The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

51jim7NTY8LI haven’t read much Byatt since I finished my thesis last spring, and I didn’t realize how much I missed her writing. This was somewhat different (for me, at least) from her other works that I’ve read, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. It spans social and political changes over a rather large period of time, centering primarily on the Wellwood family and others that have entered their social circles at some point or another. The large cast of characters could make it a bit difficult to remember who was who at some points, but overall I think I enjoyed all of them – they all had their roles to play in the big picture.

Now, my thesis was on her use of fairy tales and fairy tale elements – if she’d written this novel a few years ago, I probably could have centered the whole thesis on it! Fairy tales are vital to this story. Olive Wellwood is a writer of children’s stories in Victorian (and later, Edwardian) England, and her fairy stories and themes almost define her family.

I especially loved her portrayal of women in this novel. Olive’s children (and their childhood playmates) are growing up in a time when it is becoming accepted for “respectable” women to hold “real” jobs – but often at the cost of any romantic desires or chances of marriage. Dorothy (who wants to pursue the career of a doctor/surgeon) is perhaps the most affected by the double standard, observing that although there are female doctors with husbands, those are few and far between. Griselda and Florence grapple with this decision as well. One can pursue a career, but by the time her studies are through in her late 20’s, she would be considered something of an old maid. One of my favorite passages in the novel that sums this struggle up nicely comes on page 495:

“Florence was in a turmoil. She had promised herself to Geraint, and she was now promising herself to years of study. She did not think Newnham College would care for married students. She wished to disturb her father, at some ferocious girlish level, and felt – she was not really thinking – that the engagement would do that.
And yet – like Griselda, she did want to think. And she did see her future as, perhaps, the choice between thinking and sex.”

Byatt has always done a wonderful job of exploring the roles that women play in various situations, past and present. This novel is no exception.

Advertisements

3 Responses

  1. I love fairy tales and have never read any Byatt. Looks like this is a good place to start!

    • I would highly recommend two of her short story collections for fairy tale fans – The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye has some very cool ones if you’re into fairy tales, especially “The Eldest Princess.” Also, Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice has some good ones 🙂

  2. I loved this book too. Great review! I’m a huge Byatt fan and I think you did a really nice job summarizing and reviewing this big tome.
    Just wanted to check to make sure you got your graphic novel package from me- if you had a second to drop me a quick line I’d really appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: