The Children's Book by AS Byatt
I reread Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden recently for a book group and absolutely loved it. I’d forgotten how much I liked her and vowed to reread the others in that tetralogy (including the last one which I haven’t read). Then on a trip to London, I saw in the newspaper ad in Timeout that she had a new book out so I set off for Waterstones to buy it. Then a few days later, I bought a second copy in Hatchard's—because it was signed by the author…and I’m not one for collecting signed editions.
I was not disappointed. It’s by far the best new novel I've read in years. Mature. Complex. Provocative. Thoughtful. It's about a loose collection of families and friends who are affiliated with Fabians or socialists or just liberal thinking. Some live in London (where Prosper Cain is the curator of precious metals at the new V&A and one of the brothers Wellwood (Basil) is important "in the City". The rest live in the country—in Kent. Basil Wellwood's brother, Humphrey, is married to Olive who writes stories for children (I heard she's based on E Nesbitt) and who also keeps an ongoing story for each of her many children—hence the title. There's also Benedict Fludd and his tribe. He's a brilliant but erratic potter; his wife, Seraphita, was a model for the Pre-Raphaelites and appears to have no personality except for the flowing gowns she wears and the needlework she's always set up to do sitting outside. There’s an assortment of liberal thinkers who are single: academics, vicars, woman teachers and do-gooders. Olive Wellwood (the children's author) and her sister "escaped" from the coal fields of Yorkshire where they were raised. There are also assorted artists, writers and lecturers, including some German artisans involved with puppets and marionettes and active in the Bohemian life of Schwabing in Munich. There are MANY children.
The book opens in 1895 when Cain's son Julian and Tom Wellwood (son of Olive and Humphrey) discover a dirty boy living surreptitiously in the basements of the V&A. Turns out Phillip ran away from "the potteries" where his mother, a painter of china, was slowly dying of lead poisoning. He wants make pots and is taken to work with Fludd. The back-to-nature and the arts and crafts movements and the social issues of the waning Victorian period—as well as of the hedonistic Edwardian period—are explored: "free love" being one of those issues which impacts all of these families as the children gradually learn who their "real" parents are. Education and work (not just the right to work, but "the right to know") for women is another issue. So is the "Woman question", the suffrage issue. The novel goes through the end of WWI—when all these children are young adults thrown into a world their parents had not prepared them for.