A S Byatt’s new novel begins in 1895 with two boys pursuing a third to his hiding place in the bowels of the South Kensington Museum (now known as the Victoria and Albert). It concludes nearly twenty-five years later with the return of a beloved son from the Great War. It traces the history of several families and their friends, a loosely connected group of writers, artists, financiers and thinkers. The action takes place partly in London, partly in Kent and the Romney Marsh area of southern England, with forays into France, Germany, Italy and, finally, the battlefields of Europe. As in Byatt’s previous fictions, the novel sets the personal history of imagined characters within a minutely researched portrait of a historical era. Also characteristically, it is a novel obsessed with visualising. With its lavish descriptions of clothes, artworks, interiors and stage sets, it combines the pictorial realism of the nineteenth-century artist William Powell Frith’s The Derby Day or The Railway Station with the fantasy and strangeness of Richard Dadd’s Contradiction: Oberon and Titania. (Indeed, the Victorian fascination with the human mishaps and magical transformations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an important theme in the book.)
Art and invention are central motifs. A master potter, Benedict Fludd, lives with his cowed wife and daughters in semi-poverty in the countryside near Dungeness, where he fashions pots with subtle glazes and snaky, fishy excrescences. Fludd is the archetypal mad genius, equally capable of creation and destruction.