A densely woven account of connected families growing and changing over the late Victorian period up until the end of WWI. Byatt centres her narrative on the lives of the children, following their development and emotional perspectives. The book is openly aestheticising at the expense of pure realism, aiming for the elegant, stylised naturalism of art nouveau that supplies so much of the historical detail. I deeply enjoyed the tale and the telling, particularly Philip's story, which resists high drama apart from the uncomfortable child abuse subplot.
Elsie, the working class girl, is a challenge for Byatt, an unusual character whose story feels underwritten, but at least she defies stereotypes & romanticisation by being frankly interested in sex and smart clothes. The suffrage movement and the war receive intelligent attention. The most satisfying sections are about Anselm Stern, the genius puppeteer, and his sons. Artistry is the theme with which Byatt deals most effectively, illuminating the reality of hard, prolonged work of creation by personalities so well drawn they feel like friends.
Byatt has a way of appreciatively writing about clothes which I love and find inspiring: she imbues them with sensual pleasure, artfulness and delight, and always uses them to create ambiance and develop character.