The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt was published in 2009 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year.
The book begins in London 1895 in the South Kensington museum where Prosper Cain, an ex-army officer is Special Keeper of Precious Metals. His son Julian is home from school due to illness and he notices a young boy who is intently drawing one of the exhibits. Julian follows the boy when he disappears into the bowels of the museum and catches up with him. Philip has run away from his poverty stricken home in the Potteries and he’s hoping that one day he will be able to make wonderful pottery himself.
Olive Wellwood, a famous children’s author is also in the museum, visiting Prosper Cain and she takes Philip home to her large house near Rye and so begins a tale which spans 25 years of British social and political history with many of the influential people of the times having bit parts. William Morris, H.G. Wells, Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, the Pankhursts, the Arts and Crafts Movement, The Fabians. It’s all there, as are the wars.
Through it all runs the story of Olive Wellwood’s extended family and friends. Olive writes very successful fairy tales, supporting her family and husband with her earnings, but when each of her children are born she writes them their own story which she adds to over the years. It’s a charming idea for small children but has a detrimental effect on some. On the surface the Edwardian lives are idyllic but all is not well, the adults have been living double lives and the children/young adults have been used and abused in all sorts of ways, nothing is as it seems.
I loved this book which I’ll probably give five stars on Goodreads even although there are a few times when Byatt goes off on a tangent for just a few pages which probably should have been edited out. Otherwise I loved the writing, which was a good surprise for me as I’m sure that I abandoned one of her earlier books because I didn’t like her writing style, but I can’t say that for this one. I also learned quite a lot of historical facts about an era that I thought I was already well acquainted with.
Byatt really threw herself into this one and says that she had a lot of help from specialists on World War 1, women’s suffrage, Austrian theatre, the history of women’s colleges, public schools and she even had a go at sticking her hands in wavering clay, for the experience.
This isn’t a comfort read, in fact it’s quite uncomfortable at times but I found it to be a great read and surely it would have won the Man Booker Prize if Wolf Hall hadn’t been shortlisted in the same year. At one point I thought that the character of Olive Wellwood must have been modelled on the children’s author E. Nesbit, but then she was mentioned in the book. She was one of those poor women who were in The Fabian Society which at that time seems to have been mainly formed by men who wanted ‘free love’ at the expense of the women they took up with. On a personal note I was so glad that we had visited Rye in Sussex in 2019 as the town and the famous Mermaid Inn feature in this book, it’s good to be able to imagine it, although nowadays if you’re really keen you can go onto Google Street to see any locations in books.