I am using today’s post to figure out if I should assign A. S. Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book in my British fantasy course this fall. It fits my theme as it features artistic families in late Victorian and Edwardian England who are in love with the fantastic, which they work into their short stories, their puppet shows, and their ceramics. Byatt mentions many of the works and authors I plan to assign, including Midsummer Night’s Dream, Alice in Wonderland, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, William’s Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, novels by E. Nesbitt and George MacDonald, Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and essays by Freud and Jung.
The problem is that students generally don’t like Byatt, who can be a bit bloodless. I love the way that she fills her novels with allusions to literature and grapples with the artistic, intellectual and political currents of the time, but I admit that she is overly casual with her characters, a number of whom she seems to drop almost at random. By the end, it’s not clear why we should care more about those who are still around than those who have disappeared.
In short, my dilemma is whether to teach a 675-page book that is strong on ideas but short on compelling narrative.
On the plus side, the ideas touch on a number of themes I plan to emphasize. Children’s Book helps explain why this period in English history was a golden age of fantasy. Fantasy could operate as a reaction to industrialism and environmental degradation, as a protest against urban squalor, laissez faire capitalism, and large wealth inequality, and as a longing for mysticism and England’s pagan past in the face of science and establishment religion.
Olive, one of the main characters, writes fantasy stories to capture her journey from impoverished coal miner’s daughter to wife of a well-off Fabian socialist. She also uses her stories to try to understand the otherness of her children. Another artist raised in abject poverty, Philip, finds refuge in the beautiful pagan art works in the British Museum. Tom, Olive’s oldest son, is sexually assaulted by bullies in his school and tries to deal with the trauma by retreating into a world of wild boy natural innocence. (A story his mother writes for him describes him as a boy with no shadow—which is to say [applying the theories of Jung, which the book alludes to], he is unable to cope with humanity’s shadow side.)
The Fabians, longing for a more egalitarian society as well as freedom from Victorian constraints (including sexual restraints), feel liberated by midsummer rituals where they imagine themselves as the fairies and lovers in Shakespeare’s comedy. And then, when World War I descends upon them, one of the characters turns to fantasy (as Tolkien would) for a refuge from the horrors of the war.
In one of my favorite passages, Julian, an Oxford student studying pastoral poetry, thinks of Alice through the Looking Glass after he is wounded in France:
Julian was blown backwards by the explosion of a shell and lost consciousness, lost his mind, he thought, when he found himself lying on the earth near a field ambulance and could not remember who he was, or how he had come there. He had a shallow owund across his skull, and scattered shrapnel embedded in his flesh. He said, when they came to dress his wound, “Who am I?! and the oederly went through his pockets and told him he was Lieutenant Julian Cain.
He remembered, for some reason, very clearly, the Wood in Through the Looking-Glass, where things have no names, neither trees, nor creatures, nor Alice herself. He lay there, swimming in morphine, and thought about names.
Here’s the relevant passage from the Lewis Carroll novel:
“Well, at any rate it’s a great comfort,” [Alice] said as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to get into the — into the — into what?” she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word. “I mean to get under the — under the — under this, you know!” putting her hand on the trunk of the tree. “What does it call itself? I do believe it’s got no name — why, to be sure it hasn’t!”
She stood silent for a minute, thinking: then she suddenly began again. “Then it really has happened, after all! And now, who am I? I will remember, if I can! I’m determined to do it!” But being detemined didn’t help her much, and all she could say, after a great deal of puzzling, was, “L, I know it begins with L!”
Just then a Fawn came wandering by: it looked at Alice with its large eyes, but didn’t seem at all frightened. “Here then! Here then!” Alice said, as she held out her hand and tried to stroke it: but it only started back a little, and then stood looking at her again.
“What do you call yourself?” the Fawn said at last. Such a soft sweet voice it had!
“I wish I knew!” thought poor Alice. She answered, rather sadly; Nothing, just now.”
The passage gets at Carroll’s longing for an Edenic pre-language existence since, once Alice and the Fawn get their language back, it realizes that she is a human being and flees.
Byatt notes that fantasy flourishes in the most desolate of soils:
Thinking of Alice, some book lover had named trenches for the stories: there were Walrus Trench, Gimble Trench, Mimsy Trench, Borogrove, Dum and Dee. There was Image wood somewhere. Where had that come from? He had seen Peter Pan Trench, Hook Capse and Wendy Cottage. There were some other joker’s poetry but he could weave them into cat’s cradles of his own these ephemeral words in a world where nothing held its shape in the blast.
Fantasy is a fascinating topic to study since it can thrive equally well in the halcyon years before the horrors of trench warfare and then grow out of the horrors of the war as well (Lord of the Rings being the most famous instance). I’m leaning against using Byatt in my course, however. There’s too much good fantasy to read in its stead.