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However I don't see how this argument is advanced by setting the novel over the period of the s to or so. One could put that idea over to the reader without needing thirty years in three hundred plus pages. Having said that Byatt's presentation of those relationship was in places poignant and so a strong point of the book. Well, having read Dostovevsky at an impressionable age I don't think there is anything unusual about the extremes being close together. An over interest in sex and therefore an over emphasis on the distinctiveness of supposedly innocent childhood seem natural bedfellows - literally so for Benedict Fludd and his unfortunate daughters.
I did have a sense that Byatt could have written a non-fiction account of the period, and a feeling that this would have been better and more interesting than her Olive Wellwood who is and is not Edith Nesbit, presumably with bits of Kenneth Grahame thrown in.
Perhaps the choice of setting was determined by the First World War, an attempt to add auto-poignancy since most British readers, brought up in the civil religion of the sacrificial patriotism of Remembrance Sunday, will already have a poppy-red picture of the Great War. And indeed when reading the midsummer party scene early in the book and the children are asked what they'd like to be when they had grown up I was already thinking 'dead on the western front' - many readers will be carrying over their own conception of inevitable tragedy into a story with this setting, an author doesn't have to do much, if anything, to evoke it.
Having done this, Byatt throws it away. The characters who die in the war are pretty much nothings in narrative terms, children who were barely mentioned. Those who were mentioned, and who I had a rough conception of as individuals view spoiler [Dorothy, Charles, Philip hide spoiler ] survive. Which leads me on to a big problem with the book - there are too many characters, specifically too many characters who are too similar. I've read my Tolstoy, my Dickens, and my Middlemarch - there are authors who can create a vast crowd of inter-connected characters who remain distinctive.
Byatt doesn't do that here. A good three quarters of the characters could have been chopped out the story for the all the good they served the narrative view spoiler [ for instance what about Gerald whose only purpose seems to have been to show that a young man will grow out of homosexuality if confronted by the right woman?
The way this is done in the book would give a believer in the fluidity of human sexuality doubts! I suppose Herbert Methley popping up with his questing penis to make virgin maids pregnant view spoiler [ a bit tellynovellaish isn't it - the notion that a virgin woman will become pregnant the first time she has sex?
A minor problem, if grating, is a kind of overwriting, for instance: Geraint said he could perhaps find a beer to refresh the chauffeur, who refused politely he had his own beer in his lunch basket, he wanted to get back to his own family, he was aware of Geraint's social predicament, and only residually interested in showing off the automobile to the inhabitants, if any appeared, of Purchase House p Callous as I am, I actually had no interest in the inner life of the unnamed chauffeur who appears only this once in the book, and I wasn't intending on laying awake at night worrying about him dying on a Kent roadside of beerthirst view spoiler [ and maybe you hadn't noticed Geraint's social predicament - so now we have the author intervening to tell you how you should be reacting to her text, and what is worse now you are forced to realise that you don't have a beer convenient in your lunch basket, ah the horror, the horror hide spoiler ].
And it is an extreme example of Byatt's desire to tell - not show, which exemplifies her whole style throughout the book to the extent that it read like the summary of a much longer book, as though she was writing a letter to the reader explaining what had happened to everybody in her home town over the past twenty years.
This was for me the major problem with the book - I found I could read one sentence per page and follow the story perfectly adequately, when as a rule I'm a 'read every word with greedy delight' kind of person.
The writing style for me was mostly deadening and distancing, although in places, it did work effectively for instance when Charles and Elsie undress in the pub bedroom pp as it helped to convey the briskness of Elsie undressing, looking for hangers, and putting her clothes away. Urrgh, and what about Humphrey talking to his brother Basil at the Midsummer party describing with righteous anger the lives of the London poor while tilting his champagne glass at his brother p58 , could it really be, that in some inconceivably sly way, that Byatt might just possibly be implying that Humphrey Wellwood is a champagne socialist?
Please picture me face down on a bleak desk groaning. Similarly Olive Grim with, from a its grim up north mining community, runs off down south, marries and becomes Well wood in Kent, where the Garden of England becomes conflated with the Garden of Eden. Naturally since her sister Violet doesn't marry, she remain resolutely Grim, because Nomen est Omen. Apparently you don't get to be one of Britain's foremost novelists by being subtle. At first this struck me as simply maladroit pp or pp and awful, like the over enthusiastic student so taken by all the material they have turned up in their research that they insist on shovelling it in to the text irrespective as to if it can take its weight.
While I appreciate that not every reader is familiar with the Jameson Raid or the Dreyfus Affair for instance but invariably the background history wasn't relevant to Byatt's story.
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It takes the reader no closer to the business of creative parents eating up their children in service to their own work, or more generally to the hardwork of parents mucking up their children Larkinish expletives here avoided , particularly since the historical info-dump was not simply the events of the day which we could assume they would have been aware of but also details from the political background which weren't public knowledge and none of the characters in the book could reasonably have known.
Secondly doesn't this come with the territory of reading a historical novel, that the reader is a little in the historical dark? Later I felt that this was in imitation of Ragtime , maybe I am misremembering, but Doctorow manages these historical interludes more successfully than Byatt. Speaking of which it was particularly painting by numbers that Hedda became a Suffragette. The distinctive feature of the Suffragettes was not that they were a mass movement, or that they dominated the Suffrage debate, or that they were a significant force among the Women's Suffrage movement, but that they had the best media strategy - as evidenced by the dominance of Old Mother Pankhurst and her daughters in popular memory chaining themselves to railings, locking themselves up in the houses of Parliament on census night, and going on hunger strike.
Gate of Angels I feel, handles the movement for women's suffrage far better.
Purely statistically if there is a woman character before the first world war engaged in women's suffrage, she is far more likely to be a Suffragist than a Suffragette, and if a suffragette that is likely to be because of a personal connection with the Pankhurst clan or one of their action events and so ought to skew the narrative or that character's place in the novel in a particular direction such as to the Magistrates court. The good parts of this novel in my opinion were the set piece of the Wellwood's Midsummer party, early in the book - there are intimations of what is going to go wrong, and already we sense the unstable soil the lives described are built on.
Olive's stories are a further strong point. The descriptions of Olive's and Philip's creativity too view spoiler [ though I do wonder about Philip running away from the Potteries - the centre of British ceramic creation - to London - the centre of British ceramic consumption - to learn how to make pots, but ok - he's a teenager and apparently we have to accept they will simply do crazy things view spoiler [ and I thought that Philip and Elsie had wandering accents view spoiler [ leaving to one side the question of the correct conventions for representing a Burslem accent in Received Pronunciation spelling rules hide spoiler ] , in places Byatt had them speaking in some kind of accent - but this didn't to me to seem to be consistently applied hide spoiler ] hide spoiler ].
Moments like Charles and Elsie undressing were also I felt effective. Early I read in phases, thinking that this novel cycled from good sections to bad.
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By the Paris exhibition, specifically when Olive Wellwood pops up apparently simply to shake her bum at Auguste Rodin, something of complete narrative insignificance, the weaknesses of this book completely outweighed its strengths and ambition. A good book is buried in here, but you need scissors, in my opinion, to get it out - I'd say by chopping this book down to about to pages in length. What I am missing is a sense of an editor asking Byatt what she wanted to achieve with this book, what was it's focus, what is the story she wants to tell since she seems to be doing two distinctly different things at once.
On the one hand we have a story about the complex family that a children's author constructs about herself and her relationship with her creativity, her children, and her own childhood.
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This to some extent commented on by reference to other families creative the Fludds or less creative the other Wellwoods, the Cains. While on the other hand there is a turn of the century epic of love and loss engaged in the progressive politics of the era and historical events from Boer War to World War One. The Olive Wellwood story, I felt was the best, yet was oddly diluted by everything else which was going on - little of which served to illuminate her story. Further although this is a fiction, it is also inspired by actual writers of period for and about children: Nesbit complex family , Grahame father-son relationship , Barrie observer of children.
Byatt's book I feel feeds off them, but because it uses invented characters like Wellwood and Fludd, tells us nothing about them, and so turns its back on the opportunity of commenting upon their well known childrens' books. A frustrating experience. I wondered quite what Byatt's perspective was. The Fabians here are, at best, mostly harmless champagne socialists, the Imperialists - well they are imperialists.
Anarchism is rejected. Creativity is bad for the people around a creative person mostly , education is isolating and in men may dangerously incline you towards homosexual lifestyles. I wondered if, by its absence, Byatt was falling back on her childhood Quakerism and showing that one needs a sensible religious and ethical core to avoid doing harm to others by action or inaction in life, but apparently according to ever-correct wikipeadia she has abandoned Christianity. So I'm left with Life is Suffering. Not sure I needed to read this novel to appreciate that noble truth.
View all 44 comments. Apr 15, Sue rated it it was amazing Recommends it for: lovers of history and historical fiction, the arts. Shelves: my-own-books , historical-fiction , britain , favorites , read , read-in , my-own-books Reading The Children's Book for the second time has solidified its place as one of my all-time favorite books. Historical fiction when written well is one of my favorite genres. Here Byatt has used her characters, settings and action to bring history--in all its parts--to life, supplementing with occasional narratives on history and the arts.
We readers encounter the family, the arts in many forms, philosophy and religion, politics, education, women's rights and gender politics, everything it se Reading The Children's Book for the second time has solidified its place as one of my all-time favorite books.
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We readers encounter the family, the arts in many forms, philosophy and religion, politics, education, women's rights and gender politics, everything it seems in the years leading up to World War I. These were tumultuous years of societal change in England and Europe, generational change that Byatt shows through the development of her novel.
Perhaps I will read this again someday for a third time and savor the writing again, the evocative descriptions of pots being created or the sea roiling off the marshes. I do recommend this novel strongly to readers who are interested in spending time with these people and their stories. They can't be hurried. This is a portrait of turn of the century Britain and, to a lesser extent, the continent, through the eyes of several families involved in the arts and crafts movement, finance, and others on their periphery.
It follows the lives of 2 generations up to and through the disaster of World War I, with it's devastating loss of life. We see the suffragist movement, changes in philosophies and economics, developments in the arts, and turmoil in various families.
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The turmoil of the time is actually written in some of these families. I found that this book takes timefor digesting all that takes place and all the history and facts that are presented. But I also liked it for that reason. View all 18 comments.