A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A desire to bring the author regular tea and biscuits and then sit at their feet is probably not the usual – or sane – response to a work of fiction. But that was my response to A.S. Byatt’s Possession and I had a similar reaction to her latest book The Children’s Book. Like Possession, it is a great shaggy quilt of a book, the sort you cannot – should not – race through. It is a book that demands to be savoured.
Prepare yourself. Telly off. Phone unplugged, mobile switched off. Feet up. Cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge within easy reach. And now you are ready to read this book. Such preparation should not be forgotten.
There is no driving plot to speak of; no forgotten literary love affair to uncover, but we follow the children from the late 1800s to the end of the First World War. We watch them grow up, fall in and out of love or madness and eventually we see some of them die. There are the children of the liberal Fabians, Humphrey and Olive Wellwood, including dreamy Tom, practical Dorothy and eavesdropping Hedda. There are their cousins the Wellwoods of London, Griselda and Charles. There are the children of military man and head of the V&A Museum, Prosper Cain and the mad, bad and dangerous to know potter, Benedict Fludd. And into this tumbling tumult of children comes aspiring young potter Phillip Warren.
The book opens with sumptuous detail in the V&A Museum, before the death of Queen Victoria, before the museum is complete. Byatt wallows in the detail as young Julian Cain shows Tom Wellwood the beauties of the museum and eyes him up as a possible love interest before they pursue the runaway Phillip into the cellars.
Having always been taught to keep characters to a minimum and reduce confusion for the reader by not using similar names, it was delightful to see Byatt throwing off such constraints. Her saga is peopled in much the same way as Olive Wellwood’s beloved house, Todefright – full of children, enigmatic writers and sinister puppeteers. I often felt the same bewilderment at the complex cast that the children must feel, surrounded as they are by a constantly changing influx of people.
This is a book that deals with writing, theatre, nature, what is real and unreal. Everything the Victorians themselves found fascinating. These characters are very much the product of their time.
But this is not a book constrained by its time period. You won’t find any coquettish girls hiding behind their fans here; there are few, if any, true innocents. In fact, there is more sex – some of it shocking – than in some books set today. You would be forgiven for thinking that apart from the long skirts and bodices this book was set in the swinging sixties.
Byatt also uses the theatre to great effect. The use of marionettes is spine-tingling in a way that only nasty blood-and-guts fairy tales can be. Like the tales told by the puppeteer Anselm Stern there is no neat and tidy ending, no sacrifice without pain. Of course as we draw ever nearer the war that we know lays on the other side of the turn of the century, we all know that some of these young boys are destined to die in the mud and so the gruesome puppets become even more sinister. Byatt often refers to the Kaiser and the Kings and we all know that these children are little more than puppets in the hands of those who ought to know better.
It is actually here that I felt let down by the book. Nothing prior to the war feels rushed, Byatt appeared to luxuriate in the wealth of rich detail at her fingertips, but the war feels hurried. A war that was not over by Christmas, as everyone thought it would be, barely lasts more than a couple of chapters, so we lose the sense of unending nightmare that the characters must experience. Characters that I have grown to love are picked off with casual, matter-of-fact violence that took my breath away.
And yet I was moved to tears by the final pages, perhaps because I had loved these characters so much and mourned their deaths as well as mourning the change in the survivors. This book demands to be read over a long period of time so I felt I had spent years in their company and seeing them picked off was a brutal experience.
This is a book that is full of delightful and complex characters. But it is no pretty and nostalgic view of a bygone age. There are characters that are flawed, characters that are insufferable and foolish. And then there are the characters that are truly despicable. There is incest to be found here and sickening displays of power play. And as in real life, the good do not always prosper. In fact some of them come to a worse end than the bad guys.
Chatto & Windus, London, 2009. ISBN-10: 0701183896. 624pp.