Part One: Reaction
I finally finished The Children’s Book. Saying “finally” makes it sound like it was a struggle, though, which the actual reading of it wasn’t. In fact, I would go so far as to call it “captivating” or “engrossing” – and that’s why it took me so long to read. It was not the kind of book that I wanted to read in short snatches. It’s a book that requires attention.
It’s also a book that requires research. I almost wish that I had read it on my Kindle, for two reasons. First, I made notes. I almost never write in books, but I found myself annotating this one. Of course, the problems with that are that, one, you’re writing in a book, and, two, you (I) can almost never find the notes again. Looking at it in hindsight, I should have invested in some Post-Its. Next time….
Second, I started needing to read it next to my computer. It would usually only take a few paragraphs – a few pages at the most – before there was something I needed to look up. A dictionary (I use the OED, because I am a pretentious dictionary snob) and Wikipedia (not an encyclopedic snob) were my constant companions. Also manybooks.net, by the end. My reading/rereading/research list has grown exponentially because of this book. I was already interested in the late Victorians/Edwardians because of Forster, but this book has only spurred me on.
It is an absolutely beautifully written book. The language is beautiful and the structure is beautiful. There are one or two places where Byatt almost seems to be showing off her vocabulary – I doubt Dobbin would have known the word “exiguous”, although one of the Wellwoods might have – but those moments were few. There were any number of sentences that I noted just to want to remember them, and only one that was incomprehensible.
I will say that I found it a bit hard at first to keep track of the characters and their connections, especially the various children. That’s true in real life when you meet a lot of people at once, though: it takes ages, at least for me, to match up personalities or faces with names. Once I got a handle on who was who, and who belonged to whom, I was fine.
It’s not an easy book to read, of course. It’s quite dense and full of information and ideas. But it’s absolutely worth it.
Part Two: Analysis
When I told people I was reading this book, the first question was usually “What’s it about?” That’s a really difficult question to answer for a book like this. Most people, when they ask “what’s it about” really mean “what happens?” If you had to summarize the book in a sentence or two, what would you say? On that level, it’s “about” a group of upper-middle-class families in the 1890s through World War I. But that doesn’t even come close to what this book is about. It’s so thematically rich. It’s about artistry, education, family, secrets, the line between fact and fiction, relationships, the time period, social unrest from a privileged perspective, and, most of all, creation.
Creation is, in some ways, an obvious theme. Olive Wellwood is a writer, Benedict Fludd and Philip Warren are potters. Most of the adults are involved in creating things in some way, whether it’s writing or puppetry or the ideas involved in, say, the Fabian society, as well as the more basic creation of children. Even Prosper Cain, one of the more practical adults in the book, is involved in creating the Museum.
But even more than that, the telling of stories – the creation of stories such as, but not exclusively, fairy tales – is a major part of everyone’s lives. They’re more relevant, at least for a while, than reality. Certainly when they are revealed as stories instead of reality – Humphry’s revelation to Dorothy, the staging of Tom Underground, the theft and destruction of Tom Underground when Tom is at school – it is a shattering betrayal, worse than the betrayal of adultery or a simple lie. The stories shape the identity of the recipient as well as the creator, and then when that is taken away, identities are altered or destroyed altogether. I’m sure it is no coincidence that the book jumps forward from the ultimate story/reality betrayal – the breaking of a core created identity in the staging of Tom Underground – to World War I and the actual, physical destruction that accompanies it.
I could go on and on about the act of creation and the tension between reality and fancy/fiction (Dorothy is the most obvious manifestation of this, but Tom and Olive and Griselda also show it). I could also write an essay about fairy tales included within this book – but this is a blog post, not an academic essay. (Seriously, the incidence of fairy tales is unbelievably huge.)
There’s also quite a lot in the book about love. Sex is present, but it is rarely described in connection with love. Love is, instead, a mental process, an ideal. Desire can be a part of love, but love can exist without desire and desire can exist without love. (Connected with that, how creepy is Humphry? *shudder*)
And, of course, it’s a book very definitely set in its time. The founding of the V&A is a backdrop, of course, but the social ideas are a pivotal point. Dorothy wants to become a surgeon. Charles/Karl flirts with socialism and anarchism – his dual name even reflects his struggle between his upbringing/class and his ideals (even if the near-constant use of “Charles/Karl” got a bit annoying). Hedda becomes a suffragette. The families are almost all a part of the Fabian society. Class issues are discussed through Elsie, for one. In addition to exploring the philosophical ideas behind creating things, the book explores and instructs about the time period.
I’ll end this (brief) analysis with a quotation from the book. A group of the characters goes to Paris for the 1900 Exposition and Philip sees the work of Rodin for the first time. Here’s his reaction:
It was so strong that it would destroy him – how could he make little trellis-men and modest jars in the face of this skilled whirlwind of making? And yet the contrary impulse was there, too. This was so good, the only response to it was to want to make something.
This is how I feel after finishing this book. It’s so good that I can’t write anything to compare to it. But its use of fairy tales makes me even more determined to get back to finishing my novel (which revolves around fairy tales). Its setting in the late Victorian/Edwardian era made me more determined to get back to Forster research (new book is out this weekend, I think!). Its conclusion in World War I made me even more interested in the events and writing around that time. I know I will never be able to write as well as Byatt, but I can’t not write after reading something like this.