No one melds history, drama and ideas with more panache than AS Byatt. So it's a shame that her latest novel leaves readers so little to do other than admireby Julian Evans / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
The Children’s Book By AS Byatt (Chatto & Windus, £18.99)
In the pageant of English fiction AS Byatt stands at the head of one especially successful writers’ guild: the literary-historical novelists. Other distinguished members include Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and Ian McEwan. All write in a lushly empirical, historically informed, richly narrative vein, but none strives for quite the same density of effect as Byatt, whose work is equally steeped in the splashy colours of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the long dignity of the English literary canon, and the liberated, free-flowing style of feminism and fairytales. It is also difficult not to imagine her matronly, watchful eye trained on all aspects of her contemporaries’ work, weighing and assessing.
For Byatt is a very exact and exacting—a controlled and a controlling—storyteller. Her Booker-winning Possession: a Romance (1990) showed off all her skill at contrivance in its parallel setting of the story of two 20th-century academics alongside that of two Victorian poets, whose work and romantically tangled life they are researching. The novel used this mirroring device to explore notions of love, dependence and independence, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—the means by which people seek to control each other emotionally and intellectually. If Possession had a fault, it was that it tried to control its relations with its readers every bit as much as those with its characters: to steamroller the audience into consensus. For the majority of Byatt’s readers, though, the dazzling ventriloquism of her Victorian re-creations and the dexterity of her plotting carried the day.
Of course, if one believes EM Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927), “Yes—oh dear yes—the novel tells a story.” In this respect Byatt’s new novel, The Children’s Book, bests even its predecessors. Over more than 600 pages, covering the years from 1895 to 1920, it tells a skein of stories: of multifarious English families, Fabians, anarchists, artists and bankers, each with their failings and secrets. At the centre of the skein are the Wellwoods, Humphry and Olive: he a junior banker who resigns and turns to radical journalism, she a writer of children’s stories of growing fame. They live at Todefright, an idyllic country house near Romney Marsh. One of Byatt’s skills is the direction of large casts—and so the Kentish Wellwoods’ many children are cousins to the richer London Wellwoods; while there are also…