A. S. Byatt Essay - Byatt, A. S.

Byatt, A. S.

Introduction

A. S. Byatt 1936-

(Full name Antonia Susan Drabble Byatt) English novelist, critic, essayist, short story writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Byatt's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19 and 65.

Byatt is a distinguished English critic and novelist best known for her Booker Prize-winning, neo-Victorian novel Possession (1990). Byatt is known for her faithfulness to Victorian language and mores and her multilayered texts which include novels, poems, letters, and journals within the narrative construct as well as allusions to art, philosophy, religion, and literary theory. Byatt has stated that her works “try to be about the life of the mind as well as of society and the relations between people.”

Biographical Information

Born in Sheffield, England in 1936, Byatt received her B.A. from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1957 before pursuing graduate studies at Bryn Mawr College and Somerville College, Oxford. Although she intended to obtain a doctorate in seventeenth-century literature, she left Oxford in 1959 without completing her degree and married in July of that year. In addition to raising her children, Byatt taught part-time at the University of London and worked on her first novel, The Shadow of a Sun, which was published in 1964. A year later she published Degrees of Freedom, a critical work focused on the novels of Iris Murdoch, whom critics regard as a major influence on Byatt's fiction. In addition to her novels, Byatt has edited works by George Eliot and Robert Browning and has written criticism on subjects such as Victorian poetry, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She also wrote a second work of criticism on Murdoch, titled Iris Murdoch, in 1976. Byatt lives in London with her second husband.

Major Works

Much of Byatt's fiction is concerned with the creative process and the imagination. In The Game (1967) Byatt studies the pitfalls of the creative process and the inability of the imagination and fiction to accurately articulate reality. The book also employs one of Byatt's favorite devices, the novel within a novel. Sugar (1987) is a series of short stories exploring loss, including “Precipice Encurled,” a fictionalized account of an event from the life of Robert Browning. Possession tells the story of two academic researchers whose own love story parallels that of the two 19th-century poets who are the subject of their research. Angels and Insects (1992) contains two novellas, “Morpho Eugenia” and “The Conjugial Angel.” Both are written in an imitation of Victorian-style English and deal with the notions of free will and determinism. The tales presented in The Matisse Stories (1993) each link to a different painting by Matisse and reveal Byatt's continuing interest in painting. Babel Tower (1996) is the third in a planned tetralogy featuring Byatt's heroine Frederica Potter. The earlier installments, The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1986) follow Frederica through her years at Cambridge. Babel Tower begins in 1964 and explores Frederica's marriage to Nigel Reiver. The two are soon divorced, and the novel follows Frederica as she struggles with single motherhood in the tumultuous 1960s.

Critical Reception

Byatt has been both praised and criticized for her intellectual scope and her willingness to deal with complex ideas in her fiction. Reviewers often note Byatt's fascination with the creative process and the artist's craft. Critics have also called attention to her interest in painting as an artistic expression and her use of painterly language to create a visual picture. Merle Rubin stated, “A. S. Byatt is an artful writer, craftsmanlike in her approach and drawn to themes involving art and artists. An academic critic as well as a novelist, she has a painter's eye for form and color, a scholar's respect for significant detail.” Several reviewers credit Byatt for her scholarship, but some complain that her fiction gets bogged down under the weight of her erudition. However, many critics assert that the strength of her storytelling keeps her narratives compelling. Byatt's recreation of the Victorian novel of manners has also sparked discussions concerning the role of the postmodern novel and the relationship between history and contemporary fiction.

Principal Works

The Shadow of a Sun (novel) 1964

Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch (nonfiction) 1965

The Game (novel) 1967

Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time (nonfiction) 1970 [republished as Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time, 1989]

Iris Murdoch (nonfiction) 1976

The Virgin in the Garden (novel) 1978

Still Life (novel) 1986

Sugar and Other Stories (short stories) 1987

Possession: A Romance (novel) 1990

Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings (nonfiction) 1991

Angels and Insects (novellas) 1992

The Matisse Stories (short stories) 1993

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Stories (short stories) 1994

Babel Tower (novel) 1996

Collected Stories (short stories) 1998

Elementals (short stories) 1998

Criticism

Francis Spufford (review date 25 June 1987)

SOURCE: “The Mantle of Jehovah,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 12, June 25, 1987, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Spufford praises Byatt's ability to aptly portray “strong feelings and violent flavours” in her work, and asserts that the overriding sentiment of the stories in Sugar is loss.]

To keep a single vision single, or perhaps to conserve their own energy, writers who deal in strong feelings and violent flavours most often choose narrow canvases. Not, however, A. S. Byatt. Her writing has been synoptically intense. It has been so, anomalously, in a genre (the English social novel) which makes comparisons with other violently-flavoured writers, outside the genre, seem silly. You could, of course, draw a contrast simply in terms of range of Bad Moments covered: Norman Mailer has preferred to steer clear of the peculiar pains of childbirth, and Andrea Dworkin has chosen not to dwell on the distinctive horror an uneasy Christmas dinner can become, while Byatt can and has handled both as elements in her continuing series of novels.

That series began with The Virgin in the Garden in 1981, and proceeded with Still Life in 1985; more is promised. In the meantime comes a book of short stories, Sugar, more distinct in method than in concerns. Several of the pieces in it can be seen as out-takes from the long movement of the series, where her subject is a biography of what was recently called this country's ‘cultivated class’: from its post-war beginnings in a fusion of the lettered gentry and the old-style educationally-mobile working-class, through its maturity in the long warm years of the grammar schools, to (presumably—Ms Byatt's fictions have not taken the story so far) its present state of bewilderment. Both novels have had framing themes: in the one case, Elizabethan drama, and in the other Van Gogh. She has had much to say about, respectively, virginity and the implications of nature morte, whether through her plot or at one discursive remove from it. But though the characters' lives are cultured, and revealingly cultural, the strongest impression you are likely to take from the novels is of the desperate fragility of experience, the way it is likely to break down into biological or sexual or mental hurts that gain force from their close conjunction with the shapes of the culture. The catastrophes of the mind and flesh meet the flesh and mind's most deliberate creations. For Byatt, and so for the reader, verse-drama joins to the rupture of virginity, Suez joins to sexual terror, Leavis to tainted love.

The end of the Prologue to The Virgin in the Garden declares the double—or complicatedly single—intention. Daniel, a priest, leaves an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery which has gathered, retrospectively and iconically, many of the concerns of the main action of the book, set 16 years earlier, to which we are about to be introduced. Daniel has to see someone:

Someone was a woman whose son had been damaged in a smash. He had been a beautiful boy and still was, a walking unreal figure of a beautiful boy, a wax doll inhabited alternately by a screaming daemon and a primitive organism that ate and bulged and slept, amoeba-like. His father had been unable to bear it and had left. The woman had been a good teacher, and now was not, had had friends, and now did not, had had a pleasant body, and now did not.

Much of what is going on at this moment of particular intensity can be taken as more widely typical. The use of biological terminology, the brutally physical clinching words like ‘bulged’, and especially the ruthless parallelism, all enforce the truth of the view we are being given of a life. Elsewhere the truth of pain is enforced in other ways, but enforcement remains a constant factor. She is consistently willing to risk excess in language and metaphor so long as the effect achieved is, in her terms, appropriately strong. It is as if a sort of honesty acts on her as the most potent and compelling of principles, with the making of this sort of fiction as its necessary praxis. C. S. Lewis observed with partisan savagery that the prospect of near-universal damnation worried the bright young Calvinists of the 1590s no more than the imminent liquidation of the bourgeoisie worried the bright young Marxists of the 1930s: and something of the same disregarding fire burns in A. S. Byatt so far as her readers' more evasive sensibilities are concerned. A propos of pastoral calls on the sick, the character Stephanie remarks to the curate Daniel, ‘Conventions … can make a slow, bearable way of getting into—bits of life. You can't always rush people to extremes. In case people can't stand them.’ ‘Extremes exist,’ replies Daniel, firmly enough to win this fictional argument, and for us to take this as the sufficient answer to our own bruised query, as the final Byatt word.

We encounter extremes, all right, and not only of suffering. The novels are rich in less spectacular kinds of thinking and feeling that have been pushed towards some absolute. Because Daniel hides his force beneath a fat exterior and an uncontentious attitude to theology, we are told that no one notices that he is a fanatic. For a priest to have a vocation is unremarkable, though probably only Byatt would have credited him with quite this kind of extreme commitment: it is rather stranger that a young merchant banker should manifest the signs of a vocation, a complete ‘directedness’ to his imagination. In language appropriate to his class and period (1957 or so), he eulogises the Thames as the emblem of trade. What the banker has so obviously, other characters have in quieter ways: an animating idea. But we are a long way from the grounds of Lewes's complaint that Mr Micawber was no more alive than a galvanised frog's leg. Byatt's people are not mechanical, or predictable, though they are rather more coherent than most fictional characters. In that, they resemble the novels as a whole, in which extremity sometimes seems as much to enable coherence as coherence is used as a device to indicate extremity. We are on paradoxical ground. While both the novels put forward experience as contingent and fissile, both exploit the full powers of omnipotent authorship to give authority to contingency.

The power of what results is undeniable. Extremes exist, but in life we rely on the inarticulacy of the extreme to keep it muted and bearable. With monumental clarity Byatt takes her readers to places in the soul they had not imagined could be so well-lit for their observation. If at times one cannot believe, quite, in the normality of her characters, their disease is that useful ailment, a disease of lucidity. Other writers may give us a madness, or a wedding-night, or the reading of a poem, but only Byatt consistently delivers intellectual madnesses, love-making as reflective as it is tumultuous, poems considered with painful experience and the whole resources of a mind. It is extraordinary to read. When, in Still Life, Daniel and Stephanie, who have been married for some time, go to bed certain of each other yet conscious of passions blunted by circumstance and possibilities dissipated, the critical words of Stephanie's abandoned profession ‘wandered loose and unused. Peripateia. Anguish. Morphology … Men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love nor yet for constriction of vocabulary.’ Byatt gains for her reader something analogous to the astonishment an adolescent feels at the scale and complexity of newly-glimpsed grown-up feelings, without the shallowness. Can it all be so big? Sometimes it can.

And sometimes it surely cannot. Ms Byatt, for example, believes in appropriating the more brutally reductive parts of the male vocabulary for talking about sex, partly from a conviction. I think, that an action involving power should register its language, and presumably, also, to borrow the confident potency of such words for her own ends. They do, after all, make for instant focus of a sort. A female character being capably, ruthlessly and benevolently brought to her first orgasm is described as being ‘searched’: the association of the wound is intended. You could call the effect penetrating, though you might well rather not. You are more likely to object, not on grounds of taste, but because of the clarity the technique so violently claims. In this instance, and in others, it can seem that potency or coherence are being...

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Jane Campbell (essay date Spring 1988)

SOURCE: “The Hunger of the Imagination in A. S. Byatt's The Game,” in Critique, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1988, pp. 147-62.

[In the following essay, Campbell traces Byatt's use of the imagination as both the subject and the form of her novel The Game.]

In a comment made after the publication of her second novel, The Game (1967), Antonia S. Byatt described the subject matter of her fiction: “habits of mind—the nature of the imagination, the ways in which different people take in the world, and the uses they make of what they think or see.”1 Her statement defines both the subject of The Game and its form. This novel presents...

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Jane Campbell (essay date Spring 1991)

SOURCE: “‘The Somehow May Be Thishow’: Fact, Fiction, and Intertextuality in Antonia Byatt's ‘Precipice-Encurled’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 115-23.

[In the following essay, Campbell discusses Byatt's mixing of fact and fiction in the short story “Precipice-Encurled,” and asserts that the story demonstrates the impossibility of capturing reality in art.]

Antonia Byatt's collection of short stories, Sugar (1987), continues her exploration of the struggle of language with things. In the title story, the last in the volume, the narrator recalls, on the occasion of her father's dying, the versions of family...

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Doris Grumbach (review date 29 March 1992)

SOURCE: “Affinities and Affections,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXII, No. 13, March 29, 1992, p. 11.

[In the following review, Grumbach argues that “there is very little in [Passions of the Mind] to praise, and much to be warned against.”]

Antonia Susan Byatt, in middle age, has made a remarkable and sudden splash on the international scene. Sister of the novelist Margaret Drabble, she was obscured by Drabble's fame since the '60s when Byatt began to write literary essays and reviews. She burst into international notice two years ago with the publication of Possession, an extraordinarily inventive “Victorian” novel that won Britain's...

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Merle Rubin (review date 31 March 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Passions of the Mind, in Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 1992, p. 13.

[In the following review, Rubin states that in Passions of the Mind, “Byatt proves an illuminating guide to writers she admires, but seldom shines with the brilliance of a Simone de Beauvoir or a Mary McCarthy.”]

Antonia Susan Byatt is the author (thus far) of five novels, a short-story collection, and two books of criticism (one on Wordsworth and Coleridge, the other on Iris Murdoch). A graduate of Cambridge University who has taught literature at University College, London, Byatt has also written numerous essays, articles, and book reviews, 21 of...

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John Barrell (review date 19 November 1992)

SOURCE: “When Will He Suspect?,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 22, November 19, 1992, pp. 18-9.

[In the following review, Barrell complains that although Byatt effectively recreates Victorian style in Angels and Insects, there appears to be little point in the exercise.]

I don't quite know what to say about Angels and Insects. It consists of a pair of novellas, ‘Morpho Eugenia’ and ‘The Conjugial Angel’, which, like Possession, are set in Victorian England, and written in a free imitation of mid-19th-century literary English. My doubts are the obvious ones. It's not that I can't make up my mind about whether or not the work...

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Tess Lewis (review date Fall 1993)

SOURCE: “Metamorphoses,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Lewis lauds Byatt's Angels and Insects as a spiritual heir to the Victorian era.]

Two years after Possession, a magnum opus of intellectual passion, A. S. Byatt offers us two enchanting novellas set in the mid-19th-century and enlivened by the uneasy dance of extremes. The dominant quarrel in Angels & Insects—the stark division of Victorian society between Darwinists and creationists—is familiar ground for her readers. Of course, the argument itself is not as important in Byatt's fiction as the effects of this spiritual struggle...

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Geoff Dyer (review date 23 January 1994)

SOURCE: “Aesthetic among the Pinks,” in Guardian Weekly, Vol. 50, No. 4, January 23, 1994, p. 29.

[In the following review, Dyer offers a negative assessment of Byatt's The Matisse Stories.]

We need to look at these stories [in The Matisse Stories] in two ways—as stories and as dramatised essays on Matisse—to come up with a compound verdict that does justice to the twin impulses behind them.

Initiated by the voluptuously distorted Pink Nude of 1935, the first story is about a middle-aged academic's visits to her hairdresser. The hairdresser is self-important, full of small-minded determination to enlarge his mind. Knowing and polite,...

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Julian Gitzen (essay date Winter 1995)

SOURCE: “A. S. Byatt's Self-Mirroring Art,” in Critique, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 83-95.

[In the following review, Gitzen discusses Byatt's attempt to include literary and artistic theory in her work, and asserts that she does so most successfully in Possession.]

The award to A. S. Byatt of the 1990 Booker Prize for her romance Possession virtually assures that her fiction will receive increasing critical attention, perhaps equaling that previously accorded to the novels of her sister Margaret Drabble. An interwoven texture of letters, journal entries, poems, and straight narrative, Possession is Byatt's most ambitious work to date; but...

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Alev Adil (review date 6 January 1995)

SOURCE: “Obeying the Genie,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4788, January 6, 1995, p. 20.

[In the following review, Adil calls the use of language in Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye “rich and archaically extravagant.”]

Like Charles Perrault at the end of the seventeenth century and Oscar Wilde at the end of the nineteenth, A. S. Byatt has chosen to explore the possibilities of the fairy story. Perhaps the fin de siècle creates a sense of cultural unease, of the need for some soul-searching. The fairy story is, after all, the soul of literature, the bedrock of narrative. Byatt's latest collection [The Djinn in the Nightingale's...

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Merle Rubin (review date 20 April 1995)

SOURCE: “A Novelist with a Civilized, Artistic Eye,” in Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review, Rubin offers a positive assessment of Byatt's The Matisse Stories, emphasizing their connection to famous paintings by Matisse.]

A. S. Byatt is an artful writer, craftsmanlike in her approach and drawn to themes involving art and artists. An academic critic as well as a novelist, she has a painter's eye for form and color, a scholar's respect for significant detail.

Her novel Possession, winner of the 1990 Booker Prize, portrayed the discovery of a secret romance between two Victorian poets (he,...

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Philip Hensher (review date 11 May 1996)

SOURCE: “Her Shaping Spirit of Imagination,” in Spectator, Vol. 276, No. 8756, May 11, 1996, pp. 34-6.

[In the following review, Hensher praises Byatt's Babel Tower as “a remarkable book, of exceptional gravity and serious charm.”]

Babel Tower, the third in a series of novels which began with The Virgin in the Garden and continued with Still Life, is largely about a marriage and its breakdown. It's not just the literal marriage of A. S. Byatt's heroine, Frederica Potter, and its disastrous outcome. The subject of the book—one is tempted to write, the ‘real’ subject—is the tragic afterlife of Blake's Marriage of Heaven and...

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Shashi Tharoor (review date 12 May 1996)

SOURCE: “Tongues of Fire,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, No. 19, May 12, 1996, pp. 3, 10.

[In the following review, Tharoor argues that in Babel Tower, “too many characters and plot lines are introduced and unevenly developed, leaving the reader with a vague sense of dissatisfaction despite the author's undoubted flair and artistry.”]

“Well, let us start with the title … It is an image of the Tower of Babel which was constructed to displace God from Heaven, and was punished for its presumption by having a spirit of discord sent amongst its members, so that their languages were confused, they could no longer understand each other …”...

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Jackie Buxton (essay date June 1996)

SOURCE: “‘What's Love Got to Do with It?’ Postmodernism and Possession,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 22, No. 2, June, 1996, pp. 199-219.

[In the following essay, Buxton analyzes Byatt's Possession in terms of its relationship to postmodernism.]

The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, “I love you madly,” because he knows that she knows (and...

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J. M. Coetzee (review date 6 June 1996)

SOURCE: “En Route to the Catastrophe,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 43, No. 10, June 6, 1996, pp. 17-9.

[In the following review, Coetzee discusses Byatt's Babel Tower.]

In the 1970s the British novelist A. S. Byatt (b. 1936) embarked on an ambitious project: a sequence of novels that would trace the growth of a woman of her own class and generation and education, from the drab early 1950s through the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Byatt planned four novels. In The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985) she followed her heroine, Frederica Potter, the daughter of two middle-class literary intellectuals,...

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Gail Pool (review date July 1996)

SOURCE: “Chronicle of Higher Education,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 13, Nos. 10 and 11, July, 1996, p. 35.

[In the following review, Pool questions the excessive length of Byatt's Babel Tower, but also praises the novel as an “intelligent and often funny work [which] is also satisfying in its scope.”]

When A. S. Byatt's novel Possession appeared here in 1990, I doubt many Americans had heard of the English writer. But in fact, when Byatt wrote that Booker Prize-winning work she was hardly a new author. In addition to literary criticism, she had previously published five works of fiction, including The Virgin in the Garden...

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Dana Shiller (essay date Winter 1997)

SOURCE: “The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 538-60.

[In the following essay, Shiller uses Fredric Jameson's critique of postmodernism to analyze the relationship between Byatt's Possession, Peter Akroyd's Chatterton, and the historical novel, in particular the neo-Victorian novel.]

Over the last decade a number of novels have displayed a various and intriguing range of historical commitments. Although I will not attempt to take on the whole range here, I do want to explore a subset of the historical novel I think I can clearly delineate, or at least two exemplars of this subset....

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Karl Miller (review date 19 April 1998)

SOURCE: “Thinking of England,” in Observer, April 19, 1998, p. 15.

[In the following review, Miller discusses Byatt's inclusions in the anthology The Oxford Book of English Short Stories.]

Virginia Woolf once mentioned, with a hint of displeasure, that Katherine Mansfield's husband had been saying that ‘the most distinguished writers of short stories’ in the England of the Twenties were agreed about Mansfield's importance as a practitioner of the art. Many others have felt that way. But Mansfield is not to be found in this Oxford Book. Insufficiently English, one supposes, since she grew up in New Zealand. Doris Lessing, however, who grew up in Southern...

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Katie Grant (review date 14 November 1998)

SOURCE: “Tricks of the Light,” in Spectator, Vol. 281, No. 8889, November 14, 1998, p. 54.

[In the following review, Grant praises the stories in Byatt's Elementals.]

Opening this little collection of short stories [Elementals] is like opening a jewellery box. You extricate a brooch which is, as a concept, essentially a workaday object. It is the coloured gem which is attached to the clasp that, in different lights, transforms the mundane into something magical. This is the art of the lapidarist and this is also the art of A. S. Byatt.

In ‘Crocodile Tears’, the first story of the six, she gives us Patricia Nimmo, a suddenly widowed,...

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