In 1893, the Scottish writer William Sharp began publishing poetry under the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod. MacLeod’s poems caught the eye of W. B. Yeats, who admired her lyricism even as he disdained the verse Sharp published under his own name. The elements of this minor literary intrigue—modern poetry and sexual confusion—lie behind Ian McEwan’s equally minor novel, The Children Act. McEwan’s Fiona, a childless High Court judge pondering her “failure to become a woman,” presides over the case of a 17-year-old leukemia patient whose religion forbids blood transfusions. McEwan’s well-publicized antipathy to organized religion makes his critique of Christian orthodoxy predictable; the novel’s more subtle conflict arises from the social impact of modern literature. As Fiona and the leukemia patient forge a perilous bond through their shared love of Yeats, poetry comes to precipitate greater moral chaos than the clash between sacred and secular law.
The Children Act is McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday writ small. In both novels, a successful London professional finds consolation in poetry, music, and marriage after disturbing encounters with a diseased stranger. The Children Act offers the same gifts that made Saturday such pleasurable reading: rich quotidian details, a reverence for centuries-old London, the well-plotted shattering of bourgeois lives. But an autumnal quality mellows McEwan’s famously menacing tones, and what begins as an unflinching contest over a child’s life tapers away into a reassuring domestic tale. This slender novel—McEwan’s 15th—attempts but only faintly evokes the ethical nuance and the visceral horror of the author’s earlier fictions. Poetry, morality, and mortality; we have been here before, and we have been shaken more deeply.
Fifty-nine-year-old Fiona Maye enters the novel haunted by a legal decision that “dispatched a child from the world.” A Family Division judge celebrated for bringing “reasonableness to hopeless situations,” Fiona has recently ruled in favor of separating conjoined newborn twins named Matthew and Mark. Although only one baby can survive this separation, Fiona judges that the surgery’s purpose is “not to kill Matthew but to save Mark.” This clear-eyed ruling bolsters Fiona’s national reputation, but she dwells on Matthew’s death, tormented by having “argued him out of existence in thirty-four pages.” Redemption suggests itself through the case of the cancer-stricken Jehovah’s Witness Adam Henry, another boy with a Biblical name who will die unless Fiona intervenes.
Adam’s case arrives on the same evening that Fiona’s husband Jack embarks on an affair with a young statistician. Faith and faithlessness, both misplaced: Adam’s parents believe that church doctrine rather than medical science will save their son, while Jack believes that “one big passionate affair” will revive the Mayes’ 35-year-old marriage. Outraged by Jack’s betrayal and unpersuaded by the legal arguments both for and against treating Adam’s leukemia with a blood transfusion, Fiona makes the unorthodox decision to visit Adam in Wandsworth Hospital.
Here is the first hint of the shadowy dread we desire in a McEwan novel, the luxurious anticipation of cashmere sentences hiding razor blades in their folds. But McEwan robs Fiona and Adam’s encounter of its intrigue, revealing baldly that the situation “was either about a woman on the edge of a crack-up making a sentimental error in professional judgment, or it was about a boy delivered from or into his beliefs of his sect by the intimate intervention of the secular court.” These various possibilities converge in the precocious, tragicomic figure of Adam himself, who comes to inhabit the dangerous roles of Fiona’s surrogate son and lover. Deciding that Adam “must be protected from his religion,” Fiona rules in favor of the blood transfusion. Adam subsequently rejects the “uninterrupted monochrome” of the Witness church and cultivates an infatuation with the judge who showed him “something really beautiful and deep.” He makes increasingly untenable demands on Fiona, and when a fleeting lapse of judgment leads to catastrophe, Fiona agonizes that she has once more “dispatched a child from the world.”
The Children Act plays no tricks on the reader—a striking departure in the oeuvre of a writer famed for literary deception—but the relative conventionality of its narrative arc is not what makes the novel minor. What weakens The Children Act is McEwan’s perfunctory treatment of its social and professional worlds. Over the last decade, McEwan has demonstrated seamless command over diverse professional idioms, rendering poetic the languages of nursing (Atonement, 2001), neuroscience (Saturday), classical music (On Chesil Beach, 2007), climate change (Solar, 2010), and espionage (Sweet Tooth, 2012). In The Children Act, however, self-righteous polemic compromises the author’s expertise.
What weakens McEwan’s latest is his perfunctory treatment of its social and professional worlds.
Courtroom scenes ring hollow: medical experts sneer at the devout (a hematologist scorns Adam for martyring himself to “the doctrines of a religious cult”), while the Jehovah’s Witnesses voice platitudes (“All life is the gift of the Lord. And his to take away,” says Adam’s father). Neither Adam nor his parents convey faith so unbending, so radiant in its convictions that it destabilizes the secular truths of medical science. Similarly, the novel’s elaborate descriptions of contemporary judicial process (McEwan trots out a sequence of real-life English family law cases) impede narrative momentum without inciting the reader’s outrage. McEwan has done his research, but his studied acquisition of legal discourse clashes with the more fluent passions he brings to questions about the British literary canon.
The opening sentences of The Children Act (“London. Trinity Term one week old. Implacable June weather.”) imitate the opening of Bleak House (“London. Michaelmas Term lately over, … Implacable November weather.”). The novel’s final scene remakes the closing of “The Dead,” in which a husband watches his sleeping wife after she has revealed her infidelity. On the one hand, simple plot-based logic accounts for these allusions, as The Children Act strives to capture Bleak House’s critique of English law as well as the devastated intimacies of “The Dead.” But the larger journey from Dickens to Joyce—the evolution of English literature between the 19th and the 20th centuries—has preoccupied McEwan since Atonement. How did the morally centered universe of Victorian social realism splinter into the amoral, form-breaking worlds of modernism?
This question wields tremendous power in The Children Act. Indeed, the novel was inspired in part by McEwan’s conviction that case histories in the Family Division share affinities with a “tradition of moral exploration that includes Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad.”1 While McEwan endows contemporary legal process with the ethical subtlety of 19th-century literature, he also exacts a heavy price from characters who gravitate towards modern aesthetics. Thus, what dooms Adam Henry and Fiona Maye’s relationship is not the incompatibility of church and state, but a mutual, and eventually transgressive, love of Yeats.
McEwan styles the rise and decay of Fiona and Adam’s friendship as a version of modernism’s rebellious departure from tradition. Fiona’s visit to Adam’s hospital room, for example, begins with a rational debate over whether Adam should welcome or fight death from cancer. Adam shows Fiona a fiery, Blakean verse that he has composed to celebrate his pending martyrdom:
My fortunes sank into the darkest hole
When Satan took his hammer to my soul
His blacksmith’s strokes were long and slow
And I was low.
But Satan made a cloth of beaten gold
That shone God’s love upon the fold.
The way with golden light is paved
And I am saved.
But Fiona transforms the boy’s poetic sensibility when she teaches him Yeats’s “Down by the Salley Gardens.” As Adam accompanies her on his new violin (“an act of hope,” in the judge’s eyes), Fiona sings Benjamin Britten’s 1919 arrangement of Yeats’s 1899 ballad:
In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And leaning on my shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
Enthralled, Adam abandons his forward-looking fantasy of Christian redemption in favor of the Irish poet’s “backward-looking lament.” His immediate fascination with Britten’s melody and Yeats’s words compels Fiona to argue, on her return to court, that Adam’s welfare “is better served by his love of poetry, by his newly found passion for the violin,” than by dying for his faith.
The pivotal role of “Down by the Salley Gardens” lays bare the unspoken thesis of McEwan’s novel: it is anathema to deform social bonds through modern art. We have encountered this thesis before. In Atonement, McEwan depicts Briony Tallis’s Woolfian artistry as a malevolent, life-destroying force. In Saturday, Daisy Perowne saves her family from violent intruders by reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” instead of her own neo-modernist confessional verse. And while “The Salley Gardens” is hardly Yeats’s most daring work, its lyricism propels Adam Henry out of his unquestioning adherence to Christian law and into a ferment of self-discovery. Following his court-mandated blood transfusion, Adam moves his Bible out of his room and declares that reading Yeats has, for him, supplanted the act of worship. “I still look at that poem every day. I love being ‘young and foolish,’” he writes in an impassioned letter to Fiona. During their fateful final encounter, Adam reiterates that “The Salley Gardens” was “my revelation … Thanks to you I’m full of Yeats!”
When Fiona rejects Adam’s startling, impossible proposal that he move in with her, the boy-poet indicts her in a remaking of “The Salley Gardens.” “The Ballad of Adam Henry” imagines Fiona as a beautiful fish who compels “young and foolish” Adam to throw his cross in the river. It ends incomplete:
And Jesus stood on the water and this he said to me,
“That fish was the voice of Satan, and you must pay the fee.
Her kiss was the kiss of Judas, her kiss betrayed my name.
The ballad breaks off with “may he,” just as Adam’s childhood breaks off with Fiona Maye—the poetic discontinuity echoes the larger narrative discontinuity of Adam’s life. In McEwan’s calculus, to be “full of Yeats” is to be emptied of a moral understanding of social relationships. Fiona’s delayed realization that “Adam came looking for her and she offered him nothing in religion’s place, no protection” makes explicit the novel’s hostility toward what McEwan has called “modernism and its dereliction of duty.”2
Yet The Children Act pays homage to the very modernist gestures it condemns. After Fiona performs Britten’s “Salley Gardens” at a Christmas concert, the Mayes reach an uneasy reconciliation patterned on Gretta and Gabriel Conroy’s Christmas conversation in “The Dead.” Saturday, too, ended with a tribute to “The Dead,” but The Children Act lacks that earlier novel’s lovely wholeness, the hard-won happiness of Henry Perowne’s Joycean realization that “faintly, falling: this day’s over.” And where Saturday pierced the boundary between seemingly inviolable privilege and human savagery, The Children Act trades in the comfort of nostalgia. The Mayes’ final embrace allays sexual and professional anxieties with a return to familiarity: McEwan offers a quiet anticlimax instead of the catharsis befitting a tale about faith, reason, and the life of a child. The Children Act contains many pleasures, but it falters where it should strike boldly, sounding, perhaps, a “faintly falling” note in McEwan’s own literary daring.