Pamela Norris

Potted Histories

The Children’s Book


Chatto & Windus 614pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

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.) 

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'Moser’s book offers such a gripping account of a profoundly damaged human being, trapped in a cycle of repetition,… ,
    • 'Ideas that I’d thought were set down in full continue to smoulder ... this book is only a snapshot of some larger… ,
    • 'Full of invention which, at its most pedestrian, is eminently Victorian, and at its most unrestrained wildly imagi… ,
    • 'What in other hands could have been a dry, pedantic account of Christianity’s birth and evolution becomes in Holla… ,
    • RT : One of my favourite literary magazines is celebrating 40 years this year. Here is the September edition of… ,
    • 'Now that the Thames is too fast-flowing to freeze, its spirit’s devotees ... have found other climes for their pri… ,
    • 'Bythell glowers past his till at a world in slow free fall.' on the travails of a second-hand book… ,