Companion Reads: ‘A Circle of Sisters’ and ‘The Children’s Book’
I discovered a pair when I read Judith Flanders’ A Circle of Sisters earlier this year. A wonderful biography of the Macdonald sisters (wives and mothers to various famous men of Empire), Circle of Sisters paints an incredibly intimate and detailed portrait of an ever-expanding British family in the late Victorian age.
Grandly sweeping through decades and themes, Flanders takes her time and revels in all that is perfectly ordinary about the Macdonald sisters. In the end, the fact that they married well or that they birthed poet laureates and prime ministers almost doesn’t matter. It becomes more interesting that these women were not exceptional — for how rare is the biography of the average person?
Somewhere in the middle of A Circle of Sisters, I recalled a faint echo of something familiar. Generations of one British family? The arts and crafts movement? The coming war? It didn’t take me too long to make the connection to A.S. Byatt’s wonderful The Children’s Book.
I never wrote about how much I loved that book here on Literary Transgressions, mostly because I couldn’t pinpoint what touched me so deeply about it. Like all Byatt, it was evocative and beautifully done, but The Children’s Book is far and away my favorite of hers and I still can’t quite articulate why. It’s masterful and sweeping and moving and, as far as I can tell, everything that is good in literature.
And it pairs perfectly with A Circle of Sisters, which gives the nonfiction counterpoint, and additional historical details, to Byatt’s novel. They tell very similar stories and the details in each are lovingly portrayed. Flanders’ book makes you realize how ripe these lives are for novelization and Byatt’s is the ideal version of that fictionalization. Meanwhile, Byatt’s book bounces you back to Flanders’ for additional details about the period for those left with questions after reading The Children’s Book.
Both are really great reads and I can’t recommend them individually highly enough. But, if you’re like me and have a penchant for this time period, these two books really are best enjoyed together. I’m even tempted to re-read The Children’s Book with A Circle of Sisters fresh in my mind.
Entry filed under: Biography, Historical Fiction. Tags: A.S. Byatt, Arts and Crafts Movement, British Empire, British history, Companion Reads, Contemporary Classics, England, feminism, history, women.