I don't have very much to add to what I wrote about David Copperfield earlier. I still hate the Emily/Steerforth subplot, and still thought the rest was very good. Since everyone talks about Dickensian coincidence, I was glad to see that there wasn't so much of it in this novel (and what there was is mostly confined to the Emily plot, which I don't like anyway)
I think I need to really rethink my conception of The Children's Book. A lot of Byatt's themes start to come together when the novel reaches 1913, and WWI provides an important coda. Some themes that emerge are:
- Fairy tales have a dark side that is aimed at adults (this is a theme across much of Byatt's oeuvre).
- The different British/German views on fairy tales and society
- British vs. German anarchism and how each society approached socialism/Marxism
- Of course, the British/German dichotomy comes to a head with WWI.
- Parent/child relationships are very important, from abusive parents like Fludd, through parents who seem attentive (but are actually self-absorbed) like Olive, or parents like the London Wellwoods who can't understand their children but really want to do their best anyway, and so on. The interplay between their parenting styles and their children's different personalities drives a lot of the book forward.
- This is a coming-of-age story for most of the characters. Even the adult characters are often child-like in some way at the start of the novel, trying to live in a fairy-tale world. By the end, they have to come to terms with the consequences of their actions, and some of them are too weak to bear it. (It's interesting that the two characters who commit suicide choose the same method -- a clear thematic link).
- Inner life vs outward appearance. This theme is especially obvious in Charles/Karl, who also represents the British/German dichotomy, but we also see the way nobody wants to confront Fludd's inner corruption because of his outward genius.