A Whistling Woman

A Whistling Woman completes A. S. Byatt’s tetralogy about post-War British life during the decades of the 1940’s through the 1960’s. The novel is loosely organized around the career of Frederica Potter, a proto-feminist who manages to land on her feet despite a divorce and a change of careers that introduces her to the world of television. At the same time, Byatt deals with a number of subplots that offer a panorama of life in the turbulent year of 1968.

The senior administration of North Yorkshire University, a group whose personal interactions reveal something about academic life, set about organizing an international conference on the relationship between mind and body. Simultaneously, restless students are creating the Anti-University, where relevance is the watchword for education and violence is not beyond the thought of its leaders. Woven into this tale is the story of Joshua Ramsden, a psychotic or mystic—one is never sure which—who forms a commune in the heart of the countryside where ascetic values are set in stark contrast to the materialism of both London and university societies. The various plots are brought together in a climactic scene when protestors from the Anti-University attack one of the speakers at the mind-body conference and set about destroying university property; this scene is followed by the destruction of the commune and the death of Ramsden, whose status as saint or devil remains a mystery.

As she does in so many of her works, Byatt proves in A Whistling Woman that the novel of ideas is still alive and well in England. Her ability to write with authority about religion, science, sex, politics, and human relationships once again makes her novel one that will alternatively perplex and entice readers willing to spend time thinking through the many issues she covers under the guise of fiction.