The Children’s Book

children'sbookThe Children’s Book
A.S. Byatt
688 pages

Exquisite portrayal of pre-WWI avant garde English  family life.  This is the story of four intertwined families who are generally middle class, very artistic,  politically liberal.

Tom Wellwood and Justin Cain,  each about 12 years old,  are exploring a museum where Justin’s father is a curator and Tom’s mother is researching for her work.  In that basement they find a homeless boy, Philip,  who has been iving there in order to draw the objects.  Tom’s mother takes him home and cleans him up.

And after that we’re treated to a party where many of the major characters are introduced and the theme of possible fantasy is strengthened. I wonder what will happen.

The narrative takes place between 1894 and 1919.  It all leads into the reality of WWI. But the main story is about the families,  the Wellwoods,  the Fludds  and the Cains each with a pack of children,  plus Philip and Elsie, an orphaned brother- sister team,  a trio of unmarried women,  a small family from Germany and so on.  The relationships intertwine like the strands of the Gloucestershire Candlestick.

Character development  is Byatt’s forte,  well,  that and historical and literary allusions.   In The Children’s Book she develops character after character after character.   I tried to keep track – even jotted down names and relationships – but I kept getting confused or at least blurry.  Who is Elsie again coming to talk to Geraint and Florence?   Is she Fludd’s wife or oh – yes,  she’s Philip’s sister.   There are literally dozens of characters in this book each with his/her own little story – some have the same name – there are two Robins.

And then there are the themes which deal with the many forms of love, creativity,  secrets and running away.

Although they are totally different books,  The Children’s Book made me think of Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon.  I’m not saying they’re in the same category (except wonderful examples of contemporary historical fiction) but there are some distinct similarities:

First off there’s the time-frame,   TCB takes place between 1894-1914 while ATD goes from 1893 to some time after 1917.  They both include scenes from a World’s Fair (AtD opens in Chicago 1893 and TCB has Paris Expo of 1890.)

Both narratives are very dense and highly allusive using historical names and ideas from that time setting.  But where Pynchon uses the sciences (from mining to the occult) as a backdrop,   Byatt uses the arts, so the historical names and events are quite different (although Oscar Wilde does feature in both).  Anarchists seem to be popular with both authors and there is a decided political edge to the narratives (Pynchon much moreso – what with the Ludlow massacre and all).   Pynchon and Byatt have both been accused of intellectual posturing.

The books are both doorstoppers with  AtD’s 1085 pages out-hefting TCB’s 688.  There are no internal stories about hot air balloons in Byatt,  but there are caves and forests and missing shadows in her stories within the story (presented as a separate part of the text).  And there’s not quite as much unconventional sex in Byatt although it’s certainly there.

More – both Pynchon and Byatt love creating characters and they do it over and over and over in these books.  Pynchon goes for the really “telling” names (Scarsdale Vibe) while Byatt is a bit less dramatic (Olive Wellwood).  I think there might be an equal number of characters in the books.  (lol)   Actually,  imo,  these character names could have come right out of a Pynchon novel – might as well name them “Rev. Cherrycoke.”

Olive and Humphrey Wellwood of Todefright

Seraphita and Benedict Fludd of Purchase House

Prosper Cain of the museum (an ex military man turned art connoisseur).

Marian  Oakeshott

There are also major differences between the books and authors –  like Byatt focuses on the character development. It seems like she developed the characters through and through and then plopped them down in these settings to see how they’d react. Pynchon,  otoh,  seems to let the setting develop his characters – robber baron times need a robber baron bad guy – so they’re a bit stereotyped or caricaturized or at least very flat. Pynchon focuses on conspiracies and uses some pretty heavy symbolism in his books – (the Church calendar,  the sex in Spain at the time of the Ascension.)  Byatt doesn’t do that – she’s developing some more changes in her characters.

Actually,  Against the Day is a funny/angry satire about revenge and the state of capitalism at the time and very American,  whereas Byatt’s work is gently dark and fairly serious.  Lots of surface similarities but as a whole not the same at all.


Philip – found in museum

Children of Olive and Humphrey(Fludd?)  Wellwod:  Tom, Dorothy,  Phyllis, Hedda, Florian and unborn (Harry) – who is Robin Wellwood? (Page 239?) Olive is a famous children’s writer and the money-maker in the family –  Humphrey is a banker.

Charles – child of Wellwood?

Violet Grimswith – sister of Olive – ?

The Fludd’s  –  Seraphita, Benedict and children –   Imogen and Paloma – Geraint.  Geraint wants to be a banker.

**  Fludd Wellwood and “The Fludds” at Dungeness.  Benedict Fludd.

Prosper Cain – museum curator;   Justin his son,   Anselm Stern – puppeteer ;  –  Arthur Dobbin potter-of-sorts  –  Frank Mallett (clergy and friend of Dobbing and Fludds);    Patty Dace – spinster neighbor,   Mrs. Oakeshott widow schoolteacher from the north and son, Robin.   (BYATT LOVES TO CREATE CHARACTERS!)

Clementine  and Griselda and ???

2 Robins – Oakeshott and Wellwood (Olives?)

August Steyning

Other children –  Hedda,  Phyllis,  – these are younger

Toby Youlgreave – Humphrey W as well as Tom and Charles

Stepniak was killed by a railway engine at a level crossing at Bedford ParkChiswick, where he resided, on 23 December, 1895. He was cremated at Woking on 28 December.

This means that this is when the book takes place.   April 6 – Oscar Wilde is arrested after losing a libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry

Dorothy and Philip

Imogene Fludd and Julian Cain

Geraint Fludd and Florence Cain


Benedict Fludd creates pottery pieces of his children in sexual positions.   Now childhood – always grown up.
Olive creates stories of her children in permanent childhood – no shadows,  trapped, can’t grow up?


On about page 637 it’s mentioned that Emily Wilding Davison  stepped out in front of the horses  and grabbed the bridle of the king’s horse,  Anmer.    It says the scene was filmed.   Here’s the original film from “Nickle in the Machine”:

Everyone involved in WWI and the Suffragettes movement were children raised in the peaceful 1890s.   !!!!   Von Moltke

Chapter 17 –  Tom runs away (a theme!)

Chapter 18 –  history,  suicides,  the classes,  Olive sees Humphrey kissing Mrs. O. (This is Marion from a letter in prior chapter .) Olive writes.

Chapter 19   Imogene Fludd goes to London with Prosper and Florence (daughter).

Chapter 20 –  Julian and Tom at the river

Chapter 21 – Fludd tries suicide but Philip saves him,

Chapter 22 –   Grande exposition internationale paris

Julian’s impressions and loves –

Siegfried “Samuel” Bing (1838 – September 1905) was a German art dealer in Paris, who was prominent in the introduction of Japanese art and artworks to the West and the development of the Art Nouveau style in the late nineteenth century.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s