A. S. Byatt's magnificent new novel - The Children's Book - tells the intricate and interweaving stories of several English families and their German friends, from 1895 through to the end of the First World War. The reader is irresistibly caught up in their lives, and swept along a narrative teeming with artistic temperaments, forbidden passions, dark secrets, bohemian parents, and the idylls and perils of childhood - all set against a turbulent backdrop of political and social change. It's one of the richest and most satisfying novels I've ever read and I think it's the best book Byatt has ever written.
During her recent tour to Toronto, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to interview the author about the writing of this novel and many of its underlying themes and preoccupations - the dark side of fairy tales, J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, and World War I literature, just to name a few. Byatt peppers her conversation with book recommendations and if, like myself, you have an endless fascination with the Edwardian era and the First World War, this interview will provide plenty of suggestions for further, addictive reading. After you have devoured The Children's Book, of course.
MS: What was your inspiration for this novel? It’s such a rich period historically and culturally - which was the initial pull for you?
ASB: I think the beginning was with the fairy stories. It began with my sense that this was an immensely rich period for fairy stories, and increasingly in my own work, I wanted to weave that kind of writing into realistic fiction. So, I started looking into the fairy story writers and then I realized that the children of children’s book writers are not happy. You would think they would be very privileged but in fact, in some curious way they are excluded. So that was one thing. And the other thing - I was interested when I started reading about the life of E. Nesbit that she and her very strange husband were founding members of the Fabian Society and somehow I didn’t associate children’s story writing with political agitation. And there was a wonderful account of a strange little clicking noise that went on through all the Fabian meetings and it was discovered to be E. Nesbit clicking her fan, which is rather a nice sort of story.
MS: And she also, as with one of your characters, took care of two children who were not her own.
ASB: Yes, she sold a story to, I think it was The Lady, and the editor was a very intelligent woman called Alice Hoatson. Edith Nesbit made great friends with her and Alice came to visit, and after a bit Alice turned up pregnant and Edith took her in and said I will look after you and bring up the child as my own. It was only much later that she discovered that the child was her husband’s and then a second, similar child was born. And Edith did bring up both those children and they thought they were her children, when really they were not. And Alice Hoatson joined the household and that was very convenient for Edith because she had a housekeeper of extreme intelligence who loved the children and looked after them all and fixed things. And they all went on seaside holidays together.
MS: But do we know how Alice really felt about the situation?
ASB: I don’t think we do. I mean, I would quite like to know. I have a sort of feeling she felt she was the preferred wife. And the more I read about her, the more I realized she was formidably intelligent and she had absolutely no resources, so it suited her to be there and she put up with E. Nesbit’s perfectly excusable fits of rage and you know, H. G. Wells once said - you went to this household and it was all singing and dancing and everything was happy and you knew there was something quite dreadful through some dungeon door. I’m making it sound as though the book is more simply based on that family, but there are lots of other families I could tell you about.
MS: One of the main characters in your novel is the children’s book writer Olive Wellwood. Did you get that name from Well House, the name of E. Nesbit’s home?
ASB: No. I will tell you where I got Wellwood because it will amuse you no end. Near the beginning of writing this book, I got up one morning in appalling pain and my husband took one look at me and took me to the GP. And the GP took one look at me and diagnosed it correctly – it was a twist in the intestine – and found the right surgeon. And the surgeon said he thought he’d better operate right this minute. And afterwards – he was a big sort of man with very strong hands – he said laconically, I think you had four hours left to live. And his name was Mr. Wellwood and I thought, that’s the name I need for this novel.
MS: And yet it works so well. It’s so evocative, especially set against Olive’s maiden name – Grimwith.
ASB: That is a Yorkshire village, Grimwith - a perfectly ordinary place with a boating lake. My English publisher thought it was a bit over the top and I ought to take it out but it’s a perfectly real Yorkshire place. And grim is a kind of spirit, a type of fairy.
MS: And wells are often an entrance into the magical underground as are the woods.
ASB: And look at William Morris – The Well at the World’s End. It was perfect. Or The Wood Beyond the World - I mean he had both.
MS: In your introduction to The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson – another novel that deals with childhood imaginations – you wrote that a novelist needs two things: “the persistent curiosity about details of other lives and about the inventions of new worlds, new patterns.” What new worlds or patterns did you discover in the writing of The Children’s Book?
ASB: The curiosity had to be immense since it was a period of English history that I really didn’t know about. I discovered a technical pattern of my writing which was in fact a pattern of looking at the world. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many characters, or so many main characters, and the technical thing you have to learn as a novelist is to give them very strong characteristics – you can’t go into little fine, very tiny analyses of every little quivering, Virginia-Woolfish moment of their sensibility. You have to be able to choose moments of great importance to them where they say what they think or you are able to say what they feel at moments when they change. I didn’t know that Dorothy was going to say she was going to be a doctor and when she said it, I saw, like her, that she had changed her life. There are a lot of sudden moments in this novel where people’s lives get changed and the novel is present . This sort of coincidentally made it quite readable because it rushes onwards and that’s a technical novelist thing, rather than a thing about the world.
And the other thing I discovered which I should have always known, was that they didn’t know the war was coming . I discovered that I could write a society that rushed into a war it had no way of imagining. I’d read so much First World War literature and so much scholarly literature about the war – my favourite is the reminiscences of Edmund Blunden (Undertones of War) I kept reading and re-reading him. And I kept reading Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That). And what I didn’t do was re-read Paul Fussell’s wonderful book, The Great War and Modern Memory. I noticed that a lot of novelists had used the metaphors that he had picked out of all the war poetry – the skylarks and so forth. I very carefully didn’t put a skylark in the novel. I combed and combed for things that nobody had put in. For instance, I had never seen in a novel the fact that they had all these standing up, two –dimensional puppets at Passchendaele which they pulled on strings to get the Germans to fire on them, and betray their own whereabouts, and that gave me intense constructional pleasure. Fussell’s book is a wonderful book but when you’ve read the third or fourth novel which has used exactly the same image . . .
MS: Tell me about the British fairy tales of that period. Did they draw from European influences, such as the Grimm tales from Germany or Hans Christian Andersen, or was it something very unique to England?
ASB: I think an awful lot of it was about Englishness. Again, going back to E. Nesbit - because she was a socialist, you find things in her children’s stories like Russian anarchists. In The Railway Children the father is in trouble because he knows Russians and is thought to be communicating with the enemy, although he hasn’t. And as Nesbit got older, her horizon broadened. Andersen is quite separate; he had an appalling and wonderful effect on me. I thought he was out to get me, which he was. He didn’t like children – he’s an archetype. But I think the one I think of the most frequently, now I’ve finished the novel, is Kipling. And of Kipling’s books – when I was a little girl, I loved Puck of Pook’s Hill and that’s an archetype book about the nature of being English and Puck is an English sprite – he’s not a Scandinavian sprite, or a French sprite, he’s not German. And there’s a terrifying story called “Dymchurch Flit” in which all the fairies try to leave the shores of Dymchurch, which, by a wonderful accident is the place where E. Nesbit had all her holidays. It just always fits together, which is a bit terrifying. And I loved Puck of Pook’s Hill, but what I was also reading as a little girl was the Mowgli books and the Just So Stories and that man could write like nobody else.
MS: He wrote some wonderful war stories as well.
ASB: He did, he did. “Mary Postgate” for example. He couldn’t put a foot wrong once he got going really with his language. I didn’t read Kim as a child - I read it as an adult because Iris Murdoch had such a passion for it. She had a passion - which is interesting - also for Peter Pan, which appears in an enormous amount of her novels (MS - see for example, A Word Child). She thought the novel of Peter Pan was one of the great novels of all time. And she had a passion for Kim. But of course, because of Kipling, I also just knew about the Empire. And because I was the child of the parents that I had, I disapproved of the Empire. I thought there should be no such thing. I said, as a little girl, why does anyone go into someone else’s country and tell them what to do? In a way, Kipling gave you quite a lot of the world, very intelligently, when you were a child. And then there was Kenneth Grahame. Looking back and sorting out the child I was, which was a voracious reader, I wasn’t that keen on animals and certainly not on realistic stories and I didn’t like school stories. I liked Arthur Ransome, but that was because of the landscape.
MS: And that focus on nature is very much a part of the English fairytale, isn’t it?
ASB: Yes. I was blown over by this wonderful Swiss scholar called Max Luthi who says, rightly, that there’s only a very limited range of colours in fairy stories, which act like a kind of controlling pattern. Gold, silver, black, white and red. And he said, you’d think there would be green for the forest, but the forest is dark. And he also talks about the structure of the narrative – he’s terribly good on why you don’t give a damn when people are horribly punished because that is the nature of that sort of story.
MS: There is a very dark side to fairy stories which you explore in your novel. And children and adults read fairy tales on a very different level, don’t they?
ASB: It’s like the Twelve Dancing Princesses – they go dancing off underground and any lover who goes with them becomes decapitated. There are a lot of the German stories where all the lovers get decapitated. And indeed all the Germans got into the novel, not because of the war, but because of the fairy tales, because I’ve always liked the German ones rather than the French ones, which are rather courtly, with ladies with fans, teaching people how to behave in a lady-like manner. Whereas the German ones are about gut feelings and gut fears of the landscape, much more than the English ones.There are nasty things under the hill in England, but mostly you can come to some type of accommodation with them. Less so in Scotland – Scottish fairies are much more horrifying. There’s a book you can recommend on your blog – Katherine Briggs’ British Folk Tales and Legends. She’s a great writer and can describe any fairy story so that you immediately want to read it.
MS: One of the dark works that children and adults read very differently is J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan which is a recurring text in The Children’s Book. The characters actually attend the premiere of the play, and you have your own lost boy in the character of Tom Wellwood. Why is this play such a big part of your novel?
ASB: There has been an awful lot of writing about Barrie that is slightly psychoanalytical, which isn’t helpful. I think he is profoundly terrifying in a way he didn’t understand. And when he wrote about the fairies in Kensington Gardens and then the Lost Boys – they were the dead children who fell out of their prams that nobody paid any attention to – he was writing in a period when almost everybody knew quite a few dead children which nowadays they don’t. So there’s a sense that there’s a safe nursery and then there’s outside. And I have to say the last scene is the only scene on stage that has ever made me cry. And I cry for Mrs. Darling; I don’t cry for Peter Pan or any of the children. I cry for Mrs. Darling when she’s sitting alone, waiting for this dreadfully irresponsible creature to return her children. But as a little girl, I was quite unmoved by all the mermaids, and even Captain Hook.
MS: Tom Wellwood hates the play and also his mother’s later adaptation of her story for him -Tom Underground - that is influenced by Peter Pan. Why does he, as you write, refuse to suspend his disbelief and enjoy the plays as entertainment?
ASB: He doesn’t like the imagination being public. He has his own so intense, private, imaginative life; he’s not very good at being an ordinary boy. He gets to be more and more of a lost boy though he’s perfectly all right when he’s about ten. He fits in with everybody else and he’s rather beautiful and everybody thinks, what a nice boy he is. I have known two boys like that – one of whom did in fact kill himself at the age of twenty-one. And he was the most beautiful, the most charming boy. And he didn’t grow old. And it isn’t based on him, but I watched him and the moment when he ceased to be in the normal world. And then I looked back and saw that he never had been, whereas I think Tom was. Added to which of course, I connected Tom’s Peter Pan world to the horrible things done to boys at English public schools which Barrie didn’t know anything about.
MS: Were you also thinking about the Llewellyn-Davies boys?
ASB: Yes, I was. And I don’t know what to think about them. There’s been two television programs about them, one of them – Andrew Birkin’s - was very good. (MS – see also Birkin’s book J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys) And I think he was very just about how Barrie was good for them as well as bad for them. I’ve just been reading an Argentinean novel (Kensington Gardens) by Rodrigo Fresan which has a brilliant structure. It’s told in the first person by somebody in the 1960s, whose parents were a pop group who sang against the Beatles and he is totally obsessed by Barrie and the Llewellyn-Davies boys and he tells and tells the story of them against this other completely childish period. And his parents went down in some ship. It’s a wonderful idea but he doesn’t know what I read subsequently on Birkin’s website – which is that when Peter Davies committed suicide, it wasn’t because he was working on the Barrie papers and what he called “the Morgue”, but because he had just discovered that his wife and children had Huntington’s disease. And when I saw that I thought, we’ve all been turning it into a story that we wanted to happen.
MS: And then there are the real lost boys of World War One. Tell me about the writing of the war and the research you did.
ASB: I have the great fortune of having a husband who is somewhat obsessed with World War One and military history in general, and so he has a huge library, and as fast as I read one book, he lent me another and I also re-read everybody’s reminiscences and memoirs. And I kept coming back to Blunden, but I read Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon and Edith Wharton and memoirs of doctors and nurses.
I had the option when I started the book, of either finishing it in 1913 but then everyone would forever have wondered which of them died and I decided I couldn’t do that for that reason – it would drive readers crazy in a way they wouldn’t enjoy. So having planned this very long novel about children, I now had to write the first world war novel in a short space.
MS: What was it like writing the war poetry at the end?
ASB: It was awful, because I was really very ill when I wrote it. I decided to write it because I met this Polish post-graduate in Leiden, Holland who was writing on my Victorian poetry in Possession. And he asked me what the next book would be about and when I told him, he said, oh, well if you are writing a book that ends in the First World War, you will of course write First World War poetry. And I saw this as a dreadful challenge. And instead of saying, no, I’m writing fairy stories, I thought, can I do that? And then one day I just managed to do it. And one of them was published in the New Yorker.