What is the difference between a City Fabian and a Country Fabian? Based on A. S. Byatt’s remarkable novel The Children’s Book, depicting the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, one of the principal differences is that the minor Fabians found in the country seem to be far more interesting as characters than are the City Fabians, the major celebrities such as Shaw, the Webbs, Wells, etc, who make cameo appearances in this novel and are often cited for their inspiration.—R. F. Dietrich1
I’ve always had trouble with Shaw.—A. S. Byatt2
I see no reason to croak about the critics.—G. B. Shaw3
A. S. Byatt and Bernard Shaw may seem an unlikely pair, not only because they lived in different eras and usually wrote in different genres, but especially because of Byatt’s public statements about her problems with her predecessor. Byatt tells Ramona Koval in a 2009 interview that her mother had a
huge collection of the works of George Bernard Shaw, including socialist advice for young women, and I reacted against that in some [End Page 55] sort of way. . . . It’s a deeply unreadable book to be truthful. I’ve got it out of piety towards my mother. . . . I can’t get on with it. It’s like Shaw’s novels. I can’t read those either. I’ve been reading his little book on Ibsen which is sort of brilliant and that about Ibsen’s feminism and somehow I can manage that.”4
This difficulty with Shaw’s essays and novels does not stop Byatt from incorporating a heavy dose of GBS, intentionally or unintentionally, throughout her novel, The Children’s Book (tcb 2009).5 In creating the Fabian milieu that permeated the late Victorian era, Byatt evokes the historical Shaw by name nine times. Even Shaw’s Jaeger suit makes an appearance (tcb 45). Also, part of Shaw’s biography as the neglected child of a blended, bohemian family resonates with the fictional account of the Wellwoods,6 the primary family around whom the novel revolves. The allusions to Shaw, his life and work, prove apt, as Fabianism pervades both Byatt’s novel and Shaw’s oeuvre; consequently, the strong influence of Fabianism on both writers—and Byatt’s engagement of Shaw to depict the zeitgeist of the era—forms the basis for this study.
Critics place A. S. Byatt’s imposing compendium, The Children’s Book, in the genre of Neo-Victorianism, which began to flourish in the 1990s and includes Byatt’s most famous work, Possession (1994). Joseph Bristow suggests that “neo-Victorian narratives present alternative visions of a nineteenth-century world that is much queerer, more bohemian, and altogether more politically enlightened than established types of historical fiction insist we should behold” and evinces a fascination with a wealth of information that suggests its fictional universe is historically accurate down to the smallest detail.7 Byatt herself speaks more broadly about the increased popularity of historical fiction, recounting the story of a journalist who interviewed “various novelists about ten years ago about why they were writing historical novels, expecting some answer about paradigms of contemporary reality, and got the same answer from all of them. They wanted to write in a more elaborate, complex way, in longer sentences, and with more figurative language,” in short, in the style of the earlier periods that they were depicting.8 Byatt shares this rhetorical desire and sees it as a revolt of sorts against the prevalent “exactness” of contemporary writing. This analysis of a “revolt” that signals a change in prevailing literary trends supports previous discussions of our fascination with fin de siècle culture and the radical changes in society that often occur around the turn of centuries.9 Bristow also recognizes Byatt’s novel as part of our twenty-first-century fascination with World War I and its upcoming [End Page 56] centenary as manifested in novels, films, and television productions10—the immense popularity of the current Masterpiece series Downton Abbey is just one example of this fascination. The Children’s Book also depicts a...