The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt ★★★★
In the opening pages, Olive Wellwood and he son Tom are visiting South Kensington Museum. Olive, a popular writer of children’s fantasy and fairy tales, is looking for an object to which she can attribute magical properties in her next novel, while her son Tom is on the trail of a young boy, Phillip, who is busily sketching some of the objects on display. When it is discovered the boy has made his temporary home in the museum’s basement, Olive offers to take him into her home, a sprawling property just South of London called Todefright. There, her banker husband and fellow Fabian Humphrey and their seven children are busily preparing decorations and costumes for their yearly Midsummer party, to which they invite their friends and neighbours, a jolly mix of socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers, and writers. After the festivities, it is decided that the boy Phillip will go stay at Purchase House with the Fludds, to become an apprentice to the mercurial and brilliant potter Benedict Fludd, who’s work is on display at the museum.
The story follows the progress of the adults and children, their extended families and numerous friends and relations from the end of the Victorian era in 1895 through World War One, so it’s clear from the beginning that things are going to go horribly wrong eventually, and they do. Olive’s dark fairy tales form a central motif throughout, the book title referring to a collection of notebooks she has created for each of her children, each containing ongoing adventures, though it is Tom’s story which she works at the most and it takes on larger than life implications. Through these characters, many issues of great relevance in England during that period are encompassed, including women’s higher education and the suffrage movement, the class wars, anarchism and socialism. The Arts and Crafts movement is a recurring theme, and various historical figures are incorporated into the story such as William Morris, Edward Carpenter, J.M. Barrie, Oscar Wilde, Auguste Rodin, Emma Goldman and Rupert Brooke.
I found this book by turns fascinating and frustrating. The main story elements were engaging and the unfolding drama was captivating, but my limited understanding of several of the issues broached prevented me from gaining a fuller appreciation for the many ways in which Byatt wove historical and fictional elements together. At the same time, for one interested in that period, the book provides plenty of threads one can pick up on for further reading. Recommended for those interested in works of great scope and intellectual stimulation. As an aside, I have to say that the cover design in itself is a work of art and played a large role in my decision to purchase this book. Glad I did.