At the end of the nineteenth century, in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign and leading into the First World War, the certainty that faeries, sprites, and other fantastic creatures inhabited hidden worlds within the natural spaces surrounding us extended beyond the nursery to infuse everyday life with magic. It was almost impossible for a sensitive soul to walk along a country lane or through the woods and not imagine being observed by mysterious elfin eyes or hear the soft flutter of faery wings, always just out of view. Resurgent admiration for forms in nature–the dwelling places of elusive creatures (real or imagined or a bit of both)–inspired new schools of painting, sculpture, and pottery. William Morris, a textile designer and painter, was busily creating the exuberant, nature-themed wallpapers for which he is best known; Aubry Beardsley produced the gorgeously lyrical (and sometimes scandalous) illustrations for which he is best known; Kenneth Grahame was sneaking away from his banking job to explore Toad Hall; and the Fabian Society, the root of today’s Labor Party in England, was created. Fabians were in favor of effecting social change, such as the reduction of poverty, by working to achieve their goals gradually, from within the system. Many were artists and writers, including Virginia Woolf, Edith Nesbit, Rupert Brooke, and George Bernard Shaw, who used their craft to expand the definition of contemporary norms.
To this rarefied company, Byatt added the upper middle-class Wellwoods: Humphry, a handsome banker turned writer of social conscience, and his wife, Olive, a lovely and successful writer of children’s stories. They lived with their many children in a wonderful farmhouse, restored and renovated in the Arts and Crafts style with exposed beams, alcoves, and oddly shaped eaves, windows, and staircases. They embraced an unstructured lifestyle that reveled in nature and the natural; so reminiscent was it of that embraced by hippies in the late 1960s and ‘70s, it was impossible to avoid the juxtaposition of long skirts, flowered hats, and miles of embroidery with visions of Woodstock and a parti-colored bus. Called Todefright, the Wellwood’s house was surrounded by woods, hedgerows, and wild flowers, making it a frequent inspiration for Olive’s faery stories and a starting point for the individual stories she wrote for each of her children, making them at once easier for her to write and easier for the children to believe.
It was a wonderful, indulgent time to be a child; the Wellwood children were free to explore worlds of their own (and their mother’s) creation. But children grow. The Wellwood children grew and discovered that the real world, even the world inside Todefright, was not what it should be. Their let-down is inevitable and A.S. Byatt never does anything by halves. The Children’s Book is complicated and engrossing; art and politics are woven together like one of Morris’s patterns, as are the lives of the Wellwoods, old and young, with the events that eventually bring England to war. As messy as self-discovery can be in the best circumstances, in the absence of real guidance it becomes a nightmare. Throw in some distracted adults, a predatory author, a bi-polar genius, a straitjacket of expectations, and a touch of Tom Brown’s schooldays, and this novel is both timely and timeless. Now go talk to your kids.