Monday, 22 June 2009

Parental Guidance

I had to read this, didn't I? And I found it absolutely compelling, in spite of its flaws. (Must write a post one day about how page-turning does not necessarily = excellent).

I actually think it's much better than the Booker Prize-winning Possession, where the story in the past was so much more interesting than the one in the present, and almost a masterpiece.

It is big in scope, the plot taking us from 1895 to the aftermath of the Great War, and it is well written. I'll do the synopsis quickly because if you read literary reviews at all you must be aware of the underlying story.

It charts the development of four families, two called Wellwood, one called Cain and one called Fludd. (Now you'd have to be VERY secular and ignorant not to see the Biblical overtones in this choice of names). Olive Wellwood, who recalls Edith Nesbit, is Socialist whose children's stories keep the wolf from the door when her husband, Humphrey loses his job as a banker through writing inflammatory articles. They have seven living children, only one born after the beginning of the book, but in time we learn that not all seven share the same two parents.

Olive's sister Violet lives with the breeding pair as an unpaid nurse and nanny and there are many comments about who is the real mother, the one who gives birth or the one who raises the child, which gain an added poignancy as the children's biological parentage is revealed.

Humphrey's brother Basil is a real banker and has two children, the older of whom flirts with Marxism in Germany. Prosper Cain has two children too and is a widowed Major working at what will become the V & A. Three more children for the monstrous genius Benedict Fludd, a potter who sexually abuses his two daughters, with his wife's knowledge and then makes obscene pottery based on their genitals. (He is clearly suggested by Eric Gill, although one reviewer referred to him merely as a "bully").

Are you keeping up? That's fourteen children and adolescents lined up near the beginning of the novel. But they are not all. The two most interesting are not from this Edwardian class of money, privilege and the luxury of having political opinions. Philip Warren, the self-taught artist found hiding in the V&A in the first chapter, and later his sister Elsie both end up in the Fludd household. A German puppetmaster has teenage sons; the young people proliferate like William Morris leaves in the fabric of the novel.

Olive and Humphrey Wellwood are in their way monsters as bad as Benedict Fludd; incredibly selfish about their sexual appetites and need for flattery, they also neglect their children and think they don't need to be told who their parents are. Olive compounds this by leading a sort of vampiric life, sucking the childhood out of, in particular, her favourite eldest son, Tom. Each child has a book written specially for him or her, not for publication.

This is a kind of extension of the labelling that all parents are prone to do to their children: the sensitive one, the clever one, the unconventional one. Olive pins her children's lives to these stories as unemotionally as if she were collecting butterflies and doesn't notice when the stories no longer fit.

But there are other monsters in this book too, namely Herbert Methley, a ghastly naturist novelist who preys on young women and is the cause of two illegitimate pregnancies.

So, a large cast of characters and it is unwieldy, particularly near the beginning. Byatt tells the names of every guest at Midsummer Party given by the Wellwoods - and what names! Pomona Fludd, August Steyning, Griselda Cain, Florian Wellwood. Not content with that, she has to tell us what every single one of them is wearing, in some detail. And this is not the only time.

This is partly what stops it short of being her masterpiece. Either she needs a braver editor or she needs to listen to the editor she has. In this encyclopaedic charting of details, which can be very telling, she lapses into the flabby because of not knowing where to draw the line between what she knows (and has thoroughly researched) and what the reader needs to know.

And we all know what's coming don't we? 1914 looms like a brooding presence over the whole book. But for Tom, a more personal, localised tragedy removes him from that option. His mother dramatises his story without telling him and that violation, piled on top of the physical and sexual abuse that caused him to run away from his private school and become almost a wild boy of the woods, precipitates him towards a different end. What's the good of having enlightened creative parents if they can't save you from torment and then betray you publicly?

In a spectacular display of parental neglect, Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland lost their son Fabian to a tonsilitis operation performed in their kitchen when he was only fifteen. They had forgotten that he shouldn't have food before an anaesthetic and, left alone, he choked on his own vomit. I'm sure A S Byatt knew this story. Her own son was killed in an accident at the age of eleven. These facts resonate throughout The Children's Book.

Towards the end, when we are in the thick of the war and its aftermath, Byatt interleaves a poem written by Julian Cain about the names soldiers give to the trenches and I couldn't read it. I didn't want to read a poem at that point; I needed to know who survived and who didn't. I doubt I was alone in that.

And she has a tendency to introduce charcters and tell us lots about them and then abandon them.

But my God, she can write! No-one else I know has pulled off so well the descriptions of imaginary works of art, particularly those of Benedict Fludd and Philip Warren. For those alone it is worth reading The Children's Book.

6 comments:

Frankie Anon said...

Dear Book Maven,

I hope you'll forgive an off-topic comment (although as an aspiring children's writer, I certainly enjoyed your review.) I just noticed your comment on Lucy Coate's blog about the phrase "cellar door" being the most beautiful phrase in the English language. I have been searching for YEARS for the origin of this line, having heard it way back in college or maybe even high school. Who, pray tell, said this? It is driving me mad.

The Ginger Darlings said...

I bought The Children's Book in Mr. B's in Bath and am so looking forward to reading it. I love Possession, though it took me some time to read it, a few false starts. Didn't read all of the review as I want to know as little as possible before I open the pages. I love the cover and the weight and the smell of the book and look forward to unfolding the story.
Have you read The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw, Mary? I am loving it. Reviews are mixed but I find that it suits me very well and is has a magical alchemy that appeals to my very romantic soul.

Book Maven said...

Frankie, I heard it on the radio ages ago but I just Googled it and found thsi fascinating Wikipedia entry attributing the idea to Tolkien, and telling us about the misattributions too:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellar_door

Jackie, I haven't read the Girl with the Glass feet but your description makes me want to.

I should have said how physically beautiful The Children's Book is. Lucky Antonia Byatt in her covers.

adele said...

Your account of this splendid book is wonderful, Mary. I too adored it and actually think of it as two books put together...the novel and the social history. And I can never have too many clothes described to me. Agree completely about the description of the works of art, too, and the look of the book. It's marvellous stuff, all round.

Frankie Anon said...

That is so odd...I just wrote a post about Tolkien (well, mostly about Beowulf, but about Tolkien, too.) I don't remember ever hearing that this was said by Tolkien...I thought it was someone for whom English was a second language. The mystery continues....

Sarah said...

I am really enjoying this book so far-the descriptions are magical and bring the art to life so well. The other book I read a long time ago where the writer could do this was 'Cat's Eye' by Margaret Atwood.