Sit down, everyone, because I’m about to tell you about a book I think you’ll love. If you’re like me and enjoy historical fiction, Victorian England, long musings on the nature of war, family, coming of age, and other universal and important themes, then The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt will be your new favorite book, if you have about three weeks to spare.
The Children’s Book is the second book I’ve read by A.S. Byatt, the first being Possession, a book that quickly became one of the best ones I’d ever read. After I finished that book I went online and bought this one, and spent three weeks engulfed within this world. Even though it was a time-investment kind of book, it’s also the kind that challenges you to think beyond the conventions of a genre, the kind of book with characterizations and observations on humanity that makes you stop and think for a long time, the kind of book that redefines the kind of book you like to read. Needless to say, I really, really liked it. 😉
The Children’s Book begins in 1895 in England. The main narrative centers around a Fabian socialist family called the Wellwoods: married couple Olive and Humphry Wellwood, and their brood of seven-odd children. Olive Wellwood is a frenetic, creative, energetic author of children’s tales, and she is the main breadwinner of her large, growing family. Her husband Humphry is a dissatisfied banker who leaves his cushy job to write political essays for various magazines. Their friends, also Fabians/socialists/anarchists/artists/playwrights/priests/etc. occupy the rest of this ensemble cast, which sometimes becomes confusing, but which is totally worth taking a few notes.
Over the course of twenty-odd years, from the “Golden Age” of the late Victorian era, to the “Silver Age” of the Edwardian Era, to World War I and its aftermath, we follow the trials and tribulations of a dozen or so characters, each one with a unique voice, circumstances, worldviews, and aspirations. Dorothy Wellwood, for example, studies to become a surgeon in a world where women just don’t become doctors. Julian Cain explores his sexuality. Elsie Warren can’t overcome her humble, slum beginnings. Hedda Wellwood becomes a suffragette. Philip Warren becomes a master potter and artist. Everyone has secrets. It’s like a turn-of-the-century, incredibly well-written, exhaustively detailed melodrama, where all the characters leap off the page.
It’s also a highly feminist book that made me super emotional at times, I’ll admit. Quotes like these just stopped me in my tracks:
“Ah,” said Florence, grimly. “A woman has to be extraordinary, she can’t just do things as though she had a right. You have to get better marks than the Senior Wrangler, and still you can’t have a degree.”
It’s sometimes a difficult book to stick with, but it’s one that’ll change you. Highly recommended!