Of the many books I enjoy teaching, ‘The Children’s Book’ by A S Byatt is particularly rewarding to teach at A Level. The richness of description and the complexity of character are a goldmine for close analysis and the wealth of historical, political, psychological and literary influences on Byatt’s work mean that it lends itself to insightful and deep classroom discussion and essay writing. I first read the novel four years ago and, being someone who enjoys the magic of the Victoria and Albert Museum, I was very quickly drawn in to a fictionalised version of its cavernous storerooms and hidden corridors. As the novel progresses, Byatt introduces increasingly more appealing characters, appealing both in their beauty and in their grotesquery and she marches them all briskly on towards the tragic inevitability of 1914.
At the heart of the novel sits a fairy tale entitled ‘The Shrubbery’ which is written by the strikingly beautiful and tragically flawed matriarch, Olive Wellwood. The tale describes a naughty little boy who, after getting under his mother’s feet one too many times disappears into a land of strange, impish folk and so begins a parallel between the lost boys of Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ and the young men who died on the battle fields of the First World War.
A productive exercise which helps to explore the symbolism of Olive’s tale, and the influence of the uncanny that is at work here is to watch an extract of Lotte Reiniger’s rather macabre version of ‘Cinderella’ made in 1922. Reiniger’s ‘Aschenputtel’ is a terrifying work of animation in which rather beautiful and intricate silhouettes stay true to the version recorded by the Brothers Grimm and depicts both of the ugly sisters mutilating their feet in a bid to trick the Prince in to thinking he has found the right fit for the discarded golden slipper. Students can discuss why simple cardboard cut-outs can have such a disquieting effect in a world where we are largely desensitised to horror. Somehow these shadows draw a response from us that is at once familiar and unfamiliar; we recognise the mimicry of the human form but we cannot quite reconcile ourselves to the seeming reality of what these young women are willing to do to themselves for untold riches. From this, students can very naturally progress on to a discussion about the allegorical message of both this fairy tale and that of Byatt’s.
What will hopefully become apparent through the lesson is the familiarity we have with fairy tale and its power to explore very deeply rooted and recognisable truths about human existence; a theme which arguably drives not just this novel but the form itself.
By David Anson, Head of English
Featured in The Guardian- World Book Day 2015: teachers share their favourite books
Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.