A.S. Byatt’s historical epic The Children’s Book charts the relationship between several British families and a popular fairy tale author, Olive Wellwood, from 1895 to 1919.
Why such a large cast?
Iris Murdoch once said the world was full of different real people, all of them important, if we think about it. I like feeling my way into different minds and experiences. It comes naturally and always has.
You’ve said, “All my novels come about when two things which appear not to be connected come together.” What provided the key connection here?
E. Nesbit was a key point of ignition, though Olive Wellwood is not “based” on Nesbit. There she was, a founder member of the Fabians, clicking her fan in all their meetings and writing great children’s literature. Another was my sense that the Grimms are more powerful than courtly French fairy tales, hence all the Germans. I wrote to the great fairy story expert, Jack Zipes, and asked him if he could see a connection between fairy stories and socialism, and he wrote back that the fairy story was a form that attracted socialists—it was connected to utopias.
What surprised you most?
When I first invented the children, I had not thought out that the First World War would come when it did in their lives. It came as a shock to me, and I hope it will come as a shock to the book’s readers. Some reviewers and publicists have said that the war was “looming” all through the novel. I don’t think it was at all inevitable that it happened. I wasn’t writing a novel about the war at all—rather the reverse.
I had an idea about the relations of the early psychoanalysts. And then I had another idea about the surrealists. Then I realized that (a) they often lived in the same worlds, and (b) I might be dead before I had completed two more complicated novels. So I’m researching them together. I’ve been reading André Breton, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Max Ernst. Freud must appear. I’ve always been repelled by Dalí, but he will certainly be on the edge of the story.
Do you feel compelled to educate or entertain readers?
George Eliot once tried to disclaim any intention of educating. She said she was making a picture, of which all parts were necessary to the whole. If it lapsed anywhere from the picture to the diagram, she had failed in her undertaking. I am a good lecturer, but this isn’t teaching.