The marriage between radicalism and Arts and Crafts – gorgeous, complex and sometimes overwhelming
This extraordinary book by A.S.Byatt is almost impossible to adequately describe, as it is incredibly layered, beautiful, subtle and the style fits the subject matter impeccably.
On the surface, Byatt traces a period of English History from 1895 to 1919, where superficial thinking looks at `before the great War – long golden Edwardian summers’ etc and contrasts this with the sudden dark horror of the Great War. In fact there was a huge amount of that `pre-war time which was also filled with horror, certainly for those who were not members of the Upper Classes, and even for some who were – for example, boys sent to Public school.
Byatt tells in part the complex and fascinating account of the rise of Fabianism, feminism, and the Arts and Crafts movement (Morris et al) who were part of that radical liberal socialist circle – at the time liberalism itself WAS radical.
She focuses on the complex lives of her imaginary characters, who inhabit the world of the arts – particularly crafts rather than fine art, theatre performance and writing.
The strange and alchemical nature of making pottery, changing what is sticky and earth, into something else, via fire, water and air is well described and mirrors the explorations of, and tensions between, the conscious rational world (politics, economics) and the unconscious world of hidden desire and myth, played out in the `Children’s Book’ fairy stories written by one of the central characters.
Conflict, whether between nations, individuals or the sexes runs through the book. The beautiful descriptions of the impossible tensions which need to be perfectly managed in the firing of pots is both real, exact, and tellingly symbolic.
A dark and bleak thread also runs through about the impossibly painful nature of love and desire, at least in a time where choice through contraception did not exist – although Marie Stopes, like other `real’ characters, moves through the book. The real characters serve as anchors and pointers.
Illusion, and whether free choice really exists is another note, examined through the exploration of performance and puppet theatre and this is both real, and used as metaphor.
Byatt is here like some great weaver of skeins of history, twisting strands together into something that is dark, dangerous, beautiful and shining.