A Fair Tale
The Children's BookA.S. Byatt
(Knopf · $26.95)
One of greatest gifts humans have is our imagination, which reaches the height of its powers when we are about 10. And it’s one of the cruelest truths that, as adults, we may remember the sensation of bliss and fear in creating new worlds, but are largely unable to experience it again. It is such a small window.
British children’s literature has always been particularly concerned with this section of our lives. Children fall into worlds they have imagined, at times becoming lost before realizing they are the ones who have the control. It is ironic, of course, because for much of history, children had little—if any—power over their own lives. But in fairy tales and fantasies, it is the child’s singular ability to see the strange and fantastic, when adults cannot, that frees her from the drudgery of lessons and grownups who don’t listen, releasing her into magical realms where she is the central figure, the one who matters.
A.S. Byatt’s latest, The Children’s Book, is concerned in part with the makings of this literature. It follows Olive Wellwood, a successful children’s book author in Victorian England, and her large, unconventional family. For each of her many children, Olive keeps a book that she adds to over the years. The books aren’t keepsakes; they’re tales in which the child is the star. In the central story, dreamy oldest son Tom’s literary twin is on an underground quest, aided by fairies and threatened by elves and rats. Olive’s stories, both published and private, are marked by a characteristic of British children’s stories, where gossamer loveliness threatens to transform into a trap at every turn. Think Harry Potter.
The real world surrounding these creations is equally as intriguing. The Wellwoods are Fabians, a primarily late 19th-, early 20th- century movement of intellectual socialism. Olive and her family play host to elaborate gatherings of artists, feminists and Theosophists, featuring a heady mix of philosophy and sexuality. Each year, the group puts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Olive and her husband, Humphrey, as Titania and Oberon, the Queen and King of the Fairies.
Though the world many of Byatt’s characters live in is largely of Olive’s creation, the story ultimately belongs to the children. Romantic Tom, practical Dorothy, found urchin Philip—all are left to negotiate the world the adults have constructed for them. While there are great gifts, there is also a startling disconnect between the ideals the grown-ups espouse and their behavior. Their flaws and bad choices are also a part of the structure of the world the children live in, one not sound enough to support them all.
In this way, The Children’s Book is simply a tale of the disappointment of growing up, when we realize we are the result of decisions made beyond us. But, in covering the years 1895 to 1919, it is also a staggeringly detailed re-creation of a monumental transition from the Victorian era to post-World War I modernity. In attempting to do both, the novel has a tendency to sprawl, with too many characters and too much to say. Yet as she does in her best books (Possession, Morpho Eugenia), Byatt takes tender care with the reader. She is a careful guide, and though this entry is at times a lot to process, it’s a worthwhile journey. If you have access to a fireplace (or a fireplace DVD), you could do worse than to hunker in front of it with this book and see what you can imagine.