The moral seriousness of ASByatts fiction derives much from her concept of responsibility — and responsibility, for her, is most importantly the business of marshalling and applying one’s intellect to every area of one’s life.
Her new novel, The Children’s Book (Chatto & Windus), a detailed and charged re-creation of the period between the end of the 19th century and World War I, overflows with people attempting to define their responsibilities (whether to fulfil them or to evade them), with those in pursuit of enlightenment or seeking to manipulate it and with some simply attempting to unearth who they are and what they should do to survive.
For Philip Warren, the boy whose discovery in the store rooms of the South Kensington Museum in London (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) opens the book, survival is a matter of making good his escape from life in the Potteries and finding a way of unravelling and realising his semi-articulated desire to “make something”. His hideaway uncovered, he is brought before Major Prosper Cain, the keeper of precious metals, and Olive Wellwood, a “successful authoress of magical tales” who is visiting Cain for research purposes. Enquiring about the starved boy’s background, Olive suggests: “You wanted to make something of your life, of yourself… That’s natural.”
We see, immediately, that Philip’s sense of what “a life” might constitute is different from Olive’s, though their backgrounds are similar: Olive, with her sister Violet, has also fled an upbringing of unrelieved poverty and traumatic loss. By marrying Humphry Wellwood, a banker by trade though not by inclination, she has created a life of plentitude, productivity and no little luxury.
By harnessing her memories of the mining community in which she grew up, and linking them with her instinctive feel for fairy stories and folk tales, she has also created an independent life for herself. But in the course of several hundred pages, Byatt demonstrates that creativity means entirely different things to Philip and to Olive and has entirely different effects on those around them.
Humphry and Olive’s rambling farmhouse on the Kentish Weald, named Todefright, is a wonderfully achieved emblem of the particular slice of late 19th-century society Byatt wishes to show in all its precariously utopian varieties: swarming with children who are allowed to speak not only when spoken to, with rebels ranging from politely insistent Fabians to fugitive Russian anarchists, with unstable artists, with ideas, pro-jects and determination.
Its inhabitants pride themselves on their ability to speak their minds freely and to arrange their affairs according to progressive and humane values rather than in the service of unblinking Victorian stricture. Byatt is slyly comic on the extent to which these ideals are allied to the profusion of decorative earthenware plates and bountiful midsummer parties.
Beneath the house’s surface, though, secrets multiply — infidelities that have made a mess of lines of paternity and maternity, expedient accommodations of truth and finance, lapses of thought or care for the consequences of one’s actions. For Todefright’s children, given terrifyingly partial glimpses into the adults’ muddied affairs, the family home shifts from idyll to prison and back, their parents — or who they think their parents are — from beneficent protectors to child-like incompetents.
Olive’s work stands at the centre of the novel and extracts of it run throughout, thickening not only our sense of her subjectivity but also providing Byatt’s imitative commentary on the children’s literature of the time.
In Olive, Byatt further probes the motives and contours of the process of writing for children. When Olive is pregnant once again, she seals herself away in her stories, partly out of financial necessity but also to shore up her individuality and to insulate herself from her unborn child, reflecting on her pleasure thus: “Blood flowed from heart to head, and into the happy fingertips, bypassing the greedy inner sleeper.”
For each of the household’s children, Olive has created a book, revealing her allegiances and, indeed, her actual biological connection by the differing amounts of time and creative energy she bestows. Outstripping the others by far is Tom, Olive’s eldest son, a boy who loathes the pretence of Peter Pan (“It’s make-believe make-believe make-believe”) and who decides to mimic an animal’s non-attachment to the material world to protect himself. Eventually brought to grief by his mother’s inability to separate him from his fictional alter ego, he is perhaps the novel’s saddest and most significant casualty.
But casualties abound among the dizzyingly extensive cast of this novel, one that is powered by unexpected doublings, sudden appearances, disappearances and couplings, individual histories — and, for that matter, history itself — rapidly and uncompromisingly deployed.
Mirroring the superficially orderly and harmonious Todefright is the ghastly Purchase House, the dilapidated home of Benedict Fludd, the master potter to whom Philip is apprenticed, a crazy makeshift household in which kilns explode and sexually explicit statues of children are kept in a locked cupboard.
The horrors of genius are writ large on the lives of Fludd’s drugged-up wife, his traumatised daughters and angry son, his beleaguered and abused friends. Byatt’s cleverness, in the dual figures of Olive and Fludd, is to keep the reader in thrall to their talents while showing the sinuous stealth of their neglect — and to underline that neither artist is left undamaged.
It will probably never be said of Byatt’s writing that she wears her learning lightly, and her lengthy disquisitions on the building blocks of her narrative both support and bloat the novel. Her briskly delivered but expansive accounts are never less than informative but sometimes a little less than compelling.
One could say, in the survivors’ parade that forms the final pages of The Children’s Book, that Byatt provides us with glimmers of hope. Connections are reforged, tiny instances of justice done, gestures towards continuity sketched. But this is a dark novel, driven by an unsparing view of human nature and a clear-eyed analysis of the idea of human perfectibility.
Despite some of its structural similarities to Byatt’s earlier novel, Possession, and its thematic links to the tetralogy that featured Frederica Potter, it reminded me most of her Little Black Book of Stories. In that collection and in this novel Byatt reminds us in chilling fashion of the perils of artistic creation and the duties of its exponents to find out the difference between what is real and what is not. —