As a former student of literature, The Children’s Book really beckons to be read through the lens of the literary critic. The story is set between 1985 and 1919. The story focuses on a few families who are connected in different ways. Olive and Humphry Wellwood have a number of children together (and apart!), but while Olive is busy writing children’s’ books, it is her sister Violet who does all the “mothering”. Of their children, it is the two eldest, Tom and Dorothy who play the largest parts in the story. Humphry’s brother Basil is married to Katharina, and they are the parents of beautiful Griselda and the wannabe anarchist Charles/Karl. The widower Prosper Cain is the father of Julian and Florence. Prosper has an old friend called Benedict Fludd, a pottery artist. He has two daughters, Imogen and Pomona, and a son Geraint with his wife Seraphita. But their household soon expands when the runaway Philip enters the picture. Tom and Julian come across Philip who is trying to hide in the museum Prosper works at. Once Philip has settled at Purchase House, his sister Elsie finds him there and becomes a maid. Confused yet? Confusion about all the children in the story seems to be part of the plan. The author leaves hints that some of the children might not turn out to be who they thought they were. And some of the kids do not want to be what they are. There is a strong sense that identity and parentage is all jumbled up. The children in The Children’s Book aren’t what they want to be, or wish to be something they’re not. This creates a lot of the conflicts and tensions, but also the movements and the developments in the novel. On a larger scale, this discontent with identity seems to comment on the discontent of their generation as a whole.
To consider some of the issues of identity, we have the Wellwood family where it turns out that some of the children are not Olive and Humphry’s, but either/or. Once the children find out, they are both repulsed and at a loss. On top of that, there is unwillingness from the adult’s side to confront the issues, so the children are left to deal with it on their own. Olive has written stories for all the children, stories which partly constitute the identity of each child. But her obsession with Tom’s story drowns all the other children out, and to too large an extent overrides Tom’s own personal search for his own identity separate from his mother’s.
For the other Wellwoods, Charles/Karl has perhaps the most obvious identity crisis. He rejects his parents lavish lifestyles (at least in his mind), and refuses to follow in his father’s banking footsteps. Adding Karl Marx’ name to his, the name split is the physical manifestation of his identity crisis, to the extent that he even signs letters with his dualism.
Geraint, artist Benedict Fludd’s son mirrors Charles/Karl in rejecting his father’s life. Ironically, he desires Charles/Karl’s easy life where money is not always just out of reach. Basil Wellwood decides to help Geraint in his pursuit for a banking career, and finds in Geraint the son he never had.
There seems to be a sense of “adoptions” or “fostering” in the book. As Geraint moves on to the Wellwood family, Benedict has a new son in Philip Warren, who wishes to learn the pottery craft. And soon, Benedict’s daughter, Imogen, is “adopted” by Prosper Cain to help her onwards in life. The consequence is often that the “original” children feel abandoned or ignored. Early in the novel, Violet is teaching the children about cuckoos, and we cannot ignore the parallel:
“ ‘…They burrow. They lay their eggs secretly in other birds’ nests, among the other eggs./ And the foster mother – a willow-warbler, maybe, a bunting perhaps, feeds the stranger fledgling as though it was her own, even when it grows much large than she is, even when it is almost too large for the nest, it cries for food and she answers…’
‘What happens to her real children?’ asked Hedda.
‘Maybe they leave early,’ said Violet vaguely.
‘It pushes them out,’ said Dorothy. ‘You know it does…/ And the parents go on feeding it…’ “ (p. 91).
Sexuality is also a very strong theme in the novel, and also relates to notions of identity crisis. Julian is at the start of the novel convinced he is gay, but later he expresses passionate feelings about one of the female heroes of the story. We also learn that the Fludd girls have a very confused notion of sexuality, and we can tell that there are dark secrets hidden there. Elsie, Philip’s sister, is seduced by an older man who repeatedly advocates female sexual liberty, yet abuses their trust. Later, another young woman falls into his snare. Geraint has strong feelings for Florence Fludd, but seeks out prostitutes because he does not know how to deal with his feelings for Florence. And beautiful, handsome Tom gets a less than pleasant encounter with sex at boarding school, and seems to go asexual after that.
Adult sexuality definitely affects the children. There are incestuous suggestions. Olive’s bias in favour of Tom sometimes takes on an incestuous quality. Randy Humphry is drunk one night and confesses, after groping one of his “daughters” that she is not his real daughter, and so it is ok. As for the Fludd daughters, it is clear that there is definitely something fishy about their father’s jealous love of them. And when Prosper Cain suggests to Benedict that Imogen should move in with himself and his daughter in order to get an education, Prosper notes to himself that he feels like a suitor. This incident takes on a deeper meaning later in the story.
Sexuality is also connected to gender, and there is a clear gender struggle going on in the society of the novel. For Olive, marrying Humphry was a way out of a life in poverty. Although she loves him, she accepts his infidelities in a way that makes me feel that she’s almost prostituting herself to ensure that she’ll go on living the life she is now used to. But as a contrast to this, at the beginning of the novel Olive actually becomes the main bread winner in the family, and ironically has to help support one of Humphry’s mistresses and their illegitimate child. There is a really strange power dynamic here.
The fight for women’s right to vote is a central backdrop in the novel. One of Olive and Humphry’s children, Hedda, decides to join this struggle. Her older sister, Dorothy, struggles for women’s rights in a less obvious way, since she’s determined to become a doctor: “women must do everything more competently, more carefully, with more unrelenting discipline than men” (p. 581). Elsie, finding herself at the bottom of the pile as a fallen woman from no means after giving birth to her illegitimate child, but with the help of her three “fairy godmothers”, she manages not only to keep her dignity, but also to rise above her situation and become a teacher.
On the other side of the spectrum you find Florence Cain and Griselda Wellwood, who has the means to become anything, if they so choose, but who find it hard to find meaningful occupation. They lack Dorothy’s determinedness, or Imogen’s talents, and they feel impotent.
The idea of playing is an important motif in the novel. Olive is a writer of children’s books, but there are other writers, including Tom, Humphry and Julian. The families are often involved in plays as well, both for their own enjoyment, as well as more professionally. Dorothy finds out that she is linked to a German family, the Sterns, who work with puppets and puppet plays. There is a tension between playing, acting, being less real even than a puppet, and actually being real. Tom at some point states that he wishes not to be real. It is almost as if he would prefer only his fictional self, Tom Underworld, to be real.
The tension between real and unreal is strengthened in the tension between art and nature. Nature also plays a huge part in the novel, in a time when people move further and further away from nature. Philip tries to copy, to duplicate nature in his art. However, when he comes across pots Benedict made depicting sexual nature in an unnatural way, he deals with it by pretending he has not seen them. The author Herbert Methley uses his writing in an attempt to influence nature, and nature to influence his art; for him the two are seemingly co-dependent. And Olive feeds of her children in order to write their stories.
In the process of reading The Children’s Book I realised how much can be said about this novel just based on its title, which is deceivingly simple. At first glance it seems to refer to the books Olive wrote for her children. However, the novel emphasises how in this period, books for children were the most successful, even for adults. Kim, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, etc, are all clear references. But the title also seems to refer to the fact that we are dealing with a generation of children, Peter Pans who refuse to grow up. At the end of the novel, however, the war forces them to grow up; they are transformed into “old-young men”.
The Children’s Book is also very much a novel about stories and writing. There are references to stories throughout, and the structure of the novel, with parallel stories and people repeating each other, supports this. The novel is extremely neat, and Byatt chews over a huge part of British (and European) history with assured elegance. The story is almost too rich, and relationships between the characters mingle, cross and criss-cross each other in a brilliant way. It is shocking, provoking, moving, everything a great story should be.