The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt, starts off at a luxuriously leisurely pace. Time, to start, is measured in parties, social gatherings, lasting interminable hours, days. Byatt comments directly on the passing of time, midway through the novel — how time passes at different speeds for different people, how its passing is measured, how for the two-year-old a year is half a lifetime.
Well, this novel moves like that, like life. It doesn't pick up speed exactly, it just goes more quickly; the summers of childhood are languorous and eternal, but the years begin to flit by, you wonder what happened to youth, and suddenly there is war and it's a blur, and you find yourself middle-aged wondering how you got here so soon.
Particularly in the latter half (and this is a hefty book: more than 600 pages), there are bits that read like pages out of almanac: the death of so-and-so, some landmark publication, news items, political happenings. I came to be grateful for this context of a very particular time and place, and it took on increasing significance for how Byatt's characters evolve.
When I first picked up this novel, I thought it was about a woman, a children's author, who kept private notebooks for each of her children, in which she told their stories. I anticipated being led through these stories, being enchanted. But it's not like that at all. I mean, it is, but it's much, much grimmer (read: Grimm-er) and so very vast and clever.
The novel begins in a fairy tale setting; subterranean and exotic; surrounded by treasures enameled and encrusted with jewels. The secret passageways of a museum. From there we move by train to a sprawling, modernized farmhouse called Todefright. What better place to meet the cast than at a midsummer party.
Everything is under keen observation, but imbued with awe. It is a magical and enchanted veil through which reality seeps. It is gentle and natural, pastoral and reverent of nature. All are berobed as gods and goddesses, artists and witches.
Dorothy tires of the whimsy; her respect for nature is more scientific; yet she belongs here:
Dorothy was waiting for Cousin Griselda. Cousin Griselda came into her mind when she had to use the word "love" which she tended to be careful with. Griselda was the same age as Dorothy, and was closer to Dorothy than her sister Phyllis. Dorothy, a realist, rather thought she did not love Phyllis, though she knew she ought to. Perhaps because of this she loved Griselda — whom she did not see very often — a little more emphatically. Dorothy was sometimes afraid that she had started out with a smaller capability for love than most people. Phyllis loved everything — Mother, Father, Auntie Violet, Hedda, Florian and Robin, Ada and Cathy, the ponies, the fluffy kitten, dead Rosy in the orchard, the Todefright toads. Dorothy had varying feelings for most of these people, some of them loving. But she did love Griselda, she had fixed on Griselda to love.
For the most part, the novel's inhabitants are intellectuals, and as I remarked early and often, to anyone who would listen, they are very ineresting people. They are impassioned. They have esoteric knowledge. They have opinions. They have political and social agendas.
They are flesh and blood.
Olive is a writer and mother, but she is a woman too:
Olive Wellwood was thirty-eight. She came from a class where many, perhaps most, women did not live much beyond that age, where what was in women's minds was diminishing strength and the looming of real death. Yet here she was in the magical Garden of England, with a good body, and a face that was, she thought, more interesting, more defined, yes indeed, more beautiful, than when she had been a green girl. And spider-webs of sexual attraction floated everywhere, and touched their skins, like dandelion seeds on white spiralling parasols, like ozone wafting in from the sea. It was still her time, she thought, looking out at the Channel and the children — and Toby who was leaping with them, and Violet camped with nanny and pram — and Prosper who was striding towards them in a smart panama hat. The children were children, blessed children, not yet formed. Though she saw that Herbert Methley had detached his attention from her, and was staring with a pleased expression at the gaggle of girls, pale, fine Griselda, brisk dark Dorothy, dreamy Pomona and inhibited Imogen, pretty Phyllis and composed Florence, the only one in whom could be seen a shadow of the woman she would be. "Aren't they lovely?" she said to Methley, who gave her a sharp look, smiled conspiratorially, and agreed.
They are, for the most part, Fabians.
They mean to advance socialism and change the world incrementally. They mean for the tortoise to win the race.
The plot for a time follows Art and Crafts, specifically pottery. Byatt may be saying this is modernity: interesting oneself in the real-world application of something pure.
We see the meetings of minds. We follow a party to the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris (which I mentioned previously). We go to puppet theatres, in Germany.
Throughout, the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rupert Brooke, and others, make cameo appearances.
In 1901, Queen Victoria dies:
There was a sense that fun was now permitted, was perhaps obligatory. The stiff black flounces, the jet necklaces, the pristine caps, the euphemisms and deference, the high seriousness also, the sense of duty and the questioning of the deep meanings of things were there to be mocked, to be turned into scarecrows and Hallowe'en masks. People talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously, about sex. At the same time they showed a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.
So the modern age is marked by a refusal to grow up. No, that's too harsh. A disinclination to let go of childhood. Perhaps while recognizing a value in childhood that had long been neglected (or sent off to boarding school).
The children of this novel make decisions (or not), make their own way in their very different worlds, more often than not in spite of their parents.
One family disintegrates, but a new family center is forged. It's the Fabian family, the free thinkers dabbling in free love, freedom of all kinds, who fail to thrive.
I wonder if Byatt isn't commenting that the Fabian way was a perpetuation of childhood, that sometimes the best way to social progress isn't in gradual increments but in one fell swoop. The tortoise is losing.
Too, there is the women's question. While these Fabians support, of course, women's rights, for education, for lives, the vote is tangential to this. In and of itself the vote is not so important as establishing an intellectual or moral equality.
A hundred years on, women vote, but we still struggle for rooms of our own, and always (evidenced to an extreme in Olive) at a cost:
"The truth is," said Florence, "that the women we are — have become — are not fit to do without men, or to live with them, in the world as it was. And if we change, and they don't, there will be no help for us. We shall be poor monsters, like Viola in Twelfth Night, or Miss Harrison's harpies and gorgons. Do you not think it might be harmful to ignore the sex instinct? Don't you think that after twenty years of studying Cinderella you might be seized by the idea of the children you never had?"
"Quite probably," said Griselda, lifting a dripping oar and suspending is, so that the boat swung in the current. "But after twenty years of childbearing and fever and confinement and being shut in a house I might be seized by the idea of Cinderella."
Poor Olive, early on so sympathetic, breadwinner and of independent mind, but ultimately to the detriment of her children.
The tortoise has a long way to go.
Most everyone grows up in the end, or dies. The Great War did that, made the world grow up.
On readers and writers
Olive, the writer of children's books:
She thought about the relation between readers and writers. A writer made an incantation, calling the reader into the magic circle of the world of the book. With subtle words, a writer enticed a reader to feel his or her skin prickle, his of her lips open, his or her blood race. But a writer did this on condition that the reader was alone with printed paper and painted cover. What were you meant to feel — what was she meant to feel — when the originals of the evanescent paper persons were only too solidly present in flesh and bone and prosaic clothing? A gingery tweed jacket, a faded cotton skirt with lupins on it, and an elastic waist that clumped oddly?
Olive is not the only writer in this crowd. Herbert Methley writes many lives onto courses they themselves never imagined:
[...] Frank withdrew into his own mind for a moment, wondering whether to thank Methley for Marsh Lights, or at least to tell him how it had moved him. He decided against this. He found he was annoyed that this robed person, with his electric black hair, was more the owner, so to speak, of the imagined rocks and stones and elder bushes than he, the reader. Readers ought not to meet writers, he thought. They are meant not to.
Do you think she means it?
A.S. Byatt, writer, launches her new book, The Children's Book, April 22 at the 11th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, and is scheduled to appear before readers at various other events throughout the festival.