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Byatt, A.S. The Children's Book. New York: Knopf, 2009.

I love A.S. Byatt. I think her Booker Prize-winning novel Possession (1990) is one of the best novels of the past 25 years, and still the best (and also, I think, the originator) of the "present day researchers investigate lives of interesting past people, but only the reader gets the whole story" books. In some ways Byatt writes Victorian novels but includes the bits that the Victorians disregarded or spoke about only euphemistically or didn't notice at all--sex, class, gender.

The Children's Book, which was a finalist for the Booker, follows an interconnected set of artists and families, mostly in England but a little in Germany, from 1895 until 1919. The central figure is Olive Wellwood, modeled on the writer E. Nesbit, a writer of children's stories, along with her husband, her sister and their clan of children. As the novel opens Olive is visiting the new Albert Museum to speak to one of its staff members, Prosper Cain, about objets d'art suitable to build stories on; in the underside of the museum Tom Wellwood and Julian Cain, sons of their respective parents, find a boy their age, Phillip Warren, who's run away from his family in the potteries to be--though Phillip himself is fairly inarticulate about this--an artist, not just a worker. Phillip is deposited in due course in the household of the sculptor Benedict Fludd (modeled on Eric Gill in most respects), who is brilliant but also mad by turns, and from there events spool out.

In some ways there's too much going on in this book to talk about it in any overarching way: the characters and their struggles in their lives encapsulate their era perfectly, an era that is in many ways hard to visualize except in light of what ended it. The book is stuffed with descriptions of works of art, descriptions of people reacting to works of art, quotations and cameos and descriptions of actual historical figures' actions and writings--and I don't think anyone is better than Byatt at describing works of art, or, for that matter, at describing artists, how they think and how they react and how, as a master German puppeteer says, they give parts of their lives up to their work, because they are driven to do it. There are several inset stories and poems in the book, all of which are charming and perfectly pitched; again, I don't think anyone I've read is better than Byatt at appropriating the literary voice of a bygone era.

Another thing that comes through achingly clearly in The Children's Book is the toll that artists exact on their families. Olive's oldest son Tom, who is in some ways the motive force in all her writings, is never able to escape the net of his mother's imaginings--like Peter Pan, he is a boy who refuses to grow up, and like the real life inspiration for Peter, Michael Llewelyn Davies (and like Kenneth Grahame's only son, Mouse), Tom eventually kills himself. (Most of the characters actually attend the premiere of Peter Pan, which Tom loathes, because, as one character wisely observes, it hits too close to home for him, and Olive eventually dramatises the story she wrote for Tom, about a prince named Tom whose shadow was stolen, rendering him unable to grow up, so that he is forced to quest underground for it, endlessly. The shadow, I think, works wonderfully both in the story and as a larger metaphor.) Benedict Fludd commits incest with his two daughters from their childhood onwards, which other characters only divine from stumbling onto his collection of obscene sculptures of them. Indeed, even parents who aren't artists behave badly towards their children; Fludd's wife lives in a permanent liquor-and-laudanum stupor, while Olive's husband Humphrey attempts to seduce their daughter Dorothy on the grounds that she's not his biological daughter--as indeed, some of the children are actually her sister Violet's, by Humphrey, just as Humphrey and several other of the male characters sire numerous children out of wedlock. One character, a lecturer on free love inspired by H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence, is the father of multiple female characters' illegitimate children, while his wife, who left her three children to live with him, sits barren at their home, sunbathing in the nude. One gets the feeling, though, that in his lectures Byatt is both poking gentle fun at the contemporary novelists of the period, and offering her own artistic manifesto:
It was not possible in a novel to describe most of the world as it really was.
It should be. We need honest novels much more than we need moralising tracts."
In some ways the female characters in the book seem more real to me than most of the men, if only because Byatt makes painfully clear the constricted opportunities available to women of every class at the time, and the way in which one mistake, one indiscriminate temptation, can lead to utter disaster due to the unavailability of birth control--indeed, the women who do manage to make careers for themselves do so at the price of celibacy. Dorothy Wellwood, who becomes an MD and then a surgeon, can only marry after the war, when Phillip has been either sterilized or rendered impotent by shrapnel. Other female characters are clearly destined to be part of the generation of women whose should-have-been husbands died in the trenches, while the children of the war's survivors, one is reminded uncomfortably in the novel's closing pages, will grow up just in time to finish the war their parents couldn't, just as their parents raised them into a golden world that fell into ruin after the assassination of the Archduke.

The Children's Book is not quite perfect--the first two parts move slightly more fleetly than the last two, and some characters drop out of the narrative too suddenly, or with no mention at all. But these flaws are extremely minor, and if the book lags a bit between Tom's suicide and the outbreak of the war--which in the last chapter Byatt describes, one hopes ironically, as la Guerre Finie--the war, and particularly the war poetry of Julian Cain, make up for all that. The book unearths a great many things that have been buried, from the violence for and against women's suffrage to the Fabian Society, and does, I think, succeed in describing most of the world at the time as it really was.