Can art and nature redeem us, or will their counterpoint to our social and industrial misery simply drive us mad? In A.S. Byatt’s pointillist novel about the end of Victorian England, potters, puppeteers, and fairytale authors create obsessively, trying to balance their private drives with market demands. At the same time, these artists are on the forefront of the many social revolutions afoot at the end of the 19th century—Fabianism, women’s suffrage, sexual freedom, anarchism. Yet their ideas can’t run fast enough to keep ahead of the change from Victorianism to Edwardianism to sudden, terrifying world war. Only Byatt could stuff this massive book so full of detail, character, and history while never losing track either of human feelings or of the sweeping, precipitous decline of the culture she documents.
The Wellwood family of Todefright, a ramshackle country estate in Kent, lies at the center of the ever-expanding circle of Brits and Germans who populate the novel. Olive, the mother, writes children’s fantasies for publication and special private fairy stories for each of her children: Dorothy, the aspiring doctor; Tom, the eldest son, who prefers the company of gameskeepers to his peers; Hedda and Florian and Robin, the younger ones underfoot. With her banker husband, Humphrey, and her housekeeper sister, Violet, she welcomes to the country a rescued working-class boy named Philip, whom museum curator Prosper Cain has found sleeping in the storage rooms and studying the art of pottery. Philip is duly apprenticed to a bipolar potter named Fludd in hopes that the boy’s work ethic and eye for natural form will enable Fludd to produce consistent (and consumer) work. As the Wellwood children grow and listen to their parents’ progressive, sometimes radical rhetoric, they discover realities that end the innocence of their sentimental childhoods: affairs, illegitimacy, boarding-school abuse, glass ceilings, and the power of the uncanny urge for sex and death.
Byatt’s narrative spans so many years that the rapid, final spiral into World War I at the end—after two tragic suicides by seawater—can’t help but feel rushed. And yet that headlong charge into the abyss perfectly caps off her novel of prosceniums and limelight. When all the illusions and pretensions are stripped away, when corsets and Liberty caftans alike are unlaced and lifted, there stands man-nature and woman-nature, naked and primordial. The Children’s Book portrays, with overwhelming sadness, the impossibility of creating a third category of child-nature, as the Victorians so bravely attempted. No amount of playacting, even couched in the framework of serious art, can hold back the onrushing tide of desire, guilt, regret, and violence that sweeps all of us into the uncharted deep.