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The Children's Book

In her best novel since “Possession,” A.S. Byatt spins a tale from details of the life of children’s book author Edith Nesbit.

By Yvonne Zipp / October 9, 2009

As a child, what bookworm didn’t dream of having a writer for a parent? Bedtime stories would be one-of-a-kind masterpieces. And maybe, if you were really lucky, they’d name a character after you, like A.A. Milne did with Christopher Robin.

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Then you grow up and realize, at least when it comes to the founders of British children’s literature, even Oliver Twist would recoil in horror from such a fate.

Kenneth Grahame’s son committed suicide at boarding school. Peter Llewellyn-Davies, the inspiration for “Peter Pan” and one of J.M. Barrie’s adopted sons, also killed himself. “Secret Garden” author Frances Hodgson Burnett left her dying teenage son in Italy to be with her lover in England.

Edith Nesbit had a family epic in its emotional complications. She and her husband had an open marriage, and his mistress and two children lived with the family. There were serious gaps in parenting. One of Nesbit’s sons died having his tonsils out, for example, apparently because no one remembered to tell him not to eat the night before the operation.

While it may seem amazing that writers who delight so many generations of other people’s children were so rough on their own, it’s worth noting this particular generation wasn’t really writing for children. They were writing for the child in themselves, as A.S. Byatt points out in her intricately crafted, deeply satisfying new novel The Children’s Book. And that creative genius depended on never growing up. Being a good parent kind of does.

For “The Children’s Book,” which was short-listed for this year’s Booker Prize, Byatt uses details from Nesbit’s life as a jumping-off point for inspiration. Like Nesbit, Olive Wellwood and her banker husband are founding members of the Fabian Society, a precursor to Britain’s Labour Party. They also have many children, who are looked after by Olive’s sister, Violet, so Olive can create the stories that keep the family in their beloved home, Todefright.


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