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A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book is a dense, intellectual novel which ultimately succeeds in its grand project to reconstruct the changing domestic and moral values of the Edwardian period, though in the process it neglects readerly pleasures.
One of the paradoxes of starting out on a novel knowing that you will review it at the end is that you cannot read without having the written response developing in your mind. About a quarter of the way through A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book (2009), I had my opening paragraphs crafted. They were going to run something like this:
Given A.S. Byatt's most recent work, The Children's Book was always going to swing one of two ways. On the one hand, it might have maintained the fairy-story quality of the simple tale with a psychological underbelly, as found within The Little Black Book of Stories (2003). To some extent it does follow this precedent, since The Children's Book depicts the Edwardian period in which children's authors, artists, and Freud showed an obsession with childhood which, so Byatt writes, emerged "out of a desire of their own for a perpetual childhood, a Silver Age." Here, as in Possession (1991), Byatt reconstructs the period through memorable depictions of plays and puppet-shows, through the inset stories of Olive, a children's author, through Tom Brown tales of bullying at public schools. Taken in a false isolation, all of these are engaging in the manner of a children's story.
On the other hand, The Children's Book as a whole might have maintained the didactic edge of A Whistling Woman (2002), which was set around a new university in the 1960s, and which used that setting as an excuse to discourse about a whole range of burgeoning disciplines, from genetics, to cognitive science, to Chomskyian linguistics, to radical socialism.
It is clear that the bias of The Children's Book swings more towards this academic mode, than to the fairy tale one. In this, it has little to commend it as a novel. Whilst A Whistling Woman might have been considered overly didactic, it was at least the climax to the Frederica quartet of novels which followed the life of a feminist from the 1950s to the late 1960s. This alone, the desire to discover what happens at the end, will have kept many readers plugging through the clot of intellectual concepts, in which the novel appears to be more interested.
However, The Children's Book is a standalone work, and with plot again becoming a consideration secondary to intellectual interests, Byatt's cultural references dominate to its detriment. Take the following sentence about Humphrey Wellwood, Olive's husband:
Humphrey graduated in 1877, two years after the Christian Arnold Toynbee, whose devotion to the needy, and early death, were commemorated by Canon Barnett's founding of Toynbee Hall, designed as a community of graduates who would, themselves, live and teach amongst the poor.
There is not one good thing that one can say about that sentence. It just jerks, juddering off beyond its original intent, moving from telling us about Humphrey, one of the novel's main protagonists, to telling us about someone else completely different and rather irrelevant, Arnold Toynbee, who had left two years earlier and who, therefore, Humphrey probably never met. And then from Toynbee, the sentence tells us about something else about Toynbee Hall, without any context, as if Byatt expects every reader to have heard of it. There is no ounce of passion, drama, plot, or consciousness within this sentence. Instead, what one perceives is a writer confronted with notes and a vast body of learning, trying to squeeze it into the straitjacket of a novel, which is an inappropriate form for it. This is the sort of sentence I write every day, in my academic essays, and a language that I hope to escape from by reading novels. The only thing to differentiate The Children's Book from the essay is the footnote.
Or take the following construction, which occurs before an otherwise captivating reconstruction of a puppet show, which carefully conjures the beguiling atmosphere of what must have been, in an age before television, one of the greatest spectacles available:
They were about to see the Sternbild Marionettes, from Munich, perform E.T.A. Hoffmann's Der Sandmann. August wanted to offer a word or two about marionettes...Heinrich von Kleist, in a suggestive and mysterious essay, claims daringly that these figures perform more perfectly than human actors...Kleist goes so far as to say that the puppet and God are two points on a circle. The earliest shadow puppets were in fact gods, the presences of gods.
Ostensibly, the mention of Kleist comes via the mouth of August, the puppetmaster, but the slip into the present tense seems strikingly similar to the tone of a literary essay; indeed, that interjection "in a suggestive and mysterious essay" will sound suspiciously familiar to anyone who has read Byatt's non-fiction. Anyone who has read her essay collections, such as Passions of the Mind (1991), will immediately recognise the way in which Byatt argues through collage, patching together strange and often eclectic quotations. Though sometimes lacking a single coherent argument, her essays invariably intrigue by the new metaphorical arcs she makes to connect ideas together. This is the style she brings to the fiction here, where it does not translate well.
So ends the review I was going to write, until I got about a quarter of the way through The Children's Book. And then, like the period represented in the novel, which encapsulates the first sparks of the modernist overturning of old orders of thought and art, things started to shift in my mind. That fossilised idea of what a novel should be began to rearrange itself. Its episodic construction sees it darting confusingly from one family or character to another, crossing years or decades with the flick of a page. Yet rather than an explosive mess of narratives, gradually these sub-plots came to seem more like a web of concentric strands, each in themselves separate, but running rings closer and closer around a central theme, becoming gradually more perceptible, and more carefully defined by the ranging historical references.
Byatt's factual stating of events, national dates and events that seem not to connect to the lives of her characters - "The Tate gallery opened on Millbank in 1896...In 1899, in October, the High Commissioner in Cape Colony prepared to go to war with the Boers" - began to work in counterpoise to the detailed depictions of the inner psychology of her characters. The local happenings in the lives of the characters - the plays they produce, the friendships and marriages they make, their arguments - seemed to become microcosms of the larger events in which they were enveloped. Suddenly, I saw that the academic Byatt and the fairy-story Byatt were indeed two consciousnesses, but not split but working in creative tension.
For the academic, history is defined by events that matter, that change the world in some clearly defined way that motivates research about them. But for the novelist, as for the ordinary person, history is more a general mood, an often imperceptible shifting and rearranging of relationships, opportunities, technologies and artistic works (such as novels and stories). Only with hindsight do these experiences appear to have had any sort of global coherence to them. So it is with the Edwardian period, pinned between two sharply defined historical events - the death of Victoria and the First World War - but which seems, in the light of the Victorian and modern ages, somehow unimportant, blurred out in the narrative of the long nineteenth and post-war twentieth centuries. But its comparatively diminished artists and writers (particularly children's authors like J.M. Barrie, E.E. Nesbitt, Kenneth Grahame) must have participated in a trajectory between the Victorian realists and the high modernists, whilst contrary to popular history the First World War was the final push, not the origin, for suffragettism, the political empowerment of the working class, and liberalism. But whilst the death of Victoria or the horror of the First World War were very public events, it is the private changes - the alterations in the behaviour of members of a family towards one another, the education of the servant classes through night schools, the changing relation of the sexes, the acknowledgement of homosexuality - that were both cause and reflection of these punctuation points. In The Children's Book, the juxtaposition of the global and the domestic shows that history (such as that of the liberation of women) is at work between the closed doors of family homes, in arguments and adulterous affairs, as well as in parliament buildings.
Albeit in a very different way, The Children's Book reiterates a point made in Possession. This demonstrated that the past is not objectively stable; we are only ever one coincidental, rediscovered piece of evidence away from having to revaluate history (as happens when Roland, the young scholar, happens upon an unknown romantic letter from the poet, Ranulph Ash). The trick of The Children's Book, is to have the public history present, dated, factually correct but to play it off against the behaviour of a vast cast of individual characters at the local level. With people being volatile and emotional (and there are many such figures here), so too does the history which they help to construct seem blurry, undirected, unpredictable.
Take Olive Wellwood, the children's author whose writing self locks itself away, leaving her spinster sister, Violet, to care for her children. Olive is increasingly unable to connect her idealised, childhood life conjured in her mind and books, with her fragmented, collapsing domestic life, though she tries to express herself to her children by writing them into their own heroic stories. Meanwhile, her husband, Humphrey Wellwood, is recklessly adulterous, so that their poor children do not know who their parents are. As Dorothy confronts him later in the novel, after he suggests that it makes no difference who parented herself and her (half)sisters:
You are being childish. You aren't thinking. Of course it makes a difference. I am not who I thought I was. Nor, for that matter, is Phyllis. You have muddled us all up. All of you, you and both of them have made this muddle. You can't just say it makes no difference.
The effects on the children aside, the muddle of the Wellwoods is somewhat comic, but the dark counterpart to the Wellwood household is that of the Fludds under the head of Benedict, a manic but genius potter. Pomona, one of Fludd's daughters, and Seraphita, his beautiful wife, are particularly well-realised by Byatt's metaphors, as they drift about in a sort of wraith-like, semi-consciousness, haunted by some sexual secret. Although it is odd (though probably deliberate) that Freud is largely left out of the work despite being contemporary to the period, the ideas of repression and Oedipal drama are likely to be simmering in the reader's mind. Just as Freud in his later work, such as Civilization and its Discontents, drew parallels between the growth of a child and the growth of society, in her rendering of domestic politics in The Children's Book Byatt seems to be suggesting that one cannot have the adult politics - the feminism that would eventually matured in the 1950s and 1960s - without having gone through the pubescent stages of sexual urges a half-century before.
The Children's Book, then, is the work of a novelist who is capable of rendering the grand sweep of history, but through the reality of everyday life that is often simultaneously dull and prosaic, and turbulent and meaningful. This is arguably the theme of much of Byatt's fiction, and informs the boldness of her plots. There is a moment in the second novel of the Frederica Quartet, Still Life (1985), when Byatt kills off one of her main characters, in an accidental way that leaves many readers stunned and appalled by its inanity. In novels, people don't die, unless heroically. In life, of course, people do. And that is perhaps Byatt's strength as a realist writer, where death does happen in commonplace ways that do not rise to heroic status, or do not occur publicly like the deaths of queens.
Though sex lies at the moral and political centre of the novel, incidental death is certainly what drives its plot, so far as it has one. Though none come until relatively late in the novel, when they do, they happen thick and fast, many in the event that we have been heading towards all along, though the characters are (childishly) naive to it. The First World War provides a breaking point when children are forced to become adults in the fight on the front, when feminism and socialism suddenly discover their most convincing - if unfortunate - raison d'Ítre, when women and the working classes are forced to usurp the upper orders that cannot cope with this new world, the class-bound children who refuse to grow up.
I had wondered, on first hearing of the book's title, whether this was actually going to be a book for children. Many of the most captivating, if incongruous, parts of A Whistling Woman were the fables of "The Whistlers," eerie Tolkien-esque tales. Similarly in The Children's Book it is the stories Olive writes for her children, extended excerpts of which are reproduced here, which are most obviously delightful. However, though more contextually relevant than the tales in the cerebral A Whistling Woman, they are not quite so successful at bolstering the sense of the novel's realism as were the poetic or epistolary inserts in Possession. Unlike in that novel, with its rendering of the "Victorian" poems in a very convincing Tennysonian or Rosettian timbre, in The Children's Book the voice of the embedded stories, which ostensibly are written by Olive, is quite similar to the wider narratorial voice that describes the plays and pantomimes that recur throughout the novel. The two therefore rub uneasily alongside each other, suggesting an author who really wanted to write a fairy tale, but who had read too much and so produced an intellectual novel. In spite of its ultimate success at depicting the domestic effects of grand history, one wants Byatt's next book to opt for just one voice, rather than many. Paradoxically for this most mature and cerebral of writers, what one really longs for is not The Children's Book, but a book for children.
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