20 September 2009
Chapters 1-5: first half of Part 1
Byatt is clever on so many levels it‘s hard to know where to begin. For a start, anyone who has read a lot of children’s books will recognise the way this one opens: an escapade in a museum involving the successful pursuit of an intruder. There’s nothing post-modern about it: it’s told as a straightforward, no-nonsense narrative in which we get the information we need. It’s detailed, it lets us inside different characters’ heads as necessary, it’s… appropriate for a novel featuring middle class children at the end of the 19th Century.
But that’s only the beginning. Sure, there isn’t a chapter in which we don’t get inside the heads of four or five of the children in this Fabian milieu Byatt has decided to focus on. But this milieu is one that has been assiduously constructed by adults and, although I haven’t been measuring the inches of text, I’d say adult points of view have an equal share with children’s. A lot of the novel so far is about how adults relate to their children in this astonishingly forward-looking group of people. Our astonishment is part of the point: Byatt wants us to recognise their radical approach to child-care as the beginning of a process that has led to our own attitudes over a century later.
And there are other things we recognise, from the often murky ways in which financiers make their money – and Byatt must have been writing these chapters months, if not years, before the current crisis that has thrown up its own share of Merdles – to the way that adolescent boys are forever tumescently aware of their own sexuality and that of the girls around them. And the earnest way these comfortable people talk – and write, endlessly write – about the hinterland of starving sweatshop workers is identical in tone to features in the serious newspapers or tv documentaries about where our cheap clothing comes from. Byatt seems to be warning us not to mock these people: they are exactly like us.
Ok, not exactly. They unselfconsciously dress up to celebrate the folk paganism of Midsummer, and Byatt has fun describing the absurdities of their clothes and means of transport. These are the children of William Morris, and they are playing out his fantasy of a world in which an honest day’s work at the loom or in the fields leads to an idyll of faux-bucolic living. She doesn’t overdo it, because we all know about how far these people’s lives were from the fantasy: Morris was a businessman, and the main characters in this novel all have comfortable day jobs. And she wants to be fair. These people really do make efforts to do good works – even Humphrey’s brother, the one with the dodgy investments, donates to charity.
The good work we get to see in these chapters is the rescue of the runaway boy. Let’s not worry yet about the ambivalence of their not-quite adoption of this Potteries boy who only wants to make a pot of his own – I’m sure the emerging sexuality we’ve already witnessed (twice, rather wetly, on to a towel) will raise its head when he and the girls get older. He’s that character we’ve been getting in novels from Wuthering Heights to Atonement: the boy from a different milieu who is never quite on an equal footing. When Byatt takes us inside his head it’s usually to point out the subtlety of his artistic vision: he sees beautiful colours and juxtapositions in both the natural world and man-made objects that most of us wouldn’t notice. But we know his passage to artistic fulfilment, even amongst the ultra-liberals, is not going to be easy.
Anything else? Lots, obviously: Byatt’s writing is as rich and detailed as Morris print or Pre-Raphaelite painting, often of the very things those artists would be concerned with. But it’s time to mention the women in the novel, especially Olive the children’s writer and, presumably, the future author of the book that gives the novel its title. Olive is one of those unfailingly capable middle class women supported by an army of (mainly female) helpers. It’s Violet, her uber-practical sister, who’s the one who has to give Philip his scrub-down and makes or adapts all the clothes for the feast.
But Byatt isn’t turning Olive into an Aunt Sally, she’s after something much more subtle and rounded than that. At the point I’ve just reached – after the feast at which her husband has realised he can’t be both a reformer and a banker, and at the moment she tells him she’s pregnant again – she’s talking about becoming the breadwinner. This is the world of the modern middle class – and Byatt is clever enough to have Philip point out to one of Olive’s daughters (Dorothy, the serious one) that in his world women have always worked. He doesn’t feel good about being forced to remember her plight, but for Byatt it must have seemed exactly the right moment to give her liberal middle class readers a little dig in the ribs.
Chapters 6-9: second half of Part 1
We get stories in these chapters. Chapter 6 focuses on a story told in a puppet show based on one of Hoffmann’s tales. So as well as the folk-tale theme Byatt is exploring again, as she did in Possession, we get some fascinating background material about German marionettes in particular and the strange power of inanimate puppets in general. Olive’s story ‘The Shrubbery’ gets a chapter to itself, just as one of Christabel’s does early on in Possession. (In that novel the pastiches were some of the best things about it and I’m not surprised Byatt is having another go.) The third story is the most disturbing of all, in yet a different form: Fludd’s confession, during which the young vicar wonders why he is telling it, how much of it is true, and what Fludd might be hiding. And while I think of it Frank, the vicar, has recently read a novel that is so precisely based on his own situation that we know Byatt is making a point. Stories are never simple in this novel.
We’re still in Part 1, and we’re still being introduced to characters. After a chapter in which we get Olive and Violet’s background story (more of that later) Byatt moves us away from the Arts and Crafts pseudo-community in Kent and to the Romney Marshes. We’ve followed Philip, and we get to meet the troubled Fludd and his emotionally battered wife and family. We also get to know the hopeless Dobbin a bit better, and his borderline-gay friendship with Frank. And, briefly, the writer of the troubling novel Frank’s read, sunbathing naked with his wife in their garden. (Think Lucien Freud and you get the picture.)
Adults get more of the space in these chapters than children. In the chapter focusing on Olive children are mainly there as inspiration for her stories. In the Romney Marshes chapters we only get sketchy sights of Philip: the evidence of his artistic vision comes out more in his drawings – Byatt has endowed him with a talent bordering on genius – and less from the inside. And he’s practical: as soon as he sees the wreck of a firing gone wrong in Fludd’s kiln he knows exactly what to do to begin sorting it out. So Philip is unique in this novel: Olive is creative whereas Violet is practical; Fludd is creative and destructive in equal measure whereas his wife is presented as essentially useless, a kind of void. But Philip is not only an artistic genius, he’s enviably practical too. So have we got our hero? And is that why Byatt ends Part 1 inside his head – or, to be more exact, inside his bed – as one of Fludd’s daughters, as naked as the middle-aged couple we met earlier in the chapter, gets in beside him? (She’s sleepwalking. Oh yeh?)
What I like about Byatt is her control. So in the Romney Marshes chapters she will mention Philip just often enough to keep him in our minds. She will give us Olive’s back-story just when we thought we knew all about her. (We were wrong, because she‘s hidden away the real story, of misery in a Yorkshire mining village, in a tightly wrapped package in her mind. I bet we haven‘t heard the last of that little bundle.) And Byatt doesn’t only do this with characters. She’s got this thing going about the late-19th Century interest in a kind of earth-bound folk mythology, and she carefully reminds us of it all the time: the puppet-show, the animals rising from the earth to populate the outside of a pot, the roots-dwelling little people in Olive’s story. In a discussion about their planned series of lectures even modernism is seen as being rooted in the past, a sloughing off of Victorian constraints to reveal what is more ‘natural’ beneath. (The nakedness at the end of this section chimes neatly with this idea.)
And… what? Byatt has set a lot of things running by the end of Part 1. Philip’s in a place where he might or might not be able to flourish. (Byatt has piled on the problems by making his new boss a bipolar giant who tends to smash things.) There’s Olive and her husband at the start of what is going to be a tricky time with them: he really does go into work to tender his resignation – although since we went off to the Marshes we don’t know what the response was. There’s Dobbin and Frank and the lecture series that will keep the Fabian/artistic/vegetarian axis in our sights. And…
…There’s one other thing I’ve noticed: these people know they operate under social constraints which they don’t know how to throw off. Several times, right from the first chapter, different characters have wondered about whether to say something and have decided against it. The only exception is in Chapter 5 when Philip nearly doesn’t mention his mother, who works – and then Byatt has him repeat his thought word for word, aloud. He’s speaking to Dorothy – and Byatt singles her out for a different trope: she knows what people are thinking. Sometimes it’s easy to explain – she overhears Violet’s mutterings about who really brings up the children – but not always. And it comes as a bit of a shock when Frank finds himself having the same thought as he speaks to the impossible Fludd. Hmm. Conversations are complicated in this novel. Some of it is about changing etiquette, and Byatt uses the comedy moment of the two male friends stumbling across the naturists in the garden to give it a different kind of airing: they decide they were right not to withdraw in embarrassment.)
Chapters 10-17: first bit of Part 2
Part 2 is subtitled The Golden Age and we suppose that’s bound to be ironic. Although things start off well: the first chapter of Part 2 is Philip’s progress as Fludd’s apprentice. And the Fludds get a lot from him as well. Later the moody, difficult Geraint turns out to have more than a hint of entrepreneurship about him and he gets to show off the artistic stuff his father makes and the more commercially viable tiles designed by Philip. This happens in one of those crux chapters that you sometimes get in novels with multiple threads – and I suppose I‘m really thinking of Dickens: families from the Midsummer’s Day chapters come together to visit the Fludds, success looks certain – and Philip, making himself scarce, notices an exhausted figure on the marshes. The runaways theme – Philip in Chapter 1, Olive and Violet’s story in Chapter 7 – is carried on here: the exhausted figure is Philip’s sister, all the way from the Five Towns. Actually, now I think about it, they’re all walkaways – I guess Byatt is a fan of David Copperfield – and there’s another one to come yet, in Chapter 17. Tell you later.)
What else? Humph’s a love rat, but Olive’s very modern about it: she only has a go at him for a short while before letting him off, She pays him back with some heavy flirting with the novelist and… and I realise I’m not very bothered about that storyline. Later she has the baby. It hurts, and it’s another boy.
Her main role in this section is to write, incessantly, and Byatt really goes for the metafictional schtick we‘ve been expecting. We see Olive’s stories intertwining with the reality of her own and her children’s lives: her need to make a living – Humph really has left the bank – leads her to plunder the neverending stories she’s been writing for each of her children, and to begin to unwrap her own packet of hard memories. Mixed together in her imagination these become the fantasy stories that are her trademark, and which really do appear to sell. And meanwhile she dashes off what she regards as her potboilers, like the ones based on the stories of Philip and his sister. Olive has to turn everything she can, including her genuine ability to invent, into product.
In the real world the children are growing up: we’re a third of the way through the novel, and when Byatt isn’t focusing on the often undisciplined adult world she’s showing us the experimental world of adolescents. The littluns hardly get a look in: it’s Lord of the Flies all over again, and I’ll come back to that particular novel later. Of the adolescents Philip is doing best – although Byatt makes him have to come to terms with deserting his dying mother. Charles is on trickier ground with his newly discovered interest in politics. He’s led on by one of the real Anarchists who are always in the background of this group who like to dabble in safe socialism, and we know it’s going to end in tears. And we get Julian, the conventional one, at public school and doing all he can to fit in. Dorothy is the only girl Byatt focuses on, and she’s the only one who rivals Philip’s maturity. But she’s having to deal with the routine sexism of even the most enlightened of Fabians….
Which leaves Tom, and Byatt’s neatest bit of interweaving between the reality and Olive’s fictions. We follow Tom’s preparations for the school that Julian already attends, alongside the re-drafting of ‘his’ story by Olive. The story becomes Tom Underground and, because this is a novel, parts of it begin to fit his own life perfectly, although she doesn‘t know what‘s happening to him. He’s at Julian’s school now, and he isn’t coping. Tom is the one whose only vivid reality is his Peter Pan tree-house life in the woods. He always knew that going off to school was going to be like having a part of him cut out – and, somewhere inside her (but unspoken) Olive must have known as well. So Tom Underground becomes the search for his shadow in a story that appears to be The Lord of the Rings 50 years early.
We recognise bits of a lot of different children’s books, and often Byatt is being satirical: in a chat with the novelist acquaintance he’d warned her off a search for a lost ring. And Peter Pan, which begins with finding a lost shadow, was written six years after the one that Olive is writing. But Byatt is also making a different point, It isn’t (quite) the truism about there only being a finite number of stories to be told, it’s to do with what is already in the culture and how writers mix this with their own experience. Olive uses fairy-tale tropes, or adventure story tropes – and Byatt is doing about three different things when this happens. The fact that we recognise storylines from as yet unwritten works is her reminder to us that the ‘real’ world of this novel is a 21st Century invention. She’s also reinforcing what the folklorists of the time, including Olive and the novelist we’ve met, know about reworking ancient storylines. And. let’s face it, she’s having a laugh. In his underground adventures the fantasy Tom is about to meet a spider-monster lifted directly from Lord of the Rings.
Damn. She’s not just having a laugh, she’s saying that these elements – the shadow, the underground fellowship, the spider-monster – were already around long before Barrie and Tolkien used them. It’s still a metafictional game she’s playing, though….
…and there’s a different kind of metafictional process going on in chapter 17, the one in which Tom is bullied half to death at his new school. There’s a kind of adult-free anarchy there, where the older boys ritually terrorise the young ones. Their search of the cellars is taken straight from Jack’s search for Ralph in Lord of the Flies – I told you I’d get back to it – but what makes it specifically, and not just vaguely a trope from that novel is the name of the chief bully. Jack’s name for his gang of thugs in Golding’s novel is the Hunters. Guess what Tom’s tormentor is called.
It’s a chapter that could have been called The End of Childhood. Tom, having been young for his age all his life, is so brutally forced up against one particular brand of reality that he’s almost broken by it. He becomes the latest runaway and Dorothy, always the most perceptive, knows that when he turns up he’ll go back to the womb of the tree house. Did we see that one coming? I didn’t – and his parents always have their minds on their own concerns. (This is a big theme, shown most clearly by Fludd’s ‘inert’ daughters, clay, I suppose – although Byatt’s got too much taste to suggest such a thing – that Fludd has never bothered to work up into anything.) Dorothy sees what her parents don’t, and she’s turning into the novel’s other hero. This character, created by a writer and the offspring of writers, even wants to be a doctor. The other heroic character wants to make things (as Geraint points out, I think) that not only rich people will be able to afford.
What’s this writer trying to tell us about the value, or otherwise, of writing?
Chapters 18-23: Part 2 continued
We don’t see anything of Tom for a while: Byatt often leaves quite significant characters completely alone for several chapters: like any good Victorian novelist (or modern writer of soaps) she knows we’re ok about leaving a storyline alone for a while. When we do meet him again he’s eighteen, and we see him mainly through the eyes of the sexually ravenous (but tactful) Julian, He’s beautiful, virginal, and reluctant to engage with anything or anyone outside the safe zone of the countryside between the North and South Downs. But Byatt is preparing most of the male characters for a couple of set piece chapters: she’s gradually speeding up the passage of time so that she can drag them all over (kicking and screaming in Fludd’s case) to the 1900 Paris Exhibition.
These chapters could be subtitled Sex and Aesthetics. And Politics, now I come to think of it. Sometimes these go together: Julian’s frank appraisal of Tom’s ‘beauty’ is straight out of Dorian Grey, even though Julian thinks he doesn’t like Wilde; later, when Julian notices Charles/Karl with Susskind, he assumes their furtiveness to be sexual; Philip’s appreciation of the sensuous physicality of Rodin’s sculptures is only reinforced when Fludd, revitalised by the same things as Philip, takes him to have his first sexual experience in a Paris brothel. This is Byatt at the top of her form: the way she embeds timeless adolescent sexuality right inside the culture, mores and politics of the turn of the 20th Century is completely convincing.
And it isn’t only the adolescents. Adult ‘mess’ – a word one of them uses – is characterised by the dangerous ground Olive and Humph are treading on. He isn’t as in control of things as he thought. To be more precise, in a section of the novel concerned with the rights and status of women, it turns out he isn’t comfortably in control of the woman he made pregnant some chapters back. She turns up, clever and capable – she’s made sure nobody suspects who she is by getting a teaching job nearby – and starts to put him under massive pressure. Olive – who, like Humphrey, thought the affair was safely in the past, or safely 200 miles away in Manchester, sees and overhears what’s going on. She takes Violet’s advice, keeps quiet – and has an affair with the novelist who’s fancied her for years. The scene in the Smuggler’s Arms – how Byatt loves names – is a little set piece of its own: Olive thinks it’s a mistake, but Methley speaks her thoughts aloud to her. He’s a Derren Brown of sex, knowing exactly what must be going through her mind and feeding her exactly what she thinks she’s thinking. And he gives her the best, possibly the only, orgasm she’s ever had. The sex you get in historical novels is rarely convincing (the Regeneration trilogy is an exception). But in the Smuggler’s Arms Byatt did it for me.
What else in these chapters? We see more of Cain (I can’t remember his first name, and it’s obviously his surname that’s significant anyway), who represents the aesthetically sophisticated acquisitiveness of the middle classes. He’s the one who gets Fludd’s quietly promising daughter Imogen into art school (more about that in a minute), he organises the Paris trip, and he’s making sure work by Fludd and Philip gets into the public eye. He even, uniquely in this novel, has a mature and adult-seeming relationship with his daughter, in contrast with Fludd and the women in his house.
Men and their daughters. We know about Cain and his daughter (Florence?). Humphrey says the right things about Dorothy, but he’s too self-centred and her education is haphazard. (Of course, that’s Olive’s fault as well: she thinks she’s close to her children but the intimacy is all fictional, in every sense of the word – and she‘s as self-centred as her husband.) And then there’s Fludd. Some chapters back I suggested his daughters were unformed because he’s never paid them any attention. But after Cain practically forces him to let Imogen leave he goes into an almost suicidal depression – and before she goes, she warns Philip’s sister Elsie never to let him see her naked. Meanwhile the other sister carries on getting chastely but disturbingly into Philip’s bed. What’s Fludd been doing? (And is it the widower Cain we should really be suspicious of? Don’t his conversations with Florence sound just a bit too grown-up?)
The Paris chapters are a culmination. Byatt spends pages describing the make-believe city within a city, containing houses within houses – some of which will later be whisked away like the houses in Russian tales (a reference Byatt makes overtly) and find themselves in Canada or Copenhagen. But it’s the contents she loves. Cain’s motive is to educate – he particularly wants Fludd and Philip to see what’s going on in Europe – and Byatt seems to have caught some of his dermination to inform. Meanwhile, Susskind wants Charles/Karl to get a flavour of different European matters…. As far as her readers are concerned she’s on pretty safe territory: we know about Art Nouveau, and Lalique, we’ve heard of these left-wing and Anarchist movements. Byatt offers few concessions, grandly making the assumption that we pick up the references – or making sure it isn‘t crucial if we don‘t, I suppose. Except when we get to the Rodin pavilion a reader who doesn’t know his work is going to miss a lot: Byatt relies on our knowledge to do a lot of work in showing how Philip in particular begins to come to terms with sensuality in art.
As you’d expect, there’s as much sex in Paris as there is art. There’s the public-school educated Julian and his near-obsession with Tom. Philip – well, we know about Philip. And then… Olive arrives, ostensibly in response to Tom’s enthusiastic letter home. But she stumbles over her explanation for coming because really, she just wanted to get away from Methley. He’d begun to ask her to do – things, and she’d been shocked. Byatt doesn’t need to tell us what he was asking of her, because Olive wraps the grubby, fleshy memory into one of those mental packages she goes for and hides it away. Quite right… except we know things have a habit of leaking out of those little parcels of hers.
Chapters 24-27: Part 2 continued
Meanwhile, away from the sex and art of Paris… we get the sex and art of the Marshes.
The art is in the form of obscene ceramics Elsie has discovered behind the Locked Door that she and Philip know about and for which she discovers the key. The pots are based on Fludd’s daughters in overtly sexual poses. And this comes at the same time as Elsie’s urgent and growing awareness of herself as a sexual being. I can’t think of any writer since Doris Lessing who is as frank about adolescent female sexuality. As Seraphita and Pomona waft about, Byatt has Elsie put darts in the hand-me-down clothes and go about making something of the way she looks. Geraint, home for a quick visit, notices and… wonders. He also gives her enough money to buy some decent shoes at last. But outside the shoe shop she’s spotted by the silver-tongued Methley, who wants to help her choose. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s doomed: three chapters later she’s pregnant.
I didn’t believe in her pregnancy at first: she’s so determined not to be stuck ‘in service’ I wondered whether she’d invented a story to get herself spirited away. She’s feisty enough. Or spirited, as they would have said 100 years ago. But that’s ridiculous, and Methley’s wife is positive she knows who the father is. Besides, it fits in well with Byatt’s habit of creating repeating patterns: if her sexual awakening echoes her brother’s in the chapter before it, the pregnancy echoes another, in the adult world. Humphrey – the one with the distant mistress who now lives round the corner – has been rogering his sister-in-law. If his daughter Hedda has got the story right (and we can never be sure of stories in these chapters in which nobody wants to believe what they hear – another repeating pattern) the overheard conversations between these two refer not only to this pregnancy but to previous ones. When Violet talks about being the children’s real mother – as she often does – in some cases it seems she means it literally. And as we wonder which of Olive’s kids are really hers – and whether Hedda really has got it right – so do the kids themselves: Hedda has had to tell them, just as Elsie has to let Philip know about the ceramic porn behind the locked door. In both cases, the messengers get the blame. No surprise there, then.
Another theme is carried on: sexual politics and the rights of women. A day of lectures on the Marshes focuses on this, and Elsie is there listening to it. Of the five lecturers, three are women – and they are the ones Frank the vicar drafts in to decide what to do about Elsie. Byatt gives us a fairly detailed flavour of the conversation, just as she’d given us résumés of the lectures: she’s as careful to get us into the politics inside these people’s heads as she is to get into the art in there….
And then there’s Olive and her stories. We get another one verbatim, about a girl who captures some little people and tries to force them to play her games. Is it a veiled self-portrait, revealing that she knows full well that her children have their own lives now? Does Olive know herself well enough for that? Dunno. What I do know is that when I started writing this diary entry I was going to complain that Byatt is trying to keep too many characters and storylines on the go, that the threads of the different narratives are being spread too thinly. Now I’m not so sure: themes and ideas from different storylines intertwine and – and what? – make interesting patterns. But I’ve already said that – time to read on.
Chapters 28-31: to the end of part 2
The girls are turning into young women, and that’s who Byatt focuses on in all these chapters. She ties off – for now – the thread of Elsie and her pregnancy: she has a girl, and the short scene in which she realises she will have to keep her and not ‘turn away’ is completely convincing. It convinced me anyway. And Byatt wants us to recognise that the lefty women have done a good job: Elsie and the baby Ann – tiny name for a tiny girl – are going to be able to manage.
But really these are Dorothy’s chapters: we get as much inside her head as we did inside her brother’s in the ‘Tom Underground‘ chapters, if not more. First we get one of Byatt’s set piece event chapters. Chapter 28 rivals the Paris Exposition chapters in the detail she goes in for. This time it’s that particularly British turn-of-the-century public décor – Cain’s museum, set up for a dance. I’d visited Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery a few days before I read these chapters, and there it all is, from the Anglo-centric focus of all the art and decoration to the predominance of glazed ceramic tiles everywhere. I suppose Byatt knows her readers well enough to know we know what she’s describing….
But never mind all that. Dorothy is determined to prevail despite the lack of real attention she gets from her parents: she’s serious about becoming a doctor, and is studying. But she herself is prevailed upon sufficiently to be dressed up for a sort of practice coming-out dance given by Cain and the two Wellwood families. Florence is there – and I was wrong to suspect Cain of anything untoward with regard to her – as are Dorothy, her better-looking cousin Griselda and the two Fludd girls. There are awakenings as the cousins, if not all the others, begin to understand they really are turning into attractive young women. Fine. And then…
… Byatt gives us a shock: her father, Humph the love rat, comes into her bedroom and starts to paw at her. My Gahd – but it’s ok, because Hedda was wrong: Olive is her mother – but he’s not her father, Anselm Stern the puppet-master is. It’s not ok, obviously. Dorothy bites his hand, drawing pints of blood, and has to think fast to decide what to do. As it happens, Byatt makes it easy – although she’s good at getting inside the confused mass of emotions working on Dorothy before a plan is sorted out. Byatt needs to get Dorothy to Germany, with someone who can interpret for her, so she can meet Stern and decide what to do next. It so happens that her cousin (or ex-cousin) Griselda is a fluent German speaker, and it’s easy to persuade (or guilt-trip) the adults into paying for a couple of months in Munich….
The necessary plotting allows Byatt to set up what turns out, for me, to be one of the most moving chapters of the novel so far. (Now I think of it, Byatt doesn’t usually do moving. Witty, wry, revealing are more her line. Or analytical, almost forensic.) Dorothy meets Stern, eventually gasps out the truth by way of Griselda’s more measured translation – and they hit it off. It turns out she really is her father’s daughter, sharing tastes and skills as well as physical characteristics. And he isn’t going to reject his new daughter any more than Elsie rejected hers a couple of chapters earlier…. To complete her (albeit temporary) transformation into a member of new family, there are half-brothers she gets on with and a stepmother who seems determined to welcome her. It seems that The Golden Age is to turn out well after all. Except there’s over a third of the novel still to go, and the next section is only The Silver Age.
The thread running through these Munich scenes is, as it’s bound to be, story. The cleverly literary echoes we’ve been getting between some of Stern’s stories and some of Olive’s – echoes that are part of the fabric of this novel – are given a twist: Olive’s story for Dorothy, which sounds like a pastiche of Beatrix Potter’s tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle, turns out to be a version of one of Stern’s plays. It’s a hidden, or sublimated, admission of the connection between Dorothy and her real father. And in the latest chapter, which Olive sends to Dorothy in Munich, the hedgehog character has just lost an important feature of her own identity and is desperate to find it…. Deep.
What else? Byatt presents Munich as a centre of European culture to rival Paris, full of art, theatre and satirical cabaret. But Dorothy, despite everything, is quite homesick after a while. Charles/Karl is also feeling a bit homesick, in a different way. He’s there with Susskind, the anarchist German tutor (meeting Susskind, who’s always taking Charles to Munich, is one of the reasons for Dorothy’s trip) and he‘s becoming less and less convinced about these Germans, their extremism – well, duh – and their frankly anti-British views. Has it all just been an adolescent phase, to sit alongside Julian’s adolescent fixation on beautiful boys? And do all boys grow out of it in the end? (If so Tom, who is mentioned in passing occasionally, is not growing out of it. Whatever it is.) Maybe they’ll all grow up a bit in Part 3 – the kids, if not the adults.
Chapters 32-37: first bit of Part 3
I can’t remember reading a novel quite like this. I’ve been going on for some time about the way Byatt sets these fictional characters’ lives in the context of a historical reality as vivid as she can manage within the limited confines of a novel. In Chapter 32 she permits herself more space than usual: the first half-dozen pages could have come from one of those A N Wilson-style histories of an age, and it’s as rigorous an account of left-wing and back-to-nature groups as a non-specialist like me would want. There are two threads, Britain and Germany – where the sandal-wearers and early-morning swimmers are similar, but not identical in the two countries. In Germany, among a lot of other things, we get Jungian psychology springing from, well, from the Earth – and a faith that children know things adults do not. In Britain, bizarrely, we get the real people some of Byatt’s characters are loosely based on, like E Nesbit; we also get Rupert Brook and we think, Ah. Not long now, at the rate Byatt is going, until we’ll hear more from him…. But not yet. This is the Silver Age, not as fab as the Golden Age just past (which, as they knew even then, never existed) but it’ll do.
When Byatt has finished with reality the rest of the chapter consists of a quick tour of the next few years in the fictional world, culminating – she doesn’t explain why – in 1907 when there’s to be some momentous event. Her adolescents are going through the next stages of development, and soon will be leaving university, looking at career choices (unless they’re Tom), growing up. As a narrative technique it’s unusual, as though Byatt is preparing the ground for the less hurried – but still fairly speedy – scamper through the same five or six years in the chapters that follow. In these, she’s happy to rush past the dull bits: In Part 3 a whole year can be represented by the unsuccessful return to the previous summer’s camping trip.
But as ever, Byatt slows the action right down to focus on a short period or an event: a lot of the chapters I’m covering now relate to the planning and execution of a big creative camp on the Marshes in 1903. As in a chapter near the beginning of Part 2, the Marshes are a place where she can bring all her main characters together. And things happen. In the arts and crafts sphere there’s a pottery summer school culminating in a monumental firing, and a play combining live actors and puppets based on the story of Olive’s we read a few chapters back. And after they’re finished with, some of the stuffed manikins from that get burnt in the kiln as well, y’know, just to tighten the threads a little. And they’re tightened nearly to breaking point by the almost certain suicide of Nutter Fludd, discovered at the most crucial point in the firing. Tell you why he did it in a minute.
It’s to do with the other sphere: relationships. We get: Florence realising that Gerald will never be hers (or any other woman‘s), and accepting a suspended offer of marriage from Geraint instead; the oleaginous Methley ogling Elsie at a lecture he‘s giving – but she’s spending time with Charles-Karl who’s growing less radical every year; Dorothy and Philip, who meet only briefly but recognise a lot of common ground. Griselda… still waiting – although she spends happy German-speaking hours with Dorothy’s German half-brothers. But most important of all we get Imogen Fludd declaring her love for Cain and, eventually, him reciprocating. Cain speaks to Fludd, who hits him and goes for a walk he obviously doesn’t intend to return from. And this time, unlike the earlier chapter involving a get-together on the Marshes, Philip has his own life to think about. So he isn’t wandering along the coast when Fludd decides to take a stroll in the direction of France.
Dorothy. She’s the one whose head we get deepest into in these chapters, though not continuously. She’s studying hard and making an outsider of herself: she assumes that a woman has to choose between medicine and marriage, assumes she’ll be entering a kind of enclosed order. (Some of the other girls imagine university will be like this, and go quiet about the attractions of Newnham….) But who on earth can Dorothy talk to? Not her supposed parents, obviously – although she’s gracious in her reconciliation with Humph. The person she tells is Philip, who tells her he expects his art will be as excluding as her own vocation. We’ll see other scenes with these two together: Dorothy realises when she bumps into him at the Fludd house that he’s the one she really wanted to see….
Chapters 38-42: middle bit of Part 3
I was right about Dorothy and Philip – although all we’ve had in Chapter 42 is a couple of pages of them meeting at the opening of his first big exhibition. He’s a genius, as Byatt has always made clear. So that’s all right. And he reminds Dorothy of the brief meeting in what is no longer Fludd’s studio: she’s got good hands. (Years later, Fludd’s body has never turned up, only a boot and a bit of ravaged clothing some days after his disappearance. I’m not sure why Byatt has left it like that.) Otherwise, Dorothy is never far from the action. We see her progress through medical school, watch her faint as she removes the heart from a cadaver and, simultaneously, realises she’s been ambushed by love (or whatever it is) of her anatomy teacher. She goes home to recover for a week or two, and hates it. She discovers ‘her’ story. Her mother has, uniquely, finished it: the hedgehog character has renounced the magic world forever. Ouch.
But these aren’t Dorothy’s chapters. Mainly, they’re Florence’s. She was one of the two girls – the other being Griselda – who weren’t sure about Newnham. They go anyway, and it’s ok. Ok. Byatt gives us some context about women’s studies and the emerging feminism. Like so much else, she makes it feel like developments in more recent decades – a feat that’s more feasible in fiction than in, say, film or tv with their costumes and visual background noise. In a novel, a conversation or a thought process can sound as modern as you want it to, if you don’t drop clangers. Byatt usually doesn‘t
Byatt wants us inside Florence’s head. She gives us one of the echoes that this novel is full of: like Elsie in Part 2 she doesn’t know what she wants but she knows that she wants it. Byatt makes it clear she isn’t a bit bothered about Geraint, despite his efforts: when he makes their engagement public, she isn’t thrilled. Methley insinuates himself into the picture, and we get a repetition of what happened to Elsie. Except this time we get the almost McEwan-like sordidness of their assignation in a private room above a Soho restaurant. For Florence, this is the end of an adolescent dream of adulthood. She’s disgusted with herself. The only problem, and it isn’t overwhelming, is that we haven’t really met Florence enough before this. Like Griselda, she’s been a part of other people’s lives.
The life she’s been most a part of is her father’s. His marriage to Imogen Fludd, and the baby they’re expecting, precipitate the crisis. He’s momentarily bewildered by Florence’s pregnancy when she tells him about it… but a solution is found. She ends up in a forward-looking Swiss clinic, meets a nice Austrian with the name of an angel. He‘s the victim, if we’re to believe him, of Jung and Gross planting ideas for disturbing dreams into his head – and he proposes a marriage. He’s living on the surface now, and persuades her nothing will ever go too deep between them. She accepts, and they marry. Oh dear.
Meanwhile…. It’s becoming more and more clear that Tom is a Larkinesque product of his mum and dad. Florence’s Austrian is an echo of the way Tom has been well and truly fucked up. Dorothy visits the family home again, and Olive is permanently worried about Tom’s lack of direction. Dorothy notices the models of stages and scenery around the place: Olive is collaborating on a stage play based on Tom’s story. Oh dear, again: Tom hated the opening performance of Peter Pan and he isn’t going to like the way his childhood story is becoming public property. And he really has become a bit strange: he suggests to Dorothy they go and see the tree-house – which we know as well as he does has been destroyed by a gamekeeper. He isn’t Peter Pan, he’s a Lost Boy.
Chapters 43-49: to the end of The Age of Silver…
…and there isn’t much silver in it. Plenty of deaths, though, starting with Tom. How convincing is his recreation of Nutter Fludd’s suicidal walk into the sea? There’s something conveniently novelistic about this, which is his response to the triumphant opening night of Tom Underground. He leaves the theatre and just starts walking. Somehow, that’s all he’s done since puberty and he’s run out of places to go. When he runs out of land… you get the picture. His death destroys Olive. One part of her knew that she was doing a bad thing – and one part of the reader knew that Byatt was going to have to make a big thing of how Olive’s quarrying of this particular children’s story was annihilating him.
At the end of this section, amidst a bit too much historical contextualising about political upheavals from about 1908-1914, we get (fairly briefly) the story of another of Olive’s children. Hedda gets in with the Suffragettes and… and gets swept into exactly the kind of group hysteria that one of the contemporary commentators is fond of dissecting. We’ve heard very little about her since her snooping days a decade or more ago, so her story seems a bit of an add-on now. But for a few pages Byatt gets us right inside her head as she did with Florence before her disastrous afternoon session with Methley. Hedda’s determination to do something – vandalise some relics in the same museum where Philip hid all those years ago – and the terror she has to overcome both before and after, is very persuasively described. It persuaded me anyway.
Hedda is almost broken by the hunger strike she feels she has to go through in prison. Which presents an opportunity for the most mature of Olive’s children – not that her maturity is fully rounded, obviously. Byatt hasn’t shown us enough of Dorothy since the Munich chapters (how long ago was that?) and when she appears on the scene to start rebuilding her sister’s shattered frame – she’s been a qualified doctor for some time – she’s like one of those children of friends, now grown up so that we never see them any more. Why does Byatt do this? We can only assume nothing ever came of the friendship – and possibly more, as the lonely hearts ads say – with Philip.
Otherwise, it’s Christmas round robin time. Violet’s dead, of some sudden attack as she fetches the cakes. Florence and her Austrian husband seem ok, and she gives birth to a daughter. Imogen is nearly killed by the birth of her own daughter a month before this. Elsie and Julian manage a single night in a B&B, but she’s too aware of the class differences to let it do anything but fizzle out. Griselda and Charles/Karl spend a bit of time together, but Wolfgang thinks she’s an ice-queen and when she’s locked up in Newnham after an evening out it seems appropriate.
Er…. We get a lot of stuff about the working classes in these chapters, as though Byatt always meant to include them more than she has done so far: Olive has excavated her Yorkshire past for details of mining for her play – she really is shameless – and either Elsie or Philip speaks briefly of the horrors of their childhood: seven in a bed and one of them dead. And the main political strife of these years isn’t the Suffragettes, it’s the striking, protesting workers. The socialist middle classes – real ones, like the Webbs – seem at a loss as to what to do.
Is it a bit of a mess? Several chapters begin with the coming round of another year, as Byatt takes us on inexorably towards 1914 and the Age of Lead. Apart from Hedda’s story, Part 3 ends as it began, with page after page of history. I was ok with this the first time, but the gloom of the political situation – including, inevitably, the ever more ridiculous posturings of the Kaiser – overshadows Byatt’s characters. It stops being a novel during these parts, and it becomes a bit of a slog. Pity.
Chapters 50-55: Part 4
1914, and we know what the lead in The Age of Lead is going to do to soft tissue. Not only lead: like every literary novelist of the past 20 years or so who has dealt with the First World War, Byatt feels she has to give us details of the damage done by wire, shrapnel, gas, overturning gun-carriages…. And clayey mud: near the end Philip, one of the (not many) surviving males who are boys in the early chapters, comments on how close he was to being killed by clay.
At first I was very fed up by this section. After telling us how the War started (thanks, Antonia) she sprints though a couple of years of the conflict killing off some of her characters and letting others survive. Of Olive and Humph’s boys only Florian survives – and he’s not Olive’s, he’s Violet’s. And he comes back looking smashed-up, to Olive’s disgust. Her disgust disgusts her, inevitably. The two Robins – the ones who are both Humphrey’s, by different mothers – are killed within a couple of days of one another. We hear little of those particular parents after all this bad news, as though Byatt has decided she’s squeezed everything out of them. She’s right.
Basil, Humph’s financier brother, fares better, but only after Byatt puts him and his German wife through the mill for most of the war. Katherine is shunned by her former friends and is even spat on in the street; Geraint, the son Basil never had, is the one crushed by the gun-carriage; Charles/Karl, a Red Cross volunteer, is missing in action. But Basil and his wife have a new daughter-in-law who, in a fairly outrageous twist, they meet after hearing of their son’s presumed death. It’s Elsie, and they think she’s great. Then Charles/Karl turns up after wandering around a broken Germany for months. And Griselda has been a volunteer nurse working with Dorothy, so she’s not had a bad war – especially when they are the ones who scrape the clay off Philip, and even more especially when Wolfgang, the one Griselda has always loved, turns up almost in disguise in London in 1919.
Once Byatt stops giving us the stock footage of death and mutilation and produces first Philip, then Charles/Karl, then Wolfgang like rabbits out of hats, it becomes much more engaging. For perhaps the first time in the whole novel I felt not just interested or impressed, but moved. And it’s not at all accidental that this is the family that Byatt decides to end the novel with, as though to suggest that Fortune (or the omnipotent author) has favoured them for a reason. The London family always had time for their children, and just because they’re rich and don’t join the right political groups it doesn’t mean they’re a bad lot. On the contrary (shit, is it really as schematic as this?) the right-on ones – Olive, Humphrey, Methley – are the ones who screw up the next generation. Why not give the good parents a bit of joy?
Byatt always did know about giving us a bit of what we want. In Possession she gives us a more blatant series of happy endings, even having one of her characters refer to Shakespearian comedy. Here it’s just as tricksy, I suppose, but I was ok with it. Three happy couples – and, simultaneously, three sets of parted sisters and brothers – are reunited. Charles/Karl, terribly weakened by his experiences, is back with Elsie – and circumstances have led to her being welcomed into the family far more fully than she would have been otherwise. Byatt goes for easier coups with Dorothy/Philip and Griselda/Wolfgang, allowing them credibility-stretching chance meetings. She doesn’t spell out what is going to happen between them because she doesn’t need to: the war for all of them has, well, enabled them to realise a lot more about themselves and one another than their parents (or parent-substitutes) ever did. Another lesson, I suppose, although Byatt doesn’t pursue that one.
So what do I think? I think Byatt sets so many rabbits running that she is often bound to lose track of one or other of them. I think Larkin put it more succinctly. I think the history she gives us, even when it gets in the way, is always fascinating. I think Byatt deserves accolades for the way she recognises how childhood doesn’t end, but changes into a different kind of dependence on parents as adolescence morphs into young adulthood. I’m constantly amazed at the way Byatt convinces us how these long-dead generations are like generations still living. I think it’s a brilliant achievement, although I’m not surprised it didn’t win the Booker Prize: despite the impressive way she marshals the extraordinary forces she has in play throughout the novel’s 600-odd pages, compared to Possession it’s simply not focused enough. I think Byatt bit off more than she could chew.