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The Magic of Childhood and the Agony of Growing Up

By K | Books | June 4, 2010 |

By K | Books | June 4, 2010 |

There’s something fascinating as well as unsettling about Britain in Edwardian times. It was a short era of radical change in almost every aspect of life, culminating in the unimagined and unimaginable trauma of the First World War. It seems to provide endless possibilities for writers, and Byatt’s latest work tries — and manages — to explore most of them.

Taking as a narrative frame the intertwined lives of four families in Southern England, Byatt lets her protagonists follow different paths, all grounded in the problems and interests of the time. The seven children of the Wellwoods, a free-thinking Fabian couple, are all heavily influenced by their well-know children’s writer mother and her stories. The children’s fairytale childhood and their reactions to it, their different characters as well as their life choices are described in detail, with the help of narrative comments about the diverse cultural and social setting. In addition to the Wellwoods, Byatt also introduces working-class characters, pottery artists and military men, bankers and German puppeteers. The scope of her work is amazing, and with the exception of the younger children, no character feels underdeveloped or one-dimensional. This leads to a sometimes patchy narrative and a wealth of information supplied in just a short paragraph. It took me a while to get into the story, precisely for this reason, but the writing is superb, and the world Byatt is piecing together is irresistible in its diversity.

While the boys and young men struggle with their parents’ carreer choices for them, with ambition and passion, it’s really a story about girls’ and women’s lives around 1900, without moving into a feminist literature corner. Faced with traditional values as well as exciting new developments they are exposed to through their liberal parents’ circles, the Wellwood girls and their friends experience turbulent times. One of them faces years of hard work and the prospect of a lonely private life by choosing to become a doctor, while another one almost loses all hope of a dignified life by falling pregnant after giving in to a writer advocating free love. They all experience the tensions between the social classes, one as an anarchist, another one as an ambitious but poor working-class girl without much choice about her future.

It’s also a novel about the arts. The Edwardian’s near-obsession with childhood and a golden past is reflected in Olive Wellwood’s success as a children’s writer, in the stories she writes for her children, the puppeteer’s success in Germany and Britain alike, and the academic interest shown in folktales at the time. Art is at the heart of the power struggles in the new V&A museum in London, and art fills every minute of the two potter’s lives. Finally and poignantly, art — poetry — is the only way the war is shown to be dealt with by the surviving soldiers.

The book ends in the fragmented way life after 1918 must have felt for everyone. It’s depressing how you always know before opening a book about the time that most characters will have died by the end. The Children’s Book is no exception. The fact that so much story, so many words, were spent on the childhood of the men who are to die, somehow makes it an even sadder, and more real, experience. It’s a novel about the magic of childhood and the agonies of growing up; about betrayal of parents and betrayal by parents; about a time that promised a new beginning and ended with a lost generation. It’s brilliantly written, and it makes a lasting impression. And if you still don’t get my drift: GO READ IT NOW!

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of K’s reviews, check out … and then I read some more.