Have you heard of this book? It is as long as the prime meridian. I am not even lying. It follows several families of (mostly) forward-thinking artists and businesspeople from the late 1890s to the early part of the First World War. It is eight trillion pages of thick, lush prose, and if a book blogger found, as she drew closer to the end, that she simply could not bear to wade through the war poetry of a character she never felt lived up to his full potential of interestingness, well, you can understand how that would happen.
I sound crabby now, but I did not begin this way. A.S. Byatt won my heart early. She did it thus:
He believed Lord Rosebery’s name had been mentioned in the sad events surrounding the recent trial. It had been rumoured that the sad death of Lord Queensberry’s eldest son — not Lord Alfred Douglas, but Lord Drumlanrig — had been not a shooting accident but an act of self-destruction, designed — they did say — to protect Lord Rosebery’s good name?
This was indeed rumoured about poor Francis. (Lord Queensberry’s father also died in a “hunting accident” that was believed to be a suicide. Do you think that’s where Francis got the idea from? Or was this just standard practice amongst suicidal peers of the realm?) I do not know that I buy into the story that Lord Queensberry used this rumour to blackmail the government into prosecuting Oscar Wilde to the full extene of the law. I think he believed it, but of course he didn’t need to think someone was screwing his son in order to call them “Jew queer” in letters. Oh, Marquess of Queensberry.
Then I got a bit bogged down in how many characters there were. They all get introduced at the same time, at a Midsummer’s party hosted by the (arguably) main characters. There are so many characters. There are fifty thousand characters. But at the beginning, I was okay with it. At the beginning, I was interested in finding out what was going to happen to these characters, how the network of relationships was going to develop and change as the years went by. I loved Philip, the young artist caught sleeping in and taking sketches at the museum at the very beginning, and I loved how taking him creating a whole series of fresh new relationships with different gender and age and class dynamics. I loved Dorothy for deciding she wanted to be a doctor, and I thought Tom had serious potential as a very cool character.
At a certain point, however, I got frustrated. In part, I was frustrated that the children all got split up, and I didn’t get to see their relationships growing. That wasn’t the main thing though. I can pinpoint the moment at which I stopped loving the book and started wishing A.S. Byatt would get on with it. It was when Tom left school and became suddenly all gamekeepery and bucolic. I wanted to slap him, and every time he showed up again, I wanted to slap him harder.
But Byatt was wonderful at times:
“It is a terrible thing to be a woman. You are told people like to look at you — as though you have a duty to be the object of…the object of…And then, afterwards, if you are rejected, if what you…thought you were worth…is after all not wanted…you are nothing.”
She gave a little shrug, and pulled herself together, and said “Poor Elsie,” in an artificial, polite, tea-party voice, though she had not offered, and did not offer, to make tea.
Moments like this came close to making up for Byatt’s intense long-windedness, aggravating gamekeeper character Tom, and determination to throw into her book every Victorian thing except the Victorian kitchen sink. It isn’t that I object to a cameo by Oscar Wilde, even a cameo where he is pathetic and wretched; but toward the end of the book, I got tired of so many Victorian and Edwardian figures showing up and strolling around for no particular reason.
I need to go back and reread Possession. I didn’t read the poetry in that one either, but it had a very compelling plot that kept me absolutely enthralled all through the novel, rather than through only half of it like The Children’s Book. Sigh. Well, anyway, this highly ambivalent review brought to you by the clash of my love of the Victorian and Edwardian eras with a horrific preponderance of deathless prose and a small but significant number of missed emotional beats.
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