The Children's Book
By A S Byatt (Chatto & Windus 614pp £18.99)
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A S Byatt's new novel begins in 1895 with two boys pursuing a third to his hiding place in the bowels of the South Kensington Museum (now known as the Victoria and Albert). It concludes nearly twenty-five years later with the return of a beloved son from the Great War. It traces the history of several families and their friends, a loosely connected group of writers, artists, financiers and thinkers. The action takes place partly in London, partly in Kent and the Romney Marsh area of southern England, with forays into France, Germany, Italy and, finally, the battlefields of Europe. As in Byatt's previous fictions, the novel sets the personal history of imagined characters within a minutely researched portrait of a historical era. Also characteristically, it is a novel obsessed with visualising. With its lavish descriptions of clothes, artworks, interiors and stage sets, it combines the pictorial realism of the nineteenth-century artist William Powell Frith's The Derby Day or The Railway Station with the fantasy and strangeness of Richard Dadd's Contradiction: Oberon and Titania. (Indeed, the Victorian fascination with the human mishaps and magical transformations of A Midsummer Night's Dream is an important theme in the book.)
Art and invention are central motifs. A master potter, Benedict Fludd, lives with his cowed wife and daughters in semi-poverty in the countryside near Dungeness, where he fashions pots with subtle glazes and snaky, fishy excrescences. Fludd is the archetypal mad genius, equally capable of creation and destruction. His talented apprentice, Philip Warren, has fled the drudgery and want of the pottery towns because he yearns to make pots according to his own designs. Another escapee from the horrors of industrial England is Olive Wellwood, now a successful author of fairytales for children. (As in her Booker Prize-winning novel Possession, where she famously wrote pastiches of the poetry of Robert Browning and Emily Dickinson, Byatt includes some of Olive's creepy tales, and conjures up the West End staging of her fantasia, Tom Underground.) Olive, her husband Humphry and their brood of children live in a tastefully modernised Kentish farmhouse, where Olive writes while her sister Violet acts as housekeeper, nanny and, it emerges, clandestine mistress to Humphry. What Olive shares with Fludd is a failure to discriminate between art and personal relationships. While Fludd's exploitation of his wife and daughters is unequivocally repugnant, Olive's public use of Tom Underground, a story written over many years for the private enjoyment of her favourite son, at first appears harmless, if a little tactless. But for Tom it is an unforgivable betrayal.
Byatt's human comedy includes the families of Humphry's banker brother Basil (whose German wife will later find herself ostracised) and of Major Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, as well as the Fabians, theosophists, freethinkers, vegetarians, nudists, anarchists and priests connected with the Wellwood circle. This enables her to explore many different personalities and destinies, although the main thrust of the novel is to track the various children from what Byatt names the 'Golden Age' of their growing up during the fin de siècle through to the 'Iron Age' of weapons and slaughter. There are many children, whose struggles to find their way in a changing society are sympathetically described. Sex and identity prove particularly troublesome. Plausible men prey on gullible women, and several of the children are unsure of quite who their true parents are. One unscrupulous lecher is the writer and speaker Herbert Methley, with his cant about sexual freedom and the Woman of the Future. Another is Humphry Wellwood, who justifies his drunken attempt to grope his daughter Dorothy on the grounds that he is not her real father. This sends her off to Schwabing in search of the puppet-master Anselm Stern, her mother's one-time lover, where she encounters European liberalism and discovers the metaphysics of marionettes.
Byatt's technique is to allow each individual or group a brief limelight and then to move on, picking up their story maybe many pages later. This makes for an exciting pace and rhythm. The downside is that important plotlines and events can lose impact. Fludd's sudden death, for example, falls surprisingly flat. Tom's story, of enormous interest in the early stages of the novel, rather fades (as does his family's interest in his troubles) until the final drama of his nighttime trek on foot from a London theatre to the seashore at Dungeness. This is a marvellous passage, a narrative tour de force that embraces the history of a great swathe of English countryside.
Almost as dominant as the human stories is the panorama of political and social change with which Byatt's protagonists so vigorously engage. Her research is phenomenal, as she attempts to make the reader share precisely (a word she uses repeatedly) the world that her characters inhabit. An important theme is the conflict between early Modernism and Victorian pieties, epitomised by, on the one hand, the spectacle of the 'gigantic' and 'exorbitant' Exposition Universelle in Paris, which many of the Wellwood circle visit in 1900 and, on the other, the decades-long battle at Prosper Cain's museum over building works and the presentation of the collection. And, while the merry-go-round of art and finance, politics and sex whirls on, a terrible and bloody war looms on the horizon.
In its magnificent loquacity, The Children's Book calls attention to the debate initiated by the Victorians regarding the value of decoration. The human stories are gripping and often deeply affecting, but they become submerged beneath a tidal wave of happenings and commentary. Prodigious as it is, the effect, like A S Byatt's descriptions of the Paris Exposition, is to glut the reader with a superfluity of wonders.