The Children's Book
Date Published: August 10, 2010
Number of Pages: 896
Print Price: $11.53
eBook Price: $13.99
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt is a deeply intellectual, beautifully written, dark, family saga that takes place from 1895 through the Great War. Byatt’s grasp of the age is remarkable and everything from the politics of the time to artistic movements to children’s literature is brought into a story of families and the growth of children who would be the first generation to put modern philosophies into practice. Byatt confronts the aesthetic movement, anarchism, socialism, and woman’s suffrage head on in the lives of her characters, while the themes of responsibility, personal hypocrisy, and familial relationships drive the plot. The menagerie of characters touch on so many aspects of life, and especially the artistic, that this work could be reviewed and studied from a variety of viewpoints. However, as I read the book I could not avoid comparing Byatt’s treatment of the time period with the writings of G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton wrote directly rebuking the errors of the philosophies and social issues at this time and Byatt’s objective treatment of her characters support and result in many of Chesterton’s insightful predictions.
The Children’s Book tells of the lives of many characters centered around two very different artists. Olive Wellwood is the writer of popular fairy tales for children who is the matriarch of a large family. The Wellwood household is full of lively children who are allowed by their parents to run wild, ask questions, and share adult company with their Fabian friends and fellow artists. Olive frequently uses her children as inspiration for her stories while writing individual tales for each of her children in separate books. Although Olive and the Wellwood family appear to be a modern family whose liberal ideals hold up the importance of childhood in theory, in reality the children are cared for by their aunt Violet who effectively runs the household while Olive writes. As the children are free to roam out of the “Victorian” nursery they are also hidden from the truth behind their individual parentage. Byatt shows many examples of how the ideals of free love, women's suffrage, and the new Freudian psychology begin to boil to the surface and cause irreparable damage as the children grow into adulthood. Byatt treats her characters objectively, Olive’s dedication and creative drive are shown in detail, but Byatt does not let the negative aspects of her absence from her children’s lives go unnoticed.
In contrast to the privilege and material success of Olive Wellwood is Phillip Warren, a young orphan who is driven across England in search of an opportunity to learn the art of pottery. Phillip becomes the apprentice to Benedict Fludd whose artistic genius is unquestioned but who leaves his family in squalor and seeking relief in laudanum. Phillip pursues his art humbly, asking for no pay, tolerating poverty, and the offensive and disruptive behavior of his teacher. He is doggedly determined to succeed at his craft but never uses or takes advantage of those around him. Those surrounding Phillip are characters of the lower class that sometimes follow the same ideals the Wellwood’s espouse but usually face hard consequences and a difficult life because of them.
Byatt seamlessly displays the creative process of the artist characters into the narrative. The intricate process of turn of the century ceramic art is described in detail. The burgeoning Victoria and Albert Museum is also a focal point of the artistic scene of the time and Byatt makes it seem alive at times in the book. Puppetry, literature, and the theatre are all delved into and expanded as well as the trends, fashions, influences, and advances that these arts contained at the time. The artistic detail is truly astounding and I found it to be interesting in all but a few instances, although it can sometimes prove daunting to the reader.
As the Wellwood children and their friends, including Phillip Warren, grow older each faces the new modern world in different ways. Tom, the eldest Wellwood, deals with disturbing events by seeking solace in his mother’s tales to the point of not pursuing education, career, or a life outside his childhood home. The tragedy of Tom’s life is written in a truly beautiful and gripping way and shows the terrific ability of Byatt’s writing to the fullest in this book. The other children go on to explore socialism, anarchism, academia, women’s suffrage, and other forms of education. But as these children become adults they are left without a guiding truth or faith and fall prey to the errors of the age that have costly results. As the children grow and the failings of so many modern errors are felt, so too are these consequences seen in society at large as England is thrust into war in 1914. The Great War is present for a small portion of the novel; however, Byatt’s telling is vivid and deadening to the plot. Characters die, families torn apart and brought together, however, the climax seems wanting. By following so many characters it is almost impossible to plausibly tie up loose ends meaningfully. This seems to be the main criticism the book faces by many critics, but in Byatt’s defense and in keeping with her realistic approach to writing, it seems consistent that a dreadful war would stunt the lives and stories of the book’s characters all too soon just as it did in history.
Byatt is an avowed atheist, and the only mention of God or religion by the characters in the novel is to vocally state disbelief or the Fabian argument against organized religion. Byatt has so intensely researched and closely depicted the society of the Edwardian age it is interesting that the logical conclusions of these philosophical ideas can be seen but not any hope in faith. Her characters tragically follow art, socialism, or free love to dismal ends and not one turns to, or even considers, God. Byatt has also said that in writing this novel she wanted to objectively present the characters and their actions according to the ideas of the time period. Byatt’s careful research seems to have excluded Chesterton who also identified what was lacking in each philosophy and the problems of various social ideas but offered hope in Christ’s Church. I believe Chesterton would have seen this novel as a beautiful book, accurately reflective of the age, but disastrous and ultimately incomplete. To the reader with faith The Children’s Book is a deeply beautiful but tragic story of lives lost to disbelief.
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.6 x 8 inches
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