When I wrote about Wolf Hall two weeks ago, I claimed that “possibly The Children’s Book which lost out to Wolf Hall in 2009 is a better-crafted work”. I stand by this opinion and, on further reflection, am not sure there’s any “possibly” to the matter: Byatt produced a superb work in 2009 which thoroughly deserved its Booker nomination and to which I would have been inclined to award the prize.
The Children’s Book tells the stories of a large group of people belonging to a variety of families during the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, up to the end of the First World War. It is a hugely ambitious tale following many storylines with a formidably large cast of characters, most of whose lives are in some way interwoven with each other through extended family relationships, friendship, secrets, and history. Consequently, the novel has no central storyline and no main character; Olive Wellwood probably comes closest to the latter as she serves as the linchpin to many events in the book, appears to be closest to Byatt in personality and philosophy, and as a writer of children’s stories can be closely linked to the title.
Byatt’s narrative is fundamentally about two forms of relationships: those between the generations and those between the sexes. At the beginning of the book, the children of the families start to become aware of an adult world of secrets, deception, and responsibility that lies just beyond their reach, with key facts being revealed in various stages as they develop and increase their understanding. In particular, Byatt considers the relationships between children and creative parents: Benedict Fludd (a potter) inflicts enormous cruelty on his children, Olive Wellwood seems indifferent to most of hers. On top of this, Byatt explores the relationship that adults have with the concept of childhood. The period of time covered (1895-1919) saw a boom in good quality children’s writing (indeed, many consider this to be the best work to come from the period) and Byatt considers the implications of a society whose cultural output is driven towards the young. She seems to see writing for children as a form of escapism for Olive and Byatt reflects this in the book, using excerpts from Olive’s stories to break up her own. This form of escapism is not entirely healthy, however, and ultimately causes Tom Wellwood (Olive’s favourite child) to take his own life.
The older generation is liberated and care-free, indulging in the extravagances of their age and Byatt’s presentation of the Exposition Universelle in 1900 neatly reflects this, being richly drawn and conveying a remarkable sense of wonder. It sits in stark contrast to her spartan description of the war and its impact. Although Byatt has resisted the idea that the First World War overshadows much of the action (The Children’s Book was not initially intended to cover so large a period) it is hard to escape the contrast it presents.
In considering the relationships between the sexes, Byatt makes effective use of the time period and the growing campaign for suffrage. Her women are largely independent and driven, although with different values and aspirations. By refusing to grant any one character a central position, Byatt portrays the spectrum of positions women could hold relative to men, particularly when it came to the workplace and to the home. The writing is most interesting, however, when exploring the interpersonal relationships of the characters, many of which are driven by sex. The theme is introduced early in the novel and applied to young and old. Sexual relationships guide many of the interactions between the adult characters and provide much of the mystery surrounding certain events within the novel. This need for physical intimacy reveals a sad and sometimes lonely undercurrent to a liberal, educated and enlightened society.
I recognise that I am probably in the minority in favouring The Children’s Book to Wolf Hall. Although the panel in 2009 was split 3:2, Mantel was the bookies’ favourite by far. And I can see that it would be easy to consider Byatt’s book to be too long, or sprawling, or overly indulgent in its detail. But I loved The Children’s Book. I loved the breadth of its ambition, I loved that it presented a network of relationships with no dominant concern or thesis, and I loved how rich it was in detail. And possibly the biggest signal of the impact Byatt had on me is that while I’m looking forward to reading Mantel’s next Cromwell book, I’m also looking forward to re-reading this one.