The real center of The Children’s Book is life at the end of the Victorian era – which sounds like too big a topic for a novel, but somehow Byatt pulls it off. She talks about how family life at the end of the 19th century was special with an independent life for children in an upper class family, who were often numerous and left to themselves to wander in the woods or explore the country-house environment where they were being raised. She makes up five families, with many children, in which to explore her idea.
The world of children and families in the late Victorian era is a powerful topic. The contrast between wealth and poverty and the contrast between the rights and possibilities for men and women in Victorian society affects each of the families in the story. Every character struggles with his or her social and gender-caused position and its limits. Several characters rise in status, especially Olive and Violet, a coal miner's daughters, but privileged members of the upper middle class as adults. Olive is the matriarch of the novel’s most central family and a successful author, and her sister Violet is the quiet unmarried aunt (but things are not quite as they seem).
As they mature, the children of the five families develop a variety of literary, social, artistic, and political consciousness. They are influenced directly and indirectly by famous people who lived then – the Fabians, suffragists, anarchists, socialists, even Emma Goldman, cultural leaders like Rudyard Kipling, G.B.Shaw, and William Morris. The characters attend lectures in London, Cambridge, Oxford; join real socialists and other activists, and travel to witness conditions in other countries. They put on plays – especially Shakespeare plays – which seem to them iconic, and whose organization gives them experience of various sorts. (Also, it’s a typical thing for that era’s family to do.)
The novel is full of real places and things, all made very vivid. The father of one of the major families is a department head at the emerging Victoria and Albert Museum in London – the museum is both physically and conceptually central. A number of the characters gather for a visit to the Paris World’s Fair, where they see Loie Fuller dance among other things. The women in the novel dress up for dances and theatrical performances – the descriptions of gowns and hats are lush and indulgent.
A counter topic to family and social life is the life of artists. There are at least three characters who have enormous creative gifts: Benedict Fludd a very troubled and eccentric ceramicist; his apprentice Phillip Warren, born very poor and lower class but driven to create from his childhood; and already-mentioned Olive Wellwood, a writer of fantastic tales encompassing the title’s “Children’s Book.”
The beauty of ceramic vessels – shape, color of glaze, decorative elements, workmanship – and the details of the potter's craft are described with love and attention to visual and tactile detail. Byatt makes a great effort in explaining the many challenges in creating a pot on the wheel, mixing a glaze, loading a kiln, and firing the contents. The characters appreciate the beauty of pots and are aware of the history of earlier ceramicists.
The process of writing – creating imaginary worlds, myth and fiction, setting up characters, choosing words – and the effect of writing on an audience are another fundamental theme. Olive’s tales begin as specific gifts to each of her children, in some cases with a problematic effect. They continue to become a way that she earns a living for the family – which also causes a variety of problems for herself and her complicated relationship with her husband.
Several of the characters struggle with understanding their identity, which is often vexed by the complex relationships of their parents and those who seem to be their parents. Some of the most mistreated characters develop stong identities anyway; some of the most loved fail. Byatt manages to subsume the identity question in other themes, mentioning often the emerging medical specialty of psychoanalysis and creating at least two very troubled suicides who don’t get any help in this respect.
The narrator often steps back and describes historic events and their social consequences. Nothing is explicit, but no reader could be unaware of the coming fate of the families whose youth are contemporaries, as often mentioned, of Rupert Brooke. He is often present at meetings or informal events that the fictitious characters also attend – we know what that portends. Byatt is aware that her readers must be thinking of the First World War and what it will do to her characters, and she’s ruthless in her final chapters, when it happens.
I loved this book. I was amazed that with so many characters and so much going on, Byatt always kept me on top of the family place of each character as he or she was mentioned. The graphic horrors of the Great War were kept at bay by the long history of the characters and their aspirations; the inevitablilty was handled wonderfully.