The Children's Book by AS Byatt
Last spring I was in London and one of the first things I read in the newspaper was about the publication of a new Byatt novel. Off to the Waterstone's near the University of London for a copy. Later found a signed copy in Hatchard's on Picadilly and bought that too. I'm not an autograph collector, but for me Byatt is special.
I admire Byatt's ability to pick a period (in this case the end of the Victorian period and the run up to WWI), to pick a theme or collection of related themes (in this case liberal social thinking--Fabians, feminists, advocates of free love, a whole range of social reformers) who sought to extend the Victorian theme of a world getting better and better to human interactions and worked for personal freedoms and personal development) and to pick a place (in this case Kent--earlier Byatt books have focused on York where she grew up or London) and then to concoct characters and story lines that completely subsume all the ideas and the research that in so many novels these days stick out like sore appendages, into her story.
Her title rings many bells. First, the main character, Olive Wellwood, writes children's stories. A case can be made that children's stories (a la Peter Pan and Kim and The Railway Children) was Britain's main contribution to literature in this period. Olive also writes an individual story book for each of her seven children, adding to the stories often as she has her tea in bed everyone morning. For her it becomes a kind of mothering, one that works differently (and not all successfully with each child.) It's an age in which childhood comes to be seen as a separate, formative, stage of life that merits adult attention--and initially at least, Olive and her husband Humphrey in their big house in the woods, Todfright, with her sister Violet as organizer and child minder, seem to have created an ideal childhood for Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis, Hedda, Florian, Robin and Harry.
The novel abounds with children: in addition to the Wellwood children there are Julian and Florence, the children of Prosper Cain, an administrator at the V&A in London who's an advisor to Olive when she needs historical background for her stories; Charles and Griselda, the children of Humphrey's banker brother Basil and his rich German wife Katharina; Geraint, Imogen and Pomona, the children of neighbor and genius potter, Benedict Fludd and his wife Seraphita (really Sarah-Jane) who'd been a model for pre-Raphaelites painters; Philip Warren, a dirty runaway whom Tom Wellwood and Julian Cain find breaking into the museum to sketch beautiful things, and whom Olive, herself an escapee from the North where her father was a coal miner, takes home to "do something for". Eventually we have Philip's sister Elsie too who makes her way from the potteries where their mother died from lead poisoning as she worked painting dishes. Philip begins to work with Fludd (who needs an apprentice and organizer and who recognizes Phillip's talent) and Elsie becomes housekeeper at Dungeness where Seraphita is disorganized and mentally absent most of the time, managing only to clothe her daughters in loose flowing but dirty and badly made dresses, while totally neglecting her less artistic but more practical son.
The Humphrey Wellwoods host a Midsummer party every year to which all these children and their parents come as do as all the artists and do-gooders and liberal thinkers for miles around--and this was a back-to-the-land movement so many many had moved, like the Wellwoods, to the countryside in Kent. It's a costume party with some acting of Shakespeare's play. Idyllic, at least on the surface.
A subplot of the novel involves a family of German puppeteers from Munich--and their children--who, with Katharina Wellwood, give some insight into artists and liberal thinkers in Germany.
The basic canvas of the book is this Midsummer party of 1895 with its huge cast of characters, many of whom are children supposedly being raised in freedom and love with encouragement to discover their passions in life. In reality, the canvas is more complex and far darker than it appears and these children will become part of the great children's crusade which was World War I, lurking in the background to snap up their youth and their innocence and ending the Victorian certainty of a world ever improving.