The Children's Book

by A. S. Byatt

Hardcover, 2009

Call number




Knopf (2009), Edition: 1, 688 pages


When Olive Wellwood's oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum--a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive's magical tales--she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends--a world that conceals more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined and that will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces.

Media reviews

The novel has a tendency to sprawl, with too many characters and too much to say. Yet Byatt takes tender care with the reader. She is a careful guide, and though this entry is at times a lot to process, it’s a worthwhile journey.
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While Byatt’s engagement with the period’s over­lapping circles of artists and reformers is serious and deep, so much is stuffed into “The Children’s Book” that it can be hard to see the magic forest for all the historical lumber — let alone the light at the end of the narrative tunnel. The action is sometimes cut off at awkward moments by ponderous newsreel-style voice-over or potted lectures in cultural history. Startling revelations are dropped in almost nonchalantly and not picked up again until dozens or even hundreds of pages later. Byatt’s coda on the Great War, dispatched in scarcely more pages than the Exposition Universelle, is devastating in its restraint. But too often readers may feel as if they’re marooned in the back galleries of a museum with a frighteningly energetic docent.
Byatt’s characters are themselves her dutiful puppets, always squeezed and shaped for available meaning. The Children’s Book has a cumulative energy and intelligence, and the unavoidable scythe of the Great War brings its own power to the narration, but nowhere in its hundreds of pages is there a single moment like the Countess Rostova’s free and mysterious irritation.
As in her Booker Prize–winning novel, Possession, here Byatt has constructed a complete and complex world, a gorgeous bolt of fiction, in this case pinned to British events and characters from the 1870s to the end of the Great War...the magic is in the way Byatt suffuses her novel with details, from the shimmery sets of a marionette show to clay mixtures and pottery glazes.
It begins with the discovery of a boy hiding in a museum. The time is 1895, the boy is Philip Warren, and the museum is the precursor to the Victoria & Albert: the South Kensington Museum. And, oh, yes –there’s a remarkable piece of art that the boy is besotted with — the Gloucester Candlestick. However, while this may make many children’s book mavens think immediately of E. L. Konigsburg’s classical story for children, let me say straight out — A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book is a book for grown-ups. It is emphatically not a children’s book although it is about children, about books, about art, about the writing of children’s books, about the telling of children’s stories, about the clash between life and art, and about a whole lot more. A saga of a book teeming with complex characters, fascinating settings, intellectual provocations, and erudite prose, it gets under your skin as you get deeper and deeper into it and won’t let you go even after you reach the last page....
If the bestselling Possession (1990) was Byatt’s critique of the Golden Age of high Victorianism, then The Children’s Book, in spite of arriving nearly two decades later, follows from it organically: it is a complementary dissection of the cultural myths, peculiarities and obsessions of the Silver Age that followed. . . As the book unfolds, the fairy-tale patterns proliferate in ever wilder arcs, like the brambles around an enchanted castle. . . The Children’s Book is an eloquent testament to the dangerous power of both art and myth.
It will probably never be said of Byatt's writing that she wears her learning lightly, and her lengthy disquisitions on the building blocks of her narrative both support and bloat the novel . . . But Byatt is brilliant on the gathering forces of England and Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, their contrasting attitudes towards the part that the land plays in the collective unconscious, their differing forms of nostalgia.
But her need to elaborate the elements of her fictional world independently hampers their ability to combine. It takes even this astonishingly accomplished writer a long time to bring one vast sub set of characters to a simmer, and by the time we go back to the last lot they've gone cold again. . . There is a potentially fatal unwillingness to trust the reader to get the point or the full range of reference. . . The feverish desire to have nothing be missed can only be self-defeating. A gravely eloquent sentence about a bereaved mother's perception of her son's image everywhere, at every age – "They were all equally present because they were all gone" – loses some of its force when four of the 10 words are italicised.
Her new novel, The Children’s Book, is the book Byatt wanted Harry Potter to be. . . It’s the sort of high-concept rarefied intellectual fiction we’d expect from, well, AS Byatt. Possession: the next generation.
Byatt's technique is to allow each individual or group a brief limelight and then to move on, picking up their story maybe many pages later. This makes for an exciting pace and rhythm. The downside is that important plotlines and events can lose impact. . . Her research is phenomenal, as she attempts to make the reader share precisely (a word she uses repeatedly) the world that her characters inhabit. . . Prodigious as it is, the effect, like A S Byatt's descriptions of the Paris Exposition, is to glut the reader with a superfluity of wonders.
Every character in this extraordinarily rich book is superbly embedded in the thoughts and beliefs and feelings of the period . . . At times, the impulse toward comprehensiveness does lack balance. . . But this is ungrateful. We are given characters that live through, without being merely defined by, their times; and engrossing narrative arcs that draw in the reader.
The Children’s Book is a richly allusive text. . . The narrative vigour and passionate engagement with the human condition that has always informed Byatt’s writing ensures that one can approach The Children’s Book in perfect ignorance of Nesbit, Gill or any of the social, political and artistic convulsions of the Edwardian era and still miss nothing of its astonishing power and resonance.
Easily the best thing AS Byatt has written since her Booker-winning masterpiece, Possession (1990), it shares strong affinities with it.
This is a long, packed novel, deliberately discursive and crammed to the gills with knowledge about subjects . . . The panoramic quality of The Children's Book is achieved at some cost to brilliance of characterisation and narrative drive. Its success is as a novel of ideas, forcefully and often memorably expressed.
It is a bulging, if not baggy book, and every Victorian and early Edwardian theme is here . . . 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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cariola
What can I possibly say about this book that hasn't been said by other reviewers, on LT and elsewhere? It's a collection of fantasies--not just Olive Wellwood's evolving children's stories and Stern's marionette shows, but the fantasies lived out by the adults in the decades leading up to the first World War. The exposé of these fantasies is at the heart of the novel. Olive and Humphrey believe in the fantasy of free love: that it causes no jealousy between spouses, nor that it damages any of the seven children in their household, born from various liaisons yet raised to believe they are true siblings. Love, sad to say, does not conquer all, and some in the novel who give it too freely pay a heavy price. Another fantasy: that freedom allows children to grow up happy and full of potential; but freedom taken too far borders upon neglect, and not all children are by nature independent. Another set of fantasies: that art can change the course of world events, and that genius is always to be indulged for its own sake. The list goes on and on. Like the characters' fantasy lives, Olive Wellwood's stories are delightfully magical on the surface yet dark and dangerous underneath.

The novel's style and structure are inseparable, both building on the possibilities and threats in the space between fantasy and reality, between the Victorian age and the new post-world war period. Some readers have complained about excessive details in the first part of the novel; others complain about the brevity of the last. I feel this is intentional on Byatt's part, a verbal realization of the changing cultural and political milieu. The late Victorian period was still addicted to rigid social morés and manners, embellishment of one's person and one's home, etc.--and, as such, it gave birth to a myriad of reactionary movements, most of them equally pompous in their moral (or amoral) certitude. On the other hand, the rapid and extensive devastation of the war, a political killing machine gone amuck, left people back home stunned and empty--as reflected in Byatt's quickfire, almost callous list of the young men, fantasy-world Fludds and Cains and Wellwoods, cut down by a reality beyond their once-imagined control. Like Stern's marionettes, the novel's human characters live in a fantasy world, unaware of the strings that manipulate their actions.

Yes, the book is massive and complex, and it takes some concentration to keep track of the various characters and their relations to one another. It's the kind of book that, when you finish it, you need to think about it for awhile, and then you know that you will need to read it again to fully appreciate its genius.
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LibraryThing member Cait86
Byatt's newest novel has been longlisted for this year's Booker Prize. This nomination prompted me to pick it up, and is my first novel by this well-known author. So, while I cannot compare its merit to that of her previous works, I can say that as my first foray into Byatt's mind was an unequivocal success. I know I have said this before about other books, but this is probably the best book I have read all year.

The Children's Book is a family saga. It centres on the Wellwoods, a large family living in southern England at the end of the 19th century. For over 600 pages, readers grow with the Wellwoods, along with their friends the Cain family and the Fludd family, learning about the changing political and social ideals of the time. Spanning about 25 years, The Children's Book begins in the last years of Queen Victoria's reign, and ends with the conclusion of World War I. This was a time of unrest, of changing gender roles and new political factions, and Byatt's novel is as much a history lesson as it is a captivating story. Her research is meticulous, and her writing demands an educated audience - frequently I found myself reading next to my laptop, so that I could clarify unknown terms or the stories of famous authors, politicians, and suffragettes. This is anything but an easy summer read.

The Children's Book is truly about children - the Wellwoods, Cains and Fludds - but it is also about their parents. Humphry and Olive Wellwood seem the perfect parents, and their seven children live a delightfully pastoral existence. Olive writes children's stories, and some of her tales weave throughout the narrative. Benedict and Seraphita Fludd are much less satisfactory parents. Benedict is a potter, and a genius one at that. He cares for nothing but his art, and Byatt hints that his only relationship with his daughters is a sinister one. Into the life of the Fludds comes Phillip Warren, a runaway with a potter's gift that might someday rival Fludd's. The Cain family is presided over by Major Prosper Cain, whose wife died giving birth to his daughter, Florence. A second Wellwood family lives in London, and frequently visits their country cousins. All of these characters - along with many others - are introduced in the first few chapters, and their lives quickly become entwined.

Byatt outlines the lives of her characters, and that of their time-period, in great detail - and yet, this novel is full of secrets. There is much upon which the reader must speculate, and key scenes or information may never be revealed. While the reader gets minute descriptions of artwork and of pottery processes, we never find out what happened to Tom when he ran away, or why Violet, Olive's sister, never married. These secrets add to the complexity of The Children's Book, and as a reader who dislikes being spoonfed, I enjoyed it all the more for them.

Byatt's book was a surprise for me - I had never really considered reading her before, and was unaware of her beautiful way with words, or her complex narratives. The Children's Book has so many themes - art, love, sex, maturing, politics - the list goes on. I was drawn into the world of the Wellwoods, and after over 600 pages, I only wanted more.

This is the first of the Booker Prize longlist that I have read, and it already is, in my mind, a serious contender for the prize.
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LibraryThing member jolerie
Set against the backdrop of the late 19th century and ending with the climax of World War I, The Children's Book is a story about growing up, about understanding the world and the people in them and how that affects who we ultimately become. Following the lives of several characters as they experiment with the world as innocent children, the arc of the story continues with them navigating the waters of adulthood. As a rite of passage, these children turned adults and their families will discover that secrets have the power to bind people together and at the same time has the terrifying ability to wreak destruction in its wake.

A. S. Byatt definitely did her research. The book is filled with lush details and vibrant descriptions of the time period, to the point that if you closed your eyes, you could imagine yourself playing in the yard, or exploring the woods with the children at the turn of the century. At points the book read more like a historical commentary on the social conditions in the late 1800's and the story itself was just a faint backdrop to hang the multitude of facts, statistics, and organizational names on. When the story was being told, I found myself intrigued, but the constant interruption caused the overall flow of the story to feel stunted and disjointed. I really wanted to enjoy this one more than I actually did, but I can see how some people who are well versed in the references she makes and in this particular period of history could really sink their teeth into this one.
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LibraryThing member wandering_star
What a read. The Children's Book is about the lives of an interlocking group of families at the very start of the twentieth century. The central family is the Wellwoods, artistic and Fabian, with many children swirling around Olive Wellwood (a writer), her husband Humphry and her sister Violet. Other families are linked to them by family, friendship or coincidences. The stories are densely told, in prose which is as ornamented as the art of the Victorian era but at the same time, every word seems to be absolutely essential to the depiction of these complex characters and their relationships with each other.

I think this book is really about creation. The creation of pieces of art: stories, theatrical events and physical artworks. Byatt's writing vividly conveys both the beauty and impact of the art and the visceral hunger of the artist to create, and to draw inspiration from everything around them. The political ferment of the time and its desire to create new kinds of people, of societies, of relations between the sexes. And above all, the creation of individuals: the way that parents try (and fail) to shape their children's lives, and the way those children create themselves into the adults they become. Of course, the other side of creation is destruction, and we see plenty of that too - the genius artist who destroys his own masterpieces, the destruction of people's lives by the thoughtless or evil actions of others, the destructive ferment of anarchism. And at the very end, the First World War.

So this book is also about the period of time in which it was set, a time in which so many of the changes which have created our modern world were set in train, but perhaps also a world of hope and possibility, whose gilded nature was impossible to recover after those four years of blood and devastation.

I found this a wonderful read. It reminded me a little of my experience of reading Byatt's Possession when I was about 18, which I felt really opened my eyes to the richness and depth of good writing (as opposed to just reading for the story).

Incidentally, the cover is excellent. A turquoise Lalique brooch, surrounded by curlicues and ornamentations which somehow bring to mind both William Morris and the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the key settings in the book. And on the back, a faint black silhouette against a dark blue background, of WWI soldiers marching raggedly across the battlefields.
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
In the opening pages, Olive Wellwood and he son Tom are visiting South Kensington Museum. Olive, a popular writer of children's fantasy is looking for an object to which she can attribute magical properties in her next novel, while her son Tom is on the trail of a young boy, Phillip, who is busily sketching some of the objects on display. When it is discovered the boy has made him temporary home in the museum's basement, Olive offers to take him into her home, a sprawling property just South of London called Todefright. There, her banker husband and fellow Fabian Humphrey and their seven children are busily preparing decorations and costumes for their yearly Midsummer party, to which they invite their friends and neighbours, a jolly mix of socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers, and writers. After the festivities, it is decided that the boy Phillip will go stay at Purchase House with the Fludds, to become an apprentice to the mercurial and brilliant potter Benedict Fludd, who's work is on display at the museum.

The story follows the progress of the adults and children, their extended families and numerous friends and relations from the end of the Victorian era in 1895 through WWI. Through these characters many issues of great relevance in England during that period are encompassed, including women's higher education and the suffrage movement, the class wars, anarchism and socialism. The Arts and Crafts movement is a recurring theme, and various historical figures are incorporated into the story such as Edward Carpenter, William Morris, J.M. Barrie, Oscar Wilde, Auguste Rodin, Emma Goldman and Rupert Brooke.

I found this book by turns fascinating and frustrating. The main story elements were engaging and the unfolding drama was captivating, but my limited understanding of several of the issues broached prevented me from gaining a fuller appreciation for the many ways in which Byatt wove historical and fictional elements together. At the same time, for one interested in that period, the book provides plenty of threads one can pick up on for further reading. Recommended for those interested in works of great scope and intellectual stimulation.
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LibraryThing member rmckeown
About 140 pages from the end of this 675-page masterpiece – short-listed for the 2009 Booker Prize -- Byatt wrote, “They seem to me like coloured mosaics, with separate little pieces that fit together” (536). This perfectly describes this complicated, funny, sad, absorbing, sprawling story, which Byatt has skillfully interwoven with numerous historical events and figures: from Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw to Asquith, Kaiser Willhem, King Edward V, Tsar Nicholas II, and Queen Victoria, from the Fabian’s and anarchists of the late 19th century, to the last days of World War I.

If I pulled any one of the dozens of quotes I underlined, they would only provide a tantalizing glimpse of the whole – as if I held up a single piece of a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and said, “Isn’t this a beautiful picture!” You simply have to read this novel and immerse yourself in this fantastic world created by the Booker Prize winner for Possession in 1990. I had the good fortune to meet A.S. Byatt at Baylor University when I was a grad student there. She delivered the Virginia Beall Lecture on Literature in 1994. She also sat in on a class I was taking – British Women Writers. Meeting her was one of the highlights of my graduate school experience. Her insights on writing, reading, and other English Women writers were priceless.

The Children’s Book revolves around five families. Basil Wellwood, a wealthy conservative banker and his wife, Katharina, and their two children; Basil’s brother Humphry Wellwood, also a banker – at first – and his wife Olive, a writer of children’s tales, and their eight children; Prosper Cain, widower and curator of a major museum in London, and his two children; Benedict Fludd, master potter, and his wife Seraphita and their three children; and, lastly, Phillip and Elise, orphans of poor working people.

Humphry and Olive give a “Midsummer Party,” and Byatt describes the attendees. “Their guests were socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers and writers, who lived, either all the time, or at weekends and on holidays in converted cottages and old farmhouses…the children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to…They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed, over supper or during long country walks” (31). These progressives had radical views on everything from raising children to women’s suffrage.

Byatt presents this foundational information and weaves a tale spanning about 30 years. Imagine the parties, the family crises, the current events, the intermingling of all these children with the arts – writing, painting, pottery, music, reading, education, the theater – well, you get the idea.

The most amazing thing is the fluid and beautiful prose Byatt has given the reader. If Possession has a revered place in your library and reading history -- and it should! -- you will become immersed in this marvelous story. The surprising and inevitable, shocking and unexpected endings will not fail to disappoint.

I would like to offer some tips which might make this a more enjoyable read. Make family trees of the five families, and refer to it frequently. The children travel, party, and visit together frequently, and this helps keep the relationships in order. Also, I wish I had a detailed map of England in and around London, Cambridge, Canterbury, and Dungeness so I could follow the travels of these characters. One of my top reads of the year – 10 stars out of five.

--Jim, 4/20/10
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
The Children's Book is what is generally described as "sweeping". It covers twenty years in the lives of the members of a large family, the Wellwoods, as well as various other friends and relations, from a few years before the turn of the last century to the end of WWI. It opens with two boys discovering a third, who has been camping out in the museum that will become the V&A. How cool is that? The trespasser is Phillip Warren, who is fleeing the poverty and hopelessness of the lower working classes. He has a passion for pottery and the Wellwood family takes him under their distractedly benevolent wing as they prepare for their annual Midsummer's party. This party is lovingly, exhaustively, described by Byatt, from the preparations and arrivals through every conversation and event. The author jumps about, telling in detail of some events, skimming over others, with plenty of the historical detail, both political and artistic, added as the years progress.

The Arts and Crafts movement is beautifully detailed here, both in the setting up of the Victoria and Albert Museum and in the pottery and literature of the time. Charles, a son of the London branch of the Wellwoods, goes to Munich and experiences the vibrant artistic and political life in Schwabing. Another daughter involves herself in the suffragette movement. If the social history of the Edwardian era interests you, then you'll love this book. If William Morris and the Suffragette movement make you yawn, you might not want to read this one.
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LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
I eagerly awaited Byatt’s latest novel for some time, and received it at the library- first in line to check it out- like I would a 10 lb box of dark chocolates. Which some people might find an apt simile in more ways than one- it’s a huge book. But while some people have said it was *too* long, I found myself wishing it went on longer.

Set in the last years of the Victoria era through the Edwardian era, the epic story follows four families as they interact and grow. On the surface, most of them appear reasonably conventional. But these are people who are not following societies rules; we have free thinkers, we have women who want an education, a woman who is the main wage earner in the family, sex outside of marriage- lots of that-, homosexuality, people crossing class boundaries, Socialists, anarchists, laudanum addicts and child abusers. Of course, this is an era when the rules were changing. New technologies, new philosophies, were springing up all around. But while the world was, in many ways, changing for the better, these families were, in many ways, unraveling.

Byatt fills the book with intense detail about everything she touches on (the author is an avid researcher)- the meals, the clothing, the art, the politics. She creates an atmosphere that immerses the reader completely. Was there too much detail? I don’t think so- I only found myself starting to skim a couple of times, when the subject was politics- but I know other readers will disagree. I enjoyed my lushly described trip back in time. This lushness is part of the author’s technique- the first parts of the novel are described in this way; the last section, which deals with WW 2, is not. It is drawn with harsh, spare strokes that slash at the reader’s emotions. As innocence is lost, year by year, so is the lush beauty. Very well done, I say.
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LibraryThing member cjwallace
This is a long, dense and complex novel that proves ultimately worthwhile, both in intellectual and in aesthetic terms. Indeed, I was continually drawn to it in the bookshop due to its absolutely beautiful cover and bought it, somewhat against my better judgment, as I wasn't really looking for anything heavy.
It spans a fascinating period of English history: the end of the 19th century until the first world war. Historically, the end of the straightlaced Victorian era and what proved to be an abortive 'new world'. It is based in Kent, in the remote and fascinating countryside around Romney Marsh, with excursions to London, Cambridge, Paris, Munich and beyond. The pivotal character, Olive Welwood, is a mother of many children and a writer of children's books. She comes from working-class mining background, marries a husband with intelligence and political ideals, but, once he exercises those ideals to leave his job in the city, has to financially support her family in their large rambling home by her writing. Olive tries to leave behind her old life and leave behind the old world. She tries to be liberated, 'modern' and creative, but the extent to which she can do that while paying attention to her responsibilities as a mother and breadwinner is debated.
Responsibility is a central theme of this book. To what extent can a creative/bohemian lifestyle enable one to live responsibly in the world? Olive's husband, Humphry, looks down on his brother, Basil, a respected banker (who indeed makes some rather morally dubious financial decisions), but Humphry depends on his wife financially and yet conducts frequent affairs, often leading to the birth of children who he (read: Olive) has to support. Benefict Fludd, the great artist, seems to expect that his artistic temperament can forgive his sexual interest in his own children, and his wife, helped by drugs, disengages from existence completely. Herbert Methley, novelist and speaker on sexual liberation, impregnates young women and leaves it up to his wife to take responsibility. This is not to say that this is an anti-male book. Many of the admirable characters, notably Prosper Cain and Philip Warren, are male - the first coming from a military background, the second from poverty. But any novel about progressive thinking and responsibility set in this time must necessarily consider the extent to which women often had to bear the brunt of the negatives flowing from the ideals of the time.
It also has to engage with the lack of realism within those same ideals . Humphry and Olive are left-wing Fabians, but think nothing of sending their son to an English public (i.e. private) school, which damages him, possibly irreperably. The importance of women's education is discussed and debated, rather than assumed, and, of course, the sacrifice that educated women of the time made is noted. Basil's son, Charles, is attracted by the radicalism of anarchy but cannot assent to the assumption that murder is an acceptable form of political statement. The creative core of the book lies within the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris, with its emphasis on the dignity of labour and the importance of making things oneself from scratch, rather than dividing labour and industrialisation. The positive side of this movement can be derived from the story of Philip - born in the Potteries, with parents who died from the consequences of industrial production of ceramics, he is able to make a name for himself as a ceramic artist. But the naivity is obvious - the dignity of creative work is all very well, but it takes Geraint, Fludd's son who rebels by becoming a banker, to remind everyone that one needs to make money in order to eat.

As the title suggests, this is a book about children. Byatt seems to be telling us that this is a book about adults acting like children, and children acting like adults. This period in history was a period when children stopped being 'seen but not heard.' They were often treated like adults and children's literature saw what many still believe to be its golden era. But, of course, as the final section reminds us, it was this generation of European children who were victims of the horrors of the First World War.

One thing that was impressed on me here was the possible contemporary parallels. My generation is a generation who have grown up in relative prosperity and are perhaps therefore more likely to lean towards irresponsibiity and excessive idealism. The dominance of children's literature is striking, as is the "back to earth" aesthetic, which may be better expressed nowadays by the endless TV shows encouraging us to move to the country and keep chickens (wearing Cath Kidstone aprons and with roses in our hair, presumably!) - an aesthetic which has little to do with real country life and is only possible with large amounts of income.
It's not an easy, light read. As many reviewers have observed, you need to take on an awful lot of information in order to make sense of it and its context. It's not to be read quickly and it's probably to be read more than once. But I recommend it.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
At 600 + pages, The Children's Book is not easy to encapsulate in a short review. The action takes place between 1895 and ends in 1919. The main character is Olive Wellwood, married to Humphry, and they live a somewhat Bohemian lifestyle and espouse Fabian idealistic beliefs. They raise their children to be children -- to run free in the forest, ride bicycles, holding a totally different view than the "children are meant to be seen, not heard" mentality of the Victorian era. The Wellwoods hold Midsummer's Eve parties in which the children act in plays -- and they live a somewhat idyllic life that includes other family members and acquaintances: Olive’s sister, Violet, Humphry's brother Basil, his wife and children Griselda and Charles Wellwood, a gifted ceramicist Benedict Fludd who is locked in some kind of mental hell, Fludd's children Imogen, Pomona and Geraint, Fludd’s apprentice, Philip, Philip’s sister Elsie, and their friend Prosper Cain and his children, Florence and Julian. Olive is an author of children's fantasy stories, obviously born out of her life as a child, and besides writing for the general public, Olive writes a book for each of her children which grow as her children grow. Life seems perfect, but underneath there are secrets that are revealed and secrets that are kept, some of which lead this new generation to question who they are and where they are going, and to question their parents' expectations of them. It is also a novel in which the author brings vividly to life the social and political changes of the period and where the characters find themselves within the scope of the events and the isms of the time.

The Children's Book is very well written and it is a book you will be thinking about long after you've finished it. The main characters are well drawn. The sense of place and time stands out as a character of its own as history plays itself out and events occur quickly and on a grand scale. The author's ability to capture this small slice of time and the winds of change (and at the end, the horrors of trench warfare) is what makes this book an incredible read.

Personally, I liked this book and was rather caught up throughout the story, but I did feel that the end was a bit rushed, as if Byatt had to come up with an ending rather quickly. However, I would definitely recommend the book to people interested not only in excellent writing, but in Britain from the end of the Victorian period through the end of WWI. Overall, a fine reading experience.
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LibraryThing member AlisonY
Wow. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.

I very nearly abandoned this amazing book early on. The first couple of chapters were great - totally engaging - but then Byatt chose a midsummer party to introduce a crazy amount of characters. Their families were all interlinked in some way, and it was important to know who was who, and for a good hundred pages I grew tired of continually flicking back to the party scene to remind myself who was related to who and how. Why the editors didn't think a short character guide at the start of the book would be useful is beyond me.

The 'children's book' (or rather a collection of children's books the author character writes for her children) is really quite a minor part of the book. This is a sweeping, complex, intellectual family saga of sorts, telling the interconnecting stories of 6 English families from the late Victorian era up to WWI.

Art - in the form of ceramics and dark fairy story writing - is an important backdrop to this novel, as well as intellectual and political thought from the era. I feared that this might be a book that tries too hard to be "intellectual" and ends up irritating me, but by the end this was one of the things I loved most about it. Byatt's depth of research is simply vast, and this novel fuelled a continual thirst for knowledge in me simply because she made all these backdrop reference points so interesting. In between reads I was Googling everything from Palissy pottery to the Fabian Society to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900, as she brought them to life so well. In fact, this book is so well researched it's difficult to believe at times that this isn't a novel written during that period.

It's a complex book with a lot of depth, but the characters are fabulous and I was hooked right up to the end. In fact I spent a good bit of the last 50 pages wiping away tears.

If you enjoy writers such as Alan Hollinghurst, or McEwan's Atonement, or even the likes of Woolf's To the Lighthouse, then I think you'll enjoy this.

5 stars - easily this will be my book of the year (even if it is only April). A modern classic.
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LibraryThing member pierthinker
A. S. Byatt’s new novel “The Children’s Book” traces the lives of several intertwined families in the period from the 1880’s through to the end of the First World War. The multiple, connected stories focus on a group of children and we see them grow from toddlers to adults over the course of the book. The thread that binds these families is their connection to the new politics of Fabianism, Socialism, even Anarchism and the new arts and crafts movements in England and Germany.

The revelation to me is the radicalism these people bring to their lives and the society in which they live. This was clearly a time of great change, of great revolution in society and technology and politics and thought and mores. People embraced that change, made an accommodation with it or found themselves adrift and unable to cope

Byatt is a very class act. She writes with a density pretty much unrivalled, describing the Edwardian world, clothes, food, daily life with a dizzying level of detail. None of this gets in the way of the readability of the novel nor of the intense focus on the inner lives of the people involved.

This is a classy book that addresses great truths by offering a look into a world that most never understood existed. Read it.
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LibraryThing member jintster
The third of the 2009 Booker shortlist and the best so far for me.

It's a little hard to categorise this novel, although family saga probably comes closest. It concerns the lives of two generations of two branches of an upper middle class family called the Wellwoods and their friends and associates between the 1890s and 1918. To the extent that there is a central character, it is Olive Wellwood, apparently loosely based on Edith Nesbit. Olive and most of her family and her circle are part of the arts and craft movement which was so important in late Victorian Britain. Some of them are also Fabians, one is an anarchist and one a suffragette. Through them Byatt tries to capture the decline in Victorian certainties and the new assertiveness and aggression of those who wished to challenge the status quo.

I've not read anything by Byatt before and was struck by just how good her writing is, particularly on subjects that others often find difficult. She writes really astutely on character and motivation and is able to get inside the heads of adolescents in particular. There are also some beautiful descriptions of works of are, particularly of pottery - somehow Byatt really makes you appreciate the variation in glazes even if you can't see them . I'd love to go around a museum (preferably the Victoria & Albert) with her.

The book is a little over researched and there are quite lengthy asides on bits of social history - suffragettes, the arts and crafts movements, Edwardian children's fictions etc - which I quite liked but do break up the story and may not be everyone's cup of tea. That aside, I'd say this is the best modern novel I've read since starting this challenge.

Beautiful cover as well.
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
This is a fat, sprawling book that spans the late Victorian period through World War I, about writers, artists, Fabian socialists, the arts and crafts movement, free love, the suffrage movement, theater, puppetry and war. If those subjects intrigue you on the face of it, give this book time to sink in: it's one of those lovely slow-paced books perfect for summertime, although its abundance of characters make for confusion at times. The story pivots around Olive Wellwood, a successful writer of children's books, and her many children, who must cope with the strains of their unconventional household and the discovery of several family secrets. We also meet Benedict Fludd, a mad potter, and Phillip Warren, the working-class boy he takes under his wing.

There is a lot of story here, yet the book is not plot-driven. It's not character-driven either: most of the characterization is impressionistic. The prose is unassumingly good, and dramatic episodes are rendered very quietly. I think the book is idea-driven, and dream-driven to an extent. Motifs of underground pervade the book, from the museum basement where Phillip is first discovered searching for Art, to Olive's fantasy story for her son Tom, and finally to the trenches of World War I. Fairy tales are used to convey both romantic illusion and grim nightmare. I think that Byatt is limning the end of England's self-absorbed faux innocence as it is forced into modernity.
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LibraryThing member yooperprof
An English "War and Peace" - although "Peace and War" would be more apt, as the vast majority of the text is set in the halycon days of the late 19th and 20th Century British Empire, when the confidence and prosperity of the ruling classes went unchallenged. "The Children's Book" deals mostly with the comfortable lives of the upper middle classes in the South of England, although Byatt (who is a Northerner herself) throws in a few working class characters for contrast. Messy and prolix, "The Children's Book" is a book that is intelligent and provocative, but also frustrating and inconclusive. Fans of Byatt will read it to find out what she is thinking these days, but I would not recommend this book as a first exposure to her writing.

Byatt, whose sister Margaret Drabble is also a successful novelist, certainly knows a great deal about unhappy families with sibling rivalries. She also has clearly been thinking a lot about the significance of children's literature, particularly in the English tradition of the late 19th century. (She has gone on record with some fairly harsh criticism of J.K. Rowling's contemporary work in that genre.) In some ways, "The Children's Book" is a kind of serious reflection upon the lure of childish-ness which attracted so many in the era of Peter Pan - and continues to do so in our era of the Disney Empire and Harry Potter.

Rather than focus upon a single character - or even two, or four - here Byatt is interested upon an entire generation of young people, born in the 1880s and 90s and raised in the heyday of the late Victorian Empire. It's a collective family saga - and you'll probably need to take copious notes to sort out all the characters and their intricate relationships. (It doesn't help matters when several of their names are similar - Geraint and Gerald, for example. Some of the names seem fairly improbable: Griselda? Imogen? Perdita?)

There is also a great deal in this book about some of the "minor" arts of the era, particularly ceramics and puppetry. Interesting certainly, but I'm not sure quite how the developing craft of pottery fits into the theme of childhood and family relationships.

A few major historical figures from the period (Oscar Wilde, Marie Stopes, Loie Fuller) have small walk-on parts. There is one scene of the novel that takes place at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, and later the focus shifts for a while to artistic and bohemian Munich. Nice to see an English historical novel with some interest in contemporary European affairs! Some of the characters are early stalwarts of the movement for women's rights. One becomes a female doctor, another a suffragette. Other female characters face difficult decisions about sexuality, pregnancy and marriage. Really, this could be a quite good book to use in a history class - if only it weren't so long!

It is difficult to offer a coherent critique of this book because it goes off in so many directions. A loose baggy monster indeed! It probably would have worked better if some of the subsidiary characters and plots and themes and historical developments had been cut back - or cut out. Or maybe this should have become a multi-volume saga! There are certainly enough elements in the story that remind me of one of those stately Masterpiece Theatre series!
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LibraryThing member kraaivrouw
A.S. Byatt always makes me think of Iris Murdoch and I love Iris Murdoch's writing. Byatt's written two books of criticism on Murdoch (thus the connection) and in The Children's Book she has written a most Murdochian novel. It is a sweeping philosophical family saga concerned with the shift from the Victorian to Edwardian era in the runup to World War I. The time period is rich in interesting detail - Fabianism, the Arts and Crafts movement, pastoralism, anarchy, women's suffrage, art nouveau, Jung, and Freud, and German fairy tales - and Byatt tells us all about it in equally rich and beautifully described detail.

I suspect that this book probably drove many of its readers a little mad because so much of its plot is buried in its story, but I loved that about it. Byatt uses the period as a large stage set that her characters move through, much like the marionette show in the opening chapters of the novel. The time period is the story, the people and the relationships between them are in their own way as decorative as the pure white pottery glaze developed by Palissy (which is in its own sense a fairy story). In a way, these are all the bits and pieces that add up to a particular kind of fairy tale where the setting is as much a character as the goblins and kobolds.

The Edwardian era has always seemed like the golden, perfect summer and fall before the long gray winter of World War I and this novel really captures that. There were large chunks of the last third of the novel that made me cry and by the end I'll admit that I was sobbing. Byatt is as ruthless with her setting and her characters as the trenches were to their inhabitants and that has a powerful resonance.

This novel is long and demanding. It requires your full and undivided attention and your commitment, but the returns are in staggering beauty.
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LibraryThing member Litfan
"The Children's Book" covers roughly a 30 year span, from the 1890s to post World War I. It centers on the family of Olive Wellwood, a prolific children's writer. The cast of characters is gargantuan, with Olive's family having ties to several other families and their children. Most of these characters are fairly well-off, and the Wellwoods enjoy a vanishing type of pastoral life at their Todefright estate, where the eldest children explore the rambling woods and it's sometimes difficult to distinguish reality from the stories woven by Olive.

It took me about 200 pages to really get into the novel. At nearly 700 pages, this is a time investment. I have to admit that early on, I nearly gave up. The numerous characters initially were hard to keep up with and the novel switched between so many that it was hard to connect with most of them at first. Additionally the novel is often bogged down in minute detail; I'd have gladly traded a few descriptive passages for greater character development in the early part of the book. Byatt is clearly very knowledgeable about her history and intersperses historical detail throughout the novel. This proves to be both a blessing and a curse for the story. It helps to set the lives of the characters in the appropriate cultural context, but it somehow it doesn't feel woven in. Rather, the historical bits read like a nonfiction book, and it's somewhat jarring to move from fictional story, to nonfiction history lesson, and back again.

Those are the drawbacks. There were also a lot of rewards to the novel that made me glad I had kept reading. The novel is rich with symbolism and beautiful prose. Byatt effectively captures the feelings of the Victorian era and the shattering of innocence as the world erupts into the first World War. The battle scenes are gut-wrenching. Several of the characters do, eventually, move into the forefront with compelling stories and relationships. There are secrets and intrigue. There is also a significant exploration of what it means to be both a creative person and a parent--particularly a mother, and what it is to be the child of a genius. Women's rights are addressed and some of the characters feel required to choose between conventional female roles and dreams of scholarship. Byatt is most successful at providing a vast panorama of a world on the verge of complete and irrevocable change.

Overall I'm glad I read it. It was somewhat like climbing a very high mountain--parts were almost excruciating, parts were awe-inspiring, but the view from the top did make it worth it at the end. It just would have been nice to have less of a struggle getting there, which could have been accomplished with a bit more conciseness.
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LibraryThing member alexdaw
I am not a fan of big books. They are hard to read in bed and I hate constantly calculating: how many more pages to go? As with long movies, I always believe a judicious edit could do little harm to big books. The Children's Book is a massive tome - 615 pages.

I stuck with it because the subject matter and time period interests me enormously - artists/intellectuals/bourgeois moving from the Victorian to the Edwardian era. Family history is my secret vice and that aspect of the novel intrigued me too. I think that the novel would be well served in future editions by some attempt at a family tree or at least a list of characters to remind the reader of who's who.

A.S. Byatt had a kernel of an idea (like her heroine Olive Wellwood) which she fleshed out into a somewhat corpulent work. It's not a disinteresting idea. It's about what we choose to tell children and what we don't....and how they muddle through anyway, informed or misinformed about who they are and their place in the world. We tell them "fairy" tales that upon deeper analysis are often heavily coded horror stories. The truth is often hard to tell and also hard to write. A.S. Byatt, I have no doubt, has researched her characters and time period very well. And yes, sometimes there are sermons from the mount or little lectures about periods in this history which miss their mark I find.

But the characters were well formed and interesting and I did want to know what happened to each and every one of the children - only sometimes I got lost along the way and wished I wasn't lost and that my hand had been held tighter and there wasn't so much extraneous stuff.

PS. I reckon I found an error at the top of the page on page 65 of the Chatto and Windus version - "Basil and Olive, fairy kind and fairy queen, spoke the golden speeches of blessing on married men and women, on chidlren born and unborn." Doesn't she mean Humphrey? Or am I still very confused???
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LibraryThing member LyzzyBee
23 Feb 2011 - passed to me by a colleague

Excellent, thick, satisfying read, following the fortunes of a group of interconnected families from the 1880s through WWI. As usual, Byatt is very good at tying in the social/economic/cultural movements of history with the personal lives of her characters - there is a real feeling of the march of history in this - and she works in some of her genre-mimicking work too. Good on women's expanding lives and the increased ability to cross class boundaries, and on the pull between motherhood and creativity. And all these people strive against the patterns they were born into, only to come up against the monolithic horror of War. The war sections were horrific - and so they should have been.

I did get a Murdochian feel about this - the mixed characters and particularly the role of stones in the book - I wonder whether that was deliberate.
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LibraryThing member lkernagh
What to say... what to say. The arts and crafts movement - covering the last ten years of the Victorian period, through the Edwardian period and into the House of Windsor period - is richly captured. Byatt brings minute details to focus, allowing this reader to "experience" the industry of potters, metals workers, puppeteers, play dramatists and writers against the backdrop of the Fabian and Suffragettes movements. The lifestyles of Byatt's characters are languid, steeped in a kind of drunkenness a warm summer day in a fragrant garden can produce. Beneath that outward display of calm roils deep set frustrations and a desire for.... something different. One one level, this book is a masterpiece depicting time and place. The weaving of fairy tales in to the story-line imbues the story with as sense of magic and wonder, but the characters are for the most part unappealing in their aimlessness. I get that the times being depicted were a mix of heady escapism and rising socialistic purpose but I found myself getting lost in the descriptions and losing the tenuous plot threads. All emotion comes across as muted, or as a bit of hysterics. Even the more horrifying elements of WWI appear to have been written to cloak the resulting image as being veiled, removing some of the sharp focus certain parts of the story call for. One reviewer has commented that [The Children's Book] is a human story of responsibility, with the characters "attempting to define their responsibilities, whether to fulfill them or to evade them; with those in pursuit of enlightenment or seeking to manipulate it; and with some simply attempting to unearth who they are and what they should do to survive." From that perspective, Byatt has delved deep and produced results that may appeal to readers seeking a story about the human condition and all its flaws. While I loved the details depicted in the story, I never felt a connection to any of the characters, expect for Philip Warren, one of the few characters who knew all along what he wanted to accomplish.

Overall, a good read but I felt like an observer peering in from afar as a group of actors fumble their way through their roles.
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LibraryThing member Tracey8824
It took me forever to finish reading this book. It's not that I didn't like it. The Children's Book just might not have been my cup of tea. There were a lot of characters and after while I stopped trying to keep everyone straight. I'm also not sure how I felt about the end. It seemed to me Ms. Byatt realized she had written 500 pages and need to start killing people off.

Overall, I don't think I'd recommend this to anyone who I didn't really know would enjoy it.
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LibraryThing member Kaethe
Byatt is curiously prone to report the behavior of her characters, rather than just show them. If she weren't dealing with so much: fairy tales and folklore, the Arts and Crafts movement, the rise of Fabianism and social justice movements of all kinds; if not for all that it'd be a dud. And while I'm listing faults, there is a singular lack of joy. None of these people are ever shown being happy; all of their happy moments occur offstage. Sex, for example, is traumatic, not just, adequate. It makes for an overall depressing reading experience. And referring to "Charles/Karl" is just annoying, without every giving us a sense of who calls him by which name.

Those are my complaints. It is, nevertheless, a marvelous book. While the large cast may keep us from seeing anyone's high moments, it does enable us to see what life was like at the time for a broad array of people. Byatt is more interested in social and political activism, so the cast is broader in political views than in class: this is not Downton Abbey with half the time spent upstairs and half the time spent down.

I'm glad I read it, and I think Byatt's synthesis of culture in an historical context is awesome. But the unrelenting misery of all the characters means this is a deeply unhappy book even before you get to the war.

Library copy.
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LibraryThing member runaway84
Note to self: Never expect another Byatt work to be as great as Possession; you will only be disappointed.

That out of the way, this is one of those book that has many different layers, takes place over the year of several decades, incorporates a ton of history and has many, many different characters.

'Olive Wellwood is a famous writer, interviewed with her children gathered at her knee. For each, she writes a private book, bound in its own colour and placed on a shelf. In their rambling house near Romney Marsh the children play in a storybook world — but their lives, and those of their rich cousins and friends, are already inscribed with mystery. Each family carries its own secrets.'

This summary does not even begin to tell what this book is about. I'm not feeling particularly deep at the moment, but I will be as thorough as I can.

At times I felt as though despite that hoard of characters that showed up in The Children's Book, this was not a character driven book. There were a few chapters that did not even include a single character. These chapters felt like they were take out of a history book. It was great to learn about this era - the end of the Victorian era and Edwardian era - but sometimes I was just not in the mood. It felt like Byatt tried to cram as much history as she could. The characters themselves were used to show how the world was changing during this time. The great thing was that you saw the world through different perspectives: upper and lower class; male and female. The Children's Book mostly followed the children as they grew up, but also showed the lives of the adults, in a way so you could understand why the children ended up the way they did.

I didn't particularly have a favorite character because I felt, in a way, that all the characters were out of reach. We never really got to 'know' any of them. We saw them grow up, make bad decisions, fall victim to the times, and fight against society, but we were never able to get too close to them. Still, as events unfolded, I felt sorry for a number of them, particularly at the end, which takes place during WWI.

The Children's Book didn't strike me as wonderful or horrible; it's one of those books that, for me, hits somewhere in the middle.
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LibraryThing member sarah-e
There really are no words to summarize, or give an accurate impression of this book. What will stick with me is how honest it all felt. The characters, especially watching the children grow up, were well crafted and mesmerizing. I enjoyed it, not every page, but in the end I am so glad I stuck through.
LibraryThing member VeronicaH.
This book is really amazing in its historical sweep, but this is also part of its flaw. The book mainly follows one family and its circle of friends through the turning of the 20th century up to WWI. The family is English and has ties to the English Socialist movement, the Fabian society, and various other political/social groups. The mother is a writer of children's stories, and the family also has ties to the various artistic movements of the time, most notably the Arts and Crafts movement. William Morris is mentioned several times throughout the novel both for his art and for his politics. This is where the real interest and value stems from for me. There is so much going on during this era in English society, and several things are mentioned or briefly discussed via the characters, but in general, only in passing. The Grand Exhibition of Paris gets a significant amount of coverage, which was wonderful mainly (for me) because of the author's inclusion of Sarah Bernhardt's Paris performance of Oscar Wilde's Salome (Wilde himself makes a pitiable appearance). After finishing this book, I ran out to pick up anything I could find on British society of the late 19th and early 20th century. The narrative itself is sprawling and there are multiple character point of views, so if you are looking for a traditional, easily packaged narrative, this might not be for you. Because it covers so much of the character's lives, it could only leave me wanting more of them. For me, this is a mark of success, but the end of the book did feel rushed and it felt as if that thing, that magical thing, holding it all together had nearly vanished. The novel ends during WWI, so perhaps this is just a reflection of what the war had done not only to the characters, but also to the world in general. If you are interested in historical fiction, this is a treasure trove of information that will leave you digging for more. If you like your historical narratives in neatly written packages, perhaps you should look elsewhere.… (more)




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