Saturday, January 01, 2011

Book Review - The Children's Book by A.S Byatt (Chatto & Windus 2009)

In 1895, Philip Warren, a young runaway from poverty in the Potteries, is found hiding in the bowels of what would become the Victoria & Albert Museum, sketching the Gloucester Candlestick. Fortunately, when the child is brought to the Special Keeper of Precious Metals, Prosper Cain, he is meeting with esteemed author of children's books, Olive Wellwood, who offers to take the boy to find work for him.

Thus, in an introduction which could have come from any number of turn-of-the-century children's books, is Philip Warren introduced to the Wellwoods and their sprawling family, and through them to the household of the temperamental potter, Benedict Fludd, to whom he is apprenticed. The Wellwoods are Fabians, and their social set includes anarchist emigrees from Eastern Europe, bohemian puppet-makers from Munich, and advocates of women's liberation and free love.

The Children's Book follows the fortunes of the parents and children of these households through the end of the Victorian era to the end of the First World War. To Philip the lives of the Wellwood children seem idealised, part of wealthy and loving family, having freedom to play around Todefright, their large country house in Kent and the extensive woods that surround it. But, needless to say, all is not what it seems.

In such a large, sometimes unwieldy book there are several dynamic themes. Olive Wellwood appears to be the loving, caring mother, who has created a personal story for each of her children. But Olive is withdrawing into her own creative world and leaving the day-to-day caring for her household to her sister, Violet Grimwith. As Olive withdraws, she is less able to cater for her children's emotional needs, with tragic consequences. Olive's withdrawal is partly precipitated by the lack of emotional support from her husband, Humphry. He has left his post with the Bank of England to campaign for Fabian causes, but this is a book in which patriarchal characters are generally portrayed negatively. Humphry has left a string of illegitimate children behind him, and, when he makes a drunken pass at one of Olive's teenage daughters, he is forced to admit that he is not in fact her father.

At nearby Purchase House, Benedict Fludd's terrifying rages appear to have had a cowing effect on his family. There is a general acceptance that since Fludd is a creative genius his moods can be indulged, but, as Philip discovers when he find sexually explicit models of Fludd's daughters, his tyranny has gone much further.

The third serial exploiter of women is Herbert Methley, who we meet whilst sunbathing in the nude in his garden with his wife. Methley is an author who writes and speaks on women's rights, including their sexual rights. But Methley is only intent on seduction - once in bed he treats his women badly.

The book is also concerned with radical politics. Banker Basil Wellwood's son, Charles/Karl, mixes in German anarchist circles, but eventually prefers to study at the LSE to carrying out acts of violence. Ironically, since he has worked out his position on violence clearly in advance, refuses to fight, but becomes a red cross stretcher bearer in the First World War. Olive's daughter Hedda becomes a radical suffragete but, along with Doctor Dorothy and Fludd's abused daughter Pomona also finds a certain peace and self-realisation through her work with wounded soldiers.

Several characters pursue paralleled paths to self-realisation or self-destruction. Olive and her sister Violet have escaped from mining communities in the north to set up a prosperous household with Humphry where Olive can create her books. Philip and his sister Elsie have separately left their starving household in the Potteries to walk to the South, where Philip can create his pots. Dorothy becomes a doctor and Imogen Fludd becomes a craftswoman in spite of their respective parents. On the other hand, neither Tom nor Benedict Fludd can escape their demons.

Tom has parallels with the children of several writers of children's books of the period - the son of Kenneth Grahame (who himself worked for the Bank of England) and J.M Barry's adopted son are both thought to have killed themselves. Benedist Fludd is closely based on sculptor Eric Gill, and aspects of the Wellwood household is based on that of E Nesbitt.

Real characters from radical politics and the artitstic movements of the period take walk-on roles as Byatt builds her picture with excting attention to detail. Her background in the decorative arts is clear as the technicalities of ceramics, of Gien Faiencerie and the influence of Bernard Palissey is described in loving detail, as is the Art Nouveau of the Paris 1900 Exposition.

Byatt delights in instructing the reader, be it the radical beliefs of Munich Anarchists, or the politics of the Victoria and Albert museum, or the Back to Nature of Edward Carpenter. Several critics have complained that this is at the expense of the plot of this novel, but I disagree. When writing with such a cast of characters and on such a broad scale, the discussion of ideas and detailed descriptions of the various creative processes give the reader space both to contextualise and to absorb the reality of the relationships slowly unfolding before you. And they are all interlinked. The creative process builds and destroys the relationships, as do the radical ideas prevelant at the time.

But at heart this is a very conservative book. For all Charles/Karl's youthful flirtation with radical politics, in the end the family unit which retains its integrity to the greatest is the conventional family unit of the banker Basil Wellwood. All the others have been destroyed to a greater or lesser extent by the actions and beliefs of the parents. And when on the penultimate page Dorothy discovers that her father is Jewish, but that "it had not occurred to Dorothy to ask if her father was Jewish, and he had not felt a need to tell her" the scene is set for ideology to drive the next phase of Europe's 20th Century tragedy.

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