Review: The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

Review: The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

It’s hard not to feel that the dedication is a symptom of everything that’s wrong with this sprawling novel of nearly 700 pages. The book is dedicated to its editor — who, if she had done her job, probably would’ve left the book far better at a length three or four hundred pages shorter, and perhaps also left its author less glowingly happy with her.

This is an emphatically historical novel, dealing with late-Victorian childhood and young adulthood; indeed it seems to have been written in order to put forth a historical argument about the uniqueness of late-Victorian childhood. The book’s many children are, slowly, growing up in a bohemian middle-class milieu (there are working-class characters, but they are interlopers); the setting is saturated with Fabian socialism, Arts and Crafts creativity, and fairytales. Four households receive full attention — most central are the many children of Olive and Humphry Wellwood, a children’s book writer and a banker-cum-muckraker who live in a seeming semi-rural Arts and Crafts utopia; but we also spend time with the seemingly more conventional, wealthy family of Humphry’s banker brother Basil Wellwood, and with the widowed, ex-military museum curator Prosper Cain and his hyper-cultured children; and there are also the Fludds, the brooding, damaged family of brilliant potter Benedict Fludd, along with some others who come to live with him and to fire their work in his kiln. (In toto there are something like fifteen children and eight adults just living in these plot-central families, and there are a myriad other minor and not-so-minor characters besides, each described and psychologized in turn; this is part of why “sprawling” seems the only appropriate adjective for the book.) Many of Byatt’s characteristic charms and virtues are in full evidence here, as are her fixations and foibles: the book is, at times, a beautifully well-realized recreation of its historical setting, and it has a careful, intricate plot driven by the many children’s loss of innocence and by the discovery of various unpleasant sexual secrets and misdeeds.

The plot’s manifest neatness feels at times rather forced, and the traumatic secrets are telegraphed predictably enough, especially for readers who know Byatt’s other work (“Morpho Eugenia” comes to mind especially often), but the book is always readable, and sometimes compelling, when its story is in full swing. As James Wood wrote in his perceptive review in the London Review of Books, there is sometimes a glazed, too-easy feeling to the psychology of many of the characters and many of the predictable sexual revelations; in this book which is so tiresomely about pottery, many of the characters seem a bit potted themselves, more china dolls than fully realized people. But none of this, by itself, would make the novel anything less than enjoyable, another in the mold of Byatt’s lesser works, all of which are still cracking good stories.

No, the real problem here is that much of the book has nothing at all to do with its story. There are occasional inserted “excerpts” from Olive Wellwood’s children’s books: these are fewer in number, but more haphazardly connected to the novel, and far more poorly pastiched, than the poetry in Possession. And worse still, the novel is packed full of windy, condescending didacticism about its historical setting, taking many pages to lecture down its nose at its reader on topics from pottery — there’s a lot of pottery — to Peter Pan to the political causes of World War I. Perhaps a third of the total page count is given over to these insufferable lectures, which are often totally unconnected to the narrative of the book; but they are difficult to skip, because a reader won’t know where they begin and end, and because the conscientious reader is troubled by the possibility that they might have more to do with the story than they seem. (They don’t.) Instead of giving free rein to her donnish ambitions at the cost of bloating the novel, Byatt simply ought to have cut all this, and made her historical argument about the lost innocence of late-Victorian childhood elsewhere — it would make a fine historical essay, perhaps even an appendix to the slim and readable novel that would’ve resulted from these severe and needed cuts.

There is a subtler problem, too, caused by the novel being built around a historical argument, or at least written in order to explore the topic of late-Victorian childhood. (Warning: mild spoilers ahead.) There is a series of comedic happy endings, marriages and all (along with a few sadder resolved plotlines), and virtually every strand of the plot is more or less resolved quite a while before the book actually ends; but then, in a hasty hundred-page coda, we follow the characters, now youngish men and women, into the horrors of the Great War, and we watch many of them die, and the survivors emerge scarred. This would, of course, be a fine ending to such a novel, had it been telegraphed in advance; to know this were coming would’ve made the hazy, soft-focus nostalgia of the book’s Victorian portion easier to bear. But instead, this ending’s brutality feels abrupt and tacked-on, as though it were created to serve the book’s historical thesis rather than its narrative — as the story has already wrapped up successfully, in a happy-ending fashion that has more to do with the (conscious and unconscious!) childish Gothicism of the preceding novel. It’s painful to read more because of its hasty, brusque, perfunctory narration than its sad content.

In short, this novel is a sprawling mess with a witty Gothic historical novel buried somewhere inside it, and it’s certainly Byatt’s worst full-length novel since The Shadow of the Sun. It’s enough of a slog that I’d recommend it only to readers with an investment in the period depicted — cultural historians of the fin-de-siècle, perhaps — and to those who’ve loved everything Byatt produces enough to enjoy what they find of her virtues amid the unedited dross here. (And I count myself among that number.)