Sunday, August 16, 2009

"The stilly woods / grow dark and deep, and gloom mysteriously. /Cool night winds creep, and whisper in mine ear."

{Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885), by John Singer Sargent.}

I was pleasantly reminded of the painting above, an old favorite, by the following passage in A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book (which, though I've had a UK edition sitting on my shelf for months, won't be available here until October):
Children in these families, at the end of the nineteenth century, were different from children before or after. They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed, over supper or during long country walks. And yet, at the same time, the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent lives, as children. They roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees, hunted, fished, rode ponies and bicycles, with no other company than that of other children.
While I take Byatt's point that this era {which she recreates brilliantly}, was unique--at least for the children of the upper class and newly developing middle class in England--I nonetheless recognize elements of my own childhood in her description. Growing up in a house surrounded by trees, in a small neighborhood surrounded by country, my brother and sister and I were fortunate enough to be given a lot of the freedom--and respect--that the parents Byatt describes afforded their children. And while our woodland rambles never encompassed anything so grand as a landed estate or wild as late-Victorian countryside, for children to feel themselves rulers of a private, near-magical domain requires a surprisingly small area of land, so long as the adults are willing to relinquish control within its bounds. I'm fully an urbanite now, with no regrets about the fact, but that country boyhood was a glorious way to grow up.

While I can look back on my childhood with fondness and gratitude, it's hard for a contemporary reader to imagine the children of the 1890s without aching for the horrors--of Passchendaele, the Somme, and more--towards which their generation hurtles unawares. I'm only halfway through Byatt's novel, so I don't know if she'll be carrying the stories of these children through the war years, or will instead leave us to dread their fate.

Thus far, however, I'm quite impressed, carried away with the ferment of art and thought and idealism and innocence that make the twilight of the Victorian era and the early Edwardian years so endlessly fascinating. I find that it brings to mind Penelope Fitzgerald--despite its 600 pages, a length to which it's impossible imagining Fitzgerald's ruthless concision extending--and that is some of the highest praise I can bestow on a novel.

1 comment:

  1. Having the space to explore and imagine was also incredibly important for me growing up - I am trying to give the same to my kids, but can't help but find myself checking in on them, probably more often than I should!