I've been reading A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book since the end of July, and it is now the end of August. The weak sun and showers and gale force winds of yet another English summer turning into autumn have weathered outside the window, while inside I have sat with this book marvelling at its length. It is not so long in the traditional sense. Yes, it runs to 600 pages, but so did Wolf Hall and I read that in a little under five days. Rather it is long in other ways - long in thought, long in theme, long in serious prose, long in learning. It is the kind of long that makes for slow reading. Perhaps 'long' is the wrong word afterall. Perhaps 'dense' is a better word, if we could do away with its negative connatations. It is only the second Byatt novel I have tackled, and tackled seems like the right word to me; you tackle a novel like this in the same way that you tackle an overgrown garden. The first, Possession (of course), was a delight but also very dense. The Children's Book teaches me that Byatt's voice in that novel wasn't an affectation of her period but a full-blown style.
In some ways I am writing this post at the wrong time. That is, I am still hundred pages from the end of the book. (Although I have 'spoiled' myself on a couple of plot points by some ill-advised flicking forward.) But I didn't write about Wolf Hall when the impulse was strongest, and look what's happened there. I have sat on my feelings - which were passionate - for a month until they have turned vague and syrupy. No good; best to jump on the opportune moment when it arises. Because of that, this is not a 'review' in the strictest sense but a series of thoughts and feelings - the best I have to offer. Tomorrow I start on another Archives assignment and will have to divert my creative energies to research on 'end-user perspectives' instead.
So, then. The Children's Book is about artifice. That is: the artifice of the craftsman, the artifice of the theatre, the artifice of the artist and, of course, of the novelist. But also, the artifice of our daily lives - the half-truths, white-lies and little deceptions that construct who we are and shape the world around us. All of its characters are artificers of one sort or another. The novel begins with a scene in which two boys, one of the son of Prosper Cain, a museum curator, and the other the son of Olive Wellwood, a children's writer, watch another, poorer boy sketching an enigmatic piece of metalcraft in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The sketching boy, Philip, is motivated by a single kernel of ambition: he wishes to make beautiful pots. He wishes to turn pots that take the movement of the world - its manic chatter; its swaying trees; its shifting surface - and make it still, captured on clay, in three dimensions. It is an entirely noble, pleasingly aesthetic ambition. Taken up by Olive Wellwood (whose brand of bohemian Fabianism demands that she help him), he is introduced to the novel's artificer extroadinaire, Benedict Fludd. Fludd is a potter of terrifying genius, whose work stuns Philip into a state of speechless ecstasy:
In an alcove, at the turning, standing on an oak coffin stool was a jar. It was a large earthenware vessel, that bellied out and curved in again, to a tall neck with a fine lip. The glaze was a silver-gold, with veiling of aqua-marine. The light flowed round the surface, like clouds reflected in water. It was a watery pot. There was a vertical rhythm of rising stems, waterweeds, and a dashing horizontal rhythm of irregular coulds of black-brown wriggling commas, which turned out, inspected closely to be lifelike tadpoles with translucent tails... This was what he had come for. His fingers moved inside its contours on an imaginary wheel. Its form clothed his sense of the shape of his body. He stood stock still and stared... Philip could not speak... Philip made a strangled, non-commital sound.
Fludd has religious fits, and anti-religious fits; he loves the life of the natural world and reviles the world of the flesh in equal measure. He particularly reviles his wan, blank wife, Seraphita, and his two daughers, Imogen and Pomona, with whom he lives in a ramshackle house on the Lydd marshes. Philip is a welcome addition to their little household. A salve to Fludd's horrendous, dramatic temper - an apprentice worthy of his master.
Pottery is a real physical presence in the book - I sense Byatt's appreciation of real solid beautiful things made with hands - but it is also populated with other 'crafts'. There is human theatre, in the person of August Steyning, a director; and puppet theatre, in the form of German puppeteers, Anselm and Wolfgang Stern; there is Olive Wellwood with her children's stories and Herbert Methley, a writer of risque adult novels dominated by themes of sex and nature; there are jewellery makers too, and a myriad of actors, players and students of nature. In fact, there is so much it is almost impossible to think of it all. At one point in the novel several characters, including Fludd and Olive, visit the Grande Exposition Universalle de Paris, a gigantic, extravagant glut of the arts and crafts and aesthetic theories that Byatt captures in The Children's Book. And she understands, of course, that she is the novel's essential artificer, its creator.
The antithesis to all this dreamy creativity and physical beauty is a counterpoint theme of work as profit, work as social good and work as necessity. Olive's eldest daughter Dorothy, for example, decides in a moment of youthful insight that she must become a doctor, no mean ambition for a woman in the late 19th century. And her younger sister, Hedda, throws herself with violent rage into the campaign for women's suffrage. Benedict Fludd's son, Geraint, is inspired and moved by the intricacies of the stock exchange, by the flow of capital, by the mining of precious metals and the balance sheets of trade. Meanwhile Charles Wellwood, a cousin to Dorothy and Hedda, secretly harbours anarchist sensibilities, calls himself Karl and flirts with violent solutions to poverty and oppression. Meanwhile Philip's sister, Elsie, works as a maid-of-all-work, wears down the soles of her feet and despairs of herself.
I have meant to mention that all of this is set in the extremely fertile 1880s, 1890s and 1910s, with Fabianism, socialism, the Arts and Crafts movement, women's education, the Dreyfus affair and the shift from Victorianism to Edwardianism as a backdrop. And it is very clear that A.S. Byatt has read very widely, very widely indeed, in order to write a novel with such breadth and depth of context. What is interesting, I think, is how central she makes that context. I have read reviews of the book which take her to task for wearing her learning a little too heavily. It is true that she frequently interrupts the narrative to offer short social history lectures, or gives over whole chapters to them. In the SF world we sometimes call this 'info-dumping', to signify that the novelist has failed to adequately integrate context and content. But I'm disinclined to think that A.S. Byatt is an info-dumper in the usual way of things. First, she is never careless. Everything she writes is deliberate, and that is one of the reasons she is so slow to read. Every word counts (and when there are as many words as this that is quite a feat of writerly fortitude). Second, she seems interested in the context beyond simply scene-setting. It strikes me, in fact, that she is being clumsy with it on purpose - she is showing her workings. That is, she is leaving the research in the novel, showing us where history and fiction intersect - it is like repairing a listed building with subtly different materials to highlight the interventions. In archival science we call this stuff 'metadata' - it is the information that tells you how other information was created and altered; and I suppose in that sense the novel is a sort of meta-fiction - the draft, with all the rough edges, is inside the pristine end-product. This is particularly interesting as a technique when writing historical fiction, and especially historical fiction that is so beautifully, and carefully, crafted. It is a sort of commentary on artifice and the artificial, which is also a commentary on history and fiction. Can't you just hear the essay title: 'Contextualising the Book: A.S. Byatt's Metafiction'? It occurs that the title - The Children's Book - also recalls a non-fiction title, and that Byatt is playing with the genre of her book novel, part scholarly non-fiction, part historical novel.
A final thought: I was trying to pin down what The Children's Book most reminds me of and I think in terms of its breadth of life, in its generational cast of characters, in its sheer curiousity, it most strongly resembles Middlemarch. All life is here, that kind of thing. Not that Byatt is at all like Eliot as a writer - where Eliot is passionately poetical, Byatt is precisely prosaical; where Eliot is a social optimist, Byatt is a liberal realist - but the ambition and scope of their work is comparable I think. If nothing else there is that overwhelming, terrifying, delightful sense of a great mind at work. Because I think that even if you can't warm to The Children's Book as fiction (and I admit that Byatt is a difficult writer to warm to - if you can pardon the cliche, she is very English and thus slightly too formal for total comfort), you must respect it for its social context, for the history and the art and the politics.
Right, now I'm going to go and finish reading it.
Edited, two days later to add: The book ends in the precisely the way I imagined, but I won't say how. Enough to say that I cried pretty solidly for the last 20 pages, probably because of my own emotional weakness for war stories (that much I'll give away). What I want to say is that those last pages reminded me strangely of Possession. Readers of that novel may remember that Byatt chooses a rather wonderful, but sentimental, ending to that book, and she does the same here. It serves as a reminder that underneath all her scholarship is a real, passionate concern for her characters - a sort of duty to them as her fictional puppets. Could it be that all her taut, straight-backed research, which can be read as clinical coldness, is actually a cover for a raging torrent of emotionality? Sometimes, I think so. There is an incorrigible romantic in A.S. Byatt, trying to get out.
If the Booker shortlist includes The Children's Book, The Little Stranger and Wolf Hall, then I will be very happy indeed. The only problem is, having read three such wonderful, magisterial books in a row, what could possibly follow them up? If only I had Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood on hand...but alas, not yet. I'm going to have to rely on Doris Lessing's second published novel, Martha Quest, instead.