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This is an epic book, and not at all what I expected. When the blurb on the back tells you that it is about children growing up in the Edwardian era who will be ‘betrayed unintentionally by the adults who love them’ your mind, or mine at least, presumes that the book will have as a large part a focus on the First World War. And this is not so. The First World War does feature, but towards the end, and it an event played out on the world stage, and yes it is a betrayal. But in many ways it is just one more betrayal these young people have to face, and it is most definitely not the novel’s focus.

Instead it focuses on a set of bohemian, artistic families, who are determined to live by modern, humanistic values, and who see this as the most rational and productive way to raise the next generation. But it doesn’t always work that way. Discovered through the children’s glimpses, we see the distortions and misunderstandings that Humphry’s and Olive’s infidelity creates. Despite the magazine pictures of her as a successful children’s author, weaving tales for the charming children gathered at her knee, the reality is darker and more disturbing. The children are uncertain, unsure, who they belong to and how? And, in the age-old problem for maternity, Olive’s need to create, to be independent, drives a wedge between her and her children when their bond is needed most.

Meanwhile in the Fludd’s household Benedict’s creative genius as a potter must come first against all. This suits his protegé Philip, escaping his own demons, but the demands of genius destroy his family. His beautiful wife has given up and sits drugged amongst the dirt and ruin while Benedict sculpts obscene portrayals of his daughters.

In between, Russian anarchists and German artists flit across the pages with players from the developing museums sector and the arts and crafts movement with their children. And by each are the children betrayed, as creativity and adult needs are put first and the demands of children for stability, reason and safety ignored.

I can’t say I liked this book, but that would not be a criticism in itself if it had the power to move me, but I felt there was something lacking. Byatt knows her stuff, and it is clear that she is clever and knowledgeable. She places her characters on and in the sweep of history, describing the key elements of the time, and yet the historic sweep and lives of the characters themselves did not seem to marry together as they should. In the end I did not really care which of the characters lived or died or came through the Great War psychologically intact. Off the page they had no life for me, which is a shame because the potential for great things was there.

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I ordered this book as it’s the reading for the Royal Society, History of Science Book Group’s August meet-up. I might not be able to make that event (it’s clashing with a late at the Science Museum), but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read a book that I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across otherwise. The book was long-listed for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2010, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Medieval conceptions of science were totally different to our own, and are often very difficult to grasp, given their completely different world view. But Hannam smooths the corners away, helping us understand the important role of magic and astrology in moving knowledge forward, and how medieval Catholicism was actually often a force for improved scientific knowledge rather than against it. He even manages to, half, rehabilitate that dread organisation: the Inquisition! And he does all this while making us aware of the, often unacknowledged, debt that ‘modern’ scientific thinkers from the renaissance onwards owe to their medieval forebears.

My only quibble with this book is that Hannam defends medieval thinkers a little too zealously. I have no doubt that their contribution to the birth of modern science, and the advancements that were made in the Renaissance, has been woefully underestimated. But I also think that Hannam goes a little too far the other way. Whilst he bemoans the use of the term the ‘dark ages’, the period up to 1000 AD (so the 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire) get a scant 20 pages in his book – for a very good reason – not a lot happened.

In fact, there’s only another 40 pages from that up to the 12th century, which Hannam calls a renaissance in itself. And if you accept that the Renaissance ‘proper’ began in the late 13th century, then most of the book isn’t actually taken up with the medieval period at all. However, the section that is does describe some interesting advancements, especially in architecture,  mathematics, and related to that astrology and clock-making.

But much of the time of medieval scholars seemed to be spent either in darkness, or in trying to access and understand the knowledge of the Islamic world. Hannam seems to be playing a sleight of hand by taking a large period of time which most people accept as the early Renaissance and rebranding it as the late medieval period, so he can hold up the accomplishments of medieval scholars.

That aside, it is a fascinating book, making a dry and difficult subject accessible and enjoyable. And I can forgive Hannam his zeal as he does illuminate the debt modern science owes to those scholars who went before them – whatever period they were working in.