June 1895. In the lantern-strung garden of Todefright, the Wellwoods’ Kentish home, guests gather for authoress Olive Wellwood’s annual Midsummer’s Party. Among them are Major Prosper Cain, a curator of what will one day become the Victoria and Albert museum; the family of Benedict Fludd, a local potter renowned both for his skill and for his violent temper; and Anselm Stern, a puppet-master from Germany. While the adults sip champagne and discuss Russian anarchism, investments in South African gold mines and the trial of Oscar Wilde, their children run around in home-made costumes and struggle to answer questions about their plans for the future. As night falls, however, the future and all it contains of disturbing uncertainty recedes into the nebulous distance: lights glow in the painted paper lanterns, velvet cloaks and spangled wings are re-adjusted, and everyone gathers for the traditional performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania, Oberon and their fairy court extend their gossamer web of magic over young and old alike, cocooning them in the illusion of timelessness and safety.
To the outside world, Todefright presents the image of a miniature Utopia, based on freedom, creativity, and conviviality, and Olive Wellwood works hard to maintain this illusion in her daily life. Stubbornly repressing the memories of her own grief-laden childhood and turning a blind eye to her husband’s numerous infidelities, she pens hugely successful fairy stories for children, turning over the running of the large household to her sister and leaving the children to run wild in the woods. But when it comes to stories, Olive does not forget the Todefright children: each one has been given a special book, in which Olive writes tales of their adventures in various magical realms. New instalments appear overnight, specifically tailored to fit each recipient’s tastes and personality. The children grow up in a world where the boundaries between the imagination and the physical world are constantly blurred, a world of secret passage-ways and magical disguises, of subterranean adventures and never-ending quests, peopled with elfin queens, tricksters, and shadowless princelings. There are times when their story-book doubles seem to have more substance than their real-life selves.
For they are not always well equipped to deal with the world outside the enchanted perimeter of childhood: irreparably damaged by the bullying he suffered from in boarding-school, Tom Wellwood returns to the woods of Todefright determined never to leave them again, destined to become a drifter, a lost boy. Once the closest to her of all her children, Tom now shuts Olive out, withdrawing into silence and solitude, secretly blaming his mother for creating the golden illusion in the first place, even as he desperately seeks to recapture the safety it once provided. The theme of parental responsibility runs throughout the novel, most problematic when combined with the preoccupations of the artist: Olive has voluntarily abdicated her maternal role in favour of her sister in order to pursue her literary career unhindered, and in the long run, her neglect is just as harmful as the abusive conduct of the potter Benedict Fludd. And though in very different ways, both are guilty of using their children to realize their own artistic vision. Significantly, the most reliable and supportive parental figure is the only one who is not an artist: the kind soldier-turned-collector Prosper Cain.
Both the Wellwood and the Fludd children will seek to escape the destructive influence of art in their adult lives: for Dorothy Wellwood, this means rejecting lock, stock and barrel the world of the imagination, and choosing instead the clinical certainties of the medical profession; for Geraint Fludd, the financial security and comforts of a banker’s life in the City. Oddly enough, the Stern brothers are the only ones who seem impervious to the negative consequences of having artists for parents, no doubt because they are encouraged to participate fully in the creative process, rather than being merely subservient to it. The only true artist of the younger generation is Philip Warren, Benedict Fludd’s apprentice, and it is interesting to note that he is an orphan. Driven by the desire to make something of himself, to make something, he runs away from home when still a young boy, never to return. His sister Elsie, who crossed half of England on foot in order to find him and tell him of their mother’s death, will always remain uncertain whether or not he feels any affection for her. Throughout the turmoil of the ensuing years, the unearthing of family secrets, the forging of friendships, the making and breaking of relationships, Philip will remain cool and detached – the ideal figure of the artist, neither helping nor hurting anyone.
For the reader, the rich and fascinating depiction of these intertwining lives is inevitably tinged with sadness, as the Victorian and then the Edwardian eras draw to a close and England hurtles inexorably towards the First World War. Paradoxically, it is an age of ideals: rebelling against the values of the previous generation, the children set out on their own search for meaning. For Charles, one of the Wellwood cousins, this lies in the ideas of the German anarchists to whom he is introduced by his tutor; for Florence Cain, it briefly resides in the ideal of free love; while for Hedda Wellwood, it is to be found in the struggle for women’s suffrage. Graduating from the fairy-tales of childhood, it is perhaps only logical that they should rush headlong into some new form of idealism. That these ideals are increasingly finding an outlet in violence seems to escape their notice, as does the possibility that they might find themselves caught up in events they can no longer control. Even before the outbreak of the war, Tom becomes the tragic symbol of a doomed generation. Violence and grief will destroy their youth and innocence, while their ideals will be swallowed up by the horror and mud of France and Flanders.
I have to admit it took me a while to get into The Children’s Book. I was expecting to be instantly swept up, the same way I was by Possession, and even though intellectually I knew it couldn’t be the same, it still took me the first hundred pages to adjust to the difference in tone. What really bothered me was Byatt’s way of handling her characters: while depicting them in minute detail, she nevertheless remained aloof, possessed of Mr Darcy’s “satirical eye”, which gave the impression that she was looking down on the scene from above, like a puppet-master gazing down on his cardboard stage and jerking the strings of his marionettes for his own amusement. It is difficult to get attached to characters whom one constantly suspects are being mocked – one wonders uneasily if liking them does not expose one to ridicule too. But then, suddenly, I was engrossed, lost in admiration of the poetry of the language, the creative energy, the rich complexity of the imagery, the twists and turns of the narrative, and the sheer scope of the subject. And it seemed to me that her characters were to be viewed less as dancing marionettes than as those enigmatic figures crowded together in strife or amorous play on the bas-reliefs of ancient tombs or temples: details in a much bigger picture, ants scurrying about on the vast canvas of History, but necessary nonetheless, because they are what make History live.
Few writers can successfully combine history, politics, sexual mores, education, philosophy, art, and the baffling complexity and poignant simplicity of human relations in a single work of art. Those who have achieved it are named Balzac or Proust. Or A. S. Byatt.
© Florence Berlioz 2011