What a lovely, rich novel AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book is!
It begins in the waning years of the Victorians and ends on the battlefields of the First World War: 1895-1918, roughly. It begins when the son of a curator at the nascent Victoria & Albert Museum finds a potter’s boy living in the basement, sketching wonders by day and sleeping in a sarcophagus by night. The potter’s boy is Philip, who’s run away from drudgery and ill-health in the factories of the north; rescued by the curator, he’s put up by a singular family, the Wellwoods, who live in a rambling country house in Kent. Olive Wellwood is a writer of fairy tales and children’s fables, and it’s largely her labour that sustains her large family’s sunlit, charmed existence in the breadbasket of England. (Her husband, Humphrey, is a lecturer, journalist and activist – none of them particularly lucrative professions.) In due course, the Wellwoods find Philip a position with a local potter, moody, unstable Benedict Fludd, an artistic genius who refuses responsibility for anything practical.
The family of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil rounds out this cast of characters: they are artists, thinkers, teachers, writers, activists, all of them people interested in engaging with the world meaningfully, through politics or art or theory. But as Byatt’s title suggests, what the novel is really interested in is childhood – more specifically (and per Rudd, in Reading the Child in Children’s Literature), how the concept of childhood is represented by and mediated through adults. Byatt’s said that the novel grew out of an idea that the children of many classic children’s authors have become suicidal: what does the commodification of a specific child’s experience do to the child in question? And, what does that child’s experience really look like?
It’s in service to this project that The Children’s Book exploits the gap between children’s literature and literature about children. The novel frequently inhabits children’s points of view – particularly those of Philip and of Tom, one of the Wellwood children. When it does so, it frequently touches on things you’d never find in children’s literature: nascent romantic longing, questions about a parent’s fidelity or otherwise. And in doing so, it points up how children are simplified, idealised, by adults.
A key motive for that idealisation is nostalgia – the longing for an Edenic golden age when we were responsible for nothing and ran carefree in the endless summer woods. Much of the novel is suffused with this Edenic quality, with many of its adult characters engaged in the work of planning or attending retreats, artists’ communes, exhibitions; creating, evoking or in some cases defending ideal spaces free from crass economic considerations.
And yet the novel’s ironising perspective on childhood makes it clear that such frozen, idealised bubbles of time did not, cannot, should not exist. The novel’s children do have real, “adult” concerns: poverty, parentage, the fights of adults around them, the shape of their futures. And attempting to “freeze” these children – to encourage them, like Peter Pan, never to grow up – has disastrous consequences for at least one of them. Even the titles of the novel’s three sections make it clear that Eden does not exist: Age of Silver, Age of Bronze, Age of Lead. There is no Golden Age.
What all of this is building up to, of course, is the apocalypse of the First World War – the conflict that irrevocably, inevitably shapes the lives of all these children (as we know it must right from the beginning of the novel), that puts an end to all thoughts of utopia once and for all. In Lacanian terms – also per Rudd – we can say that the war is the savage, uncontrollable irruption of the Real into the Imaginary, the ideal artistic Eden that Byatt’s characters have been striving towards for 600 pages. It shatters all illusions of meaning; in fact it co-opts Edenic meanings, as we see when a character starts collecting the whimsical children’s names men on the front have given to the trenches that become their tombs, grim travesties of the wonderlands those names are drawn from.
It’s the same kind of semantic breakdown that we see in T.S. Eliot’s great Modernist poem The Waste Land: “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones.” Perhaps what Byatt is offering us here, then, is an evocation of our own golden age, the golden age that postmodernism looks back to – a nostalgia for a pre-ironic era when revolutionary ideals and ideas were sincerely held and the woods of England were still wonderful. In this reading, even the war is comforting: it is a telos, an ending we always already know is coming; even in its meaninglessness it gives these characters’ lives a meaningful shape.
But the novel’s layers of irony have already alerted us to the perils of nostalgia. There is no golden age. So this apparently nostalgic text ironises itself, in its final ultra-postmodern move: it becomes, like all the works of fiction and imagination it describes, unstable and contingent exactly where it seems most permanent, most ideal.