Discovered in the tunnels underneath the Victoria and Albert Museum Phillip Warren, a homeless young aspiring potter, is whisked away by the influential museum curator Prosper Cain to aid the eccentric potter Benedict Fludd. On his journey Phillip encounters many people that bewilder and amaze him with their liberal ideas, and glitzy obsession with fantasy and pleasure. Through his eyes Byatt begins a novel that both criticises and celebrates the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the political and societal changes present at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The Children’s Book is an ambitious historical novel that spans approximately twenty five years and looks at how change affected the families and relationships; how liberal ideas clashed with rigid social expectations, and how wealth and gender influenced the expectations and prospects of characters.
Along with Phillip and his sister, the novel focuses on four other families. The Wellwoods of Todefright, run by matriarchal Olive Wellwood, a fairy tale writer and attention-seeker along with her husband Humphrey, and a throng of children cared for by Olive’s overlooked sister Violet. Humphrey’s straight-laced brother Basil Wellwood living in London with his wife Katherina and two children. The Fludds, a family ruled by the paranoid potter Benedict evoking terror in his his wife and children and Prosper Cain, the widowed museum curator and his two children.
A.S. Byatt, like the author Olive Wellwood, spins magical tales of friendship and love amidst tragedy and secrecy in which the children of the novel are ultimately betrayed by their parents.
Ghosts occupied their minds, and crowded in the shadows behind them. They all had things they could not speak of and could not free themselves from, stories they survived only by never telling them…’ (Byatt 2010, 614)
For this is The Children’s Book, a detailed discussion on the ways children are influenced by their parents’ choices and ways of behaviour, and have to live with the consequences. Unfortunately I cannot give much else away without providing spoilers….. Just know that this book is a beautiful and thoughtful read, which challenges the reader’s views on the differentiation between adulthood and childhood.