The Children's Book
by A. S. Byatt
published by Alfred A. Knopf
rating: 4 out 5
As I was reading this 675 page novel, I was reminded of the advice that Jane Austen gave her niece about writing: "3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on" (letter written September 9, 1814). I believe that is what this author has done so remarkably well.
The novel mainly focuses on three families, and their inter-connectedness over the course of several years: from the middle of the Victorian Era (1895), until the end of World War I (1919). Each family has several members, however, and I found it quite helpful to have a cheat-sheet handy to remind myself of all the various characters.
I was immediately captivated on the opening page - when we see two teenage boys inside the Victoria and Albert museum, watching a young street urchin sketching the contents of a glass case - one of the museums great treasures. One of the boys is the son of Major Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of the Precious Metals collection, and the other boy is the son of Olive Wellwood, a successful authoress of fantasy stories. It is the Cain and Wellwood families, as well as the Fludd family, who take in the artistic street urchin, that make up the characters in this epic novel.
Oftentimes I find the effort to read books with so many various characters exhausting - and typically quit half way through. There was something about these characters, however, that interested me. I could relate to them in such a way that I really cared what happened; it was worth the effort. I wanted to know how Philip, the Dickensian street orphan fared in life; I loved listening to the inner thoughts of authoress Olive Wellwood as she saw every life event as inspiration for her next fairy tale novel; I felt deeply for Tom Wellwood as he was bullied at school and decided that retreat from the world is better than hurtful status quo; I cheered for Dorothy Wellwood as she pursued the life of becoming a female doctor rather than a typical wife of the gentry; I hoped for Geraint Fludd as he fled his life for poverty in the hopes of working up the ranks in the banking industry to wed the girl of his dreams, Florence Cain; I remained curious as to the fate of Julian Cain, as he vacillated between the gay and straight lifestyle; and I respected the character of Prosper Cain as he strived to raise his two children alone, and still have the compassion to take in a third child, Imogene Fludd, who was neglected and hurting in her home environment and needed the nurturing friendship of a father figure.
I almost do not feel qualified to write a review for this book. I do not read close enough, nor write well enough, nor summarize fully enough to do this book justice. I have tried several times to give a brief overview - but it is nearly impossible. When I start to summarize the focus of one family, it inevitably leads to several other plot lines that deserve mention. When I try to focus on one of the major themes of the book, I am quickly reminded of a dozen more that are just as central to the story. When I try to connect with the writing on one level, I am immediately pulled in a different direction that demands my attention. So in short, I have decided to remain silent - so as not to detract from the eloquence of this author - and instead, allow her words to speak for themselves.
Such as Olive contemplating an extramarital affair, even though her husband had done so multiple times:
What did Methley want her to feel? 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 or 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? (page 206)
Or the two young female Wellwood cousins, contemplating which direction they should follow in life:
They were troubled, as intelligent girls at that time were troubled, by the question of whether their need for knowledge and work in the world would in some sense denature them. Women worked, they knew, as milliners and typewriters, housekeepers and skivvies. They worked because they had no means, or were not pretty or rich enough to attract a man. The spectre of imaginary nuns haunted them. If Griselda did manage to be admitted to Newnham College, in Cambridge, would it be like entering a nunnery, an all-female community, mutually supporting intellectual desire and ambition which the world at large still saw as unnatural, and frequently a threatening? Griselda's quiet love for Toby reassured her on this front also - she had ordinary womanly feelings, she was not a freak, or withdrawn contemplative. She just wanted to be able to think. (page 358)
Or Prosper Cain's dilemma as he faces his own daughter whom he feels he barely knows, and the young Imogen Fludd, whom he took is as a daughter but has chosen to marry as a second wife:
Prosper Cain stood and faced his daughter, who had not sat down. Her face was full of energy and her eyes glittered. She had been, since she was born, the creature he loved most in the world, and he was partly angry that he had noticed no change in her, no softening or excitement that might suggest she was in love. He felt full of energy. He was a military man, faced with a difficult situation, out of which he must extricate everyone with no losses. He looked from his daughter to his beloved, who was looking at the tablecloth. He loved Imogen. He wanted Imogen. That was a source of power. He loved Florence, he would find what was best for her, which might or might not be Geraint Fludd, and because he loved her, he would find a way to open a path for her. It came to him, as he stood there, that he must marry Imogen very soon, as Imogen's position was anomalous. This delighted him. He raised his glass to Florence, and included Geraint in the gesture. (page 501)
Or finally, there is the constant discussion of the women's right to vote and their place in this new society:
".....Do you think getting the Vote would help?""It would remove one of the endless humiliating differences between women and men. It might make it possible - in some new world - for the sexes to talk to each other, like people. At the moment the agitation is just making the women more womanish and the men more grumpy and masculine. Of course we ought to be able to vote. But I don't know that having the Vote will affect the things that frighten me." Griselda paused. "Whereas, if I wrote a really good book, that might. Or if you invented a new surgical procedure, or discovered a new drug." (page 526)
While I believe Ms. Byatt has followed Jane Austen's advice well --- for she has indeed focused the book on 3 or 4 families from the Kent countryside -- she has also infused her writing with such complex themes as political differences, sexual orientation and experimentation, women's rights, love and infidelity. Her boundaries extend far beyond the small English village - and her characters are greatly affected by life in the world at large. The book made me ponder what it must have been like to live at the time - when so much of the lifestyle I take for granted had to be fought for - and I have learned to appreciate what I have.
One note to readers of this blog -- while I loved her detailed descriptions and marveled at her way with words, I know there are several who have read the book and found the language to be cumbersome: too many characters and descriptions which takes away from the enjoyment of the story. While that was not my experience, you know yourself as a reader - and would know if this would hinder your reading experience.