Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3023
Byatt’s fiction frequently depicts conflicts, sometimes violent, between siblings, spouses, or parents and their children. These episodes have been interpreted autobiographically by many critics. In particular, her first two novels, Shadow of a Sun and The Game, portray female characters suffocated by the aura of jealous competition exuded by the powerful male personalities who dominate them. Her latter work also explores the sibling rivalry that develops when two sisters enjoy varying degrees of success in their literary careers. While these plotlines may or may not have arisen from her personal experience, when developed with Byatt’s subtlety and grace, they suggest broader literary themes beyond mere biography.
Although her early work was no doubt drawn from personal experience, beginning with The Virgin in the Garden, Byatt proved that she was more concerned with technique than content. She is particularly fascinated by the ways in which words can be manipulated on the page, much as artists place paint on canvas. Still Life and The Matisse Stories (1993) represent her most conscious efforts to develop this technique. In both, she meditates upon color and light to establish moods.
Her work also examines the conflicting roles that her female characters must either fulfill or reject. Frederica, the main character in a quartet of novels featuring the Potter family, must divide her efforts in Babel Tower between caring for her son, divorcing her abusive husband, exploring an intensely fulfilling sexual relationship with John Ottaker, and teaching night school for a local adult education program. Her need to perform each of these tasks to the best of her ability and her fear that she will not be able to do so finally force her to find a creative outlet for the divided selves she feels powerless to unite. Although she prefers the companionship of males, she finds solace in the domesticity of her female roommate, a single mother like herself. The two establish a sort of domestic partnership that permits them both to find personal satisfaction beyond merely domestic labor.
The process of reading and writing is central to Byatt’s fiction, which often features poets and scholars, such as the avid reader Frederica Potter or the academics Maud Bailey and Roland Michell, who study Victorian poetry in Possession. Behind Byatt’s many technical details lurks always her solitary question: What purpose does literature serve? Clearly, she herself has not developed a satisfactory answer, since she continues to provide her readers with so many possibilities.
The Victorian era likewise fascinates Byatt, and several of her works have been set in that period. Specifically, she treats the era’s conflict between faith and science, primarily in response to Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Randolph Ash, the poet being studied in Possession, and William Adamson from “Morpho Eugenia” in Angels and Insects both find creative ways to analyze the biology of the natural world. Other characters whom Byatt treats sympathetically, such as Stephanie Potter Orton (The Virgin in the Garden), Maud Bailey (Possession), and Emily Tennyson Jesse (“The Conjugial Angel” in Angels and Insects) seek a spiritual outlook toward their world that is not tied dogmatically to any specific religious framework.
Despite both critical and popular acclaim, Byatt’s fiction is sometimes criticized for being too dense, implying that her rich tangle of metaphors and allusions is too obscure and intricate for her readers to appreciate. Like the Victorians she imitates, Byatt will occasionally interrupt the narrative with authorial reflections. Hers, however, take on a particularly postmodern tone as she reflects on her desire to articulate meaning in a way her readers will comprehend and on her fear that language may block her efforts. Reaction to these reflections has been mixed; some critics enjoy the postmodern revelation of the wizard behind the screen, while others find it distracting. However, her skill at shaping characters and plots leaves much for even the naïve reader to enjoy, while the scholarly reader can revel in the complexity of her style.
The Virgin in the Garden
First published: 1978
Type of work: Novel
Blesford Ride School celebrates the coronation of England’s new queen, while the Potter family experiences passion, both sexual and spiritual.
Denser and more complicated than Byatt’s previous books, The Virgin in the Garden appeared after a long period of personal turmoil that resulted in a sort of literary rebirth. The novel’s time line spans the 1952-1953 academic year at Blesford Ride, and it is the first of four novels that will trace the fortunes of the Potter family alongside those of post-World War II England. Fictionally, this is the year in which Stephanie marries, Frederica attains the grades that determine her college choices, and Marcus suffers a nervous breakdown. Historically, Queen Elizabeth II succeeds her father as reigning monarch and accepts the coronation. In Byatt’s novel, however, both the Potter family and 1950’s England witness the rise of a new monarch: sexual relations.
The Potter’s oldest daughter Stephanie resists her attraction to clergyman Daniel Orton as a way of reaffirming the intellectual aspirations that have been lagging since she began teaching grammar school. The middle child Frederica would love nothing more than to be swept off her feet by teacher and playwright, Alexander Wedderburn. Alex’s play depicting the life of Queen Elizabeth I, intended to usher in the era of her namesake, serves as a focal point for much of the novel’s action and permits Frederica and Alexander a greater degree of intimacy than is perhaps advisable. The young woman’s innocence is reaffirmed, however, through her shock and surprise at Alex’s ongoing affair with the wife of the German master, Jenny Parry, and through her obliviousness to the relations between instructor Thomas Poole and her own classmate, Anthea Warburton, although both situations cast their dismal shadow over Frederica’s own escapades.
In the midst of these tensions—sexual, emotional, and intellectual—the youngest Potter child, Marcus, withdraws into a world of his own, mentored by Lucas Simmonds, the math teacher, and thus the antithesis to the children’s father, William Potter, head of the English department. Marcus is an intuitive young man who visualizes a complex network of images and is thus able to solve complicated mathematical problems, until his intuition is subjected to scrutiny. In an attempt to quantify his gift, Simmonds runs the boy through exercises that would now be called paranormal studies, all the while insinuating himself into the boy’s innermost world. Eventually, the teacher makes a sexual advance toward Marcus that causes the older man to attempt suicide and leads the younger to suffer a mental collapse.
As unique as each situation may be, all reflect a facet of the same gem: unconsummated desire. For despite the rampant atmosphere of sexual activity, what is most interesting is all the sex that is not taking place. Stephanie and Daniel, despite their attraction for one another, fumble through the physicality of their relationship hampered by their private emotional and intellectual burdens. Alex’s lover grows increasingly frustrated with the discomforts of stolen love, and her frustration renders him unable to satisfy her. Frederica’s fumbling advances to her teacher could almost be comical were there not such serious repercussions to the corresponding behavior of her classmates and siblings.
For all of the tension, Byatt acknowledges that virginity may offer its own rewards, as in the case of Queen Elizabeth I, who withheld her favors to maintain title and control of her country. In general, however, Byatt treats sexual innocence much like spiritual faith that has not been tested. Both create a tremendous amount of irritation and excitability, but despite all of their rich promise, both remain infertile and barren; hence, the paradox of her title.
However, while sexual desire translates on one plane to spirituality, on another it equates to literary criticism. The innocence of Frederica’s body is in stark contrast with the experience of her mind. The girl inherited a keen textual eye from her father, and yet, lacking the creative experience that someone like Alex possesses, can she read responsibly? By posing this complex question, The Virgin in the Garden differs from Byatt’s previous two novels, and she has now landed in the world of postmodernism.
The contemporary reader will necessarily approach a text with a certain amount of knowledge, very much like the brilliantly educated and wickedly smart Frederica. The contemporary author might, like Stephanie, feel some hesitation at imposing the seemingly arbitrary limits necessitated by the narrative framework, although few contemporary critics seem as hesitant as Marcus is to expose the patterns. It will remain to later novels for Byatt to determine whether the contemporary reader, trapped within a dense network of literary theory, can continue to exist in an innocent state or whether only a creative act of one’s own will finally initiate the reader into a realm of knowledge commensurate with the author.
First published: 1990
Type of work: Novel
Previously undiscovered letters between two Victorian poets spark an intense interest on both sides of the Atlantic that culminates in grave robbery and a shocking revelation.
Ironically, Byatt’s most popular novel, Possession is also the one most deeply imbued with literary scholarship, even if the world of belles lettres provides setting and motivation rather than metaphor and imagery. Possession is also the novel that most fully displays Byatt’s impressive stylistic range in a virtuoso performance that combines narrative genres, including romance, detective, and crime fiction with poetic imitations of Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti, as well as journals, diaries, and letters in voices ranging from Scottish to American.
The idea of possession dominates the novel from the first chapter, as Roland Michell, an academic struggling to churn out an interpretation of obscure Victorian poet Randolph Ash for James Blackadder’s “Ash Factory,” stumbles upon a letter in the British National Library and decides to pocket it. Blackadder himself has charted out his own intellectual territory in the basement of the British Museum, where he has effectively imprisoned any scholar who would study Randolph Ash under his purported advisement, a convenient position from which he can monitor their publications. His American counterpart, Leonora Stern, has staked a similar claim for Ash contemporary Christabel LaMotte. Fellow American Mortimer P. Cropper fancies himself an Ash scholar, having written his biography, but proceeds as though knowledge were a commodity, available to the highest bidder.
Possessed in one way or another by each of these forceful personalities, Maud Bailey, director of the Women’s Resource Center and herself an established LaMotte scholar, resists the giving of herself, fearful of having to abandon her identity. Intellectually, Bailey has chosen a corner of the world where she can work collaboratively with other like-minded scholars, outside of the competition on which Blackadder and others appear to thrive. Approached sexually by both Leonora Stern and Roland Michell, she holds their desires at bay even as she negotiates a successful working relationship with them.
She does, however, allow herself to be possessed by the past, along with Michell. He approaches her with the letters, believing that her extensive knowledge of LaMotte might provide him with some answers. Together, they embark on a journey across England and backwards through time to the days when Ash and LaMotte were apparently embarking on the same tenuous relationship now unfolding between the contemporary pair. As they read letters and diaries, soak in the local landscapes, and interview distant relatives, both scholars find themselves enchanted by a past they had never imagined. Within the poetry by the purportedly happily married Ash and the purportedly lesbian LaMotte the reader may glimpse only the most transparent outline of a connection, one that apparently lies behind the tortured silent secret of the journals kept by Ash’s wife, Ellen, as well as the apparent suicide of LaMotte’s life partner, Blanche Glover.
As the novel progresses and the evidence mounts, so, too, does the suspense. The intellectual and financial stakes rise, to the point where Mortimer Cropper illegally exhumes Ash’s corpse in order to expose his affair with LaMotte and thus shake the foundation of Victorian studies down to its very core. In a heart-pounding scene, he is caught, rain-soaked and mud-covered, by Bailey, Michell, and a host of others, who are all now privy to the secrets of the grave. From a locked box within the coffin, it is revealed that all evidence of the affair belongs legally and rightfully to Maud Bailey as a direct descendent of Maia Thomasine Bailey, formerly believed to be LaMotte’s niece, now shown to be the illegitimate child of Ash’s affair with LaMotte.
Maud learns to let down the glorious blond hair that proclaims her lineage and her desirability. She and Michell discover an equal partnership, while he abandons the world of academia to pursue his own poetic talents. In an epilogue, Byatt concludes the story with the one aspect of it that could not be possessed: an individual’s memory of an experience. Once upon a time, Ash met his daughter, who told him she wanted to be called May and that she did not care for poetry. He clipped a lock of her hair, and it was her braid that was buried with him, not LaMotte’s, as had been supposed.
While the characters in the novel remain ignorant of this truth, Byatt’s readers know the tale, and the irony of its inclusion forces them to question whether anything—artistic endeavors, personal identity, or familial relationships—can exist in this world without being public property. The epilogue, along with much else in the book, forces readers to question their own knowledge and assumptions, a task symbolized by Roland Michell. Initially engaged in an erudite quest to understand the influence of an obscure Enlightenment philosopher upon Ash’s poem “Prosperina,” by novel’s end Michell is freed from the weight of the written record and able to approach literature with some self-assurance in his own power as both reader and author.
Angels and Insects
First published: 1992
Type of work: Novellas
Two novellas explore nineteenth century attitudes toward science and spirituality as they reveal the passions by which the characters live, regardless of cultural standards or norms.
Angels and Insects consists of two novellas, “Morpho Eugenia” and “The Conjugial Angel,” both of which are set in Victorian England just after mid-century, leading to speculation that the book continues several themes Byatt had left undeveloped in her earlier novel Possession. It would seem that the first story explores the scientific questions of the day while the second wrestles with the spiritual, but Byatt resists such neat thematic divides. The laboratory of Bredely Hall in the first novella resonates with the spiritual implications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, while in the second novella, sound scientific arguments are proffered in the living room of Tennyson’s sister for the séances held there, thus twining the two themes together in a sort of Gordian knot.
The Morpho Eugenia is a species of exotic butterfly, one of the few relics salvaged by William Adamson when he was shipwrecked on his return from the Amazon. The Alabaster home seems to offer him a rebirth in a modern Garden of Eden. The father, Harald Alabaster, offers to support Adamson’s research, while the two oldest boys spend their days on horseback, and three beautiful and eligible daughters are paraded before him. The most perfectly formed of these is also a Eugenia. In a dazzling scene, Adamson proposes to her in the family greenhouse as millions of live butterflies swirl around them.
Happily married, Adamson explores the land around the manor with the family’s younger children and their governess, Mattie Crompton. Mattie’s journals surprise him with her keen observations on the social behaviors of the insects they observe, much like those that keep Bredely Hall running with such precision, such as the daily efforts of the servants to dump the rat carcasses that collect in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Adamson’s wife provides him with five new specimens to add to his collection: a son and four daughters.
Slowly, however, the knowledge dawns on Adamson that his real inheritance in England is not paradise, but the one gift shared by all of Adam’s sons: the flawed nature of nature. Original sin, in its most primal state, revisits the household in the incestuous relationship maintained by Eugenia and her half brother, Edgar. William and Mattie use the earnings from their publications to escape beyond the smooth surface of the Alabaster household back to the Amazon world of the noble savage.
The characters in “The Conjugial Angel” are also searching for an escape of sorts. Through the séances they conduct, they hope to find answers to their most painful questions from the world beyond. Lilias Papagay, who literally lost her husband more than two decades ago when he set out to sea and never returned, invokes the spiritual plane through automatic writing, the receipt of messages from dead spirits. She works with her roommate, Sophy Sheekhy, a medium who has been plagued since her youth by visions of the dead. Together, they lead séances for Mrs. Hearnshaw, a desperate mother whose children have all died in infancy; Mr. Hawke, a spiritual “dabbler”; and for Captain and Mrs. Jesse.
Mrs. Jesse, formerly Emily Tennyson, had been engaged in her youth to Arthur Hallam, the best friend of her brother, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was historically the preeminent poet of the Victorian age. Alfred’s grief over his friend’s death is famously recorded in his seminal work, In Memoriam (1850). The poem makes him beloved of the British people but leaves Mrs. Jesse feeling as though her own process of mourning has been overshadowed. She hosts the séances, hoping to hear from Arthur, but when she finally does, she rejects his invitation to join with him after their death in the form of one Conjugial Angel, choosing instead the husband who comforted her in her long years of grief.
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