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Byatt, A(ntonia) S(usan) 1936–

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An English novelist and literary critic, Byatt is best known for her novel Shadow of a Sun. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

The Times Literary Supplement

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To be the offspring of genius, even if not everyone considers it genius, must make growing-up even more difficult than it is for most of us. And to write a novel about the process, which involves creating someone whom your readers can believe in as a genius, is even more difficult. That is what Mrs. Byatt has tackled in her first novel, Shadow of a Sun….

It is easy to be somewhat cynical about the earnest sensitivity with which Mrs. Byatt explores … tortured relationships—she is a very feminine writer, careful to give us not only the visual detail (which she does very well) but also the emotional convolutions behind each utterance of her characters, which a tougher, more experienced writer would have pruned. She luxuriates in tentative similes and asides which hold up the dialogue…. But these are not disastrous faults, because Mrs. Byatt feels deeply for her characters and has a thoughtful, unhurried way of conveying precisely why they are worth caring about.

"Living with a Genius," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1964; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3227, January 2, 1964, p. 21.

Martin Levin

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It is an unusual Yorkshire household that A. S. Byatt describes in ["Shadow of a Sun"] …, a countrified, genius-oriented universe in which parental permissiveness is more a matter of default than intention. The author goes to great lengths of prolixity to define her characters, but fails to breathe life into them. Between Anna and her problems there always intrudes an ornamental rhetoric, substituting exposition for the revelation that should come out of a clash of characters. (pp. 32-3)

Martin Levin, "Reader's Report," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 26, 1964, pp. 32-3.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

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The problems of Cassandra and Julia Corbett, the heroines of [The Game], come into the domain of moral philosophy. One solution, it seems, is to recreate life giving it the direction and shape it customarily lacks. Their story is encompassed between two fictions—a Brontëan game of medieval battles and romance which they devised as children and, later on, a novel in which Julia attempts to capture her sister's life.

The illusion of omnipotence which games like these offer is clearly full of danger…. One manipulates a fantasy world, the other the people round her: adults' versions of the child-hood game. However, playing games also has a positive aspect in ritualizing the fierce rivalry between the sisters. When they bring their feelings into the open the effects are disastrous….

Mrs. Byatt's protagonists have not enough substance to carry their philosophical load. Only Cassandra has the weight to at least command respect. Formidable, grotesque and extremely vulnerable, she stands out as the novel's most real character. The author unfortunately shares her heroines' tendency to manipulate; and The Game suffers from a suffocating design of symbols, patterns and complementary characters. Although it is a work of intelligence, full of illuminating comment and perceptive observation which carry it quite out of the ordinary, the total effect is of artifice…. [One] is frequently dazzled, less often convinced. The Game is more sophisticated than Mrs. Byatt's first novel, but lacks its vitality. Worlds are not made, they grow: here there is not enough air for growth.

"Child's Play," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3386, January 19, 1967, p. 41.

Martin Levin

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["The Game"] is a book of uncommon subtlety….

What is so admirable about Mrs. Byatt's treatment of her characters is her blending of what they are with what they believe. The father's passive idealism, Simon's belief in original sin, Cassandra's view of the order and harmony of the universe, and Julia's ritualistic religion are truly part of the action. Yet the author doesn't sacrifice emotion to philosophy; her book is cumulatively exciting.

Martin Levin, "Reader's Report," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 17, 1968, p. 36.∗

Malcolm Bradbury

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[The Game,] a deep and able book, is the sensibility romance in its more traditional guise. It not only uses but is deeply sympathetic to those sensitive personal relations, those desires for romantic redemption and for the connection of the prose and the passion, which have been part of its modern stock. The domestic-familial is the root experience, the gropings of the female spirit in adolescence the essential source of character, the search for right faith with right feeling the main line of attack. The day-to-day is there, but must be transcended. The freedom the characters seek is the freedom of imagination, but an imagination still in touch with reality; the moral risks are too much passion or too much prose. (p. 73)

[The] book operates between the real and the abstract, and does so in the interests of creating a structure of meaning beyond that afforded directly by day-to-day reality. But it does so without a unifying surreal, a fully imagined transcendence—instead, all the characters make gestures toward it, as does the novelist herself, by creating a muted figurativeness that gives a supra-structure to the real. (pp. 73-4)

Cassandra and Julia work through the comparative claims of nature and art, reality and the imagination, life as lived and life as created, the world of pure objects and the world of vision, by taking separate but interconnecting paths….

Mrs. Byatt covers this complex material with a muted figurativeness, holding closely on to the relationships involved to draw out and illustrate motives and passions with a clear exactness. For her creativity is a species of living, and the way in which individuals compose themselves to meet the situations that demand or test this creativity is of the essence. The characters are thus under perpetual pressure and in perpetual growth, and if at times the literariness of the novel makes it lumpish, she is also capable of real and intense achievement of these scenes….

And yet, without wanting to enforce with too much hardness the test of history, there is a curious way in which this kind of latter-day romanticism seems to serve lost passions, lost species of romantic conduct…. Even so, the book remains a tour de force, and the impressive exactness of its detailing of sensibility shows a remarkable resource in a young novelist. (p. 74)

Malcolm Bradbury, "On from Murdoch," in Encounter (© 1968 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XXXI, No. 1, July, 1968, pp. 72-4.

Iris Murdoch

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[The Virgin in the Garden] is a very good book. It is a large, complex, ambitious work, humming with energy and ideas. It is a highly intellectual operation. The characters do a great deal of thinking, and have extremely interesting thoughts which are developed at length. But this is no tract or treatise; it is a strong, confident, very long traditional novel, a remarkable achievement. At a time when some critics doom the novel to brevity, narrowness, dryness and ultimate degeneration into a 'text', Mrs Byatt's lively monster triumphantly exhibits the form as a playground for a powerful omnivorous intelligence….

This is, essentially, a historical novel, but set in a period which never seems remote. There is a good deal of 'social comment', but this is never obtrusive and is subjected to the strong necessities of the story. Irrepressible intellectual interests in a novelist may obstruct the most important part of the task, which is the presentation of character. General reflections may diminish the contingent reality of those who utter them. Mrs Byatt has managed to render her people's thinking both individual and dramatically effective….

Mrs Byatt exhibits a discreet mastery of metaphor in her many excellent descriptions of the activity of thinking, its pace and texture. Not many novelists describe this activity as well; and not many novelists have so many interesting thoughts with which to endow their characters. The characters survive their creator's cleverness partly by their own innate energy, and partly through the intense 'internal relations' of the book….

There are a number of strong and separate centres of force. The sisters, similar but different, with diverging destinies, are surrounded by a number of sturdy, well-studied figures…. Marcus's experience of the deep structure of the universe is imagined in remarkable and convincing detail. (Indeed the novel may be said to be about deep structure.) This tour de force, together with the drama of the schoolmaster who (with tragic consequences) treats Marcus as a religious phenomenon, would make a sizeable novel in itself….

This long, energetic, poetic book has time for all sorts of surprising, though relevant, diversions and treats. Not only literature but the visual arts come liberally to the author's aid. Marcus offers us a remarkable perceptual analysis of a butcher's shop. An Elizabethan house is described in loving and learned detail. The story is always strong enough to assert itself, and though often impressively sad, is also at times zanily funny….

Of course, there are criticisms to be made. There are things to be said against any novel; it is the most essentially imperfect of all the great forms. There are perhaps too many literary allusions and quotations (though I would not wish that fault undone, the issue of it being so proper). And do schoolmasters really talk so much about Spenser and Milton, rather than talk about their motor cars? Alexander is to my mind not yet a clear enough character for his central place in the tale…. But in the context of such an achievement these are minor considerations.

Iris Murdoch, "Force Fields," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, No. 2485, November 3, 1978, p. 586.

Michael Irwin

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The action of this careful, complex novel [The Virgin in the Garden] takes place in Yorkshire in Coronation year. Its theme is growing up, coming of age, tasting knowledge. For the leading characters 1953 becomes the year that is to define their temperaments and shape the future….

Each of the six characters caught up in these dramas is pushed to extremity, forced by change, chance and exigency to come to terms with his or her intellectual or sexual being. This is an ambitious novel, heightened by calculated exaggeration. The stories, skilfully alternated, are linked by cunning echoes and symbolic commentary. The narration everywhere displays knowledge and intelligence.

But the intelligence proves a weakness as well as a strength. The author's commitment is to her ideas rather than to the imaginative life her story is apparently intended to have. She obliges her characters to speak and enact what her themes require; they have no off-stage existence. The sub-plots lapse as she alternately sets them aside. There is no sense of the patterns of living, of the diurnal realities, to which the more extravagant doings, the dramatized action of the novel, must be relative. The family life of the Potters remains unimagined and unimaginable…. The recurrent emotional and psychological insipidity is closely connected to the fact that this is a very bookish novel. Most of the main characters are chronically literary….

Since the narrative also is dense with literary allusion the effect is to diminish the characters, to make them seem mere agents of the author's own very academic intelligence. Her extensive use of indirect speech confirms one's sense of a ventriloquist whose lips are never still. I found Marcus Potter much the most interesting person in the book partly because his problems are extraordinary ones, but partly, also, because he is mercifully inarticulate….

Since Marcus's afflictions derive largely from what he sees, his appearances in the novel are often the occasion for extended passages of description almost clotted in their exhaustiveness and insistence. In the peculiar circumstances this is reasonable enough; but elsewhere, too, physical information is supplied chiefly through occasional long inventories. There is not the skilful distribution of visual detail that can bring a novel to continuous physical life….

The oddest defect in the novel, granted the writer's obvious thoughtfulness and sensitivity, is the stodginess of some of the prose. Wherever the narrative is indirect—there are numerous sequences of this kind—the style tends to thicken into heaviness. In particular it becomes grammatically and rhythmically monotonous…. This is further evidence, perhaps, of the writer's comparative lack of interest in the routine chores of realist fiction.

Michael Irwin, "Growing Up in 1953," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3996, November 3, 1978, p. 1277.

Paul Levy

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[The Virgin in the Garden] is a good example of proper literary ambition. It is, and practically declares itself to be, a novel in the European realist tradition, and it demands comparison with the masters in that tradition. The characters are full and rounded…. Mrs Byatt's talents are not confined to sketching members of a single social class.

The integration of the matter of the book—the reign of the first Elizabeth, Astraea, Shakespeare, the scholarship of Frances Yates and others, and Alexander's own elaborate play—is complete, and works on whatever level the book is read. There is a great deal of art in the book, and except for a little uncertainty about what becomes of Frederica, whom the reader comes to like too much to see her simply disappear from the stage without comment, the book as a whole is perfectly realised…. What I liked best about it was that Mrs Byatt has captured exactly, in her detailing of the events she has invented for the summer of the Coronation, the atmosphere of the summer of the Jubilee, the golden glow that suffused everything that was done during those magical, but real, few lovely months. (pp. 58-9)

Paul Levy, "Lee Langley: Ambition and the Novelist" (© copyright Paul Levy 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 24, No. 4, January, 1979, pp. 57-9.∗

Rosemary Dinnage

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["The Virgin in the Garden"] is grave, solid, ample as a Yorkshire tea, with deliberate hints of the Northern tradition of Mrs. Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë, even down to having a curate for one of its main characters….

Byatt's portrait of [a] hypersensitive, schizoid boy, his senses invaded by terrors and visions, holding annihilation at bay by repeating mathematical formulae, is beautifully empathetic. Self-defense through the intellect is practiced by other of her characters, and something of the sort bedevils the author's own style. She is at her best in bringing her characters alive, and they live on in the mind. But the book is overdecorated with tags and references from Elizabethan literature that smell of the lecture room; her characters quote lines of verse at one another in a way that I thought went out with Dorothy L. Sayers.

But Byatt is essentially a fine, careful and very traditional storyteller.

Rosernary Dinnage, "England in the 50's," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 1, 1979, p. 20.

Daphne Merkin

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[It] is clear why Byatt is unknown on these shores: She is very English—insularly so…. She writes out of an imperturbable tradition of English literature, a tradition that takes note of contemporary currents without drifting away on them. The men and women in [The Virgin in the Garden] bear some resemblance to present-day men and women; they also resemble the men and women of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy—they even, most unfashionably, resemble each other in a way that the sexes are no longer presumed to….

The Virgin in the Garden is a lushly-woven novel, a tapestry of conflicting sensibilities. Byatt writes with a somewhat remote but unerring skill; she is always intelligent, often witty, and frequently slips in the kind of humanly wise observation for which one reads such novels in the first place: "Pain hardens, and great pain hardens greatly, whatever the comforters say, and suffering does not ennoble, though it may occasionally lend a certain rigid dignity of manner to the suffering frame." All the same she is too self-consciously literary: Her book is crammed with bits and pieces of higher learning and sounds alarmingly donnish on occasion. Her characters cannot get into bed without invoking T. S. Eliot or D. H. Lawrence; they are relentlessly cultured, given to talking rather than doing. If, for American tastes they are ludicrously cerebral, nevertheless, behind all the erudite chatter lurks the sad knowledge "that poetry had no answer to pain." There is, surely, a terrible fragility about people who try to live by imagination rather than instinct.

Daphne Merkin, "Writers & Writing: The Art of Living," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 9, April 23, 1979, p. 16.∗

Louise Bernikow

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Besides the intellectual artifice, at the heart of the boxes within boxes, puns, parodies, donnish and in-groupy references, which I imagine an American reader will feel impatient with, there is something important and accessible, relevant and potentially gripping in The Virgin in the Garden. Consider the virgin, consider the garden. The virgin is Frederica and Queen Elizabeth I and, beyond that, the idea of female intactness, Virgo-Astraea, the Greek sense of belonging to oneself (the original meaning of "virginity").

Alexander's play and especially Frederica's part in it focus on Elizabeth's (actual) declaration that she would not bleed, her choice of lifelong virginity, and the perhaps concomitant "masculine" strength of her character and her reign…. Hovering over the play and Byatt's novel are questions: what is female strength? how is it possible? Frederica is surrounded by women whose "submission" to sexual life has left them less than they were: her mother hides her own education in the face of a blistering, overbearing husband; her sister seems to die as her pregnancy advances. (p. 36)

The garden's symbolism draws on Renaissance literary convention: Paradise, Eden, place and time when everything seemed closed and perfect. The play itself is performed in the garden of a great house. The time of the novel, the fifties, is seen as a period of blissful ignorance, especially about matters of consciousness and sexuality: Frederica had wanted traditional things of Alexander—that he save her, teach her, make love to her. (p. 38)

By the end of the novel, serenity and enclosure have fallen away. A Prologue that puts what comes afterward in a peculiarly ironic light shows Alexander, Frederica, and Daniel in London, in 1968, attending a program about Elizabeth I. It is a scene full of empty dissatisfaction—among the characters and in their relation to the world. In this context the fifties, the garden, the virginity, are seen with rueful nostalgia. The present seems a time when things have fallen apart, to Byatt's eye, quite lost, bereft of the energy that came with misguided certainty. (pp. 38-9)

Louise Bernikow, "The Illusion of Allusions," in Ms. (© 1979 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. VII, No. 12, June, 1979, pp. 36, 38-9.

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A. S. Byatt World Literature Analysis


Byatt, A. S.