Antonia Susan Byatt (BI-uht) began her career as a novelist in the shadow of her younger sister Margaret Drabble’s reputation as a novelist of quality and considerable popularity. Drabble, who used the family surname, began writing novels in the 1960’s, and it was assumed that Byatt, who took her first husband’s surname, would become an academic. Byatt’s first book was a study of the novelist Iris Murdoch, and she became a part-time lecturer at the University of London in the 1960’s, after studies at Cambridge, Bryn Mawr, and Oxford.
Byatt published her first novel, Shadow of a Sun, in 1964 and a second, The Game, in 1967. These were received with quiet approval but had only modest sales, and in 1972, she became a full-time lecturer at the University of London. Drabble, who continued to publish novels throughout this period, became a popular book reviewer and a minor media celebrity, while Byatt quietly pursued her academic career. In 1978 Byatt produced a substantial novel, The Virgin in the Garden, a formidable study of two intelligent, charming sisters starting out on their adult life. It was offered as the first of a quartet. The second volume, Still Life, appeared in 1985, the third, Babel Tower, was published in 1996, and the fourth, A Whistling Woman, in 2002. The latter book brought the story of the two sisters up to the 1960’s. Byatt’s fifth novel, Possession, which won the prestigious Booker Prize, has overshadowed the trilogy in both popularity and critical acclaim, although it may not be, in fact, quite as fine artistically as The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life.
Possession is an unusual example of a novel of literary merit and technical weight transcending the public’s usual lack of interest in serious novels. This is partly because the book is, at heart, a love story, but part of its appeal lies in its technical complexity and in its incorporation of formidable amounts of poetry, supposedly written by the lovers. Two time frames are used in the plot, in which late twentieth century scholars are on the trail of two famous English writers of the nineteenth century. Byatt draws on her scholastic background to create successful imitations of nineteenth...
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