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.
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.
Not having to cook or clean, Olive concocts never ending stories, “like segmented worms,” for each of her children. “The story books were kept in a glass-faced cabinet in Olive’s study.... It had begun, of course, with Tom, whose story was the longest. Each story was written in its own book, hand-decorated with stuck-on scraps and coloured patterns.” The Wellwood children are raised to believe in a hidden world of magic that exists just out of sight. “The seen and the unseen world were interlocked and superimposed. You could trip out of one and into the other at any moment.”
Into this imagination-driven society stumbles Phillip Warren, a runaway teen with an artistic spirit. After Olive plays good fairy for the weekend, Phillip is apprenticed to a family friend, a potter of uncertain temper and undoubted genius, who has two fragile-looking daughters. The Fabians believed in giving children room to explore, and Olive’s most beloved child, Tom, disappears into the woods for days at a time. Prickly Dorothy longs to be a doctor; and proto-Goth Hedda ferrets out family secrets and rages at being ignored. Meanwhile, Olive’s bourgeois-raised nephew flirts with anarchy, and her golden niece longs to be allowed to think.
Readers will also be allowed to think, as they sink comfortably into Byatt’s gorgeously stuffed narrative. (And at almost 700 pages, you can get really comfy.) 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. Following members of Wellwood’s extended brood over the decades, 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. Periodically, she offers omniscient history lectures, and the last section of the novel, believe it or not, feels rushed. But by then, a reader is so invested in the characters, it almost doesn’t matter.
As with “Possession,” Byatt includes long excerpts of her characters’ work. This time she turns her skilled hand to Golden-Age-era children’s literature and World War I trench poetry. Interestingly, Wellwood doesn’t write much like Nesbit. Instead of schoolkids digging up an irritable sand fairy (“The Five Children and It”), Olive’s stories are more in the vein of George MacDonald. “Tom Underground,” for example, follows a prince into dark tunnels as he seeks to reclaim his shadow from an evil fairy.
In the real world, the children discover secrets that make the Big Bad Wolf look the recipient of the Babysitter of the Year Award, while the adults pride themselves on their enlightened, reasoned parenting. “Grown-ups always think we don’t know things they must have known themselves,” a friend tells Tom. “They need to remember wrong, I think.”
Fans of “Possession,” you’ve got yourself a new bedtime story.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.