The woods, the Downs, the lawn, the hearth, the stables were a real reality, kept in being by continuous inventive willpower. In weak moments [Olive] thought of her garden as the fairytale palace the prince or princess must not leave on pain of bleak disaster ... She could not, and did not, imagine any of the inhabitants of this walled garden wanting to leave it or change it, though her stories knew better. And she had to ignore a great deal, in order to persist in her calm, and listen steadily to the quick scratch of the nib. (p. 301)
It's taken me over a year to finish reading The Children's Book -- not because it's a bad book or because I didn't like it, but because I wanted to give it the degree of concentration, absorption, focus that I felt it deserved. It's a very dense book: social and economic history, arts and crafts, the Fabian Society, anarchist attacks, women's education and suffrage, the rise of literature written specifically for children, the English public school system, folk and fairy tales ... The late nineteenth century isn't a period I know well: I learnt a lot from this novel.
The children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to. 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 ... the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent, lives ... they roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees ... with no other company than that of other children. (p. 29)That makes it sound worthy, erudite, educational: and it's far more than that, it's joyful and celebratory, dark and treacherous. It is a book about storytelling, about the ways in which parents betray children, about the dark underside of Victorian society (fallen women, child abuse, adultery) and how these may be escaped or survived. There are a lot of lies and deceptions amid the play-acting, writing, creativity and benevolence. And there's a very strong sense of the ephemeral nature of this 'golden age' of childhood, of the idyllic lives of a generation of middle-class children who become adults in the first decade of the twentieth century, and face the ultimate betrayal of war.
Byatt manages a huge cast of characters, both original and historical, with exquisite balance and telling detail. There are the almost-obligatory cameos -- Oscar Wilde old and broken at the Exposition Universelle in 1900, Marie Stopes in fancy dress as a Valkyrie, 'Jane Harrison and her lovely student, Hope Mirrlees', Rupert Brooke. But the characters at the heart of the novel are all Byatt's own: children's author Olive Wellwood and her spinster sister Violet, teenaged Philip Warren who's fled the potteries in search of Art, Olive's daughter Dorothy who wants to become a doctor, Herbert Methley who is keen on 'the sex problem'. Most captivating and poignant of all is Olive's son Tom, whose story encompasses the major themes of the novel: story-telling, treachery, the natural world, social privilege and its inverse, purposelessness. Tom alone is reason enough to read the novel. But he is not the only reason.
There is so much in this novel that I'd like to discuss: each of the ten or so major characters deserves examination in their own right, bitter Violet and somnambulist Pomona, heroic Geraint and 'Maid Marion', Julian and his changing views on sex and love, Dorothy discovering herself, Gabriel whose dreams are too timid for his psychoanalyst parents ... Byatt's prose is often very beautiful -- which balances the more didactic passages -- and her sense of place and time is tremendously evocative. I felt I'd lived a lifetime, reading The Children's Book, and I suspect it's a novel I'll return to again and again.
Byatt says, in an interview for the Guardian:
"I started with the idea that writing children's books isn't good for the writers' own children. There are some dreadful stories. Christopher Robin at least lived. Kenneth Grahame's son put himself across a railway line and waited for the train. Then there's JM Barrie. One of the boys that Barrie adopted almost certainly drowned himself. This struck me as something that needed investigating. And the second thing was, I was interested in the structure of E Nesbit's family - how they all seemed to be Fabians and fairy-story writers."
Wikipedia page, listing the characters and linking to a couple of reviews