Author: A. S. Byatt, 2009.
Genre: Historical Fiction. England 1895-1919. Family Saga. Bildungsroman. Literary.
Other Details: Hardback. 617 pages.
This multi-layered novel is almost impossible to summarize in a few sentences as its depth and scope defies a quick blurb. Still I shall try.
Opening in the summer 1895 and continuing through to the end of the Great War, its main focus is the Wellwood family and their closely inter-related friends and associates. Olive Wellwood is a highly successful author of children's fairy tales and lives with her numerous children, banker husband, Humphry, and unmarried sister, Violet, in a rambling Kent farmhouse named Todefright. Olive has created for each of her children their own book, containing a special magical tale written only for them. Extracts of these stories run throughout the novel.
Our introduction to the Wellwoods and their milieu comes through the eyes of Philip Warren, a runaway boy with aspirations to be an artist. When he is discovered hiding out in the basement of the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A), Olive kindly takes him home for the weekend and is instrumental in securing him employment as an assistant to a local reclusive artist.
There is a dizzying number of characters in the novel and most are introduced in the first four chapters. I found it useful to make notes at that point of who was who. There is also a lot of detail about the art, music and literature of the period as well as its social and political movements. Olive, Humphry and a number of their friends are members of the Fabian Society, the British socialist movement that laid the foundations for the Labour Party. They are fairly Bohemian and 'free-thinking' in their life-styles and attitudes.
Quite a few real life historical figures make cameos in the novel or provided the inspiration for various characters. Byatt is quite forthcoming about the fact that Olive Wellwood and her unconventional household is loosely based on the life of E. Nesbit, co-founder of the Fabian Society and author of such children's classics as The Children and It' and of course The Railway Children.
This novel could easily be sub-titled: tales of innocence and experience' as aside from the lives and changing fortunes of its many characters it is also the story of Britain during the period leading up to and through to the end of the Great War. In this sense it is quite heart-breaking in places though Byatt does not dwell overly on the horrors of war but focuses instead on the changes it beings to individual lives as well as to society. This serves as an important counterpoint to the pastoral idyll of its opening chapters.
No review can really do justice to this novel. It is the sort of book that would be a delight to study on a course in order to explore its myriad themes. It is not an easy book as its many characters, the amount of historical detail and Byatt's intense intellectual style can prove quite challenging. However, I found it rewarding beyond measure and certainly didn't regret the time and attention it demanded.
I would also like to say something about the cover art, which is breathtaking. Its central image is of an Art Nouveau brooch by French designer René Lalique that was exhibited at the 1900 Paris World's Fair. It also held echoes for me of Byatt's Angels and Insects.
A.S. Byatt's on 'The Children's Book' - interview on Man Booker site.