Period pains

The Children’s Book
A S Byatt
Chatto & Windus, 623pp, £18.99

Victorian painting can be tone-blind, literal-minded, moralising, coyly erotic, sentimental and of a strangulating worthiness. A single stroke by Degas tells you what the Victorian painters missed. The best novelists of the period were on a higher plane (Millais is no George Eliot), though many suffered from similar defects. In The Children’s Book, A S Byatt has written a Victorian-type novel, a book of family sagas intermixed with public movements and events, although, inevitably, it is infused with the preconceptions of our own day, through which it seeks to reveal the hidden truths of the time. Since our culture retains its taste for sanctimony in the novel, albeit disguised, the risk is of combining the worst features of the Victorians with our own. How far has Byatt foreseen the danger?

She scores high on Victorian compendiousness. “For the Victorians, everything was part of one thing,” Byatt has observed, “science, religion, philosophy, economics, politics, women, fiction, poetry. They didn’t compartmentalise – they thought BIG.” And Byatt follows in their wake. It is a bulging, if not baggy book, and every Victorian and early Edwardian theme is here: Olive Wellwood, a writer of stories for children, and her insensitive, adulterous husband, Humphrey; Philip Warren, a poor potter boy made good by talent and industry; his skivvy sister Elsie, made pregnant by a bounder, but redeemed by becoming a teacher; amateur theatricals, William Morris wallpaper, the Arts and Crafts movement, names of wild flowers all too rare today; and the whole seasoned with a bit of homoeroticism and boarding school buggery. In other words, everything a modern audience could wish for, indeed has come to demand of the period. Dickensian names such as Fludd, Dobbin and Olive Grim­with (a miner’s daughter) are also what her readers will want Victorian persons to be called.

Socially and politically, all bases are similarly covered, from Fabianism and votes for women to bimonetarism and Russian revolutionaries in exile. Big names are parachuted into the story in the course of occasional factual backgrounders (“The Prime Minister, H H Asquith, went on August 17 to meet representatives of the railwaymen’s union . . . In the Autumn of 1911 Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, in its entirety, was performed at Covent Garden”.) Dreyfus, Toynbee, G B Shaw, Keir Hardie, Prince Kropotkin and Oscar Wilde, of course, all jostle for a look-in, if nothing more, beside a hundred others, until the book begins to feel a little like William Frith’s last canvas, The Picture View, in which Victorian celebrities parade at the Royal Academy (Oscar included, naturally). In this way, the events in the story and those in the wider world are tenuously conjoined. And, like all extended upper-class families of the period, everyone comes to grief in the dutifully adumbrated First World War.

For all its factual richness, I doubt whether Byatt found it necessary to do much research for this novel: she is a highly informed person in many fields. To that extent, it is a book of useful knowledge, as well as being a seductive tale; an improving book, in a word. Sensible psychological insights sit next to fey talk of elves, marionettes, Peter Pan, fairy tales and the wisdom of the child, which have their tragic aspect.

The style is serviceable, with no squeamishness about phrases such as “Olive missed Tom appallingly”. As for our national weakness for didacticism, Byatt largely succeeds in keeping what the French call les bons sentiments under decent cover, though here and there they poke through, as when women are most heartily commended for becoming scientists or politically active, and the congenital villainy of the male becomes comically overdrawn. The first post-coital words of the seductive bounder to one of his conquests is a complaint about her being a tight and uncomfortable virgin, and the consequent expense of paying the hotel to clean the sheets.

Only a cad could complain about the author’s world-view as it seeps through the text; to do so, one would have to take issue with the welfare of women and the imaginative powers of children. We are left in no doubt that Byatt favours sexual enlightenment and social promotion and political advance in all its forms. Which is as it should be. This and her storytelling abilities (a skill loudly celebrated in the person of Olive Wellwood – some sort of alter ego, one suspects) will encourage many of the 700,000 readers who bought her Possession to read this one.

“Stolid” is a favoured adjective in a book whose own four-squareness will be widely seen as a quality. Other than that, it is hard to know what to say. There are books one feels shabby about criticising at all in our hyper-democratic age, since to do so might offend genteel taste (which today means les bons sentiments), and because they are often perfectly good books, in every sense, that the public has a perfect right to enjoy.

George Walden was a Conservative MP between 1983 and 1997. His memoir “Lucky George” was published in 1999 (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek