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The Children's Book

by A S Byatt

The end of the Victorian era, when the story begins, was bursting with groups of people striving for freedom from the constraints of a previously stifling age and striving also to raise awareness of the inequalities between men and women, and rich and poor. It was chock-a-block with “Movements” and “isms” and in this latest epic from A. S. Byatt we are introduced to a plethora of those and to a rich and multitudinous cast of characters.

The book traces the fortunes of several inter-connected families and their offspring from around 1895 to WW1. The central family is the Wellwoods in which the matriarch, Olive, is a famous writer of childrens’ stories. At their rambling home in the North Downs Olive keeps a private book for each of her own (many) children for whom she constructs alternative, imaginary lives - lives of little people, spectres and disquieting underground worlds. The Wellwoods’ real lives are inextricably bound up with those of others: their wealthy cousins, the London Wellwoods; the Cain family who reside at the South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) museum; the weird Fludds who live on the remote and atmospheric Romney Marsh and a whole host of other characters including German puppeteers, a writer of salacious novels, well-meaning Fabians, feminists, suffragists and Russian anarchists, who drift in and out of their lives. When a young working-class boy from the Potteries, and later his sister, come into their realm the two find themselves bound up in an fantasy-world of play acting, fancy dress, arts and crafts, and idealistic ideas. As one of the young Wellwood women poignantly says: “You wonder where the real world really is”.

From this you might surmise it’s a complicated tale, and it is. A. S. Byatt’s knowledge is profound and she stitches together a story as complex and beautiful as the Arts and Crafts embroideries the women weave. But it’s also accessible and we’re drawn to these people and want to know what happens to them – especially the children. Will the girls have careers of their own and the independent futures they crave? Will the boys make their own futures and not those mapped out by their parents? But the idealism and free-spiritedness of the adults is naïve. Family secrets and lies abound and, as the spectre of war looms, the hopes and dreams of adults and young people alike are shattered.

The location of the area round Romney Marsh, Dungeness and Rye is well-chosen for this book. It’s an area I know very well (I live there) and its isolation is suitably strange, poetic, and sometimes as truly sinister as some of the events that take place in this incredibly impressive book.

Irene Haynes

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