Although best known as a writer of fiction, A. S. Byatt narrowly escaped earning a doctorate in Renaissance literature and has published two previous volumes of criticism: DEGREES OF FREEDOM: THE NOVELS OF IRIS MURDOCH and WORDSWORTH AND COLERIDGE IN THEIR TIME. Murdoch and Coleridge are among the enthusiasms she discusses in this examination of various nineteenth and twentieth century authors and artists.
The pieces included demonstrate a wide range of reading. The discussion of Robert Browning, for example, invokes David Friedrich Strauss, Ernest Renan, Jules Michelet, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Jan Swammerdamm as well as the more familiar Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and George Eliot. The essays also demonstrate an eclectic sympathy, from the sometimes esoteric poetry of Wallace Stevens and D. J. Enright to the escapist fiction of Georgette Heyer.
Whether Byatt is discussing her own work, George Eliot’s novels, or Van Gogh’s paintings, though, three themes repeatedly emerge. The first and most fundamental is the belief in literature as religion, charged with supplying the myths that guide people’s lives. Byatt therefore rejects solipsism as irresponsible as well as tedious. Second, she maintains that transcendence requires immanence: only through realistic detail can a writer or painter convey a message. She approvingly and repeatedly quotes William Carlos Williams’ comment, “No ideas but in things.”
Byatt also would agree with Samuel Johnson’s statement in RAMBLER 152, “Words ought surely to be labored when they are intended to stand for things.” Reflecting on her experience in judging the TLS Poetry Competition, she laments the entries’ inability to transmute ordinary language. Conversely, Willa Cather, Ford Madox Ford, and George Eliot earn praise for their careful linguistic craftsmanship.
Byatt’s views will not win universal assent. Her objections to Virginia Woolf and Barbara Pym, like her view of literature as hierophantic, challenge late twentieth century orthodoxy. Still, she provokes though, and that is the sign of the true critic.