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A S Byatt: The Children’s Book

One of my favourite humorous sites is Stuff White People Like. It is a site, developed, of course, by white people, which mocks what (US) white people like and therefore, presumably, other ethnic groups do not. Byatt’s novel might well be sub-titled Stuff Hampstead White Middle-Class People Like. However, unlike Stuff White People Like, Byatt’s novel is a nostalgic (it is set from 1895 to 1919) homage to stuff that Hampstead white middle-class people like or used to like, with no mockery in sight. We get the whole gamut – theosophy, Fabianism, vegetarianism, feminism/suffragettism, naturism, Arts and Crafts, the Oedipus complex, homosexuality, free love, walking (for its own sake), summer camps, lots of extramarital sex, museums/art galleries, sympathy with anarchism (both the Kropotkin and bomb-throwing kind), skinny dipping, treating children as adults and more. There is nothing wrong with this, except that Byatt seems to wallow in it and, particularly, nostalgically wallows in what has gone. To make it worse she starts using stereotypes to tell her story. We have the Mad Artist, the Earth Mother, the Lecherous Novelist, the Working Class Lad Making Good, the Sensitive Young Man. To give an a example of how this harms the novel, there is a character called Julian, whom we meet on the first page as a teenage boy. But we soon lose touch with Julian the person, as he becomes a stereotype for the sensitive and unsure homosexual and, for a long while, it is only in that context that we see him. Indeed, when he suddenly seems to become heterosexual, it doesn’t quite fit

Byatt has, of course, tried to write a novel which does not tell a story of a small group of characters or just one character but, rather, to describe an age. There are many fine novels that do just that but, invariably, the best of them do it through the eyes of a small group of characters or, better still, just one character. An obvious comparison is Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall, which beat this novel for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Mantel also describes an age, namely the part of Henry VIII’s reign in which Thomas Cromwell was in ascendancy. It works very well (and the Man Booker Prize judges must have thought so, too) as we see almost the whole story through the eyes of one person, namely Thomas Cromwell. Of course, this means that we see the other characters through the eyes of Cromwell with all of his biases. For example, Thomas More, considered a saint by some, is despised in this book. But that is the way it should be as Mantel was aware that she was writing a novel while Byatt is not sure whether she is writing a novel or a history. Indeed, Byatt often throws in historical tidbits about subjects such as Fabianism, the Boer War, the Paris Exhibition (with details of the paintings and art styles), the death of Queen Victoria and, in particular, World War I, which have no relevance to the story except as background and which come across as frankly obtrusive.

One of the problems all of this causes is that Byatt’s novel seems to lack focus. With a few special exceptions, the best novels (e.g. the Mantel mentioned above) tell their story through the eyes of a small group of characters or just one character. Byatt has a whole host of characters telling the story. There are four main households. The Wellwood household consists of Humphry and Olive, Olive’s sister, Violet, and seven children (one born during the course of the novel). Humphry’s brother, the banker Basil, his wife and son, Charles/Karl and daughter, Griselda, constitute another household. Then there is the Fludd household, headed by the Mad Artist, Benedict, his wife Seraphita (formerly Mary Jane), their two daughters, Imogen and Pomona, and their son, Geraint, as well as Benedict’s apprentice, the Working Class Lad Making Good, Philip Warren, and Philip’s sister, Elsie, who works as a maid in the household. Finally there is the Cain household, headed by Major Prosper Cain, Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum (which will become the Victoria and Albert Museum during the course of the book) who is a widower but has a son Julian and daughter Florence. All of these characters can take over the focus of the novel at any time, relegating the others to the background so that we temporarily forget them (the book is 615 pages long). And that is not the full cast list, as other characters also pop up including historical ones such as Oscar Wilde, Marie Stopes and Oskar Panizza.

And it is all sanitised. There are three working class characters. One – Olive Wellwood – Earth Mother, writer of children’s fiction, mother of seven children is only revealed to be working class or, at least, have working class origins, after quite a while. She is now irredeemably middle class. The other two are Philip Warren, the Working Class Lad Making Good, and his sister, Elsie, like every other character in this book, intelligent, even though she is not educated and cannot read well, at least not initially. Olive’s working class origins are introduced to us through her father, a coal miner, who has his bath every evening after going down the pit, while Philip, when brought into the Wellwood household early in the book, also has to have his working class grime removed. Only Elsie escapes the obligatory bath as her job is to clean up the dirt of others. In short, dirt is eschewed, except when it is earthy and beautiful. We even have an episode when one of the woman characters breaks off an affair as her lover wanted her to perform some unspeakable sexual act. We are never told what this act is. Too dirty.

This may make it seem that I do not like this novel. This is not entirely true. Byatt is one of the finest English writers of this period and she writes as well in this book as in her others. Like other great writers who occasionally slip from their normal heights, this book may be considered a magnificent failure rather than a book to avoid at all costs and, as such, it is still worth reading.

As mentioned above the story primarily revolves around four families. To a certain extent, but only to a certain extent, the story, as the title implies, is about the children. We follow the problems that they have in growing up, their learning and education, particularly difficult for the girls/women, though they are probably the first generation where education away from the home beyond the rudimentary was accepted for girls. We learn about their sexual relationships, some unrequited, some difficult. Two have extramarital pregnancies, after only one encounter, both from the same man. Not a single one – some fourteen of them – has a normal marriage, by which I mean marriage to someone more or less their own age, except, possibly, one of the women, right at the end, who marries a man with no legs and only one eye. Several have no or virtually no sexual relationships. Several of them have to deal with difficult parents and with various secrets that these parents have, which affects them, the children and, which, all too often, they find difficult or impossible to deal with. Several of them struggle, as many heroes of novels and even more real people do, with what life holds for them and what they should do. Only a few are able to do what they really want to do, primarily because they do not know what they want to do. Surprisingly only two become politically active, given that their parents (in the case of the Wellwoods) were politically involved and a couple of them played around with politics when young. To be fair most of the young men are either killed or scarred (either emotionally or physically or both) in World War I.

But, ultimately, the fact remains that, while this book clearly does give us a portrait of an age, it fails, in that Byatt all too often seems more enamoured of the history, particularly little historical snippets that she assumes, probably quite correctly, that we will not know. None of the characters holds our attention for too long. Some – Florian and Harry Wellwood are two good examples – only really appear for a short while, before disappearing again. In the case of others, we are just getting involved with them, before we move off to others, and they disappear for some time, only to reappear, sometimes quite changed, much later. It is a frustrating book, as it does give us a fascinating portrait of a most interesting period in English history, socially, politically and artistically. But, in the end, it is disappointing. I much preferred Wolf Hall.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Chatto and Windus