The children's book
Shelf life: Looking at secular books
THE CHILDREN’S BOOK
By A.S. Byatt
Vintage. 624 pages. £7.99
Philip is discovered hiding in the basement of what will become the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1895. He has run away from the Potteries with their poverty, disease and smoke with a desire to make something beautiful. He is discovered by other children and is drawn with the reader into the overwhelming and confusing world of middle-class Bohemia.
Phillip meets an intertwined group of families who live in Kent and London; Olive Wellwood is an adored writer of clever children’s stories and her husband Humphrey a left leaning banker. Their large family roams wild in the Kentish Weald, material for the stories, but not nutured; Benedict Fludd is a terrifyingly unpredictable potter whose wife is drowsy with laudanum and whose daughters seem remote and cowed. Between these two families are other individuals and groups: writers, curators, and anarchists. The atmosphere of the times is portrayed memorably, with all its preoccupations with ideas of nature, primitive life and art.
Characters as creatures
A.S. Byatt is tremendous here describing the textures and colours of this world: the pots, dresses, lanterns and furniture. She folds into her book excursi on the period (this is a brilliant book just to sharpen up on the history of the period): the suffragettes, the banking crisis, the Boer war, and so, in this way, the characters are underlined as creatures, even victims of their times. The Wellwood children are neglected by their mother, brought up by their aunt and rightly confused by their parentage.
The Fludd girls, too, have been damaged by their father’s creativity, and we find other children, girls frustrated with expectations of marriage and early motherhood, sons resistant to liberalism. Parents have abdicated responsibility and so the children seek to make themselves. The novel ends with the First World War, the horror of which sweeps up the families and empties them of any remaining Edwardian optimism.
Grace we need
So, this is a long book, but a great book. A.S. Byatt is remarkable for her insight into the selfishness and vulnerability of humanity; she shows the tensions between freedom and service, order and creativity which are so burdensome outside the gospel. Read it and reflect on the grace we all need.