When I reached A.S. Byatt by cell phone recently, the 73-year-old Dame of the British Empire and Booker Prize-winning author of Possession was in the midst of a monthlong lecture tour occasioned by the American publication of her ninth novel, The Children's Book.
Byatt's schedule would challenge a rock star's stamina, yet the author spoke animatedly and affectionately about The Children's Book, as though its crowd of characters were acquaintances and friends rather than creations. Of all her books, Byatt calls this novel "the one I find easiest to love."
"It's not a very personal book," she says, "which means, in a way, it's the most personal book, because that is the way I'd like to be. You know, someone who pays attention and listens and learns and watches and tries to write good prose."
The Children's Book spans the years 1895 through 1917 and features enough characters in it to populate a small village — so many, in fact, that Byatt's husband of 40 years, Peter Duffy, helped her create an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of their ages. (Duffy also assists his wife on tour by answering the cell phone, since she doesn't know how: "I'm very incompetent with machines," Byatt admits cheerfully.)
The maypole around which the huge cast dances is Olive Wellwood, a successful writer of children's books. Olive lives a bohemianesque existence with her husband, Humphrey, and their seven children on a pleasant estate in Kent named Todefright, where neither she nor Humphrey feels sexually constrained by marriage.
"Olive's generation was the first generation that believed in free love," Byatt says. "But they didn't really ... they either overdid it or got agitated about it."
In Olive and Humphrey's case, they remained incurious about the effect their sexual freedom might have upon others — even their own children, several of whom do not biologically belong to them both. As the story moves along, these children discover their mixed parentage accidentally and are left to deal with it as best they may.
Byatt says she found contemporary instances of this sort of muddled lineage in her reading and research: "They were 'free families', I call it, [making] all sorts of accommodations for children that weren't the children of both parents. But it was very bad for the children not knowing."
The tension between prudence and inhibition, secrecy and open communication, privacy and prevarication are all Byatt literary preoccupations. They show up in her "Frederica Potter" Quartet and also in her Booker Prize-winning novel, Possession.
Byatt says that most of the people she knows about are inhibited — and so she tends to write about inhibited people.
"[My characters] find it quite hard to communicate very directly or quickly. It's always a great moment if anybody actually talks straight to somebody," she says. But, Byatt adds, a certain amount of reserve civilizes us: "Where would we be without inhibitions? They're quite useful things when you look at some of the things humans do if they lose them."
Though Byatt vigorously champions her female characters' right to explore concurrently the reach of their sexuality and their minds, the lives of the women in The Children's Book are complicated and finally stunted by prevailing societal mores — which Byatt sees as prevailing way past this novel's time.
"My mother was a student at Cambridge about a generation later," she says. "And I was a student at Cambridge in the 1950s. And, in a way, by the 1950s, things hadn't much changed. You could either live the life of the mind, or you could have a sex life and get married and have children. ... Women had this sharp choice ... between sex and the life of the mind, and this is very hard."
Yet while there may be a great deal of unexamined sadness, confusion and frustration at play in Byatt's characters, there's very little self-pity. Instead, they often they exhibit an overriding determination that Byatt admires. (One of her characters, a working-class woman named Elsie Warren, literally walks, starving, into the narrative. "She's one of the characters I really like, because she will not be defeated," says the author.)
As for Byatt, once she gets back to England, she plans to write a version of Ragnarok for the Canongate myths series. And after that? "I am reading the life of Peggy Guggenheim, with the vague idea of writing a novel about surrealists. And all the psychologists."