Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1377
Beginning with Possession, the strong feminist strain in A. S. Byatt’s fiction began to emerge. To call her a feminist, however, is not to suppose that a doctrinaire view of women’s rights governs her fiction. On the contrary, many of Byatt’s feminists are conflicted about their politics and their relationships. For example, Maud Bailey in Possession finds that while there is much to be wary of in male behavior, she cannot do without Roland Mitchell, her scholarly collaborator. As much as Maud would like to achieve some distance between herself and Roland, their collaboration becomes a kind of marriage, an inevitable coinciding of interests that mirrors the feelings of their scholarly subjects, the poets Christabel La Motte and Randolph Henry Ash.
Just as strong a theme in Byatt’s fiction is her characters’ search for core values and religious truths, whether in the commune described in A Whistling Woman or in the harrowing séance that Ash attends in Possession. Ash is an amateur scientist who scoffs at spiritualism, and yet his minute, geological examination of his world is also, Byatt implies, a quest for the very stuff of existence, of the origins of creation and of life itself.
This novel is a tour-de-force treatment of contemporary biography, a narrative about two scholars, Mitchell and Bailey (and their rivals), in search of the true nature of the love between two Victorian poets, Ash and La Motte. The novel contains the notations from diaries, journals, letters, literary criticism, interviews—in short, all of the documents, competing scholarly interpretations, and apparatuses of modern academic inquiry. Byatt invents not only the poets but also their poems, surrounding them with what might be called the politics and procedure of biography, juxtaposing the different critical terminologies (from Freudian to feminist) of the twentieth century with nineteenth century verse forms and prose.
Several critics have lauded Byatt’s invention of the correspondence between Ash and La Motte, which seems a perfect pastiche of Victorian prose. Even more striking is the beautiful poetry the novelist invents for these two figures. This dazzling counterpoint of past and present, of Ash and La Motte and Mitchell and Bailey, is reminiscent of other great works of historical fiction, such as William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet (1824). Like its predecessors, Possession conveys the aching desire to reclaim the past, which appears only in fragments (tantalizing documents) that have to be reimagined in the interpreters’ dialogue with each other.
The character Ash recalls in many respects Robert Browning, and La Motte recalls Christina Rossetti andEmily Dickinson. Like Browning, Ash shows a special affinity for understanding the sensibility of a female poet, one that like Dickinson is rather retiring and difficult to fathom, but also like Rossetti a creator of a poetic myth that endows her with a mystique that men find irresistible.
The novel’s title suggests various forms of possession: the way Ash seeks to possess La Motte; the possessiveness of Ash’s wife, Ellen; and the demonic possessiveness of Ash’s biographer, Mortimer Cropper, and of La Motte’s female partner, Blanche. Like lovers, the academics in this novel feel they own their subjects and are entitled to investigate their subjects’ private lives. Only Beatrice Nest, who has devoted a lifetime to studying La Motte, worries that prying colleagues will violate the sanctity of the poet’s life. She expresses the protective side of scholarship, now seen as passé by many researchers looking to make their reputations with their discoveries. Beatrice’s circumspection, though, drastically reduces the scope of the lives that Mitchell and Bailey are investigating. To observe Beatrice’s proprieties would be, the novel seems to suggest, to diminish the ability to understand not merely these poets but what it means to be human.
At the same time, the novel is a kind of brief for biography, for as Mitchell and Bailey probe the liaison between Ash and La Motte, they realize that the significance of the two poets’ work is going to change, and that what scholars have written about these Victorians will have to be revised and, to some extent, discarded. In short, knowing the biographies of these poets makes all the difference in the world because it “supercharges” the scholars’ sense of what La Motte and Ash were like, not merely as human beings but as writers with subject matter more complex and elusive than had been supposed.
The Biographer’s Tale
This novel is narrated by a graduate student suffering from a surfeit of literary theory. Phineas G. Nanson is fed up because no matter the author, literary theory leads to the same conclusions about the indeterminacy of the text. Every literary work is found to be saying the opposite of what it initially purports. The same vocabulary, the same bloodless and abstract analysis, becomes tiresome. So Nanson turns to biography as a genre respectful of things, of data, and of the uniqueness of lives.
A great admirer of the biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, Nanson decides to write the biographer’s biography. Soon enough, Nanson realizes how hard it can be to reconstruct a life. Besides a few papers and public records, there is a remarkable paucity of material about Destry-Scholes. One of Nanson’s finds, however, is an incomplete and apparently fragmented manuscript that contains three narratives. Are they meant as three separate projects, or was Destry-Scholes embarking on “an experiment in the nature of biographical narrative”?
All three narratives are presented as documents that both the reader and Nanson can interpret. Thus Byatt, more than any other novelist exploring the nature of biography, plunges into the hermeneutics of the genre. Nanson discovers that parts of the narratives are fiction—and in one case borrowed from yet another work of fiction. What did Destry-Scholes intend by this blurring of fact and fiction? Nanson cannot come to a definitive conclusion, but then it is his quest to understand the elusive nature of biography that becomes paramount.
Nanson also shares with many narrators in novels about biography the realization that biography is, in the end, a composite of biographer and subject. The more Nanson attempts to understand Destry-Scholes, the more he begins to reflect upon his own life.
An erudite—almost arcane—work of fiction, The Biographer’s Tale drew praise from critics who appreciated Byatt’s recondite handling of literary texts and biographical research while others believed she placed too many demands on readers, especially because she includes so much of the material that the biographer has to sort out.
A Whistling Woman
Frederika Potter, a character who also appears in Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden, Babel Tower, and Still Life, is now divorced and a single mother living in 1960’s London. She forsakes teaching for a successful career in television, hosting a program that explores cultural issues. Her developing persona is juxtaposed against a complex of characters: the charismatic Joshua Ramsden, leader of a religious cult; the scientists Jacqueline Winwar and Luk Lysgaard-Peacock; and the several participants at the Mind-Body Conference that is taken over by student radicals proclaiming an “Anti-University.”
A Whistling Woman is the fourth and final novel in Byatt’s fictional history of postwar England that began in the early 1950’s. Although A Whistling Woman stands alone and can be read without reference to Byatt’s earlier novels, critics fully apprised of the earlier work have taken a more understanding and patient attitude toward Byatt’s panoramic portrayal of a society in flux, still seeking spiritual guidance but also bound by the protocols of rationalism and the Enlightenment.
The chaotic nature of the 1960’s, when students challenged the very basis of the university mission, is graphically revealed in Byatt’s depiction of encounters between college administrators and their protesting pupils. A Whistling Woman explores the extent to which the university is obliged to deal with “relevant” social causes and movements, and what happens when essentially liberal professors are at a loss about how to deal with a radicalism that does not respect free speech or the rules of debate that have traditionally facilitated higher learning. The novel explores these issues even as it questions whether television (the new media) is equipped to deal with complex intellectual debates.
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