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.