It's been a shockingly long time since I last wrote on this blog -- and one of my excuses, apart from pressure of work, is that I was reading this very long book. I must say at once that I am not a fan of AS Byatt. That is to say, I have only ever read one of her novels, the famous Booker-winning Possession, and I really did not like it. Cries of horror and amazement are usually heard when I say this, but the fact is I found her pastiche Victorian poetry and prose really really irritating. So I have never read any of her other novels. But when I read about this one I was really intrigued, though not being very quick off the mark when it comes to new books it's taken me a long time to get round to it.
So what was it that made me think I'd like it? Partly the period in which it is set, which is one that appeals to me and about which I know a bit -- it starts at the end of the 19th century and goes through to the aftermath of the First World War. I was also drawn in by the fact that one of the central characters is based on Edith Nesbit, one of my all time favourite authors, whose biography, by the late great Julia Briggs, revealed some fascinating facts about her unusual home life. And, of course, I loved the cover.
And did I like it? Yes, with a few reservations, I did. I think it is certainly a remarkable achievement. If I call it a family saga, which in truth it is, I don't mean to saddle it with the kind of rather lowbrow associations that might spring to mind. I'm tempted to say think War and Peace, which is the only novel I've read that compares with this in the large number of characters spread between a number of connected families -- I wished Byatt had included a cast list to refer to. Bohemians, artists, radicals, members of the Arts and Crafts Movement, many of them lead unconventional lives. Adultery is rife, children are fathered out of wedlock (several by the same man), families suffer from child abuse and incest. The adults, generally, despite their supposedly advanced ideas, have made a mess of their private lives. The main interest, though, for me at least, was the children of the various families, how they grew up and how they were affected by the peculiarities of their parents' lives and beliefs. I was particularly drawn to Philip, who, discovered as a young boy hiding in the bowels of the South Kensington Museum, proves to be a potter of astounding skill and artistry, and to his sister Elsie who walks from the Potteries to Kent to find him and comes to lead a fiercely independent life of her own, finally finding a path to follow that allows her to use her considerable intelligence. I liked Dorothy, too, who desperately wants to study medicine in an age when that was still a great struggle for a woman, and for whom the discovery of her real parentage does much to transform her life and her own sense of self-worth. As for the family of Philip's employer, the potter Benedict Fludd, so much damage has been done here that it is remarkable that the family survives at all. If I say that Fludd seems to be based on Eric Gill, you may know what I mean (though the Wikipedia link will not tell you).
Being a novel by Antonia Byatt this contains, as you may expect, a great deal of erudite research. I know some people have found this overwhelming but on the whole I was rather seduced by it. There are wonderful, rich descriptions of art works and ceramics, of clothes and parties, and the historical background is extremely full and fascinating. But -- here come the reservations -- I was still annoyed by Byatt's pastiches. There was far too much, for me, of Olive Wellwood's fairy tales, which I started skipping fairly soon, and I was very bored by the long descriptions of the staging of her play. And, towards the end of the novel, I was unimpressed by Julian Cain's poems written in the trenches during the First World War. As in Possession, this just seemed to me like Byatt showing off. But overall I have to say I found this extremely enjoyable and I was sorry when I finally got to the end.