If it were not for the fact that The Children’s Book is by A. S. Byatt, you might be forgiven for thinking that you were in for something slight, swift, simple. But Byatt being Byatt – which is to say one of the cleverest writers of her generation – her latest novel is anything but childish. Stretching over 25 years and with a leading cast of at least 20, The Children’s Book is one of the most grown-up you will read this year.
In Possession, her Booker-winning novel of 1990, Byatt took on a wide slice of High Victorian culture, moving easily between its people, art and literature. Here she does something similar with the fin de siècle. Stretching from 1895 to 1920, her subject is nothing less than the condition of England as it moves from the fag end of the old queen’s reign, through the rackety rule of her elderly son and into bleak modernity under George V. The book ends, as the attentive reader knows it surely must, in the liquid mud of Ypres and Passchendaele.
If the book has a physical centre, it is Todefright, a comfortable manor house in the Kentish Weald, home to the Wellwood family (names are always crucial to Byatt). Olive Wellwood is a successful children’s author of what would now be called “fantasy fiction”. Her husband Humphry is a banker who gives up his post in order to become a radical journalist. Their friends and family comprise a large loose clan of progressive elements – writers, Fabians and feminists. There are potters and puppeteers, revolutionaries and the occasional cad, all gambolling promiscuously in this prelapsarian Garden of England. Byatt is at her brilliant best marshalling her large cast into a series of set pieces – a mid-summer party at which a tableaux from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed, a debutante dance where no one is actually a debutante (these people are socialists, after all).
The personal stories are played out against a meticulously-realised bigger picture. When one of the young men goes up to Cambridge he becomes a member of the exclusive Apostles society, when another group travel to Paris they meet the anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman. Beardsley, Wilde, Freud, Stopes, Rodin, Strachey and the Webbs all make appearances not, thank heavens, as creaky bit-players but as reference points in those passages where the narrator temporarily halts her story and steps forward to explain what has been going on in the wider world. It is now that she fills us in on the opening of the Tate Gallery, the end of the Boer War or the struggle for female suffrage – all events which play upon and through her central actors. It is a technique which pays homage to George Eliot, a novelist about whom Byatt has often written in her parallel career as an academic and critic.
Eliot, though, is not the only literary influence at work here. D. H. Lawrence is surely hanging over the character of Philip Warren, a runaway from the Potteries who finds himself rescued by the well-meaning Wellwoods and provided with work puddling clay in the workshop of their artist friend. Philip’s sister Elsie, meanwhile, is a would-be teacher whose life is complicated by sex – a Lawrentian trope if ever there was one. While the middle-classes, including Olive and Humphry, indulge in high-minded “free love”, Elsie is saddled with the stigma and burden of an illegitimate baby. Sharp-eyed readers will also spot literary allusions to everyone from Thomas Hardy to Doris Lessing.
This makes The Children’s Book sound heavy going, which it certainly is not. It is in fact a sexy book, full of erotic longing patchily fulfilled. Byatt is never better than when describing Victorians trying to cast off their inhibitions along with their clothes, and tripping themselves up in the process. The middle-aged men tend to be hounds, the younger ones honourable romantics. The older women find adultery harder to accept than they feel they should, while the girls agonise over that tearing sense of being pulled between the life of the mind and that of the body.
Finally, the publication of The Children’s Book explains the furore that broke out five years ago when Byatt wrote in the New York Times that the Harry Potter books were full of “ersatz magic”, the kind of thing that only people raised on a thin culture of celebrity gossip and TV soaps would thrill to. To some at the time, it seemed like an unprovoked attack on J. K. Rowling. It is clear now that Byatt was writing out of a deep engagement with the Golden Age of children’s literature. The Children’s Book is situated within a dense network of references to Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children and Puck of Pook’s Hill, all of which were published within the timeframe of the novel. The fantasy here is dark and frightening, going to the edge of what a child can bear. Alongside such rich, strange meat, Harry Potter does indeed start to feel like a vanilla snack for scaredy cats.