Prize-winning novelist A.S. Byatt (Photo by Ian Cook/Getty Images)

A.S. Byatt and the follies of magical progressivism

The late novelist understood the dangers of ego-centred delusions

Artillery Row Books

The Booker prize winning author A. S. Byatt died last week, aged 87. In her penultimate work, The Children’s Book, she describes a moment of history in which a new sexual libertinism became particularly oppressive for women, of the dangerous effects of new technologies, how each of these combined with a disruptive political activism, and, importantly, about an interest in magic and the occult amongst the chattering classes of late Victorian and Edwardian England.

The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt (Chatto & Windus, £12)

Magical progressivism is not merely historical; it is often seen in our time. It includes giving an inestimable power to particular words (spells) as bearing incredible power to hurt or even slay people. It offers a way for the educated (initiates/adepts) to see and manipulate unseen powers beneath the world of everyday life. It considers symbolic representation (ritual) as a substitute for genuine change. Current Thing objects and images like lanyards or badges function as amulets and talismans. In magic, the world of feelings and ideas is as real as the physical world, even more real — because by emotively relating to the world, it is thought that the world can be changed in accordance with one’s own will.

The late Victorian and Edwardian eras are presented in The Children’s Book as times of promise, of hope and of national self-confidence. There was all the stability and triumph of the long 19th century, revivified by the new monarch Edward being crowned in 1901. There were new technologies, adding to a sense of progress and promise. The horse drawn carriage was being replaced by the automobile. Telephones threatened to make letter writing obsolete. Aeroplanes appeared in the sky. Electric radiance lit streets and houses after dark, and it kept new machines whirring away day and night without anyone breaking his back to pile coal into a furnace.

In terms of values, “Edward the Caresser” was emblematic of the questions being raised about typical Victorian morality, hinting toward a liberation from long-established ways of managing sexual desire. Sex was openly discussed amongst the bourgeois in ways that were radically different to what had gone before. Were these new ideas put in practice, some claimed, a new and utopian world stripped of much unnecessary unhappiness would await.

Meetings rooms bustled with socialists, anarchists, Quakers and Fabians

There was still the desperate plight of the poor, but a sense of promise and progress was also found in the many activist groups which sprang up to undo all the problems of the past. The Democratic Federation, the Fellowship of New Life and then its offshoot, the Fabian Society, had all been founded in the early 1880s. Their membership was still swelling a couple of decades later. Meetings rooms bustled with socialists, anarchists, Quakers and Fabians. William Morris’ News from Nowhere served as a manifesto for the coming utopia — amazing possibilities would be realised in an idyllic future.

The era’s technological progress fused with “alternative spiritualities”. The Society for Psychical Research and the Theosophical Society had been founded in those late decades of the 19th century. Various esoteric orders and lodges flourished. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had grown and imploded into various offshoots by 1900. Christianity seemed, in contrast to these new fads, a naïve and simple faith for the uninitiated, for those unawakened to perceive the unseen realities. The increasing number of translations of ancient Eastern texts, combined with the new scientific ideas like Darwin’s and the technological magic of human ingenuity, to promise a new spiritual utopia without religion.

This relates to the Edwardian focus on childhood. We say now that childhood is itself a time of promise, but this view is a product of that time. Childhood was increasingly being understood in a new way. Victorians are said to have seen children as something like miniature adults, but Byatt tells us that groups like the Fabians saw children as “people, with identities and desires and intelligences”, which meant they could be appropriately educated to realise the coming utopia. Children needed to be liberated from restrictive social norms, and let their imaginations run free.

Consider for a moment that J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan character appeared in 1902, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit first appeared in 1901, along with Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. In 1902 E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It was published, and then The Railway Children in 1906, when Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill appeared. Wind in the Willows was published in 1908, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden in 1911. Nature often appears sentient in these books; hence the other Edwardian craze for fairies. Jonathan Wild points out that, during the Christmas season of 1908 alone, bookshops sold The Fairies Fountain and Other Stories, Legends from Fairyland, Fairy Tales from South Africa, The Russian Fairy Book, The Welsh Fairy Book and Fairies — of sorts.

Byatt describes this world of progressivism with the spectre of 1914 gathering like storm clouds in the distance. Experiments with free love and unrepressed desire lapse into abandoned babies, desperately broken hearts, and the salt-water thirst of spiralling sexual desire pushing into ever more obscene acts. She sees much of this as the ultimate triumph for those men for whom the bloody reality of feminine sexuality and procreation had long since been hidden from view, like table legs with little curtains gathered about them, or the dark meat never given its proper name in a gentleman’s club.

The Childrens’ Book is a lengthy saga involving Fabians, socialists, anarchists, artists, libertines, fairy-enthusiasts, theosophists and so on. Magic intertwines with technology — as when a lead character describes his encounter with the new Paris Metro as having “gates like the gates of fairyland”, in which everything “is driven by electricity — it all hums and buzzes — and there are flashes of lights twinkling and glittering everywhere”.

Magical progressivism is a turning away from the responsibilities of this world

Byatt intertwines progressive, magical thinking with the avoidance of reality — a reality that seems ominous and frightful, like puberty. She remarks on the Edwardians’ “propensity to retreat into childhood” to write “tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children”. Most of the cast of the novel attend the first showing of the 1904 performance of Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. This encounter with Neverland involved ground-breaking technologies — with a giant lens used to make Tinkerbell seem like a tiny fairy, and a machine dressed as an Eagle which would carry a pirate up and over the audiences’ head.

The main character, Olive Wellwood, is a children’s author. She writes stories about imagined counterparts to each of her children. Her son Tom’s is a shadowless boy called Tom Underground.

Neverland inspires Olive to write about her son, which leads to his tragic death. Tom commits suicide — provoked by his mother’s merciless commercialisation of her tales.

Her real son, to whom she bears all the responsibilities of a mother and carer, is swamped, drowned and destroyed by Tom Underground — into whom he transforms by being buried six-feet under. A symbolic representation of her son does become real, but she pays the ultimate price. Elizabeth Lowry comments that the Edwardians show “a reluctance to embrace adult responsibilities”, and that the fixation on fairies suggests “a profound discomfort” with “parenthood and growing up”. We substitute symbols for reality at our peril.

The Children’s Book can be seen as a cautionary tale about believing in symbolic representation at the expense of reality, of the ego-centred delusions that are attracted by tales of unseen worlds of hidden powers, of the bearing of talismans and amulets to protect people from all the urgency of real demands, and so on. Magical progressivism is a turning away from the responsibilities of this world, responsibilities which return like a rapacious creditor. The startling irony here is that, by revealing all the dangers of magically progressive thinking back in the Noughties, Byatt herself inadvertently became the most adept seer of a world which was yet to come.

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