Since The Children’s Book was published in 2009 I’ve picked it up a few times but have been put off by the length (over 600 pages of small print in the paperback edition) and also by the very mixed reviews. It seems that people have either loved this book or have found it almost impossible to get through. After I read my first A.S. Byatt book, Possession, earlier this year and found it easier to read than I had expected, I decided it was time I stopped feeling intimidated and tried this one too. I enjoyed it but now that I’ve read it I can understand why it might be a love it/hate it type of book. If you’re not interested in the historical and cultural events of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, if you don’t like reading fairy tales, if you prefer books with more action and less description, then this may not be the right book for you. It’s such a complex novel with so many layers I would find it impossible to write a summary of the plot, but I’ll do my best to give you an idea of what the book is about.
In The Children’s Book, Byatt tells the story of the Wellwood family and their friends and neighbours in the context of the larger social changes taking place in the world around them. As you can probably tell, despite the title, this is not a book for children. However, many of the characters are children at the beginning of the book and we watch them grow up over the years and begin to follow their own paths in life. As the children become adults they make some surprising discoveries and find that nothing is quite as it seems.
The book begins in the late Victorian period and ends just after World War I, so all kinds of important historical moments and events are covered, from the Exposition Universelle de Paris to the death of Queen Victoria and the Boer War. Some of the characters become involved with groups and movements such as the Fabians, anarchists and Suffragettes. There are also lots of descriptions of the Arts and Crafts movement, pottery and ceramics, puppet shows, summer crafts camps, making lanterns etc. And from the world of literature there are references to authors including Oscar Wilde, the Brothers Grimm, J.M. Barrie and Kenneth Grahame.
One of the main characters, Olive Wellwood, is a famous writer of fairy tales and she creates a special book for each of her children, Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis, Hedda and Florian. Inside each child’s book is a personalised story Olive has written for them. We are given the chance to read extracts from some of these stories and this was one of my favourite aspects of the novel. I know not everyone will be as enthusiastic about the fairy tales as I was, but I did really enjoy them.
In addition to the Wellwood family, there are literally dozens of other characters, each of them with an interesting story of his or her own. As the book progresses the relationships between the various characters become very complex and intricately linked. Considering the length and scope of the book, I think having a character list to refer to would have been very useful! Of all the characters in the novel, I think Dorothy Wellwood was my favourite. I was interested in her attempts to study medicine and become a doctor, something very rare and difficult for a woman at the beginning of the 20th century. In Dorothy and a couple of the other young female characters who also consider going to university, we see how women often felt that they had to make a choice between marriage and a career and couldn’t have both.
Something I probably haven’t made clear yet is how dark and moving this book is at times with its portrayal of the loss of childhood innocence and with the number of devastating family secrets that are revealed. A.S. Byatt has said that she wanted to explore the effects of writing children’s books on an author’s real children, and one of the saddest parts of the novel for me was the storyline involving Olive Wellwood’s eldest son, Tom. I won’t tell you what happens to him but I thought it was heartbreaking.
The only thing that disappointed me slightly was that towards the end it seemed as if Byatt was trying to squeeze as much as possible into the final pages of the novel. After the slow, steady pace of the rest of the book, I thought the ending was very rushed and the story seemed to disappear under an overwhelming amount of historical facts and dates. Apart from that, I loved this book.
Have you read The Children’s Book? What did you think of it?