Babel Tower, like all of Antonia Susan Byatt’s fiction, examines the lives of middle-class Britons, even as it focuses on a central female character. As in Angels and Insects (1992), Byatt develops a clever extended comparison between the societal life of lower animal forms and that of people, and she integrates this metaphor into her narrative. The moths and butterflies of Angels and Insects have their counterpart in the snails of Babel Tower. The changes which environment produces within their similarity becomes the key to understanding the evolutionary processes which take place in her characters’ lives. Babel Tower, like Byatt’s novel Possession (1991), also examines the nature of love. As in that earlier novel, Byatt finds that love is as often manipulative, exploitive, and abusive as it is necessary.
Byatt’s Babel Tower, on one level, is an impressive intellectual exercise. One finds interesting facts about zoology, religion, the Marquis de Sade, mid-twentieth century British jurisprudence, censorship, spousal abuse, and a wealth of details on 1960’s popular culture. More than this, however, it is an extraordinarily good novel with an artful, taut, and coherent narrative, which its author maintains for more than six hundred pages. It is, in fact, a prose epic, the third volume of an intended quartet, and following upon The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985). Each of these attempts to re-create life as lived in Britain during a different mid-century time frame, focusing upon what Byatt considers essential to the given period. She leaves it for her readers to conclude that time creates difference that is merely accidental.
Amorality and idealism conflict repeatedly in Byatt’s re- creation of the 1960’s. The obscenity trial surrounding Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the John Profumo-Christine Keeler sex scandal, the Moors Murders, and the beginnings of the Vietnam War protest movement make the comparable concerns of Byatt’s characters logical and provide background against which to understand the three legal actions that provide the novel’s climax. Nevertheless, the timelessness of human behavior supersedes all these elements. Humanity, like the hundreds of snail species, continues to blunder along making the adaptations necessary for survival, if not happiness.
The central plot of Byatt’s novel is simple enough. Frederica Potter, a Cambridge University graduate with a background in English literature, has married Nigel Reiver, a wealthy businessman, and has retired to Reiver’s country home. They have a son, an intelligent boy named Leo, but what might superficially appear a happy life soon emerges quite otherwise. Nigel is away from home on business for weeks at a time, and Frederica finds herself dominated by Nigel’s unmarried sisters Olive and Rosalind as well as by their housekeeper Pippy Mammott. Intellectual life at Bran House, Nigel’s country seat, is virtually nil. Nigel’s sisters resent Frederica’s education, and Nigel forbids visits from her Cambridge friends, mostly from jealousy since the educational demographics of the 1960’s have provided her with an exclusively male circle of acquaintances. Desperate to maintain some form of intellectual life, Frederica retreats to a private world of serious reading. This withdrawal further estranges her from the inhabitants of Bran House, who criticize her for what they perceive as snobbishness and exclusivity.
Frederica’s chance encounter with Hugh Pink, one of her Cambridge friends, brings the situation to a head. Nigel rudely dismisses a group of Frederica’s friends who follow upon Pink’s visit, refuses Frederica permission to begin doctoral studies, and forbids even excursions to London. Worse, he turns violent and seriously wounds her with an ax he throws during one of his possessive rages. Ultimately, Frederica escapes Bran House with the assistance of her friends. She takes her son Leo, but only reluctantly, when the boy intercepts her as she leaves and accuses her of attempting to abandon him. Frederica obtains two part-time positions in London, as a teacher and as a reader of manuscripts submitted for publication. What follows is Nigel’s attempt at reconciliation, supported by expensive Christmas...
(The entire section is 1774 words.)