‘Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.’
These Shakespearean lines kept reverberating in my mind as I read and finished A.S.Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book. It’s a magnificently detailed book about the period between the end of the 19th century and the First World War, mainly in England but also Germany. It was a golden age for children’s literature. Adults were tempted to retreat to the imaginative world; the stern task of creating an Empire needed a healing refraction. Victorian doubt and morality were beginning to be seen as out-moded.
One central protagonist, Olive Wedgwood ‘a successful authoress of magical tales’ children’s stories based on fairy tales and folk-lore, appears to have it all. But Byatt’s novels are never simple. The apparent innocence and plenitude of childhood conceal actions and events that lurk like underground gnomes chipping away at feelings of security. Nothing is at it seems to be. The beloved tree house is chopped down. School is an abusive place. Adults are not to be trusted – they can be incompetent or selfish or predetory. Peter Pan is not real – it’s make believe. It was the adults who clapped their belief in fairies when they saw Barrie’s play. The artist creates his or her effect at peril to those around them.
It’s a novel jam-full of ideas and information. Too much some critics have said. The historian in me was enthralled. Keeping up with all of the novel’s children is difficult. There are about twenty. Today’s reader knows many of those golden lads whose childhood we share will be killed in the trenchs. But Byatt’s skill was that her characters did not know that. To them the war was an unexpected trauma. As mothers lost sons and the girls their young husbands and lovers the individual pain of that ghastly carnage is brought home. Those early romantic entanglements and sexual desires count for little when set against that backdrop.
Byatt writes well about those entanglements and desires. Her prose crackles with energy and passion only to slow down to describe a pot, a play, a scene, picking up the pace to describe a suffragette throwing herself at the king’s horse during the running of the Derby. It’s the stuff of life. It’s how things happen.
Edward IV and GeorgeV get a deserved, bad press from her, along with the Kaiser. They and their ministers created the war that destroyed the society she describes. I am pleased to have dwelt under her guidance in that society for a brief period. It was not golden, though its young people thought it was at the time. When the Great War began the producer stopped using a line from Peter Pan. That line was ‘to die will be an awfully big adventure.’