The Children's Book by A S Byatt is a beautifully produced book with a perfect cover illustration. The story takes place between 1895 and 1919 and features two families of Wellwoods and their friends. Olive and Humphrey Wellwood live in the Downs in a house called Todefright. Their menage consists of their children and Olive's sister Violet who acts as housekeeper and nanny rolled into one.
Olive writes fairy stories for children and Humphrey, when the story opens, is working for the Bank of England an occupation which does not seem to fit with his Bohemian lifestyle. Shortly after the start of the book he gives up the job to become a freelance writer. Humphrey's brother Basil is far more conventional and continues to work in banking. He and his German wife Katharina live with their two children - Charles and Griselda in London.
Olive and Humphrey are friends - if that is the right word - with Benedict Fludd and his wife Seraphita - another Bohemian couple. Benedict is a genius at making pots but a hopeless business man. Philip Warren comes to him as a waif and stray from the Potteries and manages to organise him just as Philip's sister Elsie organises his domestic arrangements. Philip is discovered by Proper Cain - a curator at the newly opened Victoria and Albert Museum - and his son Julian - sleeping rough in the cellars of the museum and drawing the exhibits.
There are various other friends who flit into and out of the story along with historical personages from politics and the arts. Characters attend Fabian Society meetings and women's suffrage meetings and put on impromptu performances of Shakespeare plays. Relationships are convoluted; conversations are oblique and many layered; descriptions are lush and yet austere. This is a book to sink into and absorb.
The era in which the story is set is as much a character in the book as the people. There is a growing air of decadence and decay amongst the arts and crafts these talented people produce just as there is amongst their relationships. Nothing is quite what it seems and characters' thoughts and feelings are laid bare by the author's scalpel and are dissected for our better understanding.
It took me several weeks to read but it was worth it. My only criticism was the ending felt rushed which in a book of over 600 pages I wouldn't have expected. It may be there are more books to come featuring the same characters as A S Byatt has done this before. I did enjoy it and felt it was every bit as good as Possession. Anyone new to this author might want to consider starting with one of her shorter books or a collection of short stories.