Bristling with Diligence

James Wood

  • The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
    Chatto, 617 pp, £20.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 7011 8389 9

There is what seems an interesting slip early in A.S. Byatt’s new novel. It is 1895. A young working-class man, Philip Warren, has been adopted by a liberal upper-class family, the Wellwoods. At the Kentish country home of Olive and Humphry Wellwood, a glorious Midsummer Party is in preparation. Humphry is a banker (though he will soon switch to journalism), and Olive is a famous children’s writer. Lucky Wellwood children, Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis and Hedda, are making paper lanterns. Philip reflects that, in his former life, he had to beg for scraps of paper to draw on; but these generous people throw away paper with unconcern. Byatt comments: ‘He looked up and had the disconcerting sense that Dorothy was reading his mind.’ There is a section break, and Byatt continues: ‘Dorothy had indeed, more or less accurately, followed Philip’s thoughts. She did not know how she had done that. She was a clever, careful child, who liked to think of herself as unhappy.’

We have instantly entered, with the finality of fairy tale, a familiar Byattian world, in which the author dances, with leaden slippers, around the thought-sleep of her characters. There is that teacherly, qualifying authorial judgment: ‘more or less accurately’. And then the apparent non sequitur: ‘She did not know how she had done that.’ Since Philip doesn’t confirm the accuracy of her reading, how could Dorothy really ever ‘not know how she had done that’? More likely, this is not a slip on Byatt’s part, and the novelist means exactly what she has written. She means that Dorothy was indeed accurate about Philip, but would never know how or why she possessed this accuracy. Thus in two brief sentences, a fictional character is given almost full marks for doing quite well, but in an exam she was not aware she was sitting.

Of course, this particular authorial examiner has always insisted on talking over her characters; a peculiar kind of postmodern 19th-century omniscience is one of the elements of Byatt’s knowingly archival Victorianism (she has used the phrase ‘self-conscious realism’). This may involve not only telling characters what they don’t know, but how they don’t think. A little later in The Children’s Book, Philip Warren is walking on Romney Marsh, towards his favourite church, St Thomas Becket. He ‘knew little about Thomas Becket’, Byatt writes, ‘and did not know that the church was built on Becket lands’.

Philip made his way from tuft to tuft of the marsh grass, for it was sodden underfoot and water welled up between tussocks. When he got to the church, he looked around at the endless sky, the flat horizon, the apparently endless sheep-studded meadows, and felt peaceful. He didn’t think exactly in language. He noticed things.

The obvious logical problems with telling us that a character doesn’t exactly think in language are, first, that the writer is doing so in language, and second, that everyone in novels thinks in language. The dilemma is acute in Byatt’s fiction because she is especially present as a wordy author in her characters’ thoughts, and is so deeply committed to the (inevitably verbal) representation of mental images. When Tolstoy, near the end of War and Peace, writes that Nikolai Rostov’s mother, the countess, had been quiet during tea, and then, as everyone finished, suddenly stirred into irritable life, because she ‘clearly wished to find a pretext for getting angry after eating’, he may or may not be telling us something that the countess doesn’t know about herself. But mysteriously, and almost accidentally, with quick subtlety, he is telling us that we don’t exactly think in language: we think too fast for the passage of words – thought can be as instinctive as eating. And he is dramatising this, not merely stating it. By contrast, Byatt, elsewhere in her new novel, describes young Dorothy watching a marionette version of Der Sandmann, thus: ‘Dorothy hadn’t liked Cinderella, and didn’t like this. Her head was full of the idea of spiders, and strings, and stings.’ This is overpoweringly a head full of words, or the images of words: the verbal play with strings/stings suggests a writer for whom words are almost independent things.

But talking over characters is what good children’s writers do, and do charmingly. Compare the following sentences: ‘Pig said to himself, I am not afraid, which meant of course, that he was.’ And: ‘He wanted, but he did not know he wanted, to be like Ann, to stay in a world, in a time, where every day was an age, and every day resembled the one before.’ Both sentences appear in The Children’s Book. The first is from a fairy tale, inserted into the text, and supposedly written by Olive Wellwood. The second belongs to the novel proper, and is about Tom Wellwood, who is, by this stage in the book, an adult, but an adult who wishes he were still a child. The first is, supposedly, for children, the second is, supposedly, for adults (the reader), but they are essentially indistinguishable. Byatt is a very ordinary grown-ups’ writer and a very good children’s writer, and The Children’s Book confirms the evidence already suggested by the relative superiority of her fairy tales and fables (her compelling collection, Little Black Book of Stories, for example). Of all the many plotlines in this massive novel, the fairy tale-like story of Tom Wellwood, the boy who refuses to grow up, and who eventually kills himself, is the most affecting.

The Children’s Book is a fanatically detailed re-creation of the years between 1895 and 1919. It pursues an enormous number of characters, whose nucleus is the family of Olive and Humphry Wellwood. The Wellwoods are prosperous, well-meaning Fabians, with the usual interest in socialism and early feminism, the arts and crafts, improving lectures for working people, musical and theatrical performance, and the lives of their intelligent children. Humphry’s brother, Basil, is a wealthy banker, who does not share his brother’s radicalism. Basil and his German wife, Katharina, have two children, Griselda and Charles. Around the Wellwoods circles a busy group of writers, radical academics, freethinkers, theatre directors and potters. Philip Warren joins this fortunate circle by chance: he is discovered in the basement of the South Kensington Museum, where he has been living, and in possession of scores of detailed drawings of the museum’s treasures. Tom Wellwood and his friend Julian Cain, who find the teenage runaway, take Philip to Julian’s father, the museum’s special keeper of precious metals, Major Prosper Cain. Philip has fled difficult circumstances in Burslem, near Stoke. But the boy from the Potteries is a talented draughtsman, and wants fiercely to make beautiful pots. Olive and Humphry take Philip in; he is apprenticed to a demonically talented potter named Benedict Fludd, who works and lives in a partly derelict manor house in the Romney Marshes.

There are two large themes: the relations of men and women, and the relations of parents and children. Dorothy Wellwood prosecutes an arduous path to becoming a doctor, while her sister, Hedda, will get caught up in the suffragette movement, and be imprisoned for political vandalism. Griselda Wellwood, Dorothy’s cousin, will decide to study German fairy tales at Newnham. These women’s political struggles are involving, though an atmosphere of historical typicality drapes the stories’ individual forms. Byatt has a habit of moving from the general to the seemingly particular – at which point the particular suddenly seems only generally particular. ‘They were troubled,’ she writes of Griselda and Dorothy, ‘as intelligent girls at the time were troubled, by the question of whether their need for knowledge and work in the world would in some sense denature them.’ A paragraph later, she turns to Dorothy, whose thoughts do no more than mimic Byatt’s larger introduction:

Dorothy was sterner – she had to be – the path she had chosen was still into hostile country . . . One side of her nature would have to be denied, in order for her to become the professional person she meant to be. It was not so for males. Men doctors married, and their wives supported their surgeries, and comforted them when they were tired. In low moments, late at night, Dorothy asked herself if she was some kind of monster.

Dorothy may have ‘asked herself’, but it is always Byatt providing the answers.

Relations between parents and children are much more subtly analysed. The solid structure of the book, and its huge gathering of historical data, allow Byatt to paint a convincingly ample picture of the world whose passing Larkin mourned so beautifully in ‘MCMXIV’: ‘Never such innocence,/ Never before or since . . . ’ The house of the appropriately named Wellwoods (though when does Byatt ever alight on an under-determined name?), which seems so happy, so much like something out of a fairy tale, is actually infested with moral dry-rot. Humphry is an accomplished adulterer, and Olive has also strayed: in a hideous scene of near incest, Humphry gropes at Dorothy’s breasts, and then reveals that she is not his daughter, but the issue of Olive Wellwood and Anselm Stern, a German puppet-master and theatre designer. Two of Dorothy’s siblings are not the children of Olive, but of Olive’s sister, Violet.

Meanwhile, Tom Wellwood, whose sweet spirit has been broken by a vicious Northern boarding school (from which he runs away), drifts in a haze of failure and indirection. Dorothy reflects sadly that ‘Tom was part of an idea she had had of an English family, the children running wild in safe woods, in dappled sunlight, the parents smilingly there.’ But Tom, she thinks, ‘had sensed that the Garden of England was a garden through a looking-glass, and had resolutely stepped through the glass and refused to return. He didn’t want to be a grown-up.’ Olive Wellwood has long maintained a family tradition, in which each of her children has his or her own book, containing a story written by Olive, and peculiar to the child; some of these stories are reproduced in the novel. Tom’s own story, entitled ‘Tom Underground’, is about a boy whose shadow was taken from him when he was in the crib, and who is condemned to search for it. August Steyning, a theatre director, persuades Olive to stage a theatrical version of ‘Tom Underground’. The experience of witnessing his own story seems to push Tom into insanity. He leaves the theatre, and is found, days later, drowned.

The Fabian world of the turn of the century is by now well-trafficked, and anyone who has read the literature of the period will await the inevitable arrival of Wells and Shaw, the Cambridge Neo-Pagans, Rupert Brooke and Frances Cornford, the Cambridge Apostles and so on. (Byatt’s novels always seem destined to visit Cambridge University.) But the book’s emphasis on the plastic arts, on theatre design, the manipulation of puppets and marionettes, and above all on pottery, is unusual. The phrase ‘porcelain socialism’ is used at one point, and the pot becomes the novel’s emblem of fragility. The First World War, which Byatt calls ‘The Age of Lead’, will shatter the lovely pots that people like the Wellwoods and the Cains like to purchase for their homes and museums. Drowning in the mud of Flanders, Philip Warren will reflect that ‘it’s a good end for a potter, to sink in a sea of clay’.

An extraordinary, and wearisome, amount of attention is given to pots and glazes, to designs painted or printed on pots, on theatre sets, on dresses, on buildings, books and so on. The central mode of description is the ekphrasis; almost every page supports some static description of an already extant representation. Always static but always fervent: the novel quivers in aspic. Here is the interior of Nutcracker Cottage, the home of August Steyning, the theatre director with an interest in puppets and marionettes:

Standing in a corner, four feet high, was an object that amazed Philip and was immediately identified by Prosper Cain as a version of the Prometheus Vase shown by Minton at the Paris Exhibition in 1867. Prometheus in fleshy earthenware sprawled on the gleaming turquoise dome of the lid. A green-gold eagle perched on his thigh and belly, and tore at his crimson liver. The tall handles were blond-bearded chained Titans in mail shirts.

A vase here sounds much like a stage set, or even the performance of a play. When, a few pages later, in this same house, August Steyning puts on his marionette performance of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann, we might as well be seeing another frieze: ‘And then, on one side of the stage, there was a female figure in a window, in a rosy halo, and Nathanael at the opposite side, staring through his glass. She wore a plain white silky dress, which the light filled with pink flares and sanguine folds.’ And here is Humphry Wellwood’s production of The Winter’s Tale, staged at one of the Fabian summer camps: ‘There was a goat-horned herm, with shaggy thighs, and a naked girl with falling hair, seen from the back. There were two squatting, cross-legged little fauns who grinned at the stage-corners in the harvest scene, and were absent in the Sicilian sculpted palace.’ And here, later still, is a supper dance, held at Prosper Cain’s museum:

The floor was tiled in chocolate, the dado was faced with dark tiles, between maroon and umber, and the walls were tiled in yellow, green, white, with strips and stripes of complicated running designs . . . The table centre-piece was a large, glowing lustre bowl by Benedict Fludd, depicting that odd moment in the Rheingold when Freya is up to her neck in gold loot, the golden apples are turning grey and papery, and the two giants stretch out huge hands to take the young goddess.

As in that passage, the novel delights in the ekphrasis-within-the-ekphrasis. Many pages are lavished on the Grande Exposition Universelle in Paris, attended by Philip and Benedict Fludd, among others: ‘But it had the idiosyncratic metaphysical charm of all meticulous human reconstructions of reality, a charm we associate with the miniature, toy theatres, puppet booths, doll’s houses . . . It had the recessive pleasing infinity of the biscuit tin painted on the biscuit tin.’ The charm works on Byatt, who finds the Lalique Stand in the exhibition, so that more description can be studiously applied: ‘Shining white moiré bats swooped in a highly arched window, and there was a screen, sinister, delicate, lovely, made of five naked bronze women.’

Characters are similarly described – the life is glazed out of them. August Steyning: ‘He had a small silver beard, and an elegant moustache, and thick, well-cut silver hair.’ ‘Katharina was in mauve and white shot silk moiré and Valenciennes lace with huge leg-of-mutton puffs above the elbow.’ Anselm Stern: ‘He was small, thin and dark, clothed in black drainpipe trousers and a long black jacket . . . He had a theatrical pointed beard and groomed moustache.’ ‘Dr Susskind had flowing, hay-coloured, dry hair, and a fine, waving moustache to go with it.’ ‘Mrs Oakeshott had a thick, coiled plait of strawberry-blonde hair, golden, creamy, rose-tinged. She had a fine face, square in shape, placid but watchful, and a delightful smile.’

Whenever a detail could be selected at the expense of another one, Byatt will always prefer to buy both, and include the receipts: ‘Art Nouveau, the New Art, was paradoxically backward-looking, flirting with the Ancient of Days, the Sphinx, the Chimera, Venus under the Tannenberg, Persian peacocks, melusines and Rhine maidens, along with hairy-legged Pan and draped and dangerous Oriental priestesses’. There is always an atmosphere of the author reporting for intellectual duty, bristling with diligence. Her fictional world is exhaustively searched, but never quite seen. Some large novels – Buddenbrooks, say – are remarkably lithe, but The Children’s Book is rhythmically stolid. It proceeds judiciously: one character is described, then another, then another. One performance is followed by another. (In addition to Der Sandmann and The Winter’s Tale and Cinderella, there are described performances of Wilde’s Salome, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, at least three separate versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and two plays written by Olive Wellwood and staged by August Steyning, The Fairy Castle and Tom Underground.) Even her characters’ thought moves in stately fashion, with a paragraph donated to one person, followed by a paragraph donated to another. They are almost never allowed the freedom of involuntary memory; thought is largely directed thought, practical rumination. A section in which Prosper Cain is seen to be ‘thinking’ begins like this: ‘During these years, Prosper Cain was preoccupied with the slowly rising, dangerous, dust-clouded new building, draped in a network of scaffolding, muffled and mysterious.’ The South Kensington Museum is being converted into the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Prosper reflects on this for nearly a page: ‘It ate up his life, but he took pleasure in it.’ Then a new paragraph announces a change of direction: ‘His children delighted and worried him. Julian seemed to have settled for the life of a scholar, for want of an urgent vocation. Florence, who had been so forthright and practical as a girl . . .’ And so Prosper proceeds to ‘think’ about his children.

It is hard enough, though not for the Booker judges, to like the historical novel nowadays, but harder still when that novel’s conception of characterisation seems itself antiquarian, as if Woolf and Proust and Chekhov, not to mention Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald, had never existed. Byatt’s formidable research commands respect, but it is hard fully to respect a novel in which Rodin, Oscar Wilde, Emma Goldman and Marie Stopes have walk-on parts, or that delivers itself of lines like: ‘All sorts of institutions were coming to life. The Tate Gallery opened on Millbank in 1896,’ or ‘The rich acquired motor cars and telephones, chauffeurs and switchboard operators. The poor were a menacing phantom, to be helped charitably, or exterminated expeditiously.’ Such moments, abundant here, necessarily have the air of what Kierkegaard called ‘playing the game of marvelling at world history’. Again and again, Byatt makes explicit and overdetermined what might have been more lightly suggested. The loss of childish innocence is the great subject of her novel, but does that mean that everyone in the book has to have some relation to fairy tales or children’s stories – write them, or study them, or present dramatic performances of them, or put representations of them on pots? The Wellwoods’ Kentish house is named Todefright; August Steyning’s Nutcracker Cottage ‘was not named out of English whimsy so much as for Hoffmann’s sinister tale of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King’. Byatt burns both ends of her thematic candle at once, for clearer illumination.

At the novel’s end, the First World War comes, and cruelly reveals the political irresponsibility that has sustained the long childish innocence of upper-class English life. The Garden of England – the Kentish Weald of the Wellwoods – is desecrated; but as Dorothy bitterly reflects, Humphry and Olive had already turned out to be ‘snakes in the grass as well as Adam and Eve in the Garden’. Byatt makes nice ironic use of Barrie’s line from Peter Pan: ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure’ (omitted, she tells us, from wartime productions). Julian Cain, Prosper’s son, loses his foot. Three Wellwood sons die, as does Benedict Fludd’s son, Geraint. Dorothy and Griselda, working in a field hospital, find themselves ministering, by chance, to their old friend Philip Warren. Dorothy’s medical acuity – she is now a qualified doctor – saves Philip’s life. It is the women and the working-class characters who are seen to survive the carnage: an epilogue, set in 1919, brings together Charles Wellwood (Basil and Katharina’s son), his sister Griselda, and Philip and his sister Elsie.

In the course of the novel, children and women are persistently likened to little people, or puppets, or marionettes, manipulated by ‘giant’ adults, or men. Proper reference is made to A Doll’s House, which pictures a world in which women are reduced to a ‘puppet and a doll, jerked about by the strings of a failed concept of duty’. When Dorothy discovers she is the daughter of Olive Wellwood and Anselm Stern, she becomes the product of two such adult manipulators, a storyteller and a puppet-master. The epilogue allows the possibility that the bold men and women who have survived the war, adults we first encountered as teenagers in 1895, might now manage to take the strings into their own hands, to master their own narratives. This is an optimism encouraged by the novel but hardly animated by it, for Byatt’s characters are themselves her dutiful puppets, always squeezed and shaped for available meaning. The Children’s Book has a cumulative energy and intelligence, and the unavoidable scythe of the Great War brings its own power to the narration, but nowhere in its hundreds of pages is there a single moment like the Countess Rostova’s free and mysterious irritation.