Here, in its entirety, is a review of a new book by A.S. Byatt called The Children’s Book
Review by Sophie Gee.
In 2003, AS Byatt wrote a notorious New York Times editorial saying that JK Rowling’s world is “for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip ... Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.” Byatt found Rowling imaginatively parochial. She also thought Harry Potter wasn’t properly magical but made up of “derivative narrative clichés” that appeal to crudely literal imaginations. Real fantasy, Byatt argued, has a “sense of mystery, powerful forces, dangerous creatures in dark forests”.
Potter fans went feral. Those over 30 compared it to Byatt’s excoriation of Martin Amis in 1995: “I don’t see why I should subsidise his greed, simply because he has a divorce to pay for and has just had all his teeth redone.” In 2009, Byatt’s criticism of Rowling seems a bit off-target – Rowling was doing interesting things in the Potter books, if not the things AS Byatt wanted.
Her new novel, The Children’s Book, is the book Byatt wanted Harry Potter to be. The characters are immersed in the world of English faerie – mysterious, dangerous and inhuman.
It’s typical of AS Byatt’s intellectual rigour that she would set her answer to Rowling et al in late-Victorian England, where young adult fantasy started with Peter Pan, Puck of Pook’s Hill, The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland (all of which appear in the novel). One of the things books should do, in Byatt’s view, is engage with literary history, knowingly.
The Children’s Book begins in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1895 and ends on the battlefields of the first world war, carrying us from the nursery-like security of Victorian England through the “golden summer” of the Edwardian idyll to the annihilating chaos of the Great War. It’s about a circle of English families committed to the progressive ideals of the Fabian Society and the Arts and Crafts movement in late Victorian England.
The female protagonist is Olive Wellwood, “a successful authoress of magical tales”, who lives a delightful life in the south of England with her husband Humphrey and their ever-expanding brood: “The children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to ... And yet, at the same time, the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent lives, as children. They roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees, hunted, fished, rode ponies and bicycles, with no other company than that of other children.” Inevitably, the Wellwoods’ ideals don’t stand them in especially good stead for the complexities of their own and their children’s lives – lives often resulting from another tenet of progressive idealism: sexual freedom in a world before birth control.
Byatt’s characters are bonded by their shared social passions, commitment to artistic freedom, and the fact that they all sleep together. The novel’s first set-piece involves a tableau from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Oberon’s constant skirmishes over infidelity, the confused identities and alien desires of the youthful lovers, the cruel caprice of the faerie world and the troubling status of ordinary artisans tell us what Byatt’s novel is about. As in Shakespeare’s play, magic and creativity both animate and distort what’s real.
It’s the sort of high-concept rarefied intellectual fiction we’d expect from, well, AS Byatt. Possession: the next generation. This time around, though, Byatt’s writing is propelled by a new vexation – the current fad for young adult fantasy. Byatt is grappling with a lot of the same problems as Rowling. How to think about childhood cruelty and abuse. How to manage the problem of death, both as a child and as an adult. Most profoundly, how to deal with the grief of being a parent, bringing beings into the world who will die. There is enormous personal sadness in Byatt’s novel, which becomes a collective, historical sadness as the novel moves ineluctably towards 1914.
The deepest sense in which Byatt answers her attack on Rowling is by writing The Children’s Book for adults only. Childhood for Byatt is not an untroubled place but it’s in adult life that the traumas occur to make possible the mature imaginative visions of great art. Trauma is relocated from its position in childhood to the world of adulthood, where a set of seemingly stable and reliable ideas about the world can be shattered by an unimaginable, unspeakable incident.
So where does dark magic come from – the dangerous fantastical that Byatt wanted? From underground. Byatt’s characters live in basements, work in mines, dig in the earth for clay, and long for the spoils of hidden worlds: precious metals, buried treasures.
What at first looks like a coincidental collection of subterranean settings turns into a vision of underground as a place of magic and terror. A boy travels to an enchanted world below the earth to find his lost shadow. In a coal-mine, before death, a man finds a dragonfly miraculously preserved. At the end of the novel comes the motif’s real payoff: the trenches of the first world war, a chaos of carnage, of terror. Underground, humans become inhuman. The real becomes the fantastic, where evil lives.
Reviewer Sophie Gee is is an assistant professor of English at Princeton and author of ‘The Scandal of the Season.’