The Children’s Book – Book Review

The children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to. Children in these families, at the end of the nineteenth century, were different from children before or after. They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed, over supper or during long country walks. And yet, at the same time, the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent lives, as children. – from The Children’s Book, page 31 –

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt is a huge, sprawling multi-family saga set in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Olive Wellwood, a children’s author, lives with her husband Humphrey and their seven children (ages zero to 13 years) at Todefright – a huge mansion whose grounds edge the forest. Olive writes each child their own story – fairy tales which have no end.

They were like segmented worms, with hooks and eyes to fit onto the next moving and coiling section. Every closure of plot had to contain a new beginning. There were tributary plots, that joined the mainstream again, further on, further in. Olive plundered the children’s stories sometimes, for publishable situations, or people, or settings, but everyone understood that the magic persisted because it was hidden, because it was a shared secret. – from The Children’s Book, page 89 –

The stories Olive writes parallel reality. The secrets she alludes to also exist outside of the books, lurking in the dark corners of Todefright waiting to be discovered.

There are several other families which comprise Byatt’s ambitious novel. Benedict Fludd, a barely sane potter, hides his perverse fantasies about his two daughters, while Fludd’s wife escapes reality by sinking into a drug induced state of complacency. Humphrey’s brother Basil and German wife Katharina are raising the beautiful Griselda and rebel Charles (ages 11 and 14). Prosper Cain, a museum owner and widow, also has two children – the independent minded Julian (age 15) and conflicted Florence (age 12). Finally, there is Phillip who is found wandering in the basement of Cain’s museum and is taken in by Benedict Fludd when he realizes that Phillip is a budding artist (later, Phillip’s sister Elsie joins the cast).

Despite the sheer number of characters introduced, Byatt does an admirable job at developing them – giving them distinct personalities, strengths and weaknesses. I did stop reading early on in order to create a character chart, but found that by the time I got 100 pages into the novel, I no longer needed to refer to it. Later I found this terrific list of characters on Wikipedia.

Byatt uses the historical and political backdrop of the Women’s Suffrage movement in England, Socialism and the inside workings of the Fabian Society, and the build up to WWI to frame her novel which begins in 1895 and ends just after WWI in 1919. Byatt skillfully shows the transition from the Victorian Age to the Edwardian age.

It was a new time, not a young time. Skittishly, it cast off the moral anguish and human responsibility of the Victorian sages Lytton Strachey was preparing to mock. The rich acquired motor cars and telephones, chauffeurs and switchboard operators. The poor were a menacing phantom, to be helped charitably, or exterminated expeditiously. The sun shone, the summers broiled and were brilliant. The land, in places, was running with honey, cream, fruit fools, beer, champagne. – from The Children’s Book, page 431 –

During this time, the reader follows the lives of the children as they grow into young adults, make mistakes, search for their identities, go off to fight in the trenches, and begin their own families. Olive’s eldest children (Tom and Dorothy) take center stage as characters from the Wellwood family. Tom is Olive’s favorite child and is stuck in Olive’s fantastical world of boys without shadows and underground tunnels – he roves the woods and lives in a dreamworld. Dorothy wishes to be someone more than someone’s wife and sets her sights on becoming a doctor. One of my favorite Wellwood characters is Hedda, whose spunk and determination eventually leads her to becoming a Suffragette. The reader also comes to know Julian Cain well…a boy who early on recognizes he prefers the company of men to that of women and is not afraid to acknowledge his sexuality. I especially felt myself drawn to Imogen – the eldest Fludd daughter – who manages to escape her wretched father and make a life for herself.

At the turn of the century, the young were about to be adults, or some of them were, and the elders looked at the young, with their fresh skins and new graces and awkwardnesses with a mixture of tenderness, fear and desire. The young desired to be free of the adults, and at the same time were prepared to resent any hint that the adults might desire to be free of them. – from The Children’s Book, page 252 –

Interspersed throughout the novel are snatches of Olives stories which provide insight into the background of the characters…and the secrets. It seems every character has a secret: infidelity, sexual identity, incest, and political aspirations. As each secret is uncovered, another aspect of the characters is revealed – a bit like peeling off the layers of an onion.

In case you have not already figured it out, I loved this book. I loved its density. I loved the character development. I loved Byatt’s gorgeous use of language and the care she took in getting the historical details correct. I especially enjoyed the fairy tales and the theme of not growing up which weaves through the story (Byatt references Peter Pan in this novel and the idea of staying child-like forever is played out in the book). I found the historical background on the Women’s Suffrage movement in England to be fascinating…and yes, Byatt’s female characters are immersed in the drama and conflict of that time.

“It is a terrible thing to be a woman. You are told people like to look at you – as though you have a duty to be the object of … the object of … And then, afterwards, if you are rejected, if what you … thought you were worth …is after all not wanted … you are nothing.” – from The Children’s Book, page 357 –

They were troubled, as intelligent girls at the time were troubled, by the question of whether their need for knowledge and work in the world would in some sense denature them. Women worked, they knew, as milliners and typewriters, housekeepers and skivvies. They worked because they had no means, or were not pretty or rich enough to attract a man. – from The Children’s Book, page 358 –

This novel is so intricate and far-reaching, it is hard to do it justice in a review. This was my first experience with Byatt’s writing and it has made me eager to read more of her work. But, if you just read one novel this year, let it be The Children’s Book…a wholly satisfying and enjoyable read from start to finish.

Highly recommended.

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    • Lenore on March 15, 2010 at 13:15

    I know I want to read this one, but I’ve been thinking I should wait until paperback…now I want to go out and buy it immediately!

  1. Wow, it sounds like that book has it all!

  2. I just bought a copy of this book after reading so many great reviews. I am so glad you loved it and am really looking forward to getting into it. Great review! It sounds like a hell of a read!

    • Verbatim on March 15, 2010 at 14:07

    This one is on my TBR pile and personal challenge list for the year. Now I can’t wait! Thanks for the excellent review that’s thorough but doesn’t give anything away. ( P.S. — Still haven’t made it through Wolf Hall.)

  3. This is one of the first books I’ve seen where our opinions differ. I did enjoy this book, but it felt more like a non fiction reference book on the period of history than a novel with a proper plot. I did enjoy reading it, but it felt like a slog at times.

    • Molly on March 15, 2010 at 15:36

    GREAT review, Wendy! So much more detailed and eloquent than I could write. I really loved this book as well and know that it is one that I would like to re-read in a couple of years.

    • diane on March 15, 2010 at 16:50

    WOW…..high praises! I have the audio on my IPOD and have a Kindle version as well. Looking forward to it, just not sure when. Thanks 4 the great review.

    • JoAnn on March 15, 2010 at 16:54

    What a great review, Wendy! I still have Wolf Hall on my shelf, but am thinking I need to run out and get this right away. You said all the magic words – sprawling, multi-family saga, character development, gorgeous use of language… I’m sold!

    • Wendy on March 15, 2010 at 16:59

    Lenore: I don’t know if you are like me, but I love having my favorite books in hardcover…I know this book hasn’t had universal raves, but most of the reviews have been good. If you have the $$ for a hardcover, this isn’t a bad book to buy that way 🙂

    Kathy: Well, in my opinion, it does 🙂

    Zibilee: Its a great ride – hope you’ll love it as I did!

    Verbatim: Oh, I sympathize with your struggle through Wolf Hall! I don’t think you’ll find this one so difficult although it is longer by about 200 pages (interestingly I finished The Children’s Book in HALF the time it took me to read Wolf Hall!!!). I try really hard not to give spoilers. This was a hard review for me to write because there is SO much happening in the novel!

    Jackie: Every once in awhile we differ, don’t we? I really love books like this one (always have) – the family saga aspect of it just won me over. I didn’t mind the historical details (although I have heard other readers complain about that)…to me it added necessary background.

    Molly: This was such a hard review to write – I wanted to include EVERYTHING *laughs* Thanks for the compliment 🙂 And I am really happy you also loved this book. It will make my top books list for 2010 I think.

    Diane: I wonder how this will be on audio. There are a lot of characters and details…for me I’d need to visually incorporate them! I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts!

    • Wendy on March 15, 2010 at 17:00

    JoAnn: I don’t want to discourage you from reading Wolf Hall – but I would definitely tell you to read Byatt’s book (especially if you like all those things like sprawling, family saga, etc…) This is just the kind of thick, chunky book I adore!!

  4. I’m so glad to hear good things about this one as I have it here to read. It’s so big it is a little intimidating although I have liked Byatt in the past.

  5. Thanks for linking to the wiki list. That should definitely come in handy when I read this book, which I really want to!

  6. Bayatt is one of those authors who I have no idea why I still have not read.

  7. You know, I still have not read any A.S. Byatt. I need to tackle Possession before I turn to this one. Great review!

    • Wendy on March 24, 2010 at 13:22

    Kristen: For a fat book, this one was relatively easy to get through!

    Stephanie: I would have printed out the Wiki character list before I started had I known about it. Hope it helps orient you in the beginning!

    J.T.: Don’t feel bad – this was my first Byatt and I was beginning to feel like the only person out there who hadn’t read anything by her!

    Swapna: I’ll look forward to your thoughts on Possession as I haven’t read that one yet.

  8. For fans of The Children’s Book, I would not recommend tackling Possession. Instead, I would start with the first book of her Frederica Quartet, entitled The Virgin in the Garden. The first two books are easily the best things that Byatt has ever written. Possession just seems like a minor work in comparison to the beauty and technical prowess displayed by Still Life, the second Frederica novel.

    The Children’s Book was good, but suffers from too many characters and an undercooked climax. I still enjoyed it, but it could have been better with more pages or fewer characters.

    • Wendy on April 20, 2010 at 05:00

    Matthew: Thanks for sharing your thoughts…I’ve added Byatt’s first two books to my wish list based on your recommendation! I will eventually read Possession because I am trying to read all the Booker winners. Re: The Children’s Book, I actually don’t mind a huge cast of characters…and I’m a sucker for family sagas, so it was a natural fit for me (I also adore fat, chunky books *laughs*)

  9. This was my first Byatt too. I loved it as well. It was a big book to take on but worth reading.

    • Wendy on August 15, 2010 at 09:01

    Chris: I totally agree!!

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