The Children’s Book is a Victorian novel - it’s intelligent, full of description, philosophical discussion, and discursive authorial comment. Forget tightly constructed plots and narrative hooks. The story-line is linear, sprawling through space and time. It’s a fascinating read - but you have to give it your full attention.
Living at the turn of the last century, the Bohemian Wellwood family are the central subjects, with a large cast of children and adults. They are at the centre of the arts and crafts movement and, just as in Possession, the worlds of William Morris and Oscar Wilde are vividly brought to life. The men are bankers and artists; the women are dabbling in the suffragist movement, fighting for the 'life of the mind'. The matriarch, Olive Wellwood, is an author, writing fairy tales for children.
Byatt said that when she wrote the book she was interested in the idea that people who wrote for children were often not very good with their own. ‘I noticed that the children of the great writers for children often came to unhappy ends - even suicide - and this interested me dramatically. Kenneth Grahame's son, for whom The Wind in the Willows was ostensibly written, lay down on a railway line when he was at Oxford. Two of the Llewellyn-Davies boys, for whom Barrie wrote Peter Pan, ended in suicide.’
In the novel, each of Olive’s children has his or her own book - a special tale she keeps in a cupboard and adds to as they grow. But there are dark secrets concealed in fairytales - children who are other people’s children, stepmothers who are forced to wear red hot clogs and dance until they die, pretty young mermaids willing to be maimed and dumb for love. This is the world that the novel explores - the children’s real lives above the water and their darker reflection submerged beneath. Things are never what they seem and everything has consequences.
I really enjoyed the book, but it isn’t for everyone.