Week 13: The Children's Book

The Children's Book, by A. S. Byatt

I'm never quite sure if I really like A. S. Byatt or not. She's a good writer--one of the few modern novelists that I will read at all--and I do enjoy her writing most of the time, but she's also kind of pretentious. But I really wanted to read The Children's Book, which sort-of centers on a large English family whose mother is a writer of children's books. Her character is modelled on E. Nesbit, one of my favorite Edwardian children's authors.

It's almost an ensemble novel; there is an enormous cast of characters. Most of them are Fabians (early British socialists). They are artistic, they read William Morris and Ruskin and like to talk about free love and Nature and paganism. As the novel starts, they are so naive and hopelessly clueless, it's sort of painful. You want to pat them on the head. It's as if they think wearing art linen and dancing in the woods will fix the world.

There are darker undercurrents in these artistic households, though, and the consequences of the elder generation's actions are visited upon their children, several of whom are traumatized and damaged--none of them really come out unhurt. Some of the damage is only hinted at, but plenty is uncovered too, some of which leads to tragedy. This isn't really a novel to read if you want to avoid disturbing events; it's quite dark all the way through. The whole novel looks at moral culpability--the consequences of thoughtless actions, or actions undertaken because of a philosophy (or rationalized to fit), and how people face up to their responsibility or deny it.

The action covers the very late Victorian period up to World War I, and it's a long book. (It was both longer and more interesting than The Swan Thieves!) It's frequently a bit bloated, and I think it could have usefully been shortened by a couple of hundred pages. Byatt is successful enough that editors probably leave her text alone more than they should--in my opinion the publishing world still needs good editors! But it's well worth reading if you like Byatt or are interested in Arts & Crafts, early socialism, and so on.
I've started another medieval history book--this one on the Crusades--and a textbook on classical writing. Both will probably take more than a week, so I'll have to find something frivolous for week 13.


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