The Children's Book
October 2009 Indie Next List
— Mark LaFramboise, Politics & Prose Books &, Washington, DC
View the List
for the Man Booker Prize
A spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, from the Booker Prize–winning author of Possession, that spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves.
When Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum—a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive’s magical tales—she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends.
But the joyful bacchanals Olive hosts at her rambling country house—and the separate, private books she writes for each of her seven children—conceal more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined. As these lives—of adults and children alike—unfold, lies are revealed, hearts are broken, and the damaging truth about the Wellwoods slowly emerges. But their personal struggles, their hidden desires, will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces, as the tides turn across Europe and a golden era comes to an end.
Taking us from the cliff-lined shores of England to Paris, Munich, and the trenches of the Somme, The Children’s Book is a deeply affecting story of a singular family, played out against the great, rippling tides of the day. It is a masterly literary achievement by one of our most essential writers.
Praise For The Children's Book…
“Sweeping . . . At the center of this epic are the Wellwoods and their many offspring. Olive, the matriarch, is the author of children’s books, vivid tales of fairies and demons, little people and spirits. . . . Along with other families, they weave in and out of one another’s lives, building an edifice of domestic tranquility that increasingly becomes a house of cards. . . . Byatt rewards [the reader] by serving a literary feast, telling the story not only of these characters but of their world. She sprinkles in cameos by major figures of this era [and] sets elaborate stages for her characters in historical events . . . And she creates an alternate universe, the frightening fantasy world from which Olive draws as she writes of children who are lured away from their parents to live with magical beings, or who must descend into the depths of hidden worlds to save themselves. In the fictional world of these stories and the real world of the Wellwoods, deceptions shape young lives that grow to adulthood in a world on fire. Byatt fills a huge canvas with the political and social changes that swept the world in those years, and the devastation of war that swept its families. She elicits great compassion for the individual beings caught in that tableau. It’s not a tale you’ll soon forget.”
—Susan Kelly, USA Today
“Engaging and rewarding . . . Spanning the two and a half decades before the First World War, [The Children’s Book] centers on the Wellwood family, led by a banker with radical inclinations and his wife, the author of best-selling fairy tales. At their country estate, they preside over a motley brood of children and host midsummer parties for fellow-Fabians, exiled Russian anarchists, and German puppeteers. But the idyll contains dark secrets, as a potter whom the family takes in for a time discovers. Byatt is concerned with the complex, often sinister relationship between parent and child, which she explores through various works of art, using them to refract and illuminate the larger narrative.”
—The New Yorker
“Rich, expansive . . . a portrait of a time of imminent change—the years [in England] when the Victorian golden age depreciated into Edwardian silver and then, with World War I, into an ‘age of lead.’ The novel’s early sections take us to the country home of the Wellwoods, who welcome a lost youth into their midst. . . . These scenes contain everything any reader could ever dream of: a romantic country house; neighboring woods containing treehouses and other surprises; garden parties; puppet shows; leisurely intellectual discussions—all meticulously imagined by one of our very best contemporary writers. . . . Byatt captures the modern world’s uneasy crawl from its cocoon with a commanding section on the Paris Expo of 1900 . . .[Byatt’s] observation of the minutiae of moments in her characters’ lives is intense. . . . If she hadn’t been a writer, Byatt should have been a naturalist or a painter. At times she captures the natural world with the precision and neutrality of Constable . . . at others, you get the feeling details have been assembled with the cunning of Poussin. . . . ‘Cunning’ also applies to the novel’s stories within stories. . . . Byatt is a spinner of multiple tales, adding gorgeous layers and dimensions to this fictional world. Splendid in themselves, these stories comment on the novel at large. [One of these stories] says the most, I think, about what Byatt achieves in The Children’s Book. Whom does this title refer to? Olive’s story ‘The People in the House in the House’ is a sly, irony-steeped tale of a little girl who captures fairies and imprisons them in her dollhouse, only to be captured herself and imprisoned by a giant child. In watching Byatt’s characters, especially parents who insist on clear paths for their young though their own lives are anything but clear, the simple message of that story—that no one is ever in total control—shows The Children’s Book is a title that applies to everyone.”
—Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Majestic . . . Dazzling . . . Wonderful . . . A fascinating tour d’horizon of a society in flux . . . It has become commonplace when praising a writer’s craft to pose the question: How many other writers could do what he or she has done? But in the case of A. S. Byatt, she is so amazingly talented and so prodigiously and fearlessly imaginative, that the question really becomes more: Is there any other writer today who can pull off the kind of artistic feat that she can? . . . By [The Children’s Book’s] conclusion, the characters—and the enthralled readers—have hurtled through the new century’s tumultuous first two decades, including the devastation and carnage of World War I. And here at the novel’s end is where Byatt again demonstrates her audacity—and the artistry to match—by actually writing poems in the voice of one of the characters she has created, authentic poetry of the prewar years giving way to coruscating verse typical of the great war poets . . . What you see here, as you do throughout the novel, is the strength and fire of Byatt’s imagination. Whether she is summoning up the mud and blood of Flanders fields, the dissecting room at a fledgling medical school for women, the brutality of life at a school for privileged young boys—and countless other places, such are the protean splendors of this novel—her touch is sure. Children’s literature in that poem and the book’s very title stem from the protagonist Olive Wellwood, a celebrated author of fairy tales and such books for young people. And of course Byatt being Byatt, she treats us to some marvelous tales from Olive’s (and of course her own) pen. . . . Olive is a marvelously original creation, full-blooded and magnificently realized in these pages, no pale imitation of anyone else. . . . In its enormous range and depth, [The Children’s Book] resembles those great Victorian novels in which the author is clearly steeped. Her learning is matched by an imaginative capacity to transmogrify what she has studied into something truly felt. There is a great deal in this novel about enthusiasm and disillusion and about gusto for life tempered by loss. Readers will learn a lot from The Children’s Book, but despite its being the product of all that learning, it is never didactic. Such is the power of the book that they will feel all that is packed into it, because Byatt has succeeded in her own literary quest ‘to go back to, to retrieve, and to reinhabit’ an important part of our past.”
—Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle
“Fascinating . . . An exhilarating panorama . . . Passionate, intelligent . . . The Children’s Book will undoubtedly be compared most often with Possession because of the scale of the enterprise, the historical setting, and the deft intertwining of fabricated texts. . . . One of the significant pleasures of The Children’s Book is also what makes it hardest to summarize: The novel has no main character, no hero or heroine. Instead, Byatt follows four families and numerous minor characters from the summer of 1895 to the summer of 1919. . . . The result is a richly peopled narrative that encompasses an unusual breadth of artistic, intellectual, social, and political concerns . . . Byatt manages her large cast and many plots by using a magisterially omniscient point of view capable of giving us the broad facts of history and geography and also of creating considerable intimacy. [She is] a master builder, laying each brick of her tower with consummate skill. Here is a novel in which everything matters.”
—Margot Livesey, Boston Sunday Globe
"If you buried The Children's Book under a few inches of leafy much, it might begin to sprout—that's how alive it is, how potent. David Copperfield, Prospero, Jane Eyre, and others haunt this novel, poised on the cusp of the 20th century, in which a raggedy kiln worker's son crosses class boundaries to practice pottery; a lovely matriarch writes dark fairy tales; children waste away from toxic family secrets; and ambitious women strain against tradition. Byatt is a master storyteller, but even more spellbinding than this novel's descriptions of nature and the supernatural is its intensely personal narrative of the Great War, where dreams of justice and mercy die hard."
—Cathleen Medwick, O, The Oprah Magazine
"A complete and complex world, a gorgeous bolt of fiction . . . The central character, a writer of children's books, lives with her prodigious family on a romantically meadowed and wooded piece of Kentish property. Of course, real life is more complicated and less child-friendly than the fairy tale she struggles to maintain, and, as in a fairy tale, the characters' true identities can be a surprise. A tangle of secondary families ranging over rich historical territory provides plenty of meaty story. But the magic is in the way Byatt suffuses her novel with details, from the shimmery sets of a marionette show to clay mixtures and pottery glazes."
—The Atlantic Monthly
“Magnificent . . . Inspired . . . Starts as an idyll and ends in hell. It is like one of those vast canvases by Fragonard depicting figures in silk and lace playing lawn games, oblivious to the huge, menacing clouds looming behind them. [The Children’s Book] is an ensemble piece. Each character has a story, and while those stories may intersect from time to time, as characters’ stories must, each remains separate and distinct. To accommodate them, the novel takes on the quality of a mansion with many rooms and passageways, filled with echoes and passing shadows. As in Possession, Byatt doesn’t simply tell you that Olive is a writer; she provides masterful examples of her stories. Byatt herself has certainly never written better than she does here. The sentences sparkle. The Children’s Book seems at times a cautionary tale for us today. For every one of [Byatt’s characters], bright and well-read and well-intentioned as they are, is utterly unprepared for the cataclysm that befalls them. Like the Kaiser, they all believe the guns that began firing in August 1914 would grow silent by Christmas. The Children’s Book ends in May 1919.”
—Frank Wilson, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Majestic and immensely ambitious . . . At the heart of the novel is the large Wellwood family, vigorous, talented, and bohemian. Neither Humphry Wellwood nor his novelist wife Olive belongs to the traditional English upper class, but they have bought a roomy country house in Kent. There they throw high-spirited parties with fancy-dress and puppet shows, attended by intellectuals, experimental potters, and Russian anarchists. . . . Olive[’s] stories, accomplished pastiches of fin-de-siècle whimsy that recall the tangled illustrations of Arthur Rackham, form a background to the whole novel . . . We are told what almost all Byatt’s characters are thinking and feeling; she enters almost every head and turns on the lights to show us what is going on inside. She does this with masterly skill and literary tact. [The Children’s Book] is supported by five set-piece episodes, each described in luxuriant detail. These [include] the Great Paris Universal Exposition in 1900 [a set piece which] is a masterpiece in itself, [and] only one example of Byatt’s almost stupefying command of historical and material detail. There seems to be nothing she doesn’t know about . . . Her laconic, terrible accounts of what happens to [her characters in World War I] are unforgettable, more eloquent than any of the ‘trenches’ novels that cram the bookshops. [Byatt] knows what she is doing, in supplying these rich backgrounds of politics and culture to the enthusiasms and delusions of her characters. And none of these passages entirely deserts those characters. On the contrary, they give them room to breathe; the close-up tracking of their feelings would grow claustrophobic if it were not from time to time released into the broad context of their times. The young women, especially, struggle through personal calamities and sexual restrictions to find out who they are and what they can become. By the end of The Children’s Book, nostalgia gives way to a passion for the future, a fury for change. [But] soon will come the slaughter of the boy-children in France and Flanders, while their sisters and girl cousins dig shrapnel out of the survivors. And in pages written with an agonized economy of words, this monument of a novel comes to its end.”
—Neal Ascherson, The New York Review of Books
"A rich and ambitious work, steeped in ideas and capped with a lacerating final act. . . . The progressive, prolific Wellwoods—prolific in both writing and childbearing, Olive and Humphry have a brood of seven—and their artsy friends and acolytes form the core of Byatt's novel, and they are an invigorating bunch. Fin de siècle England was bursting with new ideas and beliefs, and Byatt's characters are exuberant participants. What could be more delightful than a mother who writers personalized fairy tales for each of her kids? Except, of course, that fairy tales can be the darkest kind there are, and a life in the arts has psychic costs. Often it's the next generation that pays. . . . Byatt snatches the Wellwoods and their circle, who have been living in a kind of Midsummer Night's Dream—admittedly a delusional version, shot through with subplots involving abuse and incest—out of their fairy costumes and deposits them in the vermin-infested trenches and blood-soaked hospitals of World War I. In conveying the vicious indifference with which their lives are shattered, Byatt's penetrating, unsentimental style hits its mark. [The period] details are never less than fascinating."
—Radhika Jones, Time
"A kind of tragic fairy tale, and Byatt does fairy tales wonderfully. But she is ambivalent about [her characters'] preoccupation with them—and we would do well to understand why. Set in England between 1895 and 1919 and thickly embroidered with period detail, The Children's Book depicts an era that may seem foreign to Americans, but its obsession with childhood resonates with our own. We too treat fantasy, comic-book adaptations, and of course Harry Potter as if they were, like Peter Pan, really for adults. Olive's stories allow her to explore what she cannot say aloud. Our children's stories do the same for us; they give us the common framework to explore the sacred and profane that our culture denies, and they cleanly separate the world into good and evil. Still, there are dangers in a return to youth. We slay dragons instead of facing what really scares us at our peril, as Olive discovers. When the Great War began, productions of Peter Pan were staged with a line omitted: 'To die will be an awfully big adventure.'"
—Louisa Thomas, Newsweek
"Brilliant . . . multilayered . . . bristling with life and invention . . . A seductive book by an extraordinarily gifted writer. . . . Set primarily in the [English] countryside, the story also flings characters to London, Paris, Munich, the Italian Alps and the battlefields of Europe where real historical figures mix with invented characters including layabout students, socialists, potters, puppeteers, randy novelists and poets in the trenches of France. [As such] The Children's Book is a kind of anatomy of the age in which the young men and women of the Edwardian era were confronted by a rapidly changing society and the grim reality of the Great War. But more compelling than the social and political history is the domestic drama among the dozen or more characters that Byatt draws in vivid detail. The novel spirals out from the families and social circle of the young writer Olive Wellwood, a famous writer of children's books, in the golden age of fiction about children . . . In addition to her published work, she creates for each [of her children] a private story, bound in a special journal. Byatt describes several of these books, but she unlocks the one for Tom, Olive's son, with devastating effect. The story—about a boy who loses his shadow and must search for it underground—closely mirrors Tom's internal and psychological life. When she mines her son's story for a new play, a darker take on the motifs of Peter Pan, her son becomes truly lost. . . . This story about the nature of art and commerce and the private influences on public performance is at the core of the book, but . . . secret passions electrify the stories of the other families, too. Olive and Humphrey's marriage is a series of private indiscretions [and] startling revelations. On the surface, Victorian and Edwardian England may have been obsessed with propriety, but as with every age, all-too-human desires lurk just underground . . . All [the] characters connect in a tangled web, often erotic and frequently just this side of madness. The Children's Book holds a mirror to the new middle class during an era of growing appreciation for children, greater sexual freedom for women, and for the love that dares not speak its name. That Byatt marries this novel of ideas with such compelling characters testifies to her remarkable spinning energy."
—Keith Donohue, The Washington Post
"Rich with period detail and sublime storytelling. . . . Supremely fulfilling, busy, and wondrous. Jammed with a staggering amount of history, with characters and ideas that demand attention, Byatt's complex, ambitious work imparts wonder as it follows generations across decades. Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize—and no wonder—The Children's Book is a mesmerizing exploration of, well, everything: families, secrets, love, innocence, corruption, art, the desire for knowledge, nature, politics, war, sex, power. Even puppetry. . . .The Wellwoods and their seven children form the story's central thread, but their friends and extended family prove equally instrumental. So many characters to keep track of—we're in Russian-novel territory here—and yet Byatt makes them all distinct. Olive writes fairy tales for children, [and] making up stories is where Byatt excels, too. Like Olive's disturbing tales, The Children's Book hints at dark motives and dangerous journeys, and follows [its] children through young adulthood, wreathing them in beguiling fairy tales, a shocking array of secrets. They discover passions, fall in love, plan futures or remain trapped by family dramas. [Byatt is] intrigued by intellectual quests and the life of the mind and how such things work against our weak, too-willing flesh. The characters of The Children's Book may be Victorians, but they spend a shocking amount of time in each other's beds. . . . 'It was magical,' Byatt writes of the Wellwoods' Midsummer celebration. 'Everyone agreed it was magical.' There is wonder everywhere, especially if you open this book."
—Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald
"A tour de force . . . Will not disappoint fans of her phenomenally successful Possession. In a dumbed-down world, what a pleasure it is to dive into the allusive, uncompromisingly erudite novels of A. S. Byatt. Byatt has inherited Iris Murdoch's mantle as England's pre-eminent novelist of ideas, but her books are richer and more satisfying than Murdoch's, and less inclined to preciosity and abstraction. Byatt might more profitably be compared with the great Victorians in whose work she has immersed herself. The Children's Book centers on the lives of two generations of artistic, bohemian families. Olive Wellwood, a writer of children's stories, and her journalist husband, Humphry, have created a magical realm at Todefright, their rural retreat, where they bring their seven children up . . . Narcissistic Olive [is] a woman whose fecundity and happy marriage are achieved at the expense of her sister; [her] single-minded attention to her writing ends up destroying the child she loves best. But Byatt is a multi-dimensional artist, and in Olive she has created a complex woman who is by no means unsympathetic. Olive is above all an artist, with the vagaries that the term implies, and narcissism goes with the territory. . . . The events of The Children's Book might be said to mirror the ways in which all parents, of every generation, deceive and betray their children . . . Olive's dilemma, the challenge (which she fails) of coping with the creative and destructive powers given to the artist, is clearly one with which her author is passionately concerned. In the end, The Children's Book brings to vivid life the often irreconcilable demands of being an artist and being a human being."
—Brooke Allen, The Wall Street Journal
"A vivid and erudite portrait of an age, a family chronicle, a sweeping saga that dramatizes the interplay—and frequent collisions—between life and art, politics and personal life, fairy tales and reality, creativity and responsibility, Germany and England. It is a stunning achievement: a novel of ideas that crackles with passion, energy and emotive force. . . . Few writers are Byatt's equal in conveying the textured subjectivity of artists and writers, their ways of seeing, their almost compulsive urge to create. . . . Fragments [of fairy tales in the novel], which fascinate and delight, also repel . . . Creation and destruction walk hand in hand through the novel, so it is fitting that The Children's Book ends at the close of World War I, that colossal waste of a generation. Byatt's prose ranges from ecstatically lovely descriptions of works of art to brisk exposition of social movements; her characterizations are nuanced and moving. . . . I came to care about every one of the 20-odd children in the second generation [of characters], to the extent that I did not want The Children's Book to end . . . I still wanted more of this ambitious, compelling novel, certainly Byatt's best since the Booker–winning Possession: A Romance, and possibly her best ever."
—Patricia Hagen, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Byatt has brought to life the Edwardian age . . . As lushly detailed as Possession . . . Fairy tales abound, parties of grandiose dimension are given, flirtations begin and end—and not just between and among the younger generation. That fact is the underside of the story. In the face of this ‘Edwardian Summer,’ a halcyon time, family secrets swirl around. Little by little they are unearthed: surprising, sad, painful. . . . Every stitch of this tapestry is connected to the whole, all coming to a head with the devastation of World War I, when all the young men went off to war and the world was forever changed.”
—Valerie Ryan, The Seattle Times
“[A] masterpiece of a novel . . . Takes you across a lifetime of emotions. I began the book in the bathtub. My heart was light. I finished the book on a train, five stops past my destination, lost in some blasted urban hell, with tears streaming down my face. . . . Byatt’s novel—her best yet—is a meditation on the ways the seductive power to create and to be created by someone else can trap us. The Children’s Book lets us fully experience that lure, as beautiful sentences and elegant phrases lead us further and further in through a pleasurable series of portraits and scenes until the only way out is through.”
—Bethany Schneider, Newsday
"Byatt is an enthusiastic reader of Victorian novels, and in some ways she is a writer of them as well, or of updated versions. Her new novel, The Children's Book, has a Trollopean heft and sweep; it starts in 1895 and ends after World War I. Like most Byatt books, it's stuffed with information: about pottery, puppetry, Victorian child-rearing theories, trench warfare, the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, the rise of Fabianism and women's suffrage. . . . The Children's Book is centered on Olive Wellwood, a famous writer of children's books, who lives with an extended family on a sort of Bohemian estate in Kent. The children run wild; the grownups are arty and sexually adventurous. Olive is loosely based on the writer E. Nesbit, and a great many real figures make walk-on appearances in the book, among them Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Rodin, Emma Goldman and Rupert Brooke, and Oscar Wilde on his last public outing before being imprisoned. The creepiest character, and also one of the most entertaining, is a novelist and free-love advocate named Herbert Methley, whom the reader first meets while he's sunbathing in the nude. Methley, Byatt said, is a cross between H. G. Wells and D. H. Lawrence: he has Wells's predatory sexual habits and Lawrence's way of spouting off about his love life. . . . In some ways The Children's Book is a study of grownups, and artists especially, behaving very badly . . . "
—Charles McGrath, The New York Times
"Intricately crafted, deeply satisfying . . . Sink comfortably into Byatt's gorgeously stuffed narrative. I haven't had as much pure fun with one of her novels since her Booker–winning Possession. The Edwardian age agrees with her every bit as much as did the Victorian. The Children's Book manages to be encompassing in scope and watch-maker precise in detail. . . . Byatt covers huge swaths of the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian era right up through World War I, discoursing intelligently about everything from women's suffrage to the language of fairy tales and the art of puppetry. [She also] turns her skilled hand to Golden-Age-era children's literature and World War I trench poetry. . . . Fans of Possession, you've got yourself a new bedtime story."
—Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor
"Riveting . . . The novel begins and ends with the Wellwoods, a family of bohemians moving through the years and an ever-growing web of relationships and connections. Though the setup sounds like genteel Anglophile bait, the novel turns out to be something else entirely—an unsettling story as much Peter Greenaway as Merchant Ivory. . . . When we first meet beautiful Olive Wellwood in 1895, she is already the author of many successful children's books, as well as the mother of a constantly expanding brood. But eventually Olive begins cannibalizing the 'secret and private' tales [written] for each of her offspring . . . and she sets in motion the book's original sin; likewise, her kids will soon be tossed from a fantastic existence into a cruel world. Playing brilliantly with fairy tale tropes, Byatt fills The Children's Book with foundlings, locked chambers and kisses with more frogs than princes. But the novel is ultimately about the difference between willful innocence and bitter experience. While Olive and other 'adult' characters play around the edges of sexual freedom and socialist political action, their children plunge into a rapidly modernizing world—and thence into the gruesome trenches of WWI. As this complex novel builds toward its finale, it forgoes one of Olive's enchanted endings in favor of something closer to life."
—Elizabeth Isadora Gold, Time Out New York
"A wonderful, engaging novel . . . Fine, rich, fully accomplished. The Children's Book opens as a Victorian novel should, with an orphan and runaway: Phillip, discovered living in the basement of London's Prince Albert Museum. . . . But as readers of her Possession and Angels & Insects know, Byatt's 'Victorian' novels focus on what's repressed and beneath the idyllic, regulated surface of Victorian society. Hers are the Victorian novels that couldn't have been written, or published, in that time. . . . This was the time of the Boer War and socialist idealism, of the growth of the Suffragette Movement, of Art Nouveau and the trial and disgrace of Oscar Wilde—a colorful, fascinating time [that] Byatt is deft in presenting."
—David Walton, Louisville Courier-Journal
"For a novel so entrenched in the subject of fairy tales, The Children's Book is consumed by the kind of seriousness that, we sometimes forget, is an essential part of growing up. . . . Byatt's writing, with its captivating sense of language and narrative, continually evokes traditional 19th-century English storytelling. . . . The realities of growing up, of fleshing out one's place in the world, of realizing not only who one is but who one's parents really are—these are the themes at work in The Children's Book. A fascinating literary achievement."
—Zak M. Salih, Richmond Times-Dispatch
"Stunning . . . Matching and arguably surpassing Possession in breadth and ambition [The Children's Book] is a magnificent Edwardian-era multi-family saga [that] portrays a world of artists and leftists at once seized by arrested development and enraptured by the political, social, and artistic advancements they are effecting. . . . Intricate."
—Kera Bolonik, Bookforum
"Byatt returns to the 19th century with The Children's Book, which centers on English fairy-tale author Olive Wellwood. The novel traces the Wellwoods' fortunes—and reveals their secrets—as they navigate the tectonic cultural shift from Victorian to modern."
"[A] must-read for fall . . . Just as ambitious [as Possession], The Children's Book revolves around the life of an English children's book author and three families whose lives are intertwined with hers as Europe tumbles into World War I."
—Tom Beer, Newsday
"Masterly . . . A girl places some diminutive folk she's discovered into her doll house, then is imprisoned by a giant. A prince discovers that he alone has no shadow. These aren't plot points in this new work by the author of Possession, but children's stories written by one of its protagonists, Olive Wellwood. There are, of course, actual children in the book—Olive's, with blustery banker husband Humphry; the Wellwood cousins; Julian, son of a keeper at the South Kensington Museum; Philip, the wayward boy discovered living surreptitiously in the museum, whom Olive brings home to her country estate; the family of brilliant but selfish master potter Benedict Fludd, who takes in the talented Philip as an unpaid apprentice. Like the children in Olive's stories, these children have their notions quietly disabused; one small instant—say, a parent's overheard comment—and life is changed forever. It's the late 1800s, with new ideas in the air—and it's all rushing toward World War I. Pitch perfect, stately, told with breathtakingly matter-of-fact acuteness, this is another winner for Byatt."
—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (starred)
"Ambitious, accomplished and intelligent . . . Byatt encompasses the paradigm shift from Victorian to modern England in a sweeping tale of four families. The deeper subject, however, is the complex, not always benign bond that attaches children to adults. As the novel opens in 1895, Olive Wellwood seems the model New Woman: popular author of books that reinvent fairy tales for contemporary children, tolerant wife to Fabian Society stalwart Humphry, devoted mother pregnant with her seventh baby. She takes in a working-class boy who longs to make art, and connects him with a master potter whose family belongs to the Wellwoods' progressive, artistic circle. As the narrative unfolds, we see the dark side of these idealists' lives. . . . The gothic sexual interconnections [among the characters] recall Bloomsbury, and Olive is clearly a gloss on E. Nesbit, but this is no mere roman à clef. Byatt's concern is the vast area where utopian visions collide with human nature. . . . Her adult subjects, she writes, 'saw, in a way that earlier generations had not, that children were people, with identities and desires….but they saw this out of a desire of their own for perpetual childhood.' World War I forces everyone to grow up. Byatt has painted her large cast of characters so richly that we care about all of them. In the last chapter, the survivors reunite and dream once more: 'They could make magical plays for a new generation of children.'"
"Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, The Children's Book tells the tale of a Victorian-era children's book author who takes an artistic runaway into her London home. This act of charity, however, reveals a household that is coming apart at the seams. Byatt takes her characters into World War I, along the way showing how the world both inside and outside their home is disintegrating."
—New York Post
"Easily the best thing A. S. Byatt has written since her Booker-winning masterpiece, Possession . . . A panoramic cavalcade of a novel [and] a work that superlatively displays both enormous reach and tremendous grip."
–Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)
"Insistently readable . . . Brimming with intelligence and sensuality."
–Claire Allfree, Metro (UK) (Four stars)
"Devastating." –Helen Dunmore, The Times (London)
"Marvelous . . . [A] sweeping yet intricate account of three middle-class English families navigating the blind turn from the 19th to the 20th centuries. . . . Rapturously immediate and vivid. . . . Substantial and superb . . . Here is Byatt at her historical-novelist best."
–Geoff Pevere, Toronto Star
"Gripping and often deeply affecting . . . Magnificent . . . Lavish . . . A narrative tour de force."
–Pamela Norris, Literary Review
"The sort of high-concept intellectual fiction we'd expect from, well, A. S. Byatt. Possession: the next generation. . . . There is enormous personal sadness in Byatt's novel, which becomes a collective, historical sadness as the novel moves ineluctably towards 1914."
–Sophie Gee, Financial Times
"Brilliant . . . Clear-eyed . . . A staggeringly charged, slyly comic re-creation of the period between the end of the 19th century and the first world war."
–Alex Clark, The Guardian
"Intricately worked and sumptuously inlaid . . . The Children' s Book seethes and pulses with an entangled life, of the mind and the senses alike."
–Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
"An engrossing saga. . . . Byatt captures the innocence of childhood in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras before the onset of the First World War. It is a world of half-hidden secrets, set against a backdrop of social change. A rich historical stew."
–Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler
"This is [Byatt' s] Middlemarch." –Sam Leith, The Guardian
"The Children's Book has a richness of pictorial décor which reminds one of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence."
–John Sutherland, Evening Standard
"Beguiling . . . Intelligent, erudite and charming . . . This book made me thirsty: Whenever I put it down, it nagged me to pick it up again. . . . Monumental, pure, beautiful. . . . Byatt can still breathe magical life into historical fiction, giving her abiding interests new relevance with each work."
–J. C. Sutcliffe, The Globe and Mail
"Compelling . . . Fascinating . . . Clear-sighted and evocative . . . An intricate tale, energetically fashioned from sturdy strands of material, by an indefatigable storyteller . . . never less than the real thing."
–Patricia Craig, The Irish Times
"Dazzling . . . Byatt is an artist of exceptional moral enchantment." –Jane Shilling, The Daily Telegraph
"A seductive tale . . . Byatt favours sexual enlightenment and social promotion and political advance in all its forms."
–George Walden, New Statesman
"A consummate work of art . . . Through the fictional Olive Wellwood, Byatt conjures the period of Peter Pan and H. G. Wells, Fabianism and Wind in the Willows."
–Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday
"Compulsively readable . . . Extraordinarily rich." –Caroline Moore, The Spectator
"Intellectually fizzing . . . Remarkable, peerless, and willfully and delightfully and unapologetically intellectual, the kind of writer who makes you marvel at what she manages to put on the page."
–Alan Taylor, The Herald (Glasgow)
"Brilliant . . . Insightful and illuminating . . . An eloquent testament to the dangerous power of both art and myth."
–Elizabeth Lowry, The Times Literary Supplement
"Byatt writes [about World War I] with a power equal to that of Erich Maria Remarque and Ford Madox Ford. . . . Like Possession, [The Children's Book] carries off the feat of being both a dazzling novel of ideas and an emotionally compelling page-turner, a historical work with a remarkably contemporary feel. One of our best writers has surpassed herself."
–Ian McGillis, The Montreal Gazette
Knopf, 9780307272096, 688pp.
Publication Date: October 6, 2009
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
- Why is this novel called The Children's Book? Discuss the many possible meanings this title suggests.
- How are fairy tales important to the novel—both to the story and to the characters themselves? Byatt has said in interviews that fairy tales and the children's books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as E. Nesbit's magical stories and The Wind in the Willows, inspired her to write the novel; do you see echoes of any of your favorite children's stories here?
- We follow a huge cast of characters for nearly three decades over the course of the novel; whom did you care about most at the end? Many of the characters are not who they seem; how did your feelings about these characters change as the story developed?
- What secrets are the many families in the novel—the Todefright Wellwoods, the Basil Wellwoods, the Cains, the Fludds, and even Elsie and Philip—hiding from each other and from outsiders? Which of the characters' betrayals did you find most shocking?
- How does class constrain the characters in the novel? Olive and Elsie both marry outside their class—are they similar in any other ways? Which is the greater divide for them and the other characters in the novel: class or sex? How does Philip's absorption into the Wellwood circle differ from his sister's?
- From the opening scene, pottery—the craft of it, its history, the contrast between fine art and factory-made pieces—is a recurring presence throughout the novel. Does Olive do the right thing in apprenticing Philip to Benedict Fludd? How does Byatt use the metaphor of clay to enrich the story?
- A German puppeteer is a surprise guest at the Wellwoods' Midsummer party at the beginning of the novel. What role do puppets play in the novel, and what do they represent? How does the relationship between the German and British characters change as the novel unfolds?
- What is the significance of the Tree House? What does it mean to Tom—and to his siblings?
- Motherhood is a crucial part of the novel, and of Olive's stories; Olive herself is something of a "Mother Goose," as in her story "The Shrubbery" on pages 105–114. But is Olive a good mother? What about Violet, and the other mothers in the story?
- How does the notion of lineage—of knowing who one's real parents are—affect the children in the novel? Does knowing "the truth" ultimately make much difference to the adults the children grow into—or do the people who actually raise them, and the way they are raised, make more of an impact?
- A number of the adult characters are artists in one way or another; many of them—through their art or their actions—cause damage to the other people in their lives. Discuss how the artists in the novel both create and destroy.
- Discuss the Fludd family. Why do you think Byatt chose not to divulge the specifics of Benedict's acts? What do you think he did?
- In an essay she wrote for the London Times, Byatt wrote, "There is a strong case to be made that the Edwardians enjoyed school stories, magical tales, and tales of children alone in landscapes—woodland camps, secret expeditions—because they were themselves reluctant to grow up." How do the adults in the novel reflect this idea? What distinction do the characters make between childhood and adulthood? What distinction is Byatt making through the novel?
- Several characters embrace the notion of free love, or of sex outside marriage. What is the result? Is it good for any of them? How do these attitudes resemble, or not, those of the 1960s in the United States?
- How is Dorothy—who doesn't share her mother's love of stories, who is the serious daughter, and who becomes a doctor—different from her siblings? How does Humphry's revelation, and his betrayal, change her?
- Several characters undergo transformations. Is Charles/Karl's the most obvious, or the least?
- Olive writes stories for each of her seven children, which are bound into their own private books. As the novel unfolds, the story written for her oldest and most beloved son, Tom—"Tom Underground"—becomes more and more important. Why does he cling so tightly to this fairy tale? What does the metaphor of shadow signify? Why does he see the play his mother writes as a betrayal?
- On page 562, Dorothy tells Tom that he's responsible for Philip's success. Is this accurate? Why or why not?
- What is the significance of the stone with a hole that Tom picks up on page 586?
- Why does Hedda try to destroy the Gloucester Candlestick? Is it a coincidence that she chose this item? How does the suffragette movement affect her and the other women in the story?
- Reread Julian's poetry. How does it reflect upon the novel itself?
- The Children's Book is a historical panorama that encompasses many political and social movements of the early twentieth century. Were you familiar with the figures and movements Byatt discusses: the Fabian Society, British socialists, women's rights, etc.? What is your understanding of their purpose in the novel?
- The acknowledgments give a glimpse of the research that went into the novel; what subjects did you most enjoy learning about? How does Byatt's erudition enrich her storytelling?
- The Great War seems to take nearly all of the characters by surprise; were you surprised by the scope of the damage it inflicted? Which character is most changed by the war? Did it change the way you saw the characters' sexual and personal secrets—and how they themselves saw their own lives?