Antonia Susan Drabble Byatt Overview

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					                         Antonia Susan Drabble Byatt: Overview
                                      Peter Lewis

     Although A.S. Byatt is among the best-known literary figures in England today, she has
published only eight creative (as opposed to critical) books since her writing career began over 30
years ago. Until the publication of her third novel, The Virgin in the Garden, in 1978, her
reputation owed more to her scholarly and critical writing, including the first book-length study of
Iris Murdoch, Degrees of Freedom, and to the high quality of her literary journalism and
reviewing than to her fiction; this was somewhat overshadowed by the very popular output of her
younger and more prolific sister, Margaret Drabble. However, with The Virgin in the Garden,
Byatt's first novel in over a decade and one of the most rewarding works of English fiction in the
second half of the 1970s, she established herself as an important novelist in her own right, and
confirmed this status in 1985 with Still Life, the first of three planned sequels to The Virgin in the
Garden. By winning the Booker Prize in 1990 for her most recent novel, Possession, Byatt further
enhanced her standing and has reached a wider audience than ever before.
     Byatt's first two novels do not aim as high as her later ones, but both are substantial books,
and they reveal a development towards the fusion of realism and symbolism in her more recent
work. Shadow of a Sun, her first work of fiction, is essentially a straightforward piece of orthodox
realism, whereas The Game makes extensive use of mythical and symbolic elements within a
realistic framework.
     The action of Shadow of a Sun--the title comes from a Ralegh poem--takes place in the
shadow cast by Henry Severell, a major English novelist of visionary intensity who is prone to
bouts of manic insanity. His teenage daughter, Anna, is the character most dominated by his
overpowering personality, and the novel explores Anna's attempt to define herself as an
independent being by liberating herself from parental, especially paternal, control and from her
own conventionality. The book is a kind of Bildungsroman, tracing Anna's development from a
very immature schoolgirl, who makes a protest by running away from school, to a Cambridge
undergraduate made pregnant by one of her father's friends and most enthusiastic critics, Oliver
Canning. In the inconclusive and open-ended final chapter, Anna, having rejected the possibility of
a marriage of convenience with a well-to-do, kind-hearted, and mother-dominated fellow-student,
asserts her new-found independence and maturity, and confronts the future.
     Despite its ample scale, Shadow of a Sun concentrates on a very small, tightly knit group of
characters, Henry Severell and his wife, Oliver Canning and his wife, and Anna herself. Byatt's
second novel, The Game, is less claustrophobic in this respect, taking in a much wider spectrum of
characters, from academics at Oxford and a Quaker community in Northumberland to fashionable
television people in London and a homeless problem family. This range is one reason for the novel
being more impressive than its predecessor, although there are obvious resemblances: a novelist is
again a major participant, for example, and the erosion of a marriage features prominently. At the
heart of The Game is the complex and basically antagonistic relationship between two sisters in
their thirties, the unmarried Cassandra Corbett, an Oxford don specializing in medieval romance
literature, and Julia Eskelund (her husband is Norwegian), a popular novelist who writes about the
problems of contemporary women. Cassandra, a convert to Anglo-Catholicism from her family's
Quakerism, is other-worldly; Julia, who becomes a participant in a regular arts programme on
television and also has an affair with the producer, is decidedly modish. The game that gives the
book its title is their elaborate Brontë-like childhood invention, which had literary analogues and
opened up an entire imaginary world. Indeed, Cassandra, unlike her much more down-to-earth
sister, still lives to a considerable extent in the realm of the imagination and has only a tenuous
grasp of reality; the Arthurian imagery and symbolism--she is actually editing Malory--help to
convey this. It is the re-entry into their lives of another part of their shared childhood experience,
the now-famous zoologist and television personality Simon Moffitt, that revitalizes their teenage
conflict over him and leads to Julia rapidly writing a cruel novel based on Cassandra and Simon.
This in turn precipitates the tragic denouement of Byatt's novel with a mortally humiliated
Cassandra finally retreating completely from reality by killing herself. Sibling rivalry finally
culminates in death 20 years later. While the surface of The Game is realistic, Byatt introduces a
mythic level by cleverly employing the symbolism of the Garden of Eden in relation to her
characters; Simon's snakes, for example, clearly bring to mind the serpent.
        Although much larger in scale than either of its predecessors, The Virgin in the Garden is but
the first novel in an as yet untitled tetralogy in progress, which promises to be one of the most
ambitious fictional undertakings of the postwar period, comparable to Lawrence Durrell's
Alexandria Quartet, Doris Lessing's The Children of Violence, and Anthony Powell's A Dance to
the Music of Time. The tetralogy aims to follow the lives of a group of characters during the
second Elizabethan age, from the accession of the Queen in 1952 until the major
Post-Impressionist exhibition held in London in 1980, but each novel, while advancing the
chronology, is expected to have its own dominating motif or central symbol and was originally
intended to be technically and stylistically distinctive. However, Byatt has found this latter plan
very difficult, perhaps impossible, to implement for reasons explained in the second volume, Still
Life.
        After a short but complex and symbolically rich prologue set in 1968, The Virgin in the
Garden narrates events in 1952-53, with occasional and brief forward-flashes that illuminate the
characters from the advantageous perspective of hindsight. The novel, set in North Yorkshire,
mainly in and around a public school, concentrates on the three children of the senior English
master, Bill Potter, and the person each of them is most involved with: the eldest, Stephanie, a
schoolteacher, and the curate she marries, much to the annoyance of her militantly agnostic father;
Frederica, a brilliant and precocious schoolgirl, and the English teacher, poet, and playwright
Alexander Wedderburn she falls in love with; the strange schoolboy, Marcus, and the biology
teacher, a religious maniac, with whom he indulges in a lunatic, quasi-spiritual experiment.
        One of the things the novel captures best is the festive atmosphere of Coronation year with its
sense of promise and rebirth, of release from postwar privations, of a new Elizabethan age with
just as much potentiality as that of the first Elizabeth. A main strand of the book is the production
of Alexander's verse play about the Virgin queen, Astraea, in the garden of an Elizabethan country
house--hence the title, although it also refers to Frederica, another virgin until the closing pages.
The novel is, in fact, full of quotations and literary and mythological allusions, and is concerned
with both English history and the English cultural tradition. While The Virgin in the Garden
possesses an almost Victorian leisureliness in its depiction of detail and its analysis of characters,
it is also a decidedly modernist work in the wake of Ulysses, since its meticulous realism is fused
with symbolism. More conspicuously than in her previous fiction, Byatt draws her inspiration
from Proust, one of her favourite novelists and a major influence on her work. Significantly, two
of the three epigraphs to her next novel, Still Life, are from Proust.
     If, as the title indicates, Elizabethan iconography plays an important part in structuring and
unifying The Virgin in the Garden, the art of painting, as the title again suggests, performs an
equivalent role in Still Life. The novel opens at the Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1980, and is
pervaded by reference to the life and work of van Gogh, including a number of quotations from
his famous letters. In Still Life, Alexander Wedderburn's new verse play, parallel to Astraea in its
predecessor, is The Yellow Chair, which dramatizes the last phase of van Gogh's life and
appropriates the title of one of his best-known paintings for its own title. The intrusive authorial
"I," who must be equated with Byatt herself rather than interpreted as a deceptive metafictional
device, comments reflexively on Still Life on several occasions, and describes her failure to
achieve a style for the novel using the analogy of painting, as she had hoped. She had wanted to
follow William Carlos Williams's injunction about "no ideas but in things" and to write "a novel of
naming and accuracy" by using a language shorn of metaphor and figures of speech, an ambition
shared by her character Alexander Wedderburn in writing The Yellow Chair. Like Wedderburn, she
found that language, being inherently metaphorical and figurative, was against her, and she had to
abandon her experimental aspirations for the book. As a result, Still Life is more of an orthodox
sequel to The Virgin in the Garden than originally planned, and in some respects conforms to the
traditional family saga, even though the use of flash-forward techniques and self-reflecting
analysis, along with her intellectual arguments and philosophical speculations, ensure that its
underlying realism is qualified by postmodernist perspectives on language, art, and reality itself.
     As in The Virgin in the Garden, the narrative of Still Life has three main strands, one for each
of the Potter children, and follows their lives during the mid and late 1950s, ending
catastrophically with the accidental death of the eldest, Stephanie, electrocuted in her own kitchen.
The closing chapters, dealing with this absurd yet horrific incident and its aftermath, are among
the best in the book and are characterised by sombre intensity. In parallel with Stephanie's life as
curate's wife and young mother are Marcus's development into a young scientist with a mystical
apprehension of the world, and Frederica's career as an undergraduate at Newnham College,
Cambridge, replete with intellectual and sexual adventures. Much of the vitality of the novel
belongs to this part of the book, where Byatt's interest in ideas can be incorporated as an essential
part of her academic characters' lives. Elsewhere the writing is at times laboured and lacks the
freshness and dynamism of The Virgin in the Garden, perhaps because the major figures were so
thoroughly described there. Byatt is, in fact, faced with the old, familiar problem confronting all
writers of sequels and series: how to maintain the original momentum and avoid staleness. She
anticipated the difficulty by resolving to write the novel in a totally different way from The Virgin
in the Garden, but in the event found herself unable to do so.
     After Still Life Byatt temporarily set aside her tetralogy to write a very long novel, Possession,
but before publishing this she brought out her first collection of short fiction, Sugar. The 11 stories
constituting this book are extremely varied in both length and content. "Rose-Coloured Teacups"
is brief, while the title story, about the death of a father, is long, as is "Racine and the Tablecloth,"
about the conflict between a conformist schoolmistress and a rebellious schoolgirl. There is a story
about a jinx in an East Asian setting ("The Dried Witch"), a kind of ghost story ("The July Ghost"),
and an imaginary anecdote about Robert Browning in Italy ("Precipice-Encurled"). Several stories
are about writing and writers, and they do contain an element of self-reflexivity even though the
collection cannot be described as metafictional.
     Two of these stories, "Precipice-Encurled" and "Sugar" itself, point almost subliminally in the
direction of Possession, a novel of epic proportions written with great virtuosity. By providing the
descriptive subtitle A Romance, Byatt emphasises her more radical departure from traditional
realism than in her earlier fiction, in which she aimed to reconcile realism with modernist methods.
Reminiscent of both John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman and Peter Ackroyd's
Chatterton, Possession is a thoroughgoing example of postmodernist fiction and even more
self-consciously literary than her previous work. Like The French Lieutenant's Woman, although
in a somewhat different way, Possession is simultaneously "Victorian" and "modern." The
narrative, full of mystery and suspense as a "romance" should be, is a story of literary detection as
two young academic researchers in the 1980s uncover more and more unsuspected biographical
information about two apparently unconnected Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and
Christabel LaMotte. The novel contains a considerable amount of clever Victorian
pastiche--supposedly the writings, in verse and prose, of the two poets. As the narrative moves to
its bizarre and suitably "romantic" climax with a churchyard exhumation during a stormy night,
the connections between Ash and LaMotte become increasingly clear, and at the same time the
relationship between the 20th-century questors echoes that of their 19th-century subjects. The
novel is, in fact, full of parallels and cross-references. There is no denying the brilliance of
Possession, but now that the postmodernist heyday is past and even the leading American
exponents of such fiction are talking about "the death of postmodernism," Byatt's novel seems,
oddly enough, backward-looking rather than adventurous.


    (Source: Peter Lewis, "A. S. Byatt: Overview" in Contemporary Novelists, 6th ed., edited by
                                                      Susan Windisch Brown, St. James Press, 1996.)

				
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