Synopses & Reviews
From the renowned author of Possession
, The Childrens Book
absorbing story of the close of what has been called the Edwardian summer: the deceptively languid, blissful period that ended with the cataclysmic destruction of World War I. In this compelling novel, A.S. Byatt summons up a whole era, revealing that beneath its golden surface lay tensions that would explode into war, revolution and unbelievable change — for the generation that came of age before 1914 and, most of all, for their children.
The novel centres around Olive Wellwood, a fairy tale writer, and her circle, which includes the brilliant, erratic craftsman Benedict Fludd and his apprentice Phillip Warren, a runaway from the poverty of the Potteries; Prosper Cain, the soldier who directs what will become the Victoria and Albert Museum; Olives brother-in-law Basil Wellwood, an officer of the Bank of England; and many others from every layer of society. A.S. Byatt traces their lives in intimate detail and moves between generations, following the children who must choose whether to follow the roles expected of them or stand up to their parents “porcelain socialism.”
Olives daughter Dorothy wishes to become a doctor, while her other daughter, Hedda, wants to fight for votes for women. Her son Tom, sent to an upper-class school, wants nothing more than to spend time in the woods, tracking birds and foxes. Her nephew Charles becomes embroiled with German-influenced revolutionaries. Their portraits connect the political issues at the heart of nascent feminism and socialism with grave personal dilemmas, interlacing until The Childrens Book becomes a perfect depiction of an entire world.
Olive is a fairy tale writer in the era of Peter Pan and Kenneth Grahames The Wind In the Willows, not long after Alices Adventures in Wonderland. At a time when children in England suffered deprivation by the millions, the concept of childhood was being refined and elaborated in ways that still influence us today. For each of her children, Olive writes a special, private book, bound in a different colour and placed on a shelf; when these same children are ferried off into the unremitting destruction of the Great War, the reader is left to wonder who the real children in this novel are.
The Childrens Book is an astonishing novel. It is an historical feat that brings to life an era that helped shape our own as well as a gripping, personal novel about parents and children, lifes most painful struggles and its richest pleasures. No other writer could have imagined it or created it.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
A.S. Byatt is internationally acclaimed as a novelist, short-story writer and critic. Her books include Possession
and the quartet of The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life
, Babel Tower
and A Whistling Woman
. She was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1999.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. What do Olive Wellwoods fairy stories, presented in the text in italics, add to The Childrens Book
2. There are some very different women in the book, from the dreamy, absent Seraphita to Phillips practical sister Elsie. With these portraits, what is A.S. Byatt saying about women and womens roles in English society?
3. Violet asks, under her breath: “Who is a childs real mother? The one who feeds it, and cleans it, and knows its little ways, or the one who leaves it in the nest to do as best it can . . . ?” How is this question explored in The Childrens Book?
4. What is the importance of sexuality to The Childrens Book? What is behind Olives response to Humphreys liaisons, or his attack on Dorothy, or Dorothys eventual link with Gabriel? Do you feel sexuality has changed since the era the book depicts and, if so, how?
5. Who is your favourite character in The Childrens Book and why? How does this character change over the course of the book and why?
6. If you have read A.S. Byatts previous novels, such as Possession, how do they compare to The Childrens Book? What is she trying to explore here that is different and how is her method similar or distinct this time around?
7. How do the characters in this book experience death? What is the importance of suicide in the novel?
8. How are Germany and relations between English people and Germans significant in The Childrens Book? What do these elements add to the story?
9. Discuss the theme of childhood, or childishness, in the novel.
10. How do you feel at the end of the book and why?
11. Explore and describe the structure of the novel. How do events follow each other? Which characters come to the forefront or recede? How does A.S. Byatt manage to juggle so many characters and situations without confusing the reader or losing the readers interest?
12. The Childrens Book includes some memorable locations, particularly the Tree House, Purchase House and Todefright. How are they different? How does each matter to the story?
13. How is the era depicted in The Childrens Book similar to and different from our own? Is A.S. Byatt trying to tell us anything about our own time with her portrait of the Wellwoods time?
14. What is the significance of performance and theatre in The Childrens Book? You might discuss puppet theatre and Shakespeare as well as the importance of performance in daily life.
15. What is ‘The Childrens Book referred to in the title, really?
16. In what ways, if any, is The Childrens Book an old-fashioned novel? In what ways is it original? Which other books does it make you think of?
17. What do the occasional historical summaries (e.g. “1896 was a gloomy year. William Morris died in October . . .”) add to the novel?
18. If you could ask A.S. Byatt one question about this book, what would it be?