Inhabiting Fiction Part 2

By WittyKnitter

About a year ago I picked up The Children’s Book, which I’d put down months earlier after failing to really get engaged in it, and, as with Wolf Hall (which I talked about in my last post), I was lost in a past world. Not that I want to go to this one – it doesn’t sound very comfortable or pleasant, being one of the ghastly Olive Wellwood’s many children or, worse, her ‘friends’ – all of whom seem to exist only to flatter and reflect her. But there are so many strands in this book that I’m still unravelling – the terror of living with undiagnosed mental illness, the dreaminess of a Cambridge that no-one ever seems to leave (until, of course, 1914 when options expired), the energy and power of the fin de siecle political movements of Fabians, feminists, anarchists, suffragists, socialists – in both England and Germany. (I know parts of the book are pedantic and tedious; I skimmed those.) The place of art and craft – potters, writers, painters, sculptors, puppetmakers, theatrical producers, even a lone, mad, alcoholic embroiderer – all taking their work – the technical aspects of their makings – so seriously that we are almost ashamed at how little our society values such skills. And the place of the children: abused, ignored and adored by turns. Childhood, the state as we know it, is being invented, and they’re not making a very good fist of it. Psychology is still being invented too, and Olive’s attempts to explain and understand childhood through her bizarre fairy stories, and to connect with her children through them, alienates some and destroys others. Secrets, lies, and hidden truths underpin everything, and the ends unravel as you might expect. There are seducers, manipulators, victims, and a few winners.

Since I read The Children’s Book I’ve also read A Man of Parts, David Lodge’s biography of H.G.Wells, who is the basis for Herbert Methley, one of Byatt’s most unpleasant characters: he is great public speaker on ‘the sex problem’ – what we’d call women’s rights although, as Claudia FitzHerbert says in a review in the Telegraph, “the right to love interested him more than the right to vote” – and a serial seducer.  Lodge talks about this link between the two books here – he’d deliberately not read Byatt’s book when he was writing his own. I’d love to know what he thought of Herbert Methley when he eventually did read it.

It was shocking to me to learn that Byatt’s story is loosely based on the life of E. Nesbit. Nesbit (aka Edith Bland) had a boho open marriage in which both partners both had children with different people, who were all brought up together – who knew? (It’s quite amusing that the biography provided by the website of the E. Nesbit Society doesn’t mention any of this!) I loved Nesbit’s books as a child – they seemed to me to be about freedom – children fly and there is magic and no adults. The children Olive creates, on the other hand, are often underground, in danger and fear – but again there are no adults. Her own children (and those who think they are her children, and those who think that her husband is their father), more-or-less bring themselves up, with of course varying degrees of success. It took me a while to escape this book, and reading the Lodge biography of Wells, in which fellow Fabians E. Nesbit and her husband play a fairly large part (Wells had an affair with one of their daughters in real life; in The Children’s Book it is with one of their waifs and strays), took me back to it. It’s time I re-read it. And on my next trip to the UK I intend to visit what’s left of the property where Nesbit lived, now a garden since their house was demolished in the 1930s – although there is still a Tudor barn, built by William Roper – who was, of course, Thomas More’s son-in-law (see my last post). It’s a small world in literary historical fiction, apparently. In Kent, anyway.


  1. Posted August 21, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Your post brings to mind Diana Wynne Jones’s The Time of the Ghost, which is a story of profound emotional neglect wrapped in fantasy. I am told she had problems getting it published, a publishers did not want to believe that abusive childhoods happened to nice middle class folk.

  2. Posted August 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I love Diana Wynne Jones’ work, Lorenzo. The Children’s Book is on a pile of to be read books…this might inspire me to read it.

  3. Bernice
    Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    The Children’s Book is, I think, the best account of making, of artfulness in any novel in the English language. Byatt’s own background as a lecturer at Central Art School no doubt helped.

    But to take the enormous risk of playing the narrative out in the glowing moments of British glory, to weave in class, gender politics, the emergence of psychology – polemic? I think it just extraordinary ambition which Byatt pretty much pulls off.

    Has gone into the Top Five Reads batch for this little black duck. Absoutely fucking brilliant.

  4. Susannah
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed ‘The Children’s Book’. It is so richly textured and, as Bernice says, ambitious. I think it succeeds in its ambitions.

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