Not Just Happily Ever After
The Children’s Book
Chatto & Windus, 2009
Once upon a time there was a mother who wove stories for her children. And the stories grew and grew until the children were swallowed up in them, and only the bravest and fairest of them could break free. In The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt has created a world so dominated by stories that they threaten to consume their tellers. They are not the sanitary, lobotomised fairy tales with which we grew up; they are the angry, dark tales, harkening back to the Brothers Grimm, in which the ugly stepsisters cut off their toes and heels in an effort to fit the golden slipper, but are given away as the shoe brims with blood.
Children’s literature of the early 20th century painted the Victorian era as the Golden Age of childhood, a time of innocence and adventure, with sexuality only emerging after marriage. The rise of the middle class meant that, for the first time, a large proportion of children had the chance for an extended childhood, reaching into the teens, rather than going out to work or beginning a family of their own. That this myth of childhood concealed the young working classes, labouring down in mines or in factories, up chimneys or languishing in poor houses, was conveniently ignored. When poverty is depicted, it is the genteel adventure of The Railway Children, not the dirtier reality.
The Children’s Book settles into the cracks in that myth of English childhood. From the beginning, you are never allowed to relax into the idyll; instead, like the characters, you feel the unknown lurking in the bushes. You half want to learn what is there and half want to remain in blissful ignorance. The majority of the characters are the middle-class, educated children of professionals; their growth to adulthood mirrors the flourishing of the Fabian Society, the suffrage movement, and the Labour party. Byatt weaves political and personal history together. The personal stories explicate and illumine the political ones, so that, for example, the teenage son of a wealthy banker becomes a Marxist reactionary, moving seamlessly from Charles to Karl.
Byatt’s ear for literary mimicry has long been acknowledged as pitch-perfect, and The Children’s Book is replete with the titillating, bitter-sweet dangers of Victorian and Edwardian children’s fiction. The novel, like the author’s Booker Prize winning Possession (1980), interpolates passages of period literature, children’s stories written by the matriarch of one of the families. These stories mirror and illustrate the characters’ lives, while provoking dark and disturbing images. Yet the novel is at the same time utterly contemporary. The children are vibrantly depicted, their concerns universal to young people: does he like me; who am I; what will I be? Sex is everywhere, despite 19th-century repression, and the sense that it is a step toward dangerous adulthood. The teenagers “try it out in books, or on beautiful boys at school. Until we find something real.” Reality comes in the form of unwanted pregnancies, instigating a surprisingly practical response for Edwardian times, and a locked cupboard containing a father’s depiction of his incestuous relationship with his daughters.
The experience of childhood is captured in the brother and sister who won’t share their hideout with a younger sibling, because all she’d want to do is play “Mummies and Daddies”, or the confusion of a child overhearing parental arguments. The novel also contains the ideal elements of an imagined childhood, with a “Tree House, a secret hidden place, which very few people knew about or could find.” Byatt identifies that friction between adults and children and the struggle for autonomy as the child reaches adulthood: “The young desired to be free of the adults, and at the same time were prepared to resent any hint that the adults might desire to be free of them.” The body of the narrative tells of the progression from child to teenager to adult: there are as many paths, and as many secrets as there are children. For some it is the revelation that their parents are not who they thought they were, while for others, secret loves are revealed, requited or not, and hidden ambitions—to work, to study, to become a doctor—become concrete.
Superficially, at more than 600 pages, The Children’s Book might seem too long and complex to snare the reader’s attention for the duration of the narrative. The cast is extensive and the historical background is sometimes delivered in doses more fitted to the tradition of the textbook than the novel. But the action moves quickly between characters, focusing on significant episodes in their lives, dwelling on some longer than on others. The constant re-combinations fascinate but never confuse. And the centre holds: it is the matriarch storyteller who knows that “stories are the inner life of this house. A kind of spinning energy. I am this spinning fairy in the attic, I am Mother Goose quacking away what sounds like comforting chatter but it is really – is really what holds it all together.” Her fairy tales, both the newly created ones and those taken from the European tradition, provide the ‘inner life’ of the entire book.
They create a sense of centrifuge, a force keeping the diverse troupe in check, that spins the reader around too. Allusions to E. Nesbit are not the only reason that this novel brings to mind her Enchanted Castle, nor is the boy losing his shadow the only reminiscence of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Just as none of those Golden Age books was entirely free from shadow, neither is this one, although here the shadow is not supernatural, nor grotesque, but human. For some of these children, their own worst enemies lie close to home and are driven not by hatred, but by selfishness—the writer who needs her material more than her relationship with her children—or even by love. Despite the period setting, the failings of the characters are all too familiar. As the Fairy Queen warns those about to embark on a quest: “The dark elf, and the great rat, are bad things. But the worst may be your own shadow, when you see him, if you recognise him.”
Velda Elliott is reading for a DPhil in Education at Exeter College, Oxford.