The Children’s Book

by A.S. Byatt is set between 1895 and 1919. The
characters are participants in many of the exciting movements of
that time: Arts and Crafts, Women’s Suffrage, Fabian
Socialism, Children’s literature…

A.S. Byatt is Margaret Drabble’s sister and they’re both among
the best contemporary novelists of family life. Not surprisingly,
they both write well about sibling rivalry, and this novel is
not only not an exception, but a virtuoso piece of writing about
sibling relationships in two generations of several families.

Byatt is a scholar as well as a writer, so I believe she did
meticulous research into all the actual events she describes. I
particularly like the description of the first performance of
Peter Pan:

On the day of Prosper Cain’s wedding, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre, in St. Martin’s Lane. It was late: it should have opened on the 22nd, and had been delayed by the failure of some of the complex machinery for its special effects. There was to have been a “living fairy” reduced to pygmy size by a giant lens. There was to have been an eagle which descended on the pirate Smee, and seized him by the pants to carry him across the auditorium. At the very last moment a mechanical lift collapsed, and with it racks of scenery. Much that was to become familiar—the Mermaids’ Lagoon, the Little House in the Treetops—was not yet constructed. And there were scenes, on that first night, that were later excised. It had all been kept a darkly veiled secret. That reconvened first night audience—an adult audience, at an evening performance—had no idea what it was about to see. And then the curtain rose on an enclosed nursery, with little beds with soft bedspreads and a wonderful frieze of wild animals high on the walls, elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, kangaroos. And a large black and white dog, woken from sleep by a striking clock, rose to turn down the bedclothes and run the bath.

Both August Steyning and Olive Wellwood knew James Barrie, and were part of that first audience. Their party filled a whole row: Olive, Humphry, Violet, Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis, Hedda, Griselda. The light flared in the fake fire. The three children, two boys and a girl, all played by young women, pranced in pyjamas and played at being grown-ups, producing children like rabbits out of hats, having clearly no idea at all where children came from. The audience laughed comfortably. The parents, dressed for the evening, like the audience out in front of them, argued about the dog, Nana, who was deceived by Mr. Darling into drinking nasty medicine, and then chained up. The night lights went out. The crowing boy, who was Nina Boucicault, another woman, flew in at the unbarred window, in search of his/her shadow.

Olive Wellwood’s reaction to theatre was always to want to write—now, immediately, to get into the other world, which Barrie had cleverly named the Never Never Land. It was neither the trundling dog, nor the charming children, that caught her imagination. It was Peter’s sheared shadow, held up by the Darling parents before being rolled up and put in a drawer. It was dark, floating lightly, not quite transparent, a solid theatrical illusion. When Wendy sewed it on, and he danced, and it became a thing cast by stage lighting climbing the walls and gesturing wildly, she was entranced.

The amazing tale wound on. The children flew. The greasy-locked pirate waved his evil hook. The Lost Boys demonstrated their total ignorance of what mothers, or fathers, or homes, or kisses, might be. Dauntlessly, they sunk their knives into pirates. There was a moment of tension when the darting light who was the fairy began to die in the medicine glass, and had to be revived by the clapping of those who believed in fairies. The orchestra had been instructed to clap, if no one else did. But timidly, then vociferously, then ecstatically, that audience of grown-ups applauded, offered its belief in fairies. Olive looked along the row of her party to see who was clapping. Steyning yes, languidly, politely. Dorothy and Griselda, somewhere between enthusiasm and good manners. Phyllis, wholeheartedly, eyes bright. Humphry, ironically. Violet, snappishly. She herself, irritated and moved. Hedda, intently.

Not Tom. You would have wagered that Tom would clap hardest.

The penultimate scene was the testing of the Beautiful Mothers, by Wendy. The Nursery filled with a bevy of fashionably dressed women, who were allowed to claim the Lost Boys if they responded sensitively to a flushed face, or a hurt wrist, or kissed their long-lost child gently, and not too loudly. Wendy dismissed several of these fine ladies, in a queenly manner. Steyning spoke to Olive behind his hand. “This will have to go.” Olive smiled discreetly and nodded. Steyning said “It’s part pantomime, part play. It’s the play that is original, not the pantomime.” “Hush,” said the fashionable lady in front of him, intent on the marshalling of the Beautiful Mothers.

After the wild applause, and the buzz of discussion, Olive said to Tom
“Did you enjoy that?”

“No,” said Tom, who was in a kind of agony. “Why not?”

Tom muttered something in which the only audible word was “cardboard.” Then he said “He doesn’t know anything about boys, or making things up.”

August Steyning said “You are saying it’s a play for grown-ups who don’t want to grow up?”

“Am I?” said Tom. He said “It’s make-believe make-believe make-believe. Anyone can see all those boys are girls.”

His body squirmed inside his respectable suit. Tom said “It’s not like Alice in Wonderland. That’s a real other place. This is just wires and strings and disguises.”

“You have a Puritan soul,” said Steyning. “I think you will find, that whilst everything you say is true, this piece will have a long life and people will suspend their disbelief, very happily.”

There’s also a lot of art written by the characters — no
pictures of the pottery or jewelery, but excerpts from the fairy
tales by the writer (Olive in the above scene) and poetry by one
of the young men who fights in World War I. (And knew Rupert
Brooke at Cambridge.)

There are descriptions of the summer camps held by some of
these movements:

In 1910 also the Fabians held a summer camp. The camps were on the North Welsh coast—two weeks for the campaign workers who included a mix of Fabian Nursery, lower-class professionals, elderly ladies, teachers and politicians. These were followed by a conference of Fabians from universities. The University Fabians were high-spirited and the Cambridge contingent were camp. Rupert reported, to Lytton Strachey, late-night titillations and rampages. Beatrice Webb complained that they held “boisterous, larky entertainments” and were “inclined to go away rather more critical and supercilious than when they came … They won’t come unless they know who they are going to meet, sums up Rupert Brooke… they don’t want to learn, they don’t think they have anything to learn… the egotism of the young university man is colossal.”

So if you’re interested in 700 page novels about any of this,
this is a book to check out. If you haven’t read Byatt before,
this isn’t a bad place to start, but if you prefer a shorter one
that’s available in paperback, I’d say The
Virgin in the Garden
, which is the first book of a
quartet which all have the same main character, but it does
stand alone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: