I’ve been reading The Children’s Book recently, and came across a passage that struck me as important. If you want to understand A.S. Byatt’s work, not the whole of it, of course (post title notwithstanding), but the catalyst, the detonator, the idea that acts as the prime mover, you’d do well to think very hard about this passage.
All you need to know in advance is that the book takes place in early Edwardian England, and that Patty Dace, Arthur Dobbin, and Rev. Frank Mallett have decide to organize a lecture series, and are meeting to discuss the topic and potential lecturers.
She put on her spectacles, and said to Frank that they should perhaps find a title for a series. Dobbin said he thought they should find exciting speakers first, and then make up a title. Although Dobbin had been shy and ill-at-ease at Todefright he felt in retrospect that he had been privileged and delighted to meet the glittering folk in their fancy dress. He wanted to hear them again — Humphry and Olive, Toby Youlgreave and August Steyning, the anarchists and the London professor who worked with Professor Galton on human statistics and heredity. He said that he had heard some very interesting ideas about folklore and ancient customs whilst in Andreden. Maybe she could think of those.
Miss Dace said she was interested more in change. She wanted lectures on new things, the New Life, the New Woman, new forms of art and democracy. And religion, she said, looking bravely at Frank.
Frank sipped his tea and said thoughtfully that in fact there was only an apparent contradiction. For many of the new things looked back to very old things for their strength. The theosophists looked back to the wisdom of Tibetan masters, for instance. William Morris’s socialism looked back to mediaeval guilds and communities. Edward Carpenter’s ideas about shedding the stultifying respectability of Victorian family life looked back also, to human beings living in harmony with nature, as natural creatures. And the same was true of the vegetarians and anti-vivisectionists, they required a wholesome respect for natural animal life, as it was before technical civilisation. In the arts too, Benedict Fludd, for instance, wanted to return to the ancient craft of the single potter, and to find the lost red glazes, the Turkish Iznik, the Chinese sang-de-boeuf. The Society for Psychical Research had rediscovered an old spirit world, and lost primitive powers of human communication. Old superstitions might furnish new spiritual understanding. Even the New Woman, he said, venturing a half-joke, sought freedom from whalebone and laces in Rational Dress but also in free-flowing mediaeval gowns. Women’s work in the world appeared to be new, but in the old times abbesses had wielded power and governed communities, as principals of colleges now did. Maybe all steps into the future drew strength from a searching gaze into the deep past. He would almost dare to propose himself as a lecturer on this theme.