Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Children’s Book by AS Byatt

The Children’s Book, by AS Byatt, is a big, sprawling historical novel that begins in the mid 1890’s and ends with the end of World War I. It is no secret that I am a big fan of Byatt’s, although that doesn’t mean that I’ve liked all of her novels equally. I liked this one even though it wasn’t perfect. All of my favorite parts of a Byatt novel are in here: characters who think too much, social commentary, much emphasis on the role of women in society. Some of the things I regularly don’t like in Byatt novels are here too, fairy tale style stories embedded within the narrative being the biggest offender in my eyes.

Byatt almost bit off more than she could chew in this novel. Edwardian times and World War I have been written about so much that it doesn’t seem that there would be much need for exposition in a novel about that time. And yet, most people probably aren’t aware of the interconnectedness of many of the progressive leaders of the day and while everyone knows that World War I began with the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, most people may not know that there were multiple assassinations of leaders in the years ahead of the war. At times Byatt gets a bit bogged down in the social history, much more than she did in Possession. But Possession was an intimate story and this is a sprawling tale. Also, half of Possession took place in modern times with characters trying to discover things about the Victorian characters. They could provide the necessary exposition. This novel takes place completely in the past.

I don’t intend to do anything like a formal ‘review’ of this novel. Truthfully I find writing those kinds of things somewhat boring because of the need not to give away anything important. Instead I want to just talk about the novel because I found it thought provoking. And I’ll probably talk about it over a series of posts. So if you don’t want spoilers, stop now.

There is so much to think about in this novel that it is hard to know where to start, but I think I will start with the most basic thing this novel is about: families. Families are the building block of the novel and, because Byatt is creating quite an imposing ediface, she begins with, and builds upon, multiple families. What I found fascinating was that, by creating so many families and so many members of those families, Byatt could explore almost every intra-family relationship that exists. In some ways this novel resembles a family saga except that it isn’t. There are families and there is certainly a saga but I don’t think that is the point of the novel. It is just a good part of it.

So, who are the families and what are some of the relationships Byatt explores?

First there are the Wellwoods. Here Byatt explores how two brothers can grow up to live completely different lifestyles and have different priorities and yet still care about what happens to the other. Humphry Wellwood (the head of the Todefright Wellwoods) and Basil Wellwood (the head of the London Wellwoods) are brothers. Basil has married the boss’s daughter, a German woman named Katherina and they have two children: Charles (sometimes known as Karl) and Griselda. The London Wellwoods are very proper. They are concerned that their son go to the best school (Eton) and their daughter be brought out in good society and make a good marriage. They are Conservative.

Humphry Wellwood and his wife Olive live in a big country house called Todefright. Their household, including the seven children, are looked after by Olive’s sister Violet who acts as a sort of housekeeper and nanny. Humphry and Olive are Liberal. They don’t seem to have any specific plans for their children’s adult lives but are concerned that they grow up in an idyllic existence where they can run free and play in the fields and the woods. Humphry and Olive have parties in which the children are included in the festivities, but they don’t have formal parties and balls. (At one point late in the novel another character asks Olive to assist him in throwing a ball and Olive knows she is out of her league and brings in her sister-in-law Katherina.)

Because of the differences in their political views the Wellwood brothers do not always see eye to eye. But they are still brothers and are still concerned about each other’s welfare. At one point Humphry is concerned that some of Basil’s investments (which Humphry has warned him about) will go bad and Basil will suffer. But Basil does listen to Humphry and pulls out of the investments in time. In gratitude he offers to pay for the schooling of Tom, Humphry’s oldest son.

Although at the beginning of the novel Humphry Wellwood is a London banker he is also deeply interested in social reform. He and Olive are members of the Fabian Society. Average Americans (like me) may not know much about the Fabian Society. It was a precurser to the Labour Party and was full of social progressives who wanted to reform society. People like George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells and Leonard and Virgina Woolf were members. Another member was E. Nesbit who was an author of popular children’s books such as The Railway Children, which is still in print. Olive Wellwood is loosely based on Edith Nesbit. Basil Wellwood disapproves of his brother’s connections as unfitting for a banker and eventually Humphry himself comes to see this. But rather than give up his political beliefs he gives up his job to become a writer of political articles and tracts..

Byatt then explores the situation where the wife is the principal breadwinner. Olive is a successful writer of children’s books and once Humphry leaves his job she feels the pressure that a principal breadwinner feels. Of course, all this pressure is relative. Humphry has some family money through which they managed to purchase Todefright. But it is Olive’s children’s books that bring in the real income and she is well aware of this. Olive and Violet also come from a very poor background and Todefright with its big happy family is Olive’s dream, which she fights hard to keep. Violet abets her in this. In fact the whole household is aware of the importance of Olive’s work and the children take care to leave their mother alone when she is in the midst of writing. It is Violet who cares for their clothes and sees that they get regular meals and performs all the normal duties of “mother”. Here Byatt explores the meaning of the word “mother” – is it the person who gave birth to you or the person who cares for your needs or the person who supports your existence?

Byatt also explores the situation of a son splitting from his parents in his political views. Basil and Katherina’s son Charles/Karl is not interested in the conservative society of his parents (although he loves them in his own way). Although he goes through the motions and attends Eton and then Cambridge, he is convinced that something must be done about all the poor people in the world. However, he has no interest in The Fabian Society and its policy of incremental change. Through one of his German tutors he is introduced to the Anarchists. Some Anarachists believed, among other things, in political assassinations as a way to bring about social change. Throughout the novel, young Charles/Karl is torn between wanting to follow his radical social beliefs, keeping these beliefs from his parents and becoming clear in his own mind exactly how far he would be willing to go in pursuit of his cause.

Charles/Karl is not the only son in the story who wants a break from his family. Geraint Fludd does too. Geraint’s father, Benedict Fludd, is a talented potter who makes museum quality pieces but has no ability to handle his own finances. Geraint’s mother, Seraphita, lives in an unnaturally calm, drug induced, state and she is incapable of running a household. The children, especially Geraint, are well aware that bills can’t be paid and that new clothes cannot be procured or even, sometimes, food. Geraint wants a life with money, not art. He wants to be a banker. Geraint is the child who abandons the dysfunctional family and doesn’t want to look back; but a bit of guilt does cause him to try to set up a system by which his father’s work can be sold and produce some income for his family. Unlike Charles/Karl, however, Geraint has no problem breaking with his family in most major ways. Perhaps because being a banker is generally seen as more stable than being an artist and he could count on the approbation of society. It may also be because he recognizes that his family is dysfunctional in some terrible way that he feels incapable of changing and he just wants to escape.

The boy who has the most complete break from his family is Philip Warren, who has left home to find his own way as a potter. Philip is a true artist and must follow his calling even though he is only fourteen and he isn’t sure where he is going. He eventually becomes an apprentice to Benedict Fludd where he is relatively happy. Philip misses his mother, though, although he doesn’t like to admit it to anyone. Eventually his sister Elsie finds him. Elsie and Philip make a family unit and their story is the story of children (teens) without parents who must earn their keep in the world. (Olive finds Elsie’s story romantic and writes a successful book based on it.) Elsie and Philip love one another but a part of Philip is sorry to have lost his complete freedom from family once Elsie shows up.

Elsie is one of the many girl children in the novel. Elsie, once she finds Philip, ends up as housekeeper for the Fludds. She makes the household functional. Geraint, for one, is very grateful for her presence even though he is not often there. Elsie never wanted to go into service, she wanted to paint pottery the way her mother did. She appears to have some artistic talent, but Philip is the artist in the family and Elsie pushes herself into a service role to support him. It is an interesting take on the story of family members who decide that one member (other than themselves) is the person who must be supported in his endeavors.

Elsie lives in a world that is far removed from the society world of Griselda, but Griselda is no happier with her potential role in life than Elsie is with hers. Griselda has no interest in society and parties and discovers that she really wants to get an education and do something that requires thinking. She gets little support from her parents on this. However she gets much support from her cousin Dorothy Wellwood. Dorothy wants to be a doctor, to the surprise of her parents. The Humphry Wellwoods do not dissuade Dorothy but they also do not encourage her. Dorothy represents the child who has a goal and is completely focused on it even while knowing that to achieve it she will have to give up many things that other people consider normal life.

Dorothy is the second oldest child in the Todefright household. Below her are many younger children. Byatt does a good job of depicting a large family with its sometimes artificial age lines drawn between the “older” children and the “younger” children. Tom, Dorothy and Phyllis are the older children, although Tom and Dorothy do no more than tolerate Phyllis. Hedda is the oldest of the younger children and she is constantly trying to find her place in the world. She is subject to rages. She discovers she is good at “finding things out” and becomes the child who is always in the know – and always tries to share her knowledge with the older children who take the knowledge but still won’t include her in their play. Hedda grows up to be a suffragette. Personally, I thought that Hedda needed more time in this novel because I thought her story was very interesting.

Perhaps the principal relationship that Byatt explores is the relationship between a mother and her favorite child. At what point is the relationship based on a true understanding of each other and at what point is it based on a false idea of who the other person is? Often parents do delude themselves about the problems that their favorite children have. Often children think their parents are different than they really are.

Tom Wellwood is Olive’s favorite child. As I said, Olive is a successful author of children’s books and Tom acts as a sort of muse to Olive. She doesn’t write the stories for him (or for any of the children) but having the children in the house, especially Tom, stirs her creative juices. It is a well known fact in the family that Tom is Olive’s favorite but none of the other children seem to care about this, partly because Tom is a very sweet child. In addition to the books that she writes commercially, Olive writes a continuing story for each of the children. Their “books” are kept in a special cupboard and Olive adds to them as the spirit moves her. It is, however, her favorite child’s story that Olive comes back to again and again. It is, among other things, a story of a prince whose shadow is stolen from him by a giant rat. The stolen shadow is somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of the story of Peter Pan and Tom is, indeed, the boy who doesn’t want to grow up.

At first Tom’s relationship with his mother is portrayed in a sweet way. But as Tom grows older Olive does not demand adult behavior from him and Tom continues to act, in many ways, as a child. (There are many reasons for this and this behavior is mostly not Olive’s fault.) Olive doesn’t necessarily encourage Tom’s behavior but having Tom around is not a detriment to Olive. Olive needs to be loved and “Tom loved her more than anyone did.” This leads Olive to think that Tom will love her no matter what she does. In the meantime, Tom’s feelings about Olive are complicated. There is the living mother and then there is a separate person, a woman who writes for him and to him and to whom he occasionally writes. After dealing with his mother through letters Tom is sometimes taken aback by the living Olive. “Olive in the flesh. Olive perfumed with attar of roses, was not the secret sharer of the otherworld, to whom he wrote letters. That was a kind of second self, who wrote him and inhabited his dreams.”

The written words that Tom and Olive share seem to be more sacred to Tom than any live relationship. Olive is not above cannibalizing parts of her children’s special stories when the muse deserts her, but she does know that Tom’s story is special. During a particularly difficult period in Tom’s life she sends him installments of the story and he tells her it makes all the difference to him. In the end, though, Olive chooses to treat the story as simply a story that can be told to the world at large and not as a special world created for Tom. This is a big mistake.

Believe it or not I have not introduced all the families yet or even all of the other members of families like the Fludds. There is, for instance, the family of Major Prosper Cain. His Italian wife died long ago and he is bringing up his son Julien and daughter Florence alone. Florence always thought her role was going to be to grow up and take care of her father. When she finally realizes this isn’t needed, Florence has to search for her own role in life.

Byatt does an outstanding job in creating all of these characters and making them and their relationships with each other real. She does a good job intertwining the lives of all of these families with only occasional contrived moments. Their lives do intersect (which is necessary for the plot). The two Wellwood families are, of course, related. The Cains know the Fludds and they all become friends with the Todefright Wellwoods and, through them, the London Wellwoods. Philip and Elsie Warren work for the Fludds. And all of these families are intertwined with other characters who are interesting in their own right.

As I said, the scope of this novel is very broad. I intend to write more about some of the other themes. I don’t think that Byatt was as successful in creating a tight narrative as she was in Possession and there were moments when there was too much exposition as she tried to set the historical scene. But on the whole I enjoyed this novel and part of the reason was the very complicated family structure on which she built the rest of the novel.