass by, and the suspense they instil in the curious reader. And here, though this is an avowedly historical novel, Byatt’s application of overwhelming knowledge—her shock and awe of facts—is redundant in an especially poignant way. The atmosphere of The Children’s Book is one of a writer revelling in, and showing off not a little, sumptuousness and writerly confidence: a book that believes in Great Knowledge and its value.

But if Byatt’s latest novel shows us anything, it is that knowledge, and the civilisation it gives rise to, are never a shield against horror and tragedy. That was, surely, one of the mightiest lessons that the first of the two world wars taught us. Similarly, there is something off-putting about that feeling of being told to sit still and concentrate in a story so heavily ventriloquised through the author’s knowledge rather than her intuition, sympathy or pity. Byatt leaves no room for the imaginative input of her audience, a mysterious and vital element if any novel’s characters are to come alive. And that is, perhaps, out of fear—that the one character this author cannot control is her reader.

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