Monday, July 6, 2009

The reach of the British Empire, local & global (Books - The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt & Film - The Wind That Shakes the Barley)

I am half way through A. S. Byatt's latest novel The Children's Book. This is a vast narrative spanning art and politics over Queen Victoria's later decades and King Edward's first. It's central story is that of a wealthy family discovering a poor young man from the North English coal fields sketching in the Victoria and Albert Museum (its director is among the book's cast of characters). They see great talent in the young boy and give him first clothing, a place to live, and instruction in reading and later find him employment with a master artist. There are multiple interactions in this story between members of the wealthy upper class, middle class working people - that is, writers or school teachers - and the poor like Philip the young potter and his sister Elsie. Between ideas of the British Empire's role as steward of the world - civilizing vast swathes of the uneducated and unwashed as they try to preserve the old ways - versus rising notions of anarchism in Russia and socialism in Germany and England, spreading notions of free love, higher education and suffrage for women, birth control. And between art and, 'life,' I guess you could say, or 'fact.' Byatt plays out this last interaction in multiple ways. For instance, there is Philip, the budding artist - a meeting is being held at his mentor's home of a way to use his pottery designs to make money for the family - into this meeting arrives Elsie Warren, Philip's sister. Olive Wellwood, a writer of childrens' stories, is present.
That left Olive, who was a grown woman, and Frank Mallett, who was a clergyman. He consulted Olive, and it was agreed that Miss Warren should be found a place to rest, and perhaps some temporary fresh clothing. Oliver bent over Elsi and said it was very odd to be present at the discovery of two runaways in one family. She was thinking what a good story it would make, the girl who walked across half England to find her brother. She smiled at Elsie, absently, studying her intently...
Firstly, the very fact of Philip and Elsie's class means that 'life' is infringing on 'art' all the time. Poverty, the way the issues of mere existence force themselves again and again upon someone with no money, does not allow for a life steeped in the pleasures of creation - no matter how talented the artist. Seconds, Olive is sewing seeds of a narrative she will create based upon the facts of the life of Elsie Warren. Thirdly, this interaction between the classes - those with means figuring out how they will provide for Elsie ( she will become a servant, of course) just as they have for her brother Philip, plays out in miniature the role of Empire and colony.

Another example of this interplay:
Prosper Cain came when he could, when the business of the Museum allowed it. He gave a talk on the craft of art, and the art of craft, and of how - even in painting and sculpture - the two were inseparable. You needed design, and you needed basic physics and chemistry, or your pain would not dry under its varnish and your clay would not hold its glaze. And you needed also something - a sharpness of vision - which couldn't be taught, but could not be acquired, in his view, without incessant practice.
Here is the interaction of art and craft, art and commerce, art and science. Byatt returns to this refrain again and again as a way to characterize the complexity of this burgeoning modern world and how it is different from the stiff though also more simplistic fiction that came before it.
The Prince of Wales carried out his own family rebellion, and let it be known that he proposed to reign as King Edward. Victoria and Albert had named him Albert Edward, but he chose to follow the six earlier English Edwards...He was not, in Albert's way, a good man. He was immediately named 'Edward the Caresser'. He like women, sport, good food and wine...There was a sense that fun was now permitted, was indeed obligatory. The stiff black flounces, the jet necklaces, the pristine caps, the euphemisms and deference, the high seriousness also, the sense of duty and the questioning of the deep meanings of things were there to be mocked, to be turned inot scarecrows and Hallowe'en masks. People talked, and thought, earnestly and frivolously about sex. At the same time they showed a paradoxical propensity to retreat into childhood, to read and write adventure stories, tales about furry animals, dramas about pre-pubertal children.

At the book's center (literally) comes a story penned by Olive. In it a little girl discovers a race of tiny people living beneath a tree. She enjoys them and so takes a few for her very own to live in her doll's house. She tries to feed them and provide for them and expects them to play with her but they are unhappy with their imprisonment and will not. The little girl cannot understand this, until a great hand reaches down through her window and does the same to her. This rather bald metaphor is played out again and again through The Children's Book, whether through the literal events of history played out in the changing British Empire, through the wealthy banker finding employment for the poor potter and his sister, whether it is the protection of the child by the parent which usually originates in loving intentions but which can also produce unintended damaging results, or whether it is the artist who manipulates her characters in an Empire of her own. I haven't decided yet whether I am finding this interplay of ideas - on the macro scale and the micro, in the fictional world and the real, in the political world and the artistic - overly simplistic or whether their interplay will make for satisfying complexity that is greater than the sum of its parts. Right now, the many strands of this narrative feel unintegrated but there are another 300 pages to go.

And if stories of the mis-expressed benevolence of the British Empire is your cup of tea, you might appreciate Ken Loach's extraordinarily passionate film The Wind That Shakes the Barley - a naturalistic account of the British occupation of Ireland in 1920 and how the treaty between Britain and Ireland ended up pitting brother against brother. It is a wrenching story and the acting is first rate. Loach is a distinctive and underappreciated director whose films really bear viewing.

No comments: