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January 15th, 2010


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12:28 pm - The Children's Book
I am reading another Booker nominee novel: The Children's Book by AS Byatt. This is the story of the large late-Victorian family and progressive circle of a prolific children's novelist who seems to be based on E Nesbit. In fact now I'm sorry I read that wikipedia entry as I think it's given away a plot point or two. The family of the story reminds me a little of The Wouldbegoods, which I read as a child.

I am at an early stage of this long novel, but I wanted to quickly post because I think it is just the sort of thing that several on my f-list would enjoy. It is elaborately and densely decorated, like a piece of embroidery. A key theme of the book is the contrast between luxuriant richly decorated objects and the poverty of most people. I think one aspect of what she is saying is that the opulence, progressivism, archaism and elaboration of Victorian art reflect the rich consciousness of Victorian people, who therefore lived in a world which was not quite as - well, 'Victorian' - as we like to portray them. Instead it was dense with imagination, rooted in folklore, and also darkened by the disease, death and misery of childhood.

I am listening to it on audio, which is very enjoyable. The reading is lovely and the various class backgrounds and social strata are very cleverly and carefully distinguished by the reader.

My only caveat is that compared to Wolf Hall and The Little Stranger (both of which are also about talented working class outsiders invading the upper echelons) I feel that AS Byatt's instinctive location is with the upper echelons, while I felt Mantel and Waters were more democratic in their sympathies. Don't get me wrong - the sympathies of AS Byatt are progressive and generous, but the centre of gravity is with the privileged or so it seems to me. This may weaken as the story goes on.

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Comments:


From:huskyscotsman
Date:January 15th, 2010 12:46 pm (UTC)
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That sounds really interesting -- just the sort of thing I was grasping at in my last post (except that Byatt is writing about the Victorians rather than actually being one). I might give it a try.
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From:communicator
Date:January 15th, 2010 12:55 pm (UTC)
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Yes, your post on HG Wells was one of the reasons I thought I'd make a post on this novel now, although I'm only a fraction into it. I think Wells would be right at home in this novel, as a rakish visitor.
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From:rozk
Date:January 15th, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
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I liked it, but not as much as Possession. I think part of the trouble is that it never wears its research lightly and there are far too many pages in which we get extended newsreels about everything that is going on in politics and the arts. Some of these are via 'as you know, Bob' conversations and some of them are just big chunks of auctorial voice. After a bit, you start making bets with yourself about which characters are going to get involved with which historical event or artistic movement. Mind you, there is nothing quite as egregious as the scene in one of Anthony Powell's novels where an uncle shows up and mutters that some Archduke has been shot and it probably means trouble, though that may have been a joke, and the equivalent scenes in Byatt are utterly without irony.
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From:communicator
Date:January 15th, 2010 01:03 pm (UTC)
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Those passages of well researched info are noticeable I must say. But, perhaps because I am listening not reading, they seem to be just another type of dense decorative detailing. Early days yet though, I'll see how they grate after the first half-dozen polical economy lectures :-)
From:abigail_n
Date:January 15th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure I would say that Waters is on the side of the working class character - by the end of the novel she's painted him as something of a monster - and though Mantel certainly is, she manages this mainly by sweeping aside (or stopping the novel before getting to) the unsavory aspects of Cromwell's life. It is true, though, that with only a few exceptions The Children's Book is about middle class people, though issues of middle class guilt, and of the way that social struggle tends to focus on that class (several of the more well-to-do young women struggle for the right to work and study, whereas the working class ones just have to earn a living), do turn up.
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From:communicator
Date:January 15th, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
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I feel that Waters is the most interesting because she is morally neutral. She portrays the people, the evil and the weak and the tormented, with calm appreciation, as we might see Arctic foxes raiding nests for eggs. Mantel definitely has a 'side' in Cromwell's story (and I liked it for that reason), whereas I think Waters records the vigour of new blood destroying what is passing away, without condemnation or palliation, just as a natural event.

But by 'democratic sympathies' I was trying to make such a vague and open comment as to cover both these approaches: the siding and the refusal to side.
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From:executrix
Date:January 15th, 2010 03:43 pm (UTC)
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After you finish the book, you might also want to look up Eric Gill. Although you'll probably like his work less after knowing more about him.
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From:communicator
Date:January 15th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)
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I did recognise Fludd as Gill. A man to put me off a typeface, and a beautiful one at that.
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From:katlinel
Date:January 15th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
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It's on my Amazon wishlist, and it is one that I am looking forward to. I had an amount left on a book token, so The Little Stranger was the non-course book that I bought at Christmas. I also want to read Wolf Hall.

I can't remember: have you read Farthing by Jo Walton? It's just I think your last paragraph connects strongly to that book in my mind.

I didn't read that much E Nesbit as a child, but I did catch up with The Wouldbegoods on Gutenberg.
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From:communicator
Date:January 15th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
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No, I haven't even heard of it before. I've just been reading online and it reminds me a bit of 'The Separation' by Christopher Priest, and of Gosford Park. Definitely one to look out for. I'll see if they have it on audible.

(ETA could my typing be worse?)

Edited at 2010-01-15 05:08 pm (UTC)
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From:katlinel
Date:January 15th, 2010 05:43 pm (UTC)
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Definitely a bit of Gosford Park going on there.

(My typing is always abominable.)
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From:executrix
Date:January 15th, 2010 05:03 pm (UTC)
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While I was reading The Children's Book I thought, this is so fannish! It's an RPF crossover!
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From:communicator
Date:January 15th, 2010 05:09 pm (UTC)
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Yes, isn't it. And like the best fanfiction it inspires you with the author's enthusiasm for the material. I thought it was a very physical book too - I can see and touch the pots and puppets and dresses.
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From:altariel
Date:January 19th, 2010 09:33 am (UTC)
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I really want to read this, although I still have her last two books unread on the shelf, and I'm wondering if I can justify getting it as a result. I saw her interviewed by Mark Lawson on BBC Four just before Xmas, where she seemed to be bemoaning the fact that the great unwashed were now able to make their opinions known so easily these days. I paraphrase for effect, but that was the gist.

(I also raised an eyebrow when she insisted that her background - both parents Oxbridge educated, father a lawyer, mother a teacher, independent school, then off to Cambridge herself - was not privileged. Pull the other one, Antonia.)
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From:communicator
Date:January 19th, 2010 09:51 am (UTC)
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I liked this best of any of hers I have read (well, I can't really remember Possession) but it is very dense. Gotta laugh on the privilege thing. Funnily enough this is just the attitude she caricatures in her characters.

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