Published: 2010 by Vintage
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “People in the present age, she opined, did not leave their childhoods behind them, as the earnest Victorians had done.”
This is a huge book, both in terms of page-numbers and intellectual scope. At once a multi-layered family saga and a potted history of the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian age and the epoch-shattering devastation of the First World War. Byatt tells the story of two families: the Fludds, who live in Bohemian squalor their lives dominated by the whims and moods of the twisted genius potter Benedict Fludd; and the Wellwoods, Humphry and his wife Olive, a successful children’s author, who dwell in the country house, Todefright, with their large family. The relations between these characters and their mutual friends are convoluted and some dark, disturbing truths are revealed as the action unfolds.
It’s hard to pull out just a few strands from this book, it deals with so much: sex and desire, the suffrage movement, the Fabian society, Anglo-German relations, the nature of artistic inspiration and the history of the V&A museum are just a few of these. If I had to choose, though, I’d say the overall theme is “growing up” or failing to. Olive is an adult who views the world through child’s eyes even as her own brood mature and move away from her. Olive’s fairytale stories are woven throughout the narrative and – informed by the popularity of that Edwardian blockbuster, Peter Pan – the book explores many questions of innocence and experience. At times Byatt’s level of detail is suffocating – I now know more about pottery and ceramic glazing processes than I ever needed or cared to – and some of the chapters read more like straight up lectures than historical fiction which would probably have annoyed me more if I weren’t such a nerd about the Edwardians already. Despite its flaws, however, this is a wonderfully absorbing book with some fascinating – if not always likeable – characters and despite its size I read the whole thing in just a few days. Recommended.