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Naught for the Naughty

The Children’s Book

By A.S. Byatt
Knopf Doubleday, 2009

Writer as puppet master – she sets her characters in a frenzy of motion and drama and, if she does her job well, the strings she uses to manipulate her characters all but disappear. The reward? Readers become lost in her story and crave more of her characters long after the last page has been turned. Alas, those moments are not to be found in A.S. Byatt’s Booker-nominated The Children’s Book. However, the good news is that enrapturing readers with characters does not appear to be her intent. This is a novel of history and ideas, and homage to Charles Dickens and J.M. Barrie. On those terms, this novel succeeds.

Those familiar with Byatt’s previous works such as Angels and Insects and Possession, each like The Children’s Book set in Victorian/Edwardian England, know to expect acts of incest in her tales. Even with that expectation and clues scattered like used condoms along the plot’s path, its confirmation midway through The Children’s Book is disconcerting, for both the reader and the character Elsie who makes the discovery. In a bow to the Gothic, Elsie unlocks the secret pantry door and discovers a room full of pots “contorted into every shape of human sexual display and congress;” the artist has used his daughters from childhood through adolescence as models for these pots. From this point onward, sex scenes become sinister, and glances between parents and children are fraught with sexual tension. Who fathers and bears which child becomes the driving mystery of the novel. Children who think they share a father, don’t. Children, who are supposedly fatherless, bear unmistakable resemblances to respectable men married to other women. Children who are certain they know who their mother is must think again. In The Children’s Book, like in good old-fashioned soap operas, sex is the drama and intimacy is the sideshow.

In Byatt’s defense, if she needs one, her use of sex and incest is anything but gratuitous. Instead, it is the stuff that any devoted English Lit major has written at least one paper on when discussing Victorian and Edwardian literature. Through the thin guise of fiction, Byatt examines everything from the significance of glove removal in Victorian literature to the cavorting of fairies and children in Edwardian literature. She even goes as far as to make one of her main characters, Olive Wellwood (alleged mother of seven) a children’s author and includes long passages from Olive’s books throughout the novel, such as this one about Mother Goose and one of her wayward children nicknamed Pig:

There came a day when Mother Goose was particularly tired, and particularly sad, for she had received a letter in the post, and thought it might be news of her husband, but found that it was after all a forgotten coal bill … Pig was playing with his marbles and pebbles, by the fender in front of the range. Mother Goose was suspicious because he was so quiet. She knew she ought to be pleased that he was quietly playing, but she was unhappy, and she was right to be unhappy, of course.

A mother’s emotions trumps those of her child – poor Olive’s dilemma through and through. These passages and Olive’s lust-filled glances at her son Tom give readers limited access to Olive’s narcissistic psyche. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel’s characters are comparatively lifeless.

Perhaps it is Byatt’s choice of the omniscient point of view that accounts for the character’s one dimensionality. Complicating the matter even further is Byatt’s choice of using over a dozen characters of the same approximate age, most of whom are similarly confused about their parentage and spend much of their time worried about what vocation they should choose or political movement they should follow. These ruminations lack gravitas and feel contrived so Byatt can fill our heads with history, such as the battles of the suffragettes. Such is the case in the excerpt below about one of Olive’s alleged daughters Hedda and her niece Florence:

Hedda in 1902 was thirteen. She resented being female. She thought she had been born to suffer injustice, and subordination, and that she would rebel. In 1903 Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughters founded the WSPU, the suffragettes. Olive, like other successful woman of her generation, had not involved herself in agitating for the Vote, although she accepted unreflectively that it was a ‘good thing’, better to have a Vote than not. Florence Cain attended meetings of the NUWSS and heard Millicent Garrett Fawcett speak. It was Hedda who, between 1903 and 1907, became more and more obsessed with suffrage, with opposition, with action, with revolt. She followed, eagerly, the campaign of the militants, as they broke glass and set bombs, were imprisoned, and later took to hunger- striking and suffered forcible feeding (1909).

In the case of the sons, Charles/Karl is handled in a similar superficial manner. First, he is given a name with a slash in it – not a strong beginning. Then he is given a failed love affair, followed by a secret marriage to a lower class woman with an illegitimate child, and a stint on an ambulance crew in World War I. All this drama aside, he spends most of time being our voice into the German anarchist movement and its links to the anarchist movement in Britain:

Charles/Karl was also preoccupied with his double identity. He saw more both of the politically agitated and of the raffish and satirical sides of life in Schwabing than the young ladies did. He sat in the Cafe Stefanie, in the thick smoke and the singing, and listened to psychoanalysts and anarchists preaching ferment. He listened to slogans. ‘Unity is princely violence, is tyrannical rule. Discord is popular violence, is freedom.’ (Panizza). Intense analogies were drawn between hidden destructive parts of the soul, and excitement of peasants and workers in mobs. It was dangerous to deny such impulses – violence, conspiracy, revolution, murder became necessary and desirable as the tyrannical state was opposed and overcome. It was a long way from the polite lucubrations of the Fabians, and even further from the horseracing, shooting-party circles of the new King, at the edge off which Charles’s father moved – thanks to his German mother’s fortune.

Whew! Ultimately, Charles/Karl becomes a pacifist (thus his stint carrying a stethoscope rather than a rifle in World War I). The points of this passage seems to be to remind the reader who Charles/Karl’s parents are (even on pg. 383, it is difficult to keep that information straight) and to download another chunk of history. Perhaps Byatt’s justifies allowing herself such podium-lecture moments to illustrate the larger theme at work – we are, in one way or another, victims of the age in which we are living. But exemplary fiction integrates dilemmas of history and character, rather than sitting one awkwardly next to the other like teens at a high school dance.

A.S. Byatt; photo by Eamonn McCabe

Byatt’s handling of death in this novel, whether by walk-into-the-sea suicides (of which there are two), by bombing in the trenches of World War I, by train accident, or by influenza, has a particularly melodramatic feel. Perhaps this is because all but one of the deaths occurs to secondary or despicable characters. Just when you are wondering why Olive is given seven children, you realize it’s because at least one, who barely takes up one page of text in 550 pages is given a two-page heart-wrenching death-in-the-trenches scene. This scene would have been truly heart-wrenching if I had remembered who this character was. Charles/Karl, Robin or his illegitimate half-brother also called Robin, Florian or Julian, Geraint or Harry? While Byatt’s characters are Dickensian in number, she lacks the Dickensian ability to paint a character into a reader’s mind with one vivid image and a playfully chosen name.

The true child of The Children’s Book is Olive’s eldest son, Tom. While there are more than a few hints that Tom’s father is someone other than Olive’s husband, Humphrey, Tom’s identity issues go much deeper than his parentage. Tom is the novel’s Peter Pan. He runs away from boarding school when he can no longer handle being bullied and sodomized. His parents and tutors are surprised that Tom keeps failing his college entrance exams. Only his sisters know that he spends his days in the woods, brooding in a secret Tree House and helping out gamekeepers, learning the ways of nature with a Thoreau-like passion. What had been a strong emotional bond between Olive and Tom deteriorates and is severed altogether when Olive turns the secret book she has been writing for him, “Tom Underground,” into a play. Tom never recovers from the shock of having the private turned public. Olive forces Tom, the boy who never wants to grow up, to face the fact that he has grown up and beyond childhood. Olive, as well as Tom, suffers for her actions:

Then, one day, Phyllis [Olive's alleged daughter] fell over Olive, unconscious at the foot of the stairs. She was carried up, and put to bed. She lay like a stone for another two days, and then tried to get up, and fell. She nestled back into the big bed, where she had sat with Tom and made up stories that wound along the counterpane.

Olive quietly exits the narrative’s stage, leaving us with the image of her aging and suffering alone in her room. The next generation, all those sons and daughters, carry the novel towards its bitter end.

Near that end, Florence Cain, one of the daughters who is not Olive’s, faces, like many of the women in this novel, an unwanted pregnancy after an ill-timed copulation with a lecherous middle-aged man. Florence’s father sets her up in an Italian clinic to wait out the birth of her child while he returns home to await the birth of his own child with a wife who is Florence’s age. Gabriel Goldwasser, a German recovering from psychoanalysis gone bad with Dr. Jung, convinces Florence that thinking of her life in the Buddhist way, will give her peace from her many troubles. He then convinces her that a loveless marriage between them will solve her problems:

Something appalling happened to Florence. She had a vision of Gabriel Goldwassser, like the angel he was named for, walking on the surface of the Lake, scattering brightness from his sunny hair. She saw that she ought not to marry him, not because he did not love her, but because she might come to love him. And he was queer, and had secrets, which he was not looking into.

Messages from angels carry great weight in any story, and Byatt seems to use her messenger to break from her historical narrative to dip our toes into the metaphysical. Being a bit of a skeptic when it comes to angels, my reaction was to shake my head and say, “Poor Florence! From the lecherous to the angelic! There must be someone better in between.” My next reaction was, “Why didn’t the poor sons dying in the trenches not warrant their own angel to save them?” More importantly, Gabriel stands out for his unique worldview, a reaction against Jung that favors leaving psyches alone. Is Byatt using Gabriel to justify why she skims the surface of most of her characters and does not give us deeper psychological portraits? That is all well and good; however, fiction is about making readers believe there is something deeper, something lifelike, to a story’s characters. Even the best history books bring historical characters to life, but such a feat is rarely reproduced in The Children’s Book.

Strings dangle from every limb of the novel’s characters. Byatt pulls these strings in many directions: youth vs. adulthood, chastity vs. promiscuousness, childhood vs. adulthood, to live in the moment vs. to live in the past. Though the long and frequent historical monologues add little to the novel’s fiction, they do offer a respite from the dramatic maelstrom, while also giving reader’s a down-and-dirty on British cultural and political history. Would you like to get a feel for a an English Midsummer party in 1895 or visit the Paris Exposition or see London during the era when it’s great museums were being built? Would you like to mourn the passing of Victoria or watch the opening night performance of a J.M. Barrie play? Would you like to march with suffragettes or protest against the Boer War? All this is possible by grabbing hold of a string and hanging on. Byatt will do the rest.

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Karen Vanuska’s creative non-fiction piece “Lost and Found” was in the December issue of The Battered Suitcase. Her short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She also reviews book for the Half Moon Bay Review and The Quarterly Conversation. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.

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