The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

 The Christmas Card Crime cover

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.

Recent Goings On

Well it has been a wee bit quiet on ‘pining’ for a few days. I’ve been busy with house and garden stuff. Yes, the sun came out and it warmed up enough to go out and cut back more dead stems from last year, like the Michaelmas daisies and all my herbs, things are starting to grow and a female blackbird has actually been gathering nesting material today, I don’t know where she is building it but it seems to be quite luxurious as she was pulling the old mud encrusted and half-rotted water lily pads off the top of the water, I think that’ll be used to draught proof her nest.

My first daffodils should be flowering in a few days but sadly most of my crocuses have looked like burst balloons as all that snow and ice just came at the wrong time and they didn’t get a chance to open properly. My lenten roses are flowering but as usual they’re too low down for anyone to see the flowers, unless you are fairy sized. Next year I’m going to cover them with a large plant pot or something similar, as Beverley Nichols recommends, so that they will grow longer stems to reach the light. So it seems like spring is finally here, although it’s still coldish, especially at night. And here’s a photo which I took on Saturday from Dysart, looking over to the snow covered Pentland hills near Edinburgh. The snow looks quite a bit whiter than the clouds.

Pentland hills

I did find some time to read the Guardian Review and thought that some people might be interested in this article by Michael Prodger about John Ruskin. A new book has been published – Marriage of Inconvenience by Robert Brownell – which casts some more light on the reason for the non-consummation of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Grey. Even this Guardian article was enlightening to me as I hadn’t realised that Ruskin and Effie had been childhood friends as they both grew up in Perth. There’s just one thing that everybody seems to ‘know’ about the Ruskin marriage – yes the pubic hair theory, if you’re interested in another theory have a look here.

There’s also an article by Jeanette Winterson about suffragettes. If you’re interested have a look at Smashing the glass. Winterson mentions Sheryl Sandberg and Pussy Riot too.

The grass in my garden is squelching, as it has been wet for months now but it’s a different situation in the Highlands where the weather has been so dry that moors have been engulfed with flames, have a look here if you don’t believe me!

Women and voting

Thankfully all of the electioneering is over now, it was a seven week long campaign in Scotland so there were quite a lot of party political broadcasts to dodge in that time. I count myself as being moderately interested in politics, if only to see what lies and excuses they can come up with for their nonsense. I’ve always used my vote, as my own mother did. Quite often my parents went to the poll station and basically cancelled out each other’s votes, but it was still important to them to do it.

So I was absolutely flabbergasted one day last week when I was watching the news and they asked a woman in Northern Ireland who she would be voting for and her reply was – I’ll ask my dad who I should vote for. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t actually heard her say it, she was probably in her late 20s or early 30s, although I have to say I’m rubbish at guessing peoples ages, anyway she wasn’t 18.

To make matters worse my husband told me that a male colleague of his tells his wife who to vote for, because she isn’t political, they are both about 26 years old.

I’m left wondering how common this is in the 21st century. My Granny was one of those women who had to wait until she was 30 before she got the vote and she never missed a chance to use hers. So are we going backwards now with young women taking everything so much for granted that they are quite happy to slip back into such a Victorian attitude?

When I started work it was accepted practice for woment to be given a lower wage for the same work as a man. Then when we went into the European Union things like that had to stop because we had the Equality of the Sexes laws. In the library which I worked in at the time we weren’t allowed to wear trousers, not even smart ones and it was a big thing for us to be able to say to out boss that HE couldn’t stop us from wearing trousers anymore.

It seems that when some women have things too easy they get complacent, but I don’t suppose they really know what it was like in the bad old days of getting treated like an inferior just because you were female. The Suffragettes will be birling in their graves!