In his latest novel, Fiona Maye not only has to preside over difficult cases which have been taken to the Family Division but has a marital crisis to deal with as well. At 59, she and her husband Jack are, as McEwan puts it, “in the infancy of old age”. However, Jack has decided that he would like a last fling with Melanie, a 28-year old, so by definition young enough to be his daughter - though the Mayes are childless. Seeking to have his cake and eat it, Jack would like his thirty five years of marriage to continue but Fiona, after some inner turmoil:
He had always been kind, loyal and kind, and kindness, the Family Division daily proved, was the essential human ingredient. She had the power to remove a child from an unkind parent and she sometimes did. But remove herself from an unkind husband?sends him away and has the locks of their flat in Gray’s Inn Square changed.
Melanie, like Jack is an academic, - "His only book for the non-academic reader, a pacy life of Julius Caesar, made him briefly almost famous …”. Possibly McEwan does not consider the academic world as part of the front rank of professional life. Michael Beard, his Nobel stemming more from luck than brilliance, is almost a charlatan while in Sweet Tooth (2012) Tony Canning and Thomas Haley, both university lecturers, are less than admirable characters, to put it kindly.
Much of The Children Act is spent describing Fiona’s cases, the arguments on both sides and the judgements she reaches, more than on her own predicament. One particular case, taking up more than half the book, requires a ruling on the case of an almost adult Jehovah’s Witness whose family are resisting a medically necessary transfusion. It leads Fiona to make an exceptional decision to visit Adam, the boy in question, in hospital:
This, Fiona decided as her taxi halted in heavy traffic on Waterloo bridge, was either about a woman on the edge of a crack-up making a sentimental error of professional judgement, or it was about a boy delivered from or into the beliefs of his sect by the intimate intervention of the secular court. She didn’t think it could be both.The Children Act relates how this visit turns into a liaison which is potentially dangerous to Fiona’s career but brings some symmetry to her marriage. The novel is set in 2012, mostly in the legal quarter of a London described with nods to Dickens and Woolf that even I could recognise. As in other McEwan novels there are digressions, for example an account of Fiona’s performing in front of her peers at a concert – Christmas Revels for the Bar – is probably most appealing to readers familiar with the music she is playing. Earlier her husband describes a geology lecture he has attended where it was conjectured that in a hundred million years all that will remain of the Anthropocene epoch will be just six inches of sediment.
Although McEwan has had personal experience of the Family Division, in writing the book, as the Acknowledgements indicate, he benefited from high level advice from within the legal world. So perhaps unsurprisingly he is not as critical of the Bar as some might have hoped. Indeed anyone aware of its arcane arrangements starting with the process of seeking a pupillage and its arbitrary outcomes may be puzzled by just how sympathetically McEwan regards it, although:
A friend, a stalwart of the Queen’s Bench, steered [Fiona] over to meet a ‘brilliant’ barrister who happened to be his nephew. Watched over by the proud uncle, she asked solicitous questions of a thin young man with a pitiful stammer. … an old girlfriend stole her away to a circle of mutinous young women barristers who told her, though in humorous terms, that they weren’t getting the quality work. It was going to the men.In September 2014 in an article for the Guardian, Ian McEwan: the law versus religious belief, the author provided some background to the writing of The Children Act and concluded:
… the family division is rooted in the same ground as fiction, where all of life's vital interests lie. With the luxury of withholding judgment, a novel could interpose itself here, reinvent the characters and circumstances, and begin to investigate an encounter between love and belief, between the secular spirit of the law and sincerely held faith.Earlier he had observed that:
Judgments in the family division tend to genuflect politely before the religious devotion of the parties, before arriving at decisions on non-religious grounds.But at the end of the novel Fiona reaches a shameful conclusion:
Adam came looking for her and she offered nothing in religion’s place, no protection, even though the Act was clear, her paramount consideration was his welfare. How many pages in how many judgements had she devoted to that term? Welfare, well-being was social. No child is an island. She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.Three trivial points. McEwan announced on Facebook in November 2014 that he was writing the screenplay for a film version of The Children Act to be directed by Richard Eyre – they don’t seem to have told IMDb about it yet. He said:
In the part of the central figure, a 60 year old High Court judge, Richard wants to cast one of the best screen actresses in the world. At this stage, it would be improper to name her. But if she were to take on the part, the act of writing itself would be transformed. A face, a voice, a gesture is already embodied in a vibrant person capable of pouring herself into any shape. The transition would take on new interest and force. Fingers crossed.Not so difficult to make a guess as to who that might be. Secondly, Cafcass is mentioned twice without explanation, its role probably being obvious. Finally, and revealing my ignorance of upper class life, just how does Fiona’s baby grand piano, presumably with the lid up, accommodate “in country-house style” silver-framed photographs of:
Both sets of parents from wedding day to dotage, his three sisters, her two brothers, their wives and husbands present and past … eleven nephews and nieces, then the thirteen children they in turn had made.