AS Byatt’s “The Children’s Book”


Successful children’s writer, Olive Wellwood writes a special private book, bound in different colours, for each of her children. This is the children’s book of the title – each child has his or her own fantastical fairy story which is added to as they grow up.  Throughout the book we get the impression that this mother finds the stories she has invented for her children far more real than the actual  lives they lead. She certainly enjoys the sense of control she can wield over their lives in the stories, a control she doesn’t possess in reality. When asked by a journalist to explain the private children’s books, Olive says: ” ‘Well, I sometimes feel, stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning of energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but is really — is really what holds it all together.’

The book concerns the inter-connected relationships between the Wellwood family, their cousins and their many friends and acquaintances like Prosper Cain, a curator at the new Victoria and Albert museum and his children Julian and Florence, the irascible Benedict Fludd, his wife Seraphina and their children. We watch as the children grow from the innocence of childhood into gradual disillusionment and frustration as they experience their awakening to the world. The Children’s Book is also very much about the age they live in (1895 to 1919) – a time of restless social change and emerging feminism, as political differences, Fabian arguments about class and free love, anarchism from Russia and Germany emerge. Of course, the reader can see where all this is heading, as it moves inexorably towards the trenches of the Great War. This lends a  poignancy to the youthful idealism of the characters as we can see that a whole generation would leave the innocent golden summers behind as they moved towards the darkness of the First World War.

This is the third book in our BBC series, and it is the first Byatt I’ve read.  If you are looking for a quick easy read…this isn’t it! It is a lengthy, complex, symbolic and many layered book with ambitious themes. Byatt’s reputation as one of the modern great novelists is well to the fore – her characteristic skill as a social historian and ability to evoke so perfectly an historical period, her characterisation, her prodigious research and imagination are all in evidence here.  

I imagine that this book will divide our BBC members, although I am guessing more won’t like it, than will. You need patience and fortitude to finish the book. Certainly it is a slow-paced, meandering read, at times maddeningly so. I struggled many times with the book, getting bogged down in so much detail and almost drowning in characters (I would have liked a family tree to help me out at times) and finding the narrative far too interrupted by over-detailed descriptions of everything from pottery glazes, to puppet shows.  At times the writing became too didactic (although I did learn a lot about things I knew little of such as the Fabian Society and Arts & Crafts and I really enjoyed learning about what it was like to be a female student in Cambridge at the start of the last century). I can’t say that I loved this book, and at times it was only the determination to finish it as part of BBC that kept me going, but gradually I found it growing on me as I felt myself being pulled into their lives and family dramas wondering how their real life stories would turn out. While I can understand how this book would frustrate readers, I can also see how others could hail it as a masterpiece. I haven’t decided which camp I fall into yet…perhaps I have one foot in each camp.


9 responses »

  1. A great description of the feelings of the readers, Marie, but I agree, a family tree would be helpful and 2/3’s of the way through, I have eventually got into it enough to really want to finish it.
    A many layered book it is indeed – too many layers for my summer brain to contend with but I think a reader can enjoy as many references as they recognise and ignore the rest. Postmodernism to the hilt!

  2. Great review Marie. I can empathise with you wanting a family tree. I remember reading a book a few years ago and drawing up a family tree for myself, there being so many characters to deal with. It was the only way I could follow it.

    I love the ending of your review with a ‘foot in each camp.’

    This is actually our fourth book in the BBC, I felt it was but had to go back and check, (Let the Great World Spin, Brooklyn and A Thousand Splendid Suns). We’re moving on!

  3. Well done for finishing the book! It was just too hard going for me at the minute, but I’ve kept it on the shelf for possible future reading. After seeing that so many other people gave up too, it might be one that got away!

  4. Great review Marie and well done for sticking with the book. I’m afraid I have both feet in the frustrated camp. I just couldn’t get over the amount of description that Byatt uses especially about pottery glazes and I found her too lecturing when it came to history and politics. Buts its nice to get another view and hopefully we can all get The Poisonwood Bible read by the next deadline!

  5. I may try to re-read it as I loved it the first time round, but time is catching up with me. I’ll still read and comment on your reviews though!

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