A. S. Byatt

Start Free Trial

Francis Spufford (review date 25 June 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Mantle of Jehovah,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 12, June 25, 1987, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Spufford praises Byatt's ability to aptly portray “strong feelings and violent flavours” in her work, and asserts that the overriding sentiment of the stories in Sugar is loss.]

To keep a single vision single, or perhaps to conserve their own energy, writers who deal in strong feelings and violent flavours most often choose narrow canvases. Not, however, A. S. Byatt. Her writing has been synoptically intense. It has been so, anomalously, in a genre (the English social novel) which makes comparisons with other violently-flavoured writers, outside the genre, seem silly. You could, of course, draw a contrast simply in terms of range of Bad Moments covered: Norman Mailer has preferred to steer clear of the peculiar pains of childbirth, and Andrea Dworkin has chosen not to dwell on the distinctive horror an uneasy Christmas dinner can become, while Byatt can and has handled both as elements in her continuing series of novels.

That series began with The Virgin in the Garden in 1981, and proceeded with Still Life in 1985; more is promised. In the meantime comes a book of short stories, Sugar, more distinct in method than in concerns. Several of the pieces in it can be seen as out-takes from the long movement of the series, where her subject is a biography of what was recently called this country's ‘cultivated class’: from its post-war beginnings in a fusion of the lettered gentry and the old-style educationally-mobile working-class, through its maturity in the long warm years of the grammar schools, to (presumably—Ms Byatt's fictions have not taken the story so far) its present state of bewilderment. Both novels have had framing themes: in the one case, Elizabethan drama, and in the other Van Gogh. She has had much to say about, respectively, virginity and the implications of nature morte, whether through her plot or at one discursive remove from it. But though the characters' lives are cultured, and revealingly cultural, the strongest impression you are likely to take from the novels is of the desperate fragility of experience, the way it is likely to break down into biological or sexual or mental hurts that gain force from their close conjunction with the shapes of the culture. The catastrophes of the mind and flesh meet the flesh and mind's most deliberate creations. For Byatt, and so for the reader, verse-drama joins to the rupture of virginity, Suez joins to sexual terror, Leavis to tainted love.

The end of the Prologue to The Virgin in the Garden declares the double—or complicatedly single—intention. Daniel, a priest, leaves an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery which has gathered, retrospectively and iconically, many of the concerns of the main action of the book, set 16 years earlier, to which we are about to be introduced. Daniel has to see someone:

Someone was a woman whose son had been damaged in a smash. He had been a beautiful boy and still was, a walking unreal figure of a beautiful boy, a wax doll inhabited alternately by a screaming daemon and a primitive organism that ate and bulged and slept, amoeba-like. His father had been unable to bear it and had left. The woman had been a good teacher, and now was not, had had friends, and now did not, had had a pleasant body, and now did not.

Much of what is going on at this moment of particular intensity can be taken as more widely typical. The use of...

(This entire section contains 3519 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

biological terminology, the brutally physical clinching words like ‘bulged’, and especially the ruthless parallelism, all enforce the truth of the view we are being given of a life. Elsewhere the truth of pain is enforced in other ways, but enforcement remains a constant factor. She is consistently willing to risk excess in language and metaphor so long as the effect achieved is, in her terms, appropriately strong. It is as if a sort of honesty acts on her as the most potent and compelling of principles, with the making of this sort of fiction as its necessary praxis. C. S. Lewis observed with partisan savagery that the prospect of near-universal damnation worried the bright young Calvinists of the 1590s no more than the imminent liquidation of the bourgeoisie worried the bright young Marxists of the 1930s: and something of the same disregarding fire burns in A. S. Byatt so far as her readers' more evasive sensibilities are concerned. A propos of pastoral calls on the sick, the character Stephanie remarks to the curate Daniel, ‘Conventions … can make a slow, bearable way of getting into—bits of life. You can't always rush people to extremes. In case people can't stand them.’ ‘Extremes exist,’ replies Daniel, firmly enough to win this fictional argument, and for us to take this as the sufficient answer to our own bruised query, as the final Byatt word.

We encounter extremes, all right, and not only of suffering. The novels are rich in less spectacular kinds of thinking and feeling that have been pushed towards some absolute. Because Daniel hides his force beneath a fat exterior and an uncontentious attitude to theology, we are told that no one notices that he is a fanatic. For a priest to have a vocation is unremarkable, though probably only Byatt would have credited him with quite this kind of extreme commitment: it is rather stranger that a young merchant banker should manifest the signs of a vocation, a complete ‘directedness’ to his imagination. In language appropriate to his class and period (1957 or so), he eulogises the Thames as the emblem of trade. What the banker has so obviously, other characters have in quieter ways: an animating idea. But we are a long way from the grounds of Lewes's complaint that Mr Micawber was no more alive than a galvanised frog's leg. Byatt's people are not mechanical, or predictable, though they are rather more coherent than most fictional characters. In that, they resemble the novels as a whole, in which extremity sometimes seems as much to enable coherence as coherence is used as a device to indicate extremity. We are on paradoxical ground. While both the novels put forward experience as contingent and fissile, both exploit the full powers of omnipotent authorship to give authority to contingency.

The power of what results is undeniable. Extremes exist, but in life we rely on the inarticulacy of the extreme to keep it muted and bearable. With monumental clarity Byatt takes her readers to places in the soul they had not imagined could be so well-lit for their observation. If at times one cannot believe, quite, in the normality of her characters, their disease is that useful ailment, a disease of lucidity. Other writers may give us a madness, or a wedding-night, or the reading of a poem, but only Byatt consistently delivers intellectual madnesses, love-making as reflective as it is tumultuous, poems considered with painful experience and the whole resources of a mind. It is extraordinary to read. When, in Still Life, Daniel and Stephanie, who have been married for some time, go to bed certain of each other yet conscious of passions blunted by circumstance and possibilities dissipated, the critical words of Stephanie's abandoned profession ‘wandered loose and unused. Peripateia. Anguish. Morphology … Men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love nor yet for constriction of vocabulary.’ Byatt gains for her reader something analogous to the astonishment an adolescent feels at the scale and complexity of newly-glimpsed grown-up feelings, without the shallowness. Can it all be so big? Sometimes it can.

And sometimes it surely cannot. Ms Byatt, for example, believes in appropriating the more brutally reductive parts of the male vocabulary for talking about sex, partly from a conviction. I think, that an action involving power should register its language, and presumably, also, to borrow the confident potency of such words for her own ends. They do, after all, make for instant focus of a sort. A female character being capably, ruthlessly and benevolently brought to her first orgasm is described as being ‘searched’: the association of the wound is intended. You could call the effect penetrating, though you might well rather not. You are more likely to object, not on grounds of taste, but because of the clarity the technique so violently claims. In this instance, and in others, it can seem that potency or coherence are being taken as proofs of truth without its being acknowledged that truth does not necessarily reside in what can, no matter how impressively, be clearly seen. Fervent lucidity is a dangerous technique: once belief is called into question, the stylisation of the characters begins to seem dubious. Agitation and worry follow. One begins to wonder whether, despite the unequivocally realistic premises of the writing, Byatt has not moved surreptitiously into fantasy—a willed fantasy about psychology, a shadow-play rather than a drama. How far can one second her use of authorial omnipotence? Surely no other writer since Hardy has so comprehensively donned the mantle of Jehovah smiting the Egyptians with plagues, so thoroughly used the prerogative of blighting, distorting and crushing lives.

A naked madman stands in a school pond decked in flowers, cutting gashes in himself with a knife; he has been thinking a little too much about ley-lines. A major and sympathetic character is killed suddenly, all too believably, by a badly-wired fridge. Damaged people damage others without intending to, or intending to, while the undamaged walk away. Malign chance works overtime. More pressing than discomfort at individual horrors is the sense that experience is being ordered inhumanely. When the man I have mentioned goes Lear-crazy, one of the characters actually thinks how shaking it is for madness to take such a literary, utterly revealing form, so far beyond ordinary incoherence. On that occasion one's nervousness has been recognised, pre-empted, and itself patterned into the book, but the reader is likely to feel it as a much more abiding reservation—as a reason, ultimately, to withhold the assent which the novels demand while granting them great respect.

One of the great pleasures of the novels is Byatt's passion for describing, at length, people looking at things: at pictures, at architecture, at objects. They see so well one is grateful for one's borrowed eyes. They make connections, they speculate, they observe extravagantly. There could be little better company in which to consider bakelite or a statue of Actaeon or Van Gogh's Reapers, few more impressive guides than Byatt, for though the intensity of the looking does contribute to the books' worrying stylisation, the set-pieces of looking—taken simply as pieces of prose—indicate her largesse of language. Sugar is equally interested in seeing, but there are no set-pieces; the stories break up and diffuse the acts of regard. The title piece, narrated by a woman sojourning in Amsterdam while her father dies slowly in hospital there, interlaces passages of memory and regret with visits to the Rijksmuseum, taking from the pictures single private observations and pursuing, from moment to moment, wholly private associations. She traces out, with fine concentration, the various walls of her childhood on which a Vermeer and a Van Gogh print have hung. The contrasts drawn—between the then of the pictures and the now of the dying father, between the stillness of the gallery and a sudden whiff of teargas on the street outside—come across as serious, satisfactory, unflip, unfacile because Byatt so obviously has no easy patterning to lay on them, no ‘theoretical’ impulsion to distinguish them, only hard thinking, which is the wrong word for the narrative compound of feeling, event, reflection. In Byatt's case, that compound comes closer to resembling thinking than for most writers. She preserves the shapes of the pictures seen, and makes their description a shape in the story, without any forcing of the story's concerns onto the pictures. Here, response modestly remains response. Which is appropriate, since this story, like most of the others in the volume, concerns the difficulties of extracting meaning from experience—a shift, as it were, from a biographical to an autobiographical view of lives, in terms of point l'appui.

Sugar is about losses: of possibilities, of parents, of children, of love, of ideas, of the ability to reach certain delicate and composed states of feeling, of equilibrium, of hope, even of one's saving diseases. On a Victorian family holiday in Italy, a young woman outwardly reconciled to flattened, self-forgetting spinsterhood suddenly sees the new prospect of a new sort of life; the young painter she has fallen in love with climbs into the Appennines the next day, achieves a remarkable sketch, glimpses his calling for the first time, and falls to his death in a gust of wind. A novelist named Mrs Smith rejoices in the long uncluttered perspectives of her middle age and conceives a plan for a long novel rather like The Virgin in the Garden; in the street she meets precisely the person to take the bloom off her elation, and then contracts a cancer which ensures she'll not have time enough for the novel. And so on. Yet the tone is never apocalyptic: it is, on the contrary, deeply sympathetic, close to the perceptions of the characters, elegantly and scrupulously attentive to their struggles. Only the title story is written in the first person, but many of the others deliver the workings of a mind to us with an intimacy that approaches that of the directly first-person view and shares, importantly, its formal restrictions. Intimate loss reduces people; loss viewed intimately places limits on stories. With the loss of present certainties comes a difficulty in retrieving the authentic shape of what has been lost. The narrator of ‘Sugar’ (the story) can handle her own scruples, folding them back again and again into the tissue of her memory until they become part of her impression of her father. His return home on leave during the war:

This event was a storied event, already lived over and over, in imagination and hope, in the invented future … More things come back as I write; the gold-winged buttons on his jacket, forgotten between then and now. None of these words, none of these things recall him. The gold-winged, fire-haired figure in the doorway is and was myth, though he did come back, he was there …

Elsewhere Byatt herself makes frequent authorial interventions and interruptions, in propria persona, to weigh and consider, to sift the value of what is known in formal almost essay-like deliberations; and to remind us, as if that too were an aspect of difficulty, that these are stories, constructed things it is proper to halt with reservations and deconstructions. A suggestion of metafiction, of uncertainties found to be themselves fictionally productive? Not quite. Byatt's interruptions may seem to have the ludic touch, but they lack the centrifugal ludic conviction. This ‘uncertain’ manner complements and to some extent continues her previous certainties; the change is less substantial than it appears. A certain amount of dovetailing is discernible.

The first story in Sugar, ‘Racine and the Tablecloth’, recounts the school life of a scholarship girl, Emily, who wants to be understood. By being understood she means something quite precise. For five years or so she is quietly persecuted by a genteel mistress in a feud that is the worse for being totally unacknowledged. At home in the Potteries Emily has an aunt whose life has been given over, at the expense of herself, to looking after other people and doing embroidery. Caught in a vice only she feels between the example of the aunt and the criticisms of the teacher, Emily does what she does best, which is academic work. She has an angular, precocious brilliance; the Racine set text excites her and bores the other girls. She comes remorselessly first in everything except maths and domestic science. But none of this is the occasion for praise, which she might not want anyway; the ethos of the school runs more to ladylike accomplishment, incarnated in the mistress. What Emily wants is for none of these circumstances to matter, for her best work to be taken dryly and dispassionately for what it is, for its care and its intentions and its insights to be comprehended. Having opted sensibly for atheism, she proceeds to invent with one corner of her mind a God called the Reader ‘whose nature was not to love but to understand’. Emily does not manage to keep the jaws of the vice apart: why, after all, should she have that kind of strength? Lectured at on the evils of the competitive spirit just before her A levels, she bursts into tears which last for three days. When the mistress comes to her bedside and makes a horribly blanketing protestation of concern, Emily is forced more or less to apologise: ‘it felt,’ in a nice phrase, ‘like a recantation without there having been an affirmation to recant.’ She does her papers all right, and excels, but can no longer believe in the possibility of that dry, fair academic Light in which it is possible to work unhurt.

The story is set very definitely in Emily's past, and whether Emily can remember correctly what happened is a kind of issue in it. Could Miss Crichton-Walker really have called Emily depraved? Upon such unanswered questions hangs the larger question of whether Emily has grown to be able to understand what happened. To save urgency from being dissipated, to give importance to that understanding, Byatt attaches the live irony of a brief epilogue in which we see Emily failing—under the restraint of her own scarring—to prevent her daughter's academic hopes from being blighted in the same way. Though for different reasons: in the present the snuffer-out of the Light takes the form of a deputy head castigating Emily for her middle-class academic prejudices. Already, in that neat ironic arrangement, you can see one of the real limits to the influence of uncertainty in the story. Meticulous measurements of memory aside, the narration follows the certainties of balanced images, revealing metaphors and, above all, convinced authorial judgments. However many hints of metatextuality there may be, you will find no flirtation here with theories that question the propriety of authorial knowledge. No writer could be farther than Ms Byatt from the dissociations of the Nouveau Roman. In ‘Racine and the Tablecloth’ description and commentary are always united. Each incident is given a permeating and graceful significance that cannot be called imposed because it is not in the nature of the writing to recognise intrinsically inimical differences between characters and landscapes, objects and humans. There is a non-stop play of metaphor, like a thinking fountain. One notes, too, her distance from those writers who have seen the worst misery of boarding-school as the fearful lack of proportion it imposes on children—a promising direction for a fiction about uncertainty.

In his radio play Where are they now? Tom Stoppard gives a character the satisfying chance to complain, with hindsight, of ‘the momentous trivialities and tiny desolations’, the ‘hollow fear of inconsiderable matters’. But Byatt is not having any. While she concurs with, and captures beautifully, the desperate, vulnerable privacies of children, and their susceptibility to atmosphere, she insists on the immutability of the line of a life established by such hollow fears. Emily does not escape her school, and what it did to her. The fears, in fact, were not hollow, the losses not temporary. And Byatt, as ever, shows herself to be supremely good at establishing the absolute nature of some feelings, of which loss is one. Sugar has, in fact, the same confidence as the novels in what a writer can show, with a strategically diminished confidence in what a character can know: a less worrying version of extreme coherence.

‘Precipice Encurl'd’, the story containing the accident in the Appennines, also gives us (a passage of immaculate ventriloquism) Browning musing on the creation of characters for his dramatic monologues. What, he asks, lies behind the individual diversities of man? What lies at the back of him, Browning? ‘“The best part of my life,” he told himself, “the life I have lived most intensely, has been the fitting, the infiltrating, the inserting the self of another man or woman, explored and sleekly filled out, as fingers swell a glove.”’ Perhaps that is because at the back of the him that he puts at the back of his characters, he has, at ‘my best times’, something close to a generic (or divine) creative intelligence: ‘something simple, undifferentiated, indifferently intelligent, live’. This is, of course, meant as a homage—as well as possessing an organic importance in the story—but it is tempting to imagine that Byatt sees herself (at her best times) putting on those gloves and wriggling her fingers, because, looking at Sugar, it seems that whatever she does we come back to the multivalent power of the articulate voice, the commanding word. Long live (with reservations) Jehovah.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

A. S. Byatt 1936-

(Full name Antonia Susan Drabble Byatt) English novelist, critic, essayist, short story writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Byatt's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19 and 65.

Byatt is a distinguished English critic and novelist best known for her Booker Prize-winning, neo-Victorian novel Possession (1990). Byatt is known for her faithfulness to Victorian language and mores and her multilayered texts which include novels, poems, letters, and journals within the narrative construct as well as allusions to art, philosophy, religion, and literary theory. Byatt has stated that her works “try to be about the life of the mind as well as of society and the relations between people.”

Biographical Information

Born in Sheffield, England in 1936, Byatt received her B.A. from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1957 before pursuing graduate studies at Bryn Mawr College and Somerville College, Oxford. Although she intended to obtain a doctorate in seventeenth-century literature, she left Oxford in 1959 without completing her degree and married in July of that year. In addition to raising her children, Byatt taught part-time at the University of London and worked on her first novel, The Shadow of a Sun, which was published in 1964. A year later she published Degrees of Freedom, a critical work focused on the novels of Iris Murdoch, whom critics regard as a major influence on Byatt's fiction. In addition to her novels, Byatt has edited works by George Eliot and Robert Browning and has written criticism on subjects such as Victorian poetry, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She also wrote a second work of criticism on Murdoch, titled Iris Murdoch, in 1976. Byatt lives in London with her second husband.

Major Works

Much of Byatt's fiction is concerned with the creative process and the imagination. In The Game (1967) Byatt studies the pitfalls of the creative process and the inability of the imagination and fiction to accurately articulate reality. The book also employs one of Byatt's favorite devices, the novel within a novel. Sugar (1987) is a series of short stories exploring loss, including “Precipice Encurled,” a fictionalized account of an event from the life of Robert Browning. Possession tells the story of two academic researchers whose own love story parallels that of the two 19th-century poets who are the subject of their research. Angels and Insects (1992) contains two novellas, “Morpho Eugenia” and “The Conjugial Angel.” Both are written in an imitation of Victorian-style English and deal with the notions of free will and determinism. The tales presented in The Matisse Stories (1993) each link to a different painting by Matisse and reveal Byatt's continuing interest in painting. Babel Tower (1996) is the third in a planned tetralogy featuring Byatt's heroine Frederica Potter. The earlier installments, The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1986) follow Frederica through her years at Cambridge. Babel Tower begins in 1964 and explores Frederica's marriage to Nigel Reiver. The two are soon divorced, and the novel follows Frederica as she struggles with single motherhood in the tumultuous 1960s.

Critical Reception

Byatt has been both praised and criticized for her intellectual scope and her willingness to deal with complex ideas in her fiction. Reviewers often note Byatt's fascination with the creative process and the artist's craft. Critics have also called attention to her interest in painting as an artistic expression and her use of painterly language to create a visual picture. Merle Rubin stated, “A. S. Byatt is an artful writer, craftsmanlike in her approach and drawn to themes involving art and artists. An academic critic as well as a novelist, she has a painter's eye for form and color, a scholar's respect for significant detail.” Several reviewers credit Byatt for her scholarship, but some complain that her fiction gets bogged down under the weight of her erudition. However, many critics assert that the strength of her storytelling keeps her narratives compelling. Byatt's recreation of the Victorian novel of manners has also sparked discussions concerning the role of the postmodern novel and the relationship between history and contemporary fiction.

Jane Campbell (essay date Spring 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Hunger of the Imagination in A. S. Byatt's The Game,” in Critique, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1988, pp. 147-62.

[In the following essay, Campbell traces Byatt's use of the imagination as both the subject and the form of her novel The Game.]

In a comment made after the publication of her second novel, The Game (1967), Antonia S. Byatt described the subject matter of her fiction: “habits of mind—the nature of the imagination, the ways in which different people take in the world, and the uses they make of what they think or see.”1 Her statement defines both the subject of The Game and its form. This novel presents and demonstrates contrasting uses of the imagination and shows the impossibility of its ever fully taking in the world, the difficulty of breaking out of private worlds into communication, and the devastation that can result from the misuse of imagination—especially from attempting to invade the mental space of another person. The Game examines the perils of fiction as well as those of human relationships. It takes its place beside other “self-reflexive” pieces of contemporary fiction in which novelists examine the procedures of their art, and it also explores the moral themes of betrayal and self-deception. Its plot, which relates moral and aesthetic concerns, perfectly suits this duality. The story of two sisters in their thirties—Cassandra Corbett, an unmarried Oxford don, and Julia Eskelund, a successful novelist, married to a social worker and mother of a teen-aged daughter Deborah—shows the dangers of fiction in a very concrete way, for Julia's novel, based on her version of Cassandra's obsessive love for the naturalist Simon Moffitt, causes Cassandra's suicide. At the same time, Byatt's handling of her materials constitutes in itself a questioning of the possibilities of art.

The Game of the title is, first of all, the childhood game, with its intricate rules, which the sisters created in Brontë fashion from their imaginations and which continues to exist physically in the form of ledgers, a pack of cards divided into four armies, a set of clay figures representing characters in the Arthurian legend, and a map. This game, which continued well into adolescence, was their way of taking in the world by making patterns: first the physical conflicts of warfare, then the intrigues of torments of courtly love. When the sisters, with Julia's husband Thor and their daughter Deborah, are brought together at the Corbett parents' Northumberland house by the imminent death of Mr. Corbett, they pass their time by taking the Game out from storage in a window seat and playing at it. As they leave after the funeral, Cassandra packs it away, saying that it has “done enough damage.”2 She is echoing Thor's recent rebuke to her: “Don't you think you've done enough damage?” He was referring to Cassandra's obsession with Simon, whom both sisters had, in different ways, loved and lost years earlier, and especially to Cassandra's feeling that Julia stole Simon from her. “Why don't you let go?” Thor urged, “Julia is afraid of you. Let him go, let Julia go” (107). Cassandra's repetition of Thor's words shows that she understands the relationship of the Game to her estrangement from her sister. Before they met Simon, there had been an earlier instance of theft, directly involving the Game and bringing its shared story-telling to an end. Julia had taken a story of Cassandra's concerning “paths taken and escapes made” by Sir Lancelot, revised it, adding control and irony, and published it as her own. This, as Cassandra recognized at the time, was not simple theft, since “the story was, or had been, common property” (84), but she had deeply resented it. The overlapping of the sisters' inner lives has continued, with unusual intensity, although they have seldom met as adults. Cassandra has found that Simon's appearances on television have made him “accessible to the imagination, to disputes, to thoughts, to dreams,” but still feels herself “an object of Julia's speculation, Julia's tale-telling” (108). For her part, Julia has felt shut out and judged inadequate by her older sister. While Cassandra puts away the Game, the two sisters achieve a moment of adult understanding, each confessing to a sense of loss arising from what Cassandra calls “a gulf between the life we created and the life we lived.” She says that she “had hoped to be able to bridge it, in time,” but does not say whether she hoped to use her scholarly work on Malory's Morte D'Arthur, her devotion to Anglo-Catholicism, or her fantasy life with Simon for this purpose. She, then, in an attempt to act on Thor's plea, tells Julia that “one should make a real moral effort to forgo one's need for a sense of glory,” and that she and Julia should try to see each other “more on the surface” (123). Yet Julia, despite her hope that she and Cassandra can attain ordinary friendship, and despite pity for her sister, whom she sees as betrayed by the Game into a life of solitude, feels “a little flicker of irrational envy; Cassandra had appropriated their world, taken it over” (123). (Julia herself, by contrast, has turned away from the particular imaginative demands of the Game to transfer her daily life into novels.) The Game thus becomes a symbol for the sister's continuing relationship as well as for their childhood interdependence, and it represents both their invasion of each other's mental territory and their shared awareness of the “gap.”

The Game also provides language for Byatt's novel and its basic structure. Julia's publication of her version of Cassandra, in a novel that marks a new departure for her as a writer, is described as “one of those destructive moves we are only enabled to make by rigidly refusing to consider their nature, until too late” (260). In fact, it causes Cassandra's death. The evidence at the inquest into Cassandra's suicide includes a psychiatrist's statement that it was, “in these cases, just possible to assume that there was an obsessive attempt to ‘play fair’”; the thoroughness with which she had sealed herself into her room, before taking pills and turning on the gas, suggested a concern “to prove she was no gambler” (279). Later Julia tells Simon that she has felt controlled by Cassandra: “She always made the rules. … She made me what I am” (280). The language of games is used also in the activity of the imagination. Simon tells Cassandra of his attempt to see with the eyes of his dead friend Antony Miller—“a silly game … that got to be not a game” (241). Earlier, Cassandra, after watching one of Simon's television presentations, writes in her journal about her need to pursue metaphors “to the death.” “Is this a game or an action? Is that a real question?” (170).

The structure of the novel is patterned on that of a game with two players, alternating between Cassandra's and Julia's perceptions and between retrospective and present narrative. The question of who has won this larger game becomes crucial. When Julia publishes her novel, using Cassandra's phrase, “a sense of glory,” as its title and Cassandra's relationship with Simon as its subject, Cassandra, who has painfully achieved, at last, a real relationship with Simon, feels that the book's existence destroys their new-found freedom. She tells Simon that they can never say anything to each other “that cannot be seen in terms of Julia's fiction” because “our course is plotted for us in it.” The theme of A Sense of Glory, she says, is “what Dr. Johnson called ‘the hunger of the imagination that preys incessantly on life’” (271). Shortly after this conversation, she kills herself. Nevertheless, we are left at the end of the novel with the question of who has been the winner. “Who had stolen whose action?” Julia asked herself when she heard that Simon, as she had “made” him do in her book, had gone to Oxford. She saw that “she could not now, if Cassandra had possibly seen Simon, ask Cassandra to forgive her for a book in which she had imagined such a meeting” (252). And as, with Simon's help, she clears Cassandra's papers from her Oxford rooms, she fears that her sister's death may have “simply loosed” the imaginary Cassandra who will “gnaw intolerably at her imagination in the future” (285). Malcolm Bradbury observed in his review of The Game that “in one sense the triumph of Julia is the triumph of this world”3—but, as he saw, Julia's triumph is open to question. Both sisters are trapped by the Game. Julia sees that in trying to “come to grips with” Cassandra she has imprisoned herself. “We think … that we are releasing ourselves by plotting what traps us, by laying it all out to look at—but in fact all we do is show the trap up for real” (251).

Clearly, The Game is more than a study of sibling rivalry or of obsessive love, although it takes both these topics seriously. It is also an exploration of the imagination and of the activity of perception, and it reaches the conclusion that reality can never be contained within any of our linguistic forms. Iris Murdoch, of whose work Byatt has written with clarity and insight, has warned that brute reality is “more and other than our descriptions of it”4—and Byatt's novel is designed to demonstrate and ponder this fact.

The Game is filled with documents and fictions, which, in their relations with each other and with the central narrative, prove Murdoch's point. In addition, the main characters' relationships to various forms of interpretation become central to the novel's meaning.

Each time Julia raids Cassandra's imaginative life, the resulting product is a distortion. Julia's reworking of Cassandra's earlier story (already extensively revised by Cassandra for her own public version) had a more elegant, less “lumpy” form. Similarly, A Sense of Glory gives shape to Julia's version of Cassandra's imagined relationship with Simon, and inevitably, distorts it. Annexing for her purposes Father Rowell, Cassandra's priest and friend—and, in the process, neglecting his suggestion that she try to enlarge the possibilities of Cassandra's daily life—Julia makes the imagined lover a priest rather than a naturalist. She succeeds, according to one reviewer, in telling the story of “hopeless love, felt in intelligent if cranky middle age” (264) with genuine sympathy for the central character, whom, with an obvious allusion to Emily Brontë, she calls Emily Burnett. Her book has an open ending. After Emily's meeting with the flesh-and-blood man whom she has nourished in her imagination for so long, the reader is left, says the reviewer, with the question

of whether the cold breath of reality on the glittering imaginative structure will prove absolutely destructive, or be the beginning of a more restricted, but more mature existence.


As Julia tells her lover Ivan, she tried to give her character some freedom; she wanted to convey both limitations and possibilities. But her imagination was not equal to the task she set herself; she has failed to recognize what Murdoch calls the “opacity of persons” and to allow for “contingency.”5 Since she has used real-life models whose emotional states are precarious, the results are disastrous. Deborah, who had herself resented being material for her mother's novels, points out that Julia's use of Cassandra is more damaging than her use of her husband and daughter, because earlier books “weren't really about me, they were about you, what you felt about me. But this was about her” (273). In a sense this is true, yet, as Ivan shrewdly observes, it is also about Julia: he sees—and Julia admits—that Emily is to some extent a composite portrait of Julia and Cassandra. The “sense of glory” and the failure of reality to measure up is something both women understand. Ivan also observes that Julia's story provides a “one-sided equation” because Julia has “left out the persecuting female novelist” (176). Further, the irony implicit in the art-life relationship is greatly deepened by Julia's failure to imagine the possibility that Cassandra might be able to reach out to Simon despite the “forests of imagination between them.” In her version, she tells Ivan, when Emily meets her priest in Oxford “she lets him go, she won't put out a hand” (176). In fact—as we learn later—Cassandra, after the first shock, was able, with great effort, to reach out to Simon. After Simon, in Cassandra's college rooms, had told her the story he had to tell—of his friend Antony's being eaten alive by piranhas before Simon's eyes—Cassandra was able to respond to his emotional and physical needs and to discover that “it was surprisingly painful to be in a position to consider what was good for him” (236). When Simon, after making an incoherent sexual proposition and falling into a drunken sleep, wakes and asks her out to dinner, Cassandra reaches an important realization:

The romantic moment of recognition would not happen—although she had come closer to that than she could possibly have considered likely, and she had refused it. But what she had now, though not absolute, was more than that grey recognition of defeat, of pure limiting impossibility, that was the romantic recognition reversed. Simon, chatty, gossipy, nervous, kindly—which?, having made of her pictures—what? and of herself, too—what? was asking her out to dinner. And she had preached to him that the complete, the absolute feeling was not desirable. She did not know what he thought, and would not know. But she would take what was offered. Painfully, deliberately, still terrified, Cassandra, for the first time in her life, rose to an occasion.


She is able to put into words what went wrong between them years earlier: “you didn't like things to mean too much. I loved you too much” (247); to smile at him; and—until Julia's book ends their relationship—to enjoy a release into an ordinary friendship. Julia tells Ivan that Cassandra believed in the prophetic function of literature; “I only have hindsight” (176). Her failure to conceive of Cassandra's freedom and potential for growth proves fatal. When A Sense of Glory is published, Cassandra feels trapped in the book and rejects Simon's pleas that she try to live in the world with Julia. Knowing that we all create each other in normal life, she insists that Julia has gone beyond what is allowable: “she does a little more than simply see me, and that little is intolerable” (276).

Failing to do justice to the autonomy of Cassandra, Julia has also failed to imagine Simon. In her book, she tells Ivan, the priest “sort of remembers” Emily, “and the pathetic thing is he likes her, he really likes her” (176). Simon, in fact, has dreamed of Cassandra in the years between their meetings, has made professional use of quotations she gave him, and has unconsciously saved up things to tell her. He has needed Cassandra, and Julia has been incapable of imagining either his need or her sister's response. She has, however, been dimly aware of other possibilities lying beyond her creative scope. Her own love for Simon, she reflects after the completion of A Sense of Glory, has remained (as she had imagined Cassandra's as remaining), that of a child for “an imaginary hero, or a television idol.” Yet she thinks that “another kind of love, from another person might … call out in him another reality; but that was only idle speculation. She had imagined him” (261). She also admits to Ivan that she may not have tried hard enough to “tug” the story away from Cassandra, and that perhaps she ought simply to have written the book for her private satisfaction, not published it. She has been guilty of self-deception and, in Bradbury's words, of “moral clumsiness”6 rather than of deliberate cruelty. Her book is an example of what Murdoch would probably label fantasy rather than imagination, and in this case, reversing Murdoch's description of what should happen, fantasy is destructive of real people.7

If Julia uses her fiction to give shape and finality to the persons and events of her life at the risk of distortion, Cassandra leaves behind her only unfinished pieces of writing: her journal (once intended to grow into some larger work), her edition of Malory, her poems about Morgan le Fay. It was in her journal that she had tried to contain her imaginative life after Julia's first theft, which ended their shared story-telling. The function of the Game as a recorder of romantic imagining has also been continued in Cassandra's professional life by her work on Malory (where, Julia thinks, her sister's inner life has been sterilized with footnotes) and by the poems. The journal has helped Cassandra to escape from her sense that her life is “weightless and meaningless.” By recording details she has distinguished “between what is real and what is imagined” (26–27). It has another function: in it she carries on a sporadic one-sided conversation with Simon, commenting on his television presentations and continuing arguments they had had in the past. Shortly before Simon's arrival in Oxford, she turned to painting as a way of coping with reality, creating a version of Simon's world and of Simon himself. These paintings, she tells Simon, were a way of making the world “manageable.”

It's a matter of weight. If one doesn't occupy one's space in the world, the world does have to be warded off—immobilized, reduced, kept down. Trimmed to size.


From this experience of what an earlier journal entry called the “tyranny of objects” (117), Simon releases her. In turn, she, by listening, has released him from his nightmares of Antony's death. As she and Simon find themselves able to talk like old friends, Cassandra experiences a new world, transfigured by its ordinariness.

Buses, pillar-boxes, telephones, staircases were there to be used. Food was there to be bought and eaten. She balanced on her feet, she had weight and was related to things. Distances were measurable and each distance was the proper distance. The air shone.


She no longer needs either the paintings or her journal. Julia's book drives Cassandra back to the journal to make one last entry that repudiates the “limp doll” that Julia has made of her:

My shoes, my nightdress, my pens, my papers, little dirty details of me lifted. Pinned out—oh yes, even my underwear—like a limp doll to be filled with puffs of her breath. What was missing filled in by her with dotted lines, pieces of new string to jerk the joints, or wood to replace limbs, as they do in museums, and never a footnote to say, this material is conjectural. This is an eclectic and conflated text.


Like A Sense of Glory, Cassandra's papers have power: the last journal entry is read out at the inquest, and the papers taken from her room became the final image of The Game. The last sentence describes Simon and Julia driving away from Oxford while behind them in the trunk of the car, “closed into crates, unread, unopened, Cassandra's private papers bumped and slid.” The papers' continuing existence, like that of the Game in the window seat, undercuts the apparent optimism of what immediately precedes—Julia's determination to be a new woman, free of Cassandra and Simon and of the judgments of the past. Cassandra's papers, with their capacity to hurt Julia but also—perhaps—to educate her, refute Julia's naive hope and suggest that genuine growth is more difficult and less tidy than her idea of it.

Simon, at the other extreme from Julia, does his best to avoid interpretation. He insists that he chose his work because it was something neutral, “where curiosity was simply curiosity.” “You watch a snake eating. You watch it eating,” he tells Ivan's television panel. “You might just be curious about how it does it” (196, 195). He is angry when the other members of the panel want to interpret his snakes, and his interest in them, in psychological or religious terms, and bewildered when they talk of him as an artist. If there was an artist in the programs, he says, it was Antony, his collaborator. After the program, he complains to Julia that he felt “savaged,” made “food for thought” by the discussion and that he finds “all this tying up of loose ends” dishonest (200). When A Sense of Glory is published, he tries to make Cassandra resist its impact, arguing vehemently that their relationship is real whereas the book is “a lie at worst and—and a piece of imagination at best. You can't destroy a reality with fiction” (270).

A remainder of the distortion inherent in all interpretation is provided by the reviews of A Sense of Glory. Even the fullest and most thoughtful review view exemplifies the reductiveness of all reviewing, as it notes that Julia “can sum up a whole woman by describing … the distressing juxtaposition of a dangling crucifix and tinned college spaghetti” (264). A second review provides facts we had not known. We learn that Julia betrays not only Cassandra and Simon but Julia's accomplice, Professor Storrin, who had planted the seed of the book in her mind and who is portrayed as a “suave don” with a “false charm.” We also observe how Julia has coarsened Cassandra's intellectual interests by replacing Malory with the Earl of Rochester. The third review, a brief snippet, airily summarizes: “Miss Gee had nothing on Julia Corbett's Emily Burnett” (265). Together, the reviews cannot sum up the original, which remains inaccessible within The Game.

When the characters in Byatt's novel try to imagine each other—and this is the central action of the book—the result must, then, be failure. Julia has tried all her life to “come to grips with” Cassandra. At Oxford, as she renews her scrutiny of her sister, she feels that they have “at last reached a point where the inevitable knowledge of long acquaintance could become intelligent love” (135). But Cassandra's reality escapes Julia. Cassandra is more successful in her imagining of Simon. In the course of her long study of him, she has begun to find that despite the unreality of television some of her thoughts of him are “not fantasy, but knowledge. What he says, what he shows, I am occasionally, by careful attention, able to predict. … I know to a certain extent what he is afraid of … and what he thinks. Love is attention, though that is only a part of the truth” (168–69). When Simon, in her presence, compulsively relives his experience of Antony's death, “she thought she saw what he saw; this was what, over the years, she had been training herself to do” (233). She has not yet, however, grasped Antony's relation to Simon. Antony, according to Simon, made the films and therefore stood, unknown to her, between herself and Simon; it was often his voice which she took as Simon's. The shock of this information forces Cassandra to make a further effort of imagination, and this effort in turn leads to new uncertainties but also to new understanding. Remembering the Looking-Glass world of Lewis Carroll, which she has earlier used as an analogy for Simon's world on the screen, she sees Antony as the Red King who (according to Tweedledum and Tweedledee) dreamed the whole story. “We create each other,” Cassandra thinks.

Through hard glass, one comes across the Red King, snoring and dreaming. Wake him, look him in the eyes, break his dream and you vanish. Apparently this dead man was the Red King; Simon and the programmes were his. And thus myself? And Julia? Again, I pursue metaphors. Nothing is as we see it, as we imagine it. But we must go on seeing and imagining.


After this recognition, she is able to meet Simon on the level of friendship. Her tragedy is that although she intuitively understands more than Julia does about the relationship of love and imagination she finally refuses to try to live beyond her role in Julia's book. Now that Julia has replaced Antony as the creator of Simon (and of Cassandra herself), Cassandra can think only of escape through death. In killing herself, she fails to do justice to Simon's reality and to her own—and thus, in the book's final irony, mirrors failure of creativity and love.

Byatt's use of symbols, myths, and allusions is extremely subtle and intricate, as we would expect from a writer who is so much concerned with the play of the mind with its materials. She has taken to heart Murdoch's warning against too heavy a reliance on a controlling myth: much more difficult than finding a structural myth for a novel, Murdoch has said, is preventing it from becoming rigid and interfering with the contingency of the characters. Art, she argues, “must not be too much afraid of incompleteness,” since reality itself is incomplete.8 In her use of symbols and their controlling myths, Byatt sacrificed completeness and consistency in order to let the structure grow in a more natural way.

In The Game, the dominant myth is the story of the Lady of Shalott, but it does not function alone, and it does not become a straightforward parallel to the action. Like the Lady, Cassandra has woven a web of reflected images that has become her world. In a note in her journal that is at once a self-revealing description of her own activities and a gentle parody by Byatt of academic language, Cassandra says that Tennyson's poem, with its images of “the mirror, the knight with the sun on him, reflected in the mirror and woven into the web,” is “a great deal more intelligent than we give it credit for. Tennyson has here both indulged, and provided a commentary on, his mediaevalist romanticism cf. the Palace of Art. Solitude concerned with reflections” (171). This entry follows Cassandra's realization that through her sympathy with Simon's presentation of his snake she has reached a point where “the Church seems to me (to its discredit) to diminish him and his serpents”—a point that recalls the crisis of the Lady's story. “The threads of thought I had believed securely fastened to seem suddenly loose, floating wild and unattached” (170). Later, watching her Sir Lancelot, the sleeping Simon, and recognizing that “nothing will be the same” now, she again remembers Tennyson's poem. “When the Lady looked out of the tower—seeing simply, a lump of flesh and blood and a patch of sunshine—the mirror cracked and the web flew out” (244). When Julia enters Cassandra's room after the inquest, she too recalls Tennyson's lines:

Out flew the web, and floated wide
The mirror crack'd from side to side
The curse is come upon me. …


and experiences a recurrence of the old terror that Cassandra's story-telling had caused in her as a child. Like the Lady, Cassandra has seen the real world, left her weaving and her mirror, and died. Byatt gives the story a revealing twist, however. What killed Tennyson's Lady was entering so belatedly into the real world, leaving behind her shadow-world of art; what kills Cassandra, who has safely completed that task, is her sister's world of art. The problem of perception is basic to both Tennyson's work and Byatt's. As Simon tries to show Cassandra, she is trapped by Julia's book only if she lets herself be—only if she creates her own version of its power, weaving it into her web. “You spin ideas, Cassandra, so you can't see for them. After all, here I am. Here I am,” says Simon (271). But Cassandra is now convinced that she can never escape the “grotesque shadow” created jointly by herself and Julia, and like the Lady, she is sick of shadows. The fact that her death comes after her brief taste of a life free of shadows deepens its poignancy.

If the myth of the Lady charts the course of Cassandra's entrapment by Julia, it also represents Julia's imprisonment by Cassandra. When they were children, Cassandra controlled the Game, and her refusal to allow happy endings caused nightmares for both the child and adult Julia. In their adolescent narrative, Julia wrote about Malory's Elaine—the original of Tennyson's Lady—and came to see both herself and Cassandra as Elaine figures. When Simon appeared on the scene, he naturally became Lancelot, the object of Elaine's hopeless passion. Cassandra's possessive intellectual relationship with Simon prompted Julia to pursue—and briefly achieve—a sexual one; and the result of so much intensity was Simon's withdrawal from both sisters. Both sisters have continued to imagine him, however. When Simon returns, Julia, who has already completed her fictional version of him, knows that although he is no longer Sir Lancelot, he is still not available to be loved by her in any ordinary way. Her writing of A Sense of Glory, intended to free herself from the Game's “veiled subtlety” (147) and thus from Cassandra, does not do so completely. Julia knows that Cassandra has always been “the mirror where she [Julia] studied the effects of her actions” (283) and fears that after her death Cassandra will continue to do so. By using the myth in this twofold way, Byatt has made it suggest, in a more complex usage than Tennyson's short poem could do, the limiting patterns formed by the imagination.

Byatt also extends the myth's main symbols, web and mirror, and in doing so demonstrates the incompleteness of all structures. The web appears as the “beautiful network of designed movement” that first Simon, then Cassandra, believed to be the structure of the universe. When Simon was a Christian, suffering and sin were “rents in the network” (90). Cassandra, after finding Christianity inadequate, continues to use the same image, replacing suffering and sin, which in Simon's earlier faith were capable of being mended, with the less reassuring concept of “accident” (256). Here, as in Julia's hope that her visit to Cassandra in Oxford will knit up “a rent that ran across the whole web of her life,” the web holds possibilities of order, whether God-created or man-made. The image also has associations with webs that can trap us. Julia, on arriving in Oxford, briefly thinks of Cassandra as sitting in the college “like a spider in a web, waiting” (134), and the narrator briefly extends the spider image by telling of the college's Havisham room which has, because of its name, connotations of “dedicated and cobwebbed emotion” (136). Most obviously, the web links the story to the other weavers of webs, the Brontë sisters. One of The Game's two epigraphs is from Charlotte Brontë's poem “Retrospection”: “We wove a web in childhood / A web of sunny air,” and Cassandra's suicide provides proof that the web, in the words of the poem, had “spread its folds” into adult life. This menacing aspect of the imagination's weaving work is reinforced by the use of the Brontës' biography and fiction as further examples (along with Great Expectations) of the “images of unsatisfied desire” in which Cassandra's medieval studies have enmeshed her. Julia thinks she knows that Cassandra has felt like both sisters: “like Charlotte Brontë, cut off from Branwell and Zamorna, like Emily, silently pining for another world” (122). Despite Emily Burnett's name (and despite the fact that Cassandra has “always despised Jane Eyre's prudery” [243]), it is Charlotte and M. Héger whom the first reviewer of A Sense of Glory sees in Emily and the priest. The web shows both the human longing for pattern and the absence of any pattern that is finally adequate.

The symbols of mirror and glass are even less open to a tidy interpretation. The images move into a different world of nineteenth-century images, Lewis Carroll's Looking-Glass world, but are not contained there. Like the web, this group of symbols has to do with the question of how we create what we see, and it also relates to our ability to visualize what we have never seen, as when Julia compares Cassandra's room to “the room you have seen just a corner of in a mirror” (132). Like the web, it offers dual possibilities, of imprisonment and of creative freedom. Four lines from George Herbert's poem “The Elixir” sum up the possibilities for Cassandra:

A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleases through it pass
And then the heaven espy.


She has occasionally passed through the barrier, at moments when the television screen, usually simply a “mirror of our desires,” has yielded her “an image, not only of myself, but of a real man” (167–68). But such accesses of visionary love are rare. Perception and our preoccupation with it can trap us, and the effort to share in another's world can bring us to the point of madness, as both Cassandra and Simon know. “I live in two worlds,” Cassandra concludes.

One is hard, inimical, brutal, threatening, the tyranny of objects where all things are objects and thus tyrannical. The other is infinite: heaven, through the pane of glass, the Looking Glass world. One dreams of a release into that world of pure vision and knows that what would be gained would be madness; a single world, and intolerable.


The tyranny is felt when the mind does not take in the objects of perception: they remain, in Coleridge's words that Cassandra recalls, “fixed and dead” (167). The opposite experience is also described by Coleridge, in lines which Cassandra has shared with Simon: “We receive but what we give / And in our life alone does nature live.” Yet too much effort of vision can be dangerous. As Father Rowell warns Julia just before Simon's unexpected return, Cassandra is in danger of losing touch with reality and knows it. The characters discover that the possibilities of perception are less clear-cut and less easily controlled than Herbert's lines would suggest. Julia, usually less vulnerable than Cassandra, experiences panic when her dead sister's possessions refuse to remain neutral, but become “heavy with Cassandra” (282).

Mirrors, as reflections of one's own features, are threats to both sisters. Cassandra dislikes their superficiality: “They do not reflect the hollow in the skull” (167). Julia, usually gratified by her own reflection, breaks down before Cassandra's mirror when she senses the presence of Cassandra's dead face as well as her own.

Glass also represents the worlds we create for ourselves. Even before she knows of Julia's book, Cassandra has a premonition of her glass-house retreat, which she and Simon share, being “bombarded with stones” (257). Her last words are “I want no more reflections” (277). Julia, who has felt sympathy for the anaconda in the zoo, lit up and exposed in its glass box, tries to believe that she can live the rest of her life free from other's judgment, but acknowledges that her growth will be hard. Even in solitary thought, there is no permanent escape from the glass as barrier or reflector. The division of the self into the experiencing and the watching creature, Cassandra tells Simon, forces each of us to become “both the suffering creature under the glass and the watching eye over the microscope” (241).

Finally, glass becomes the image of the novel itself. Cassandra in her meditation on perception notes that “mirrors are partial truths, like certain putative works of art. Like almost all works of art” (167). A clear foreshadowing of the shortcomings of Julia's novel, her statement has implications for Byatt's as well. Through Cassandra, Byatt acknowledges the failure of “almost all” works that attempt to reflect reality.9

The last major symbol, the snake, also proves the impossibility of final interpretations. Its obvious reference is to the Genesis story; Julia, who has always hated snakes, thinks that “we are meant to be repelled by them” (13). Simon studies the snake as the thing-in-itself, which demands respect by its simple existence. He admits to loving snakes—although he does so less as he knows more about them. Curiosity, he tells Julia, is the beginning of love, and “most of us would do well to stop there since we aren't capable of anything better” (211). Cassandra has made a much greater effort than Julia to see as Simon does; Julia's gift to her sister of a glass snake shows, perhaps, her recognition of this difference between them. Nevertheless, Cassandra's need for metaphor draws her to mythical interpretation. The story of how Psyche's curiosity led her to discover Eros embodied as a serpent, Cassandra “tells” Simon in her journal, is interpreted as showing the transformation of spiritual love into lust. The snake is thus “a symbol for our horror at finding ourselves physically embodied” (27). She quotes Coleridge's poem “Psyche,” which depicts the snake as deforming and killing what it feeds on, and presents this activity as the usual human lot: the reptile is a more apt image for humans than the butterfly. This allusion links the snake with the activities of predation and ingestion and thus with the novel's main subject, the devouring power of the imagination. “There is no love,” writes Cassandra grimly, “that does not deform and kill” (28). In her last conversation with Simon, she returns to Coleridge's lines. She sees that she, in the hunger of her imagination, has fed on Simon, sees that Julia has depicted this process, and also sees that Julia has engaged in the same predatory activity. (The most extreme instance of predation is, of course, the devouring of Antony—a story which Ivan, whose imagination lacks subtlety, finds funny.)

The snake has other traditional associations, however. It is also an emblem of life, creativity, and eternity, and Coleridge uses it in this way as well. In a passage that Byatt takes as her second epigraph, Coleridge makes the serpent, “by which the ancients typified wisdom and the universe,” an emblem of the imagination. Simon, on television, speaks of the worship of the snake “in association with running water and lightning” (22) and of its connection with the idea of rebirth.

The snake, like the web, glass, and mirror, carries both hopeful and depressing possibilities, and like them it contains opposing meanings. These images come together in Cassandra's journal entry, although their implications are not exhausted there:

We wove a web in childhood, a web of sunny air. … But there is no innocent vision, we are not indistinguishable. We create each other, separate. It is not done with love. Or not with pure love. Nor with detachment. We are not simply specimens, under the bright light, in the glass case, in the zoo, in the museum. We are food for thought. The web is sticky. I trail dirty shreds of it.


Byatt has made her own combination of myths, symbols, and allusions, but her method of doing so constitutes her own admission that no order of language can hold the chaos of experience. As she does so often, Cassandra appears to speak for the author when she tells Simon that “fictions are lies, yes, but we don't ever know the truth. We see the truth through the fictions—our own, other people's” (271), and adds that no metaphors—not even, as she had once believed, those of religion—are true. In life as in art, we cannot avoid interpretation; Thor's uninflected English, the speech of a foreigner, frustrates Julia since she is often uncertain of his meaning. Yet all interpretations must ultimately fail.

A great deal of the effectiveness of The Game comes from Byatt's skill in using the novel-within-the-novel. This device is one that has attracted her in Murdoch's work. Byatt has shown how, by having novelists as characters in both Under the Net and The Black Prince, Murdoch has communicated “the tension between the attempt to tell, or see, the truth. The inevitability of fantasy, the need for concepts and form and the recognition that all speech is in a sense distortion, that novelists are fantasy-mongers.”10 The contrast between Julia's novel, as we hear of it from her and from the reviewers, and The Game itself embodies Byatt's struggle to respect the contingency of events and the autonomy of persons. Simon's visit to Cassandra in Oxford is the best instance of contingency in The Game: it arises from a need Julia could not have imagined and produces results she could not have foreseen. It also precipitates two “firsts” in the lives of the sisters: Cassandra, confronted by Simon, rises to an occasion for the first time, and Julia, facing the probability that his visit will have disastrous consequences, for the first time loses her novelist's curiosity: she does not want to know what he is doing there. Byatt recognizes the limits of freedom—that we have, as Simon says, an extraordinarily small area of choice—but her respect for individuality enables her to create, as she has praised George Eliot for doing, “characters who are both determined and free.”11 By including the novelist in her novel—as Julia did not in hers—Byatt takes account of the moral problems of art and shows herself to be a better novelist than Julia. Yet Julia has her own claim to sympathy, and it is one of the strengths of The Game that she receives her due. She has felt oppressed by Cassandra and the lingering influence of the Game; she has felt patronized by Thor's self-containment and exploited by Ivan; she is unable to reach sexual satisfaction. As an artist, she is capable of humility: she knows that the use of external details to sum up a character somehow misses the “essence” (131). Despite her wistful self-justification, Ivan's facile reassurance, and Thor's refusal to judge her, she knows that she cannot escape guilt for Cassandra's death. When Deborah tells her that she should not have published A Sense of Glory, Julia thinks “Here was judgement” (273). Although we sense, at the end, that Julia's determination to live as a “new woman” will be frustrated, there is reason to forecast a better relationship with Deborah, resulting from the outburst of creative anger between mother and daughter as well as from Julia's realization that her daughter is the only one who has made real allowances for her. The ending is left open. “Can Julia learn?” parallels the question about Emily's future which, according to one reviewer, was implied at the end of Julia's novel, and Julia's opacity is preserved.

Like her sister Margaret Drabble, Antonia Byatt has refused to make feminism by itself the subject of a novel. However, as Elaine Showalter has observed, Byatt shares with Drabble, Murdoch, and Charlotte Brontë a concern for the “old fashioned” question of the ethics of the novelist in relation to the rights of the subject12—a concern which, Showalter argues, is characteristically female. The story of The Game shows the possibilities of domination (however unintentional) of females by males, but it does so much more thoughtfully than (we are led to believe) Julia's earlier novels did. Byatt's understanding of the female imagination does not blind her to the suffering of the male; she evokes sympathy for Simon, who sees himself as the victim of too much female imagining, as well as for Thor and Father Rowell. In a review of The Lesbian Body, whose author, Monique Wittig, devises an experimental language for lesbian experience, Byatt wrote, “I like subtle distinctions within a continuing language, not doctrinaire violations.”13 In The Game as in her more recent novels, The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, she makes her own distinctions within the continuing language of the world in which both sexes inhabit.


  1. A. S. Byatt, in Contemporary Novelists, ed. James Vinson (London: St. James Press, 1972), p. 214.

  2. A. S. Byatt, The Game (London: Chatto and Windus, 1967), p. 121. All further references are to this edition and are indicated in parentheses.

  3. Malcom Bradbury, “ On from Murdoch,” Encounter, 30 (July 1968): 74.

  4. Iris Murdoch, Sartre, Romantic Rationalist (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1953), p. 13; quoted by Byatt, Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965), p. 12.

  5. Murdoch, “Against Dryness,” Encounter, 16 (January 1961): 20, quoted by Byatt, Iris Murdoch (Harlow, Essex: Longman Group, 1976), p.12.

  6. Bradbury, “On from Murdoch,” p. 74.

  7. Murdoch, “Against Dryness,” p. 20. The relationship between Murdoch's concept of fiction and Byatt's third novel, The Virgin in the Garden, is helpfully discussed by Juliet Dusinberre in “Forms of Reality in The Virgin in the Garden,Critique, 24, No. 1 (Fall 1982): 55–62.

  8. Murdoch, “Against Dryness,” p. 20, quoted by Byatt, Iris Murdoch, p. 12. Cf. Byatt, Degrees of Freedom, p. 186.

  9. In an essay on modern fiction Byatt quotes Murdoch's observation (in Sartre, Romantic Rationalist, p. 75) that “we can no longer take language for granted. … We are like people who for a long time looked out of a window without noticing the glass—and then one day began to notice this too.” See Byatt, “People in Paper Houses: Attitudes to ‘Realism’ and ‘Experiment’ in English Postwar Fiction,” in The Contemporary English Novel, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 18 ed. Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer (London: Arnold, 1979): 30–31.

  10. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, p. 35–36.

  11. Byatt, Introd., The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1979), p. 29.

  12. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977) p. 303.

  13. Byatt, “Give Me the Moonlight, Give Me the Girl,” The New Review, 2 (1975): 67.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Shadow of a Sun (novel) 1964

Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch (nonfiction) 1965

The Game (novel) 1967

Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time (nonfiction) 1970 [republished as Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time, 1989]

Iris Murdoch (nonfiction) 1976

The Virgin in the Garden (novel) 1978

Still Life (novel) 1986

Sugar and Other Stories (short stories) 1987

Possession: A Romance (novel) 1990

Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings (nonfiction) 1991

Angels and Insects (novellas) 1992

The Matisse Stories (short stories) 1993

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye: Five Fairy Stories (short stories) 1994

Babel Tower (novel) 1996

Collected Stories (short stories) 1998

Elementals (short stories) 1998

Jane Campbell (essay date Spring 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “‘The Somehow May Be Thishow’: Fact, Fiction, and Intertextuality in Antonia Byatt's ‘Precipice-Encurled’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 115-23.

[In the following essay, Campbell discusses Byatt's mixing of fact and fiction in the short story “Precipice-Encurled,” and asserts that the story demonstrates the impossibility of capturing reality in art.]

Antonia Byatt's collection of short stories, Sugar (1987), continues her exploration of the struggle of language with things. In the title story, the last in the volume, the narrator recalls, on the occasion of her father's dying, the versions of family history that have been handed down. The central metaphor is of narration as confecting. As a small girl the narrator was shown by her grandfather, a candy manufacturer, how the stripes in the humbug candy were produced: “It's the air that does it,” he tells her. “Nothing but whipping in air. There's no difference between the two stripes in a humbug but air” (“Sugar” 244). Self-consciously reflecting on her own confections as she “whips in air,” the narrator struggles for accuracy, at the same time acknowledging its impossibility: “The real thing, the true moment, is … inaccessible” (248).

In this collection one story stands apart from the others, both in its use of literary history and biography and in its formulation of the problems of confection. Entitled “Precipice-Encurled,” it immediately precedes “Sugar.” Its title comes from Robert Browning's poem “De Gustibis—,” in which the poet declares, “What I love best in all the world / Is a castle, precipice-encurled, / In a gash of the wind-grieved Apennine” (14–16). Ostensibly, the story tells of an occasion in 1882, in the last decade of Browning's life, when the poet and his sister Sarianna (his companion after his wife's death) fail to carry out their plan of visiting friends at a villa in the Apennines. What prevents them is the death of their friends' house guest, a young English painter named Joshua Riddell. Intent on capturing the appearance of an approaching storm, Joshua is swept from his perch on a cliff and dashed to pieces. The young painter and the old poet, the reader is made to feel, would have understood each other: they share a passion for accuracy about the most minute and insignificant details of the human and natural worlds. The plot thus embodies one of Browning's favorite themes, opportunity missed. This narrative itself is enclosed in, and encloses, two more stories on the same theme—stories of unfulfilled love. Joshua's death cuts short a tender relationship with his host's daughter Juliana, and (according to the hypothesis of another of Byatt's characters, a twentieth-century scholar) Browning is falling in love with Mrs. Bronson, his hostess during his visits to Venice, who returns his affection but remains unaware of his passion. The Brownings plan to visit Mrs. Bronson later that year but are prevented, by flooded roads and illness, from reaching Venice, although they do so in 1883. Both love stories are left without conclusions; the image of Mrs. Bronson, waiting for Browning, begins the story, and Joshua's unfinished portrait of Juliana ends it.

The plot thus represents the intrusion of destructive chance happenings into the life of imagination and emotion. The title refers to the precariously occupied spaces of love and art, and the narrative method demonstrates the hazards of creativity. Through Browning's and Joshua's work and in its own movement, the story shows the creative mind's encircling, assimilating work—and the inevitable escape of “the real thing” from the mind's grasp. In the words Juliet Dusinberre has used of Byatt's novel The Virgin in the Garden, this short story “seems to declare that the real is beyond form” (61).

It is the epigraph, however, rather than the title, that provides the most telling clue to the story's special qualities:

What's this then, which proves good yet seems untrue?
Is fiction, which makes fact alive, fact too?
The somehow may be thishow.

The lines, with some interesting omissions and a significant change in punctuation, are from Browning's The Ring and the Book:

Well, now; there's nothing in nor out o' the world
Good except truth: yet this, the something else,
What's this then, which proves good yet seems untrue?
This that I mixed with truth, motions of mine
That quickened, made the inertness malleable
O' the gold was not mine,—what's your name for this?
Are means to the end, themselves in part the end?
Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?
The somehow may be thishow.


Byatt uses Browning's words to hint slyly at her own way of using biography. At the center of her story, surrounded by documented details of Browning's life and quotations from his work, and by an unnamed work of twentieth-century scholarship, Byatt has placed an example of “fiction which makes fact alive.” By adding the comma where Browning did not use one, she suggests that fiction-making is inevitable whenever the imagination is at work on facts. The story of Joshua and Juliana (which even the dust jacket of Sugar encourages us to read as fact, “an almost unremembered incident on Browning's Italian travels”) is invented. The facts are that the Brownings had been invited by the Cholmondeleys (not the Fishwicks) to visit them on the island of Ischia (not in the Apennines); their visit was canceled because the Cholmondeleys' guest, Miss Wade, accidentally fell from a ledge while sketching the sunset, and died of her injuries.

On the other hand, the scholar and the hostess, who both may appear to be invented, are real. Although, unlike Mrs. Bronson, he is never named by Byatt, the scholar is Michael Meredith. His book More than Friend (1985) contains, after a long introductory essay, the Browning-Bronson letters, edited with meticulous attention to facts—including the proposed visit to Ischia and the death of Miss Wade (xii, 15n3). The craftsmanship with which Byatt mixes fact and fiction is so skillful that a reviewer of Byatt's most recent novel, Possession, praises “Precipice-Encurled” for its achievement as historical fiction; in comparing the story with the novel, the reviewer says that for the story the details of Browning's life were “all there; the art was in the gathering and sorting” (Karlin 18). It is, however, the “something else” that was not “there” that gives life to the story. By calling into question the existence of the boundary line between fact and fiction, Byatt daringly shows both the impossibility of originality and, conversely, the inevitability, in all writing, of invention and “confection.” Embedded in her story are additional texts. Meredith's book, which provides Byatt's starting point, itself contains other texts as appendices: Mrs. Bronson's two published reminiscences of Browning, and a memoir by an American acquaintance, Daniel Sargent Curtis. Several other works are intertextually present, including Browning's poems, James's Aspern Papers and “The Private Life,” Christopher Smart's Song to David, Andrew Marvell's “Mower's Song,” Shakespeare's As You Like It, and Ruskin's Modern Painters. The workings of the imagination with these texts are part of Byatt's subject.

The four-part structure represents the encircling work of the imagination as it appropriates its material. The first two parts are very short. The story opens with the “lady,” Mrs. Bronson (she is not named until the fourth part), sitting in her house in Venice, waiting for Browning. This part appears reliably factual: there are descriptions of the lady as she appears in portraits and photographs and details of her life—the number of her servants, the names of her dogs, and her love of delicate objects, together with the information that Henry James gave her a small role in The Aspern Papers and planned to make her the central character in a novel. Yet even here fiction creeps in, as the narrator speculates on the party to which the lady's daughter may have gone on the afternoon when her mother “sits, or might be supposed to sit” in the window—and on the umbrella the daughter may have taken with her. The narrator also interprets the lady's expression as shown in “the portraits, more than one, tallying” (Meredith reproduces three portraits and two photographs) as “an indefinable air of disappointment” (185).

In the second section, set in the twentieth century, the scholar is introduced, working with letters and other documents to construct his story. He “combs” the facts—including Browning's poem “Inapprehensiveness,” which the scholar interprets as a confession of Browning's love—in the direction of the hypothesis of the old poet's “dormant passion” for the lady. The scholar's work borders on fiction as he gives a shape, “subtle, not too dramatic,” to the facts, as his imagination curls around the woman whom “he likes because he now knows her, has pieced her together” (187). After recording Browning's missed visit to Mrs. Bronson in 1882, he writes, “He was in danger of allowing the friendship to cool,” and the narrator adds possible interpretations: “perhaps anxious on her behalf, perhaps on the poet's, perhaps on his own” (188). As Mrs. Bronson and Browning have been enclosed by the scholar's biography the scholar is now enclosed by Byatt's narrative—and both the scholar and the narrator are “piecing together” their subjects.

Browning, who has been at the periphery of the first and second sections, is at the center of the third. In his hotel room in the mountains he reflects upon his two selves—his expansive public self, which pursues facts in the outer world, and his creative private self, which uses these facts, and which he imagines as “a brilliant baroque chapel at the center of a decorous and unremarkable house” (189). The stream of his associations leads him to the idea that Descartes would be a suitable subject for a poem and he thinks of how he could “inhabit” the philosopher, making the “paraphernalia” of Descartes's world spin around “the naked cogito.” “The best part of my life,” he thinks, “has been the fitting, the infiltrating, the inventing the self of another man or woman, explored and sleekly filled out, as fingers swell a glove.” Yet he himself, who gives “coherence and vitality” to these other selves, is “just such another concatenation” (191). He reviews his favorite characters—the Duchess, Karshish the Arab physician, the risen Lazarus, David, Christopher Smart—noting that they have all shared his own “lively and indifferent interest in everything” (193). These thoughts take him to Sludge the Medium through whom, following his principle of giving “true opinions to great liars,” he has expressed his own vision of the creative intelligence “at the back” of the universe: “something simple, undifferentiated, intelligent, alive” (193–94). His reverie is interrupted by Sarianna who tells him of a fellow guest, Mrs. Miller, who wears “an aviary on her head” (194); the next day Browning's public self autographs Mrs. Miller's birthday book and tells her of the proposed visit to the Fishwicks, and she recites the lines about the precipice-encurled castle. In this section, Browning is both enclosed by Byatt's narrator and encloses other creative selves, and his imaginative piecing together of fact and fiction mirrors Byatt's.

The fourth section, much the longest, presents the—literally—precipice-encurled heart of the story. As she and her family prepare for Browning's visit, Juliana wonders what the poet will “make” of them. The process of creativity is the subject of this section, but this process is either, like Joshua's, broken off in the middle or, like Browning's as imagined by Juliana, never begun. Joshua begins to sketch Juliana's “extremely pleasant” but unremarkable face, feels their souls meet, and they kiss. The next morning, after spending the night wrestling alone with the conflict between his new love and his responsibility to the “empty greenness” of his “primitive innocence, before,” Joshua goes up the cliff to paint; he wants to look at “the land beyond habitation” (204). Remembering Ruskin's words about mountains and a painting by Monet, he perches in an “eyrie” on the precipice and begins to work. He is alternately “miserable” at his “failures of vision” and “supremely happy” as he experiences self-oblivious absorption, “unaware of himself and wholly aware of rock formations, sunlight and visible empty air” (209). As the sky suddenly darkens he resolves to try to follow Monet's example, painting light itself and “the act of seeing” (210). Losing his footing as the ice pellets strike him, “still thinking of Ruskin and Monet” (211), he falls to his death. The narrator then records the impact of the death on Browning, who reflects briefly on the unknown young man: “his imagination … reached after him and imagined him, in his turn … reaching after the unattainable” (212). When Mrs. Miller asks if he will compose a poem about the death, he replies that he is left “mute” by such events; he does, however, write a poem about Mrs. Miller, “clothed with murder” in her hat of birds' wings (213). In the twentieth century, the scholar is at first hopeful that Browning will now visit Mrs. Bronson, then disappointed, as he reads more letters. The last image is of the unfinished sketch that “Aunt Juliana” keeps pressed in the family Bible, of “a young girl who looked out of one live eye and one blank, unseeing one, oval like those on monumental sculpture” (214).

With this image the encircling process is concluded, but all the narratives—and all the creative experiences they examine—are left incomplete, and all hold within them potential subjects that are not mined by any artist. Mrs. Bronson's story is described by the scholar, Meredith, as “the novel Henry James missed” (xxv); Descartes never becomes the subject of a poem by Browning, nor does Browning ever ‘make’ anything of the Fishwicks or of Joshua; Joshua never completes either of his sketches.

In its use of fact and fiction the story produces an effect of trompe l'oeil. The scholar, who to the uninitiated reader appears imaginary (as Mrs. Bronson herself may) is real. Joshua (the Riddell/riddle), who seems real to the same reader, is imaginary. The impression of the reader who does not have a prior knowledge of the facts is that the scholar, in his eagerness to reclaim Mrs. Bronson—to do what James had merely planned to do—and to construct a love story for Browning's old age, has missed the poignant story of youthful ambition and young love that Browning also missed. In fact, there was no story to miss. Byatt, marginalizing both the scholar and his subject, and altering the facts of Browning's itinerary in 1882, creates a story for the fourth section of “Precipice-Encurled” that has more apparent authenticity than any other part. The question “what, then, is real?” can also be asked from another perspective. Noting that the story of male creative endeavor (supported, in Browning's case, by the quiet, loyal sister) is framed by the images of two passive women, and that Byatt has changed a female sketcher to a male (because in the late nineteenth century only males could take art seriously?), we may recognize a feminist subtext that plays with sexual stereotypes. The story offers multiple perspectives.

“A good scholar may permissibly invent, he may have a hypothesis, but fiction is barred,” observes the narrator (187–88). Her own procedures explore and threaten the line between scholarly invention and fiction. She moves from dependence on Meredith to innovative use of James to bolder manipulation, finally departing from fact—and other texts—altogether. She also shows that both Meredith and—much more daringly—Browning combine fact and fiction. Browning imagined Smart noticing not only the whale and the polyanthus, which Smart did include in his Song to David, but also the blossoms of Virgin's Bower, which he did not (Browning “Parleying with Christopher Smart” 195–98; Smart Song to David 310, 456–57). Starting with the account of the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1–44, he imagines the life of Lazarus afterward, about which John is silent—and encloses this story in that told by Karshish, whom Browning has also imagined. The narrator's work in this third section parallels Browning's. When Sarianna opens the door of her brother's room, the windows are described in the words used by James' narrator in “A Private Life” when, coming upon the poet Claire Vawdrey (modeled on Browning), writing in the dark, he sees “a couple of vague, star-lighted apertures” (194; “Private Life” 205)—and concludes that there are two Vawdreys, the public and the private. Mrs. Miller is an invention of Byatt's, but the French words uttered by Browning when he hears about her are a version of those that he is recorded as having said on a different occasion.1 When, in Byatt's story, Browning writes in Mrs. Miller's birthday book, there is more unacknowledged borrowing from James. In “A Private Life,” however, it is the narrator who cannot remember his own birthday; in “Precipice-Encurled” it is Browning. Immediately after this there is explicit reference to James' dislike of Browning's lack of discrimination, and an image from James is used literally when Mrs. Miller nods “under the wings of the dove” (195). The language of the fourth section is the most original and independent, movingly creating the feelings of Joshua and Juliana and the moments just before Joshua's death. The narrator then parries Meredith's “hypothesis” about the personal reference of “Inapprehensiveness” with a “fiction” of her own, making Mrs. Miller's hat the stimulus behind “The Lady and the Painter.”2 The point is clear: that while Meredith's hypothesis may have more basis in fact, the truth about the subjects of both poems—like the truth about Lazarus, Smart, Mrs. Bronson and Browning himself—remains beyond reach.

Browning wrote that Smart “pierced the screen / Twixt thing and word” (“Smart” 113–14). These are brave words, but Browning knew, and Byatt again demonstrates, that the screen is impenetrable. On the contrary, her story both openly and covertly—and disturbingly—displays the predatory activity of the imagination as it raids other texts in its fruitless attempt to get to the “thing.” More optimistically, Byatt also shows the fertility of language. In her novel Still Life her narrator confesses, “I had the idea that this novel could be written innocently, without recourse to other people's thoughts, without, as far as possible, recourse to simile or metaphor. This turned out to be impossible” (108). In “Precipice-Encurled” Byatt shows why the experiment must always fail. The scholar, dutifully retracing Browning's steps to Asolo, hears the sounds of the place through Browning's words, as he listens to the “contumacious grasshopper” (Sordello VI.787). Even Joshua, the painter, sees through others' words, recognizing the accuracy of Milton's description of the fallen leaves in Vallombrosa (199; Paradise Lost I.300–304), experiencing first love through Marvell's Mower: “She / What I do to the grass, did to my thoughts and me” (203; Marvell wrote “did,” not “does”), and applying to himself Shakespeare's description of lovers who “no sooner looked but they loved” (202; As You Like It V.ii.37). Even when painting and sketching he sees through Ruskin's language. When he tries to reach beyond language, remembering simply Monet's canvas and sketching the unmediated subject, he dies. On one level, his death is paradigmatic.

Byatt has praised Iris Murdoch's sense of “a contrary tug of value between attempts at form and attempts to live with the knowledge that [in Murdoch's words] ‘what does exist is brute and nameless, it escapes from the scheme of relations in which we may imagine it to be rigidly enclosed, it escapes from language and science, it is more and other than our descriptions of it’” (Murdoch 14). In “Precipice-Encurled” the language of incompleteness and shattering, like the structure, testifies to the failure of enclosure. On the precipice, Joshua sketches a broken snail shell, “the arch of its entrance intact, the dome of the cavern behind shattered to reveal the pearly interior revolution” (209). In a few moments he himself has vanished in a “shattering of bone and brain” (211). Despite the many invocations of enclosure, epitomized by Browning's fantasy that the “pothooks and spider traces” of his handwriting contain the world (189), the broken shell more accurately images the story Byatt tells. Yet if fiction stops short of holding reality it also extends it. It is like Monet's “Vétheuil in Fog,” which so startled Joshua: “You could see, miraculously, that if you could see the town, which you could not, it would be reflected in the expanse of river at the foot of the canvas, which you also could not see” (210). Like Browning's resuscitation of his source, the “Yellow Book,” in The Ring and the Book, Byatt's fiction has made fact alive. “The somehow may be thishow.”


  1. Curtis, “Robert Browning 1879 to 1885,” in Meredith, Appendix C, 167, records that on being shown the first proposition for a Browning Society Browning responded, “Il me semble que cela frise le ridicule.” Byatt substitutes “ce genre de chose” for “cela.”

  2. Before Meredith, Betty Miller had interpreted “Inapprehensiveness” as expressing Browning's feelings for Mrs. Bronson: see Meredith ixxvi, n71. Meredith's argument is more extended, however. Mrs. Bronson, “Browning in Asolo,” in Meredith, Appendix A, 132, quotes Browning as saying that “The Lady and the Painter” was composed during a drive from Bassano to Asolo and was suggested by “the birds twittering in the trees.”

Works Cited

Browning, Robert. Complete Works. Ed. Roma A. King, Jr. 9 vols to date. Athens, OH: Ohio UP and Baylor UP, 1969.

Byatt, A. S. Iris Murdoch. Harlow: Longman, 1976.

———. Still Life. London: Chatto and Windus, 1985.

———. Sugar and Other Stories. London: Chatto and Windus, 1987.

Dusinberre, Juliet. “Forms of Reality in A. S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden.Critique 24.1 (1982): 55–62.

James, Henry. “The Private Life.” The Complete Tales of Henry James. Ed. Leon Edel. Vol. 8. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963. 12 vols. 1961–1964.

Karlin, Danny. “Prolonging Her Absence.” Rev. of The Wimbledon Prisoner by Nigel Williams, The Other Occupant by Peter Benson, and Possession by A. S. Byatt. London Review of Books 8 March 1990: 17–18.

Marvell, Andrew. The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell. Ed. H. M. Margoliouth. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1952. 2 vols.

Meredith, Michael, ed. More than Friend: The Letters of Robert Browning to Katharine de Kay Bronson. Waco, TX: Armstrong Browning Library of Baylor U, Wedgestone, 1985.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Alastair Fowler. London: Longman, 1971. Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Ed. Richard Knowles. New York: MLA, 1977.

Smart, Christopher. Poetical Works. Vol. 2. Ed. Marcus Walsh and Karina Williamson. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983. 4 vols. 1980–1987.

Doris Grumbach (review date 29 March 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Affinities and Affections,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXII, No. 13, March 29, 1992, p. 11.

[In the following review, Grumbach argues that “there is very little in [Passions of the Mind] to praise, and much to be warned against.”]

Antonia Susan Byatt, in middle age, has made a remarkable and sudden splash on the international scene. Sister of the novelist Margaret Drabble, she was obscured by Drabble's fame since the '60s when Byatt began to write literary essays and reviews. She burst into international notice two years ago with the publication of Possession, an extraordinarily inventive “Victorian” novel that won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for the best work of fiction published in 1990. A scholarly mystery story, both a romance and a linguistic masterpiece, Possession became an American best-seller.

In the nature of such things, her publisher would normally have asked her for a collection of short stories. Not being given to that form, Byatt instead has gathered together a number of what are sometimes called “fugitive pieces,” essays, introductions and reviews, to form this new book [Passions of the Mind].

Aficionados of Possession will find some of them hard going, a little tough to chew and not of great interest by virtue of their subject matter, most notably her study of Robert Browning, to her mind “one of the greatest English poets” (the other two being John Donne and Robert Graves). Browning on his own terms is hardly a lively poet (at least to this reader); Byatt's exegesis did little to awaken my interest in “The Ring and the Book.” I have always got round this limitation of mine by maintaining an affection for Browning the man and the lover, but Byatt believes otherwise.

“He is a poet who writes men and women, all separately incarnate, all separately aware in their necessarily and splendidly limited ways, of infinite passion and the pain of finite hearts that yearn.” I am not certain exactly what this means but, as Gertrude Stein once remarked, it must mean something.

Another essay “celebrates” (Byatt's word) George Eliot for being “a novelist of ideas,” capable of wildly funny and satiric writing. Her evidence for this somewhat startling judgment is one Eliot essay, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” hardly a strong argument for a writer who, with the exception of Middlemarch, produced a series of often drearily moralistic novels, from Scenes of Clerical Life to Daniel Deronda.

Byatt writes admirably of Ford Madox Ford, the great master of description, she claims, whose The Good Soldier and Parade's End she sees as great fictional achievements. And she stretches the modernist, comic characteristics of Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, and Muriel Spark's The Turnover, to show the profound influence of The Golden Bough and Sigmund Freud on them. There are interesting, if debatable insights here, but of course the reader who is not thoroughly familiar with these works, as well as the catafalque on which they are spread, will find the interpretations heavily academic.

My own interest lay primarily in the section of the collection called “The Female Voice?”—an umbrella under which Byatt reviews books by Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, Georgette Heyer (“a superlatively good writer of honorable escape”), Barbara Pym and Monique Wittig, and then reprints her Virago introductions to three Willa Cather novels. The odd thing about these pieces is that the question of voice in female writers is not mentioned in any of them. Now that I think of it, this might account for the curious punctuation mark in the section's title.

Concerning Willa Cather: Some very good critical work has been done on Cather since Byatt's introductions were published in 1980, by Sharon O'Brien and Hermione Lee and others. So it is inevitable that her observations will seem dated. For The Professor's House she creates elaborate parallels between characters' names and history (she believes without much credible evidence that Cather had “formidable learning in European art and literature”) to show the patterns Cather made in the novel. But she denies Lionel Trilling's reading of the novel as exemplifying a mood of disillusion, disgust and corrupted idealism after World War I, substituting for this defensible thesis a flabby summary that “the novel embodies complex—and unresolved—feelings about families, solitude, generosity, and possessions.”

Byatt disagrees with David Daiches and most other critics about the mythic, symbolic nature of Alexandra in O Pioneers!, ignoring the very cosmic language in which Cather's creation is couched. But she fails to build a case for her contention that Alexandra is full of “genuine human virtue” beyond her decision to try to save Frank Shabata, who murdered her beloved brother.

Enough. There is very little in this collection to praise, and much to be warned against. Fugitive pieces they are indeed, “unresolved” judgments (in Byatt's term). To use another of her formulations, one can ask only for an “honorable escape.” Whatever that means.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


D'Evelyn, Thomas. Review of Possession.The Christian Science Monitor 82, No. 246 (16 November 1990): 13.

Review of Possession.

Djordjevic, Ivana. “In the Footsteps of Giambattista Vico: Patterns of Signification in A. S. Byatt's Possession.Anglia 15, No. 1 (1997): 44-83.

Analyzes Possession in terms of its indebtedness to the work of Giambattista Vico.

Fichtner, Margaria. Review of The Matisse Stories.Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (5 April 1995): 405.

Review of The Matisse Stories.

Kendrick, Walter. Review of Angels and Insects: Two Novellas.Yale Review 81, No. 4 (October 1993): 124.

Positive review of Angels and Insects.

Koenig, Rhoda. Review of Babel Tower.The Wall Street Journal (6 May 1996): A11–12.

Review of Babel Tower.

Norfolk, Lawrence. Review of Angels and Insects.Washington Post Book World XXIII, No. 18 (2 May 1993): 1, 10.

Discusses how the two novellas in Angels and Insects come together to create a reading experience more complex and substantial than if the two works are considered separately.

Rubin, Merle. Review of Angels and Insects: Two Novellas.The Christian Science Monitor 85, No. 125 (25 May 1993): 13.

Brief review of Angels and Insects: Two Novellas.

Stern, Gabriella. Review of Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice.The Wall Street Journal (9 April 1999): W10.

Review of Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice.

Trucco, Terry. Review of Possession: A Romance.The Wall Street Journal (6 December 1990): A16.

Review of Possession: A Romance.

Whitten, Robin. Review of The Matisse Stories.The Christian Science Monitor 89, No. 211 (25 September 1997): B8.

Review of The Matisse Stories.

Additional coverage of Byatt's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 13-16R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 13, 33, 50, and 75; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 14, and 194; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists,Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.

Merle Rubin (review date 31 March 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Passions of the Mind, in Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 1992, p. 13.

[In the following review, Rubin states that in Passions of the Mind, “Byatt proves an illuminating guide to writers she admires, but seldom shines with the brilliance of a Simone de Beauvoir or a Mary McCarthy.”]

Antonia Susan Byatt is the author (thus far) of five novels, a short-story collection, and two books of criticism (one on Wordsworth and Coleridge, the other on Iris Murdoch). A graduate of Cambridge University who has taught literature at University College, London, Byatt has also written numerous essays, articles, and book reviews, 21 of which form the contents of her latest book, Passions of the Mind.

Byatt is a novelist whose imagination is steeped in literature. It might even be said that literature is a major theme of her fiction. Her most recent and best-known novel, Possession, winner of the Booker Prize, tells the intertwining stories of a pair of modern-day academic researchers and the secret love affair of two 19th-century poets who are the subjects of their research: a Robert Browning-esque man and a Christina Rossetti-like woman.

Byatt's 1978 novel, The Virgin in the Garden, takes place in the England of the 1950s, the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth II, but is replete with references to the England of Elizabeth I, the age of Spenser, Signey, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. In Still Life, the sequel, Byatt (as she tells us in one essay) abandoned the emblematic and allusive style of the previous book for what she hoped would be a plainer, more direct picture of life and death shorn of mythological embellishments and religious consolations. It was a decision to move from the mythopoeic world of symbols and archetypes to a modern world of things as they are, or, as William Carlos Williams put it, “no ideas but in things.” This, at any rate, is how Byatt describes her motives in the first essay of Passions of the Mind. In “Still Life / Nature morte,” she goes on to explain how the unadorned “things” took on significance and resonance almost in spite of themselves.

In her introduction to these essays, Byatt says her craft as a novelist has been influenced by her perceptions as a critic and as critic who draws upon her experience as a practicing novelist. “From my early childhood,” she recalls, “reading and writing seemed to me to be points on a circle. Greedy reading made me want to write. … Writing made me want to read. …” She claims to have solved the problem of undue literary influence by reading widely enough to prevent herself from being overwhelmed by any one writer or group of writers.

The first two essays discuss her own fiction and the ways in which she was influenced by literary critical ideas she studied as a student. Having grown up in an “intensely literary” Quaker family in which literature and art were deemed secondary in value only to “moral virtue and the Inner Light,” Byatt continued to seek an art that would be inventive, imaginative, and formally satisfying, while at the same time being “true to life.” The modern and postmodern notion that everything is a fiction, that truth is beyond our ability to discover, is an idea she finds distasteful and dangerously trivializing.

In the second and third sections of her book “Victorians and Moderns,” Byatt discusses some of the writers she values for their commitment to the idea that art should be a tool to lead us toward the truth. Among the Victorians, she praises Browning and George Eliot. The many masks and voices we hear in Browning's poems—the various charlatans, fanatics, visionaries, artists, and sinners—do not testify to moral relativism, she argues, but rather to Browning's sense of how very difficult—but not impossible—it is to ferret out the truth. Byatt's appreciation for George Eliot is not only admiration for the author of Adam Bede and Middlemarch, but also for the trenchant, funny, serious, and deeply unconventional essayist who addressed many central issues that emerged in the 19th century and still haunt us today.

Among modern writers, Byatt singles out Ford Madox Ford for his ability to write novels that were at once aesthetically “crystalline” in form (to borrow, as Byatt does, Iris Murdoch's terminology) and sprawlingly journalistic in their capacity to include massive and detailed chunks of reality. Ford's commitment to finding le mot juste—precisely the right word to denote or describe a fact, a thing, an action, or an impression—and his ability to render subjective states of mind with accuracy and acuity, strikes Byatt as an essential antidote to what she sees as the baleful current tendency to see “language as a system singing to itself … closing us from the world it tells to us. …”

Byatt's discussions of more recent writers are informed by similar concerns: Iris Murdoch, Anthony Powell, Doris Lessing, and Saul Bellow are among those she praises for avoiding the kind of gamesmanship she deplores as a tendency in Angus Wilson and John Fowles. As Byatt wades into contemporary controversies about experimental versus traditional fiction, one begins to feel that she loses her sense of direction and purpose as an essayist: She is merely “treading water.” When she returns to the critical art of appreciation and interpretation, as she does in her essays on Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, and the long meditation on “Van Gogh, Death and Summer” that concludes the collection, her own lucidity and her prose style improve considerably.

The essays on Willa Cather and Elizabeth Bowen appear in a section called “The Female Voice?” which also includes a surprisingly indulgent and rather silly piece on historical novelist Georgette Heyer and an astonishingly irritable, obtuse, and mean-spirited attack on Barbara Pym (for being, of all things, trivial and malicious!).

Judged as a literary critic (rather than as a novelist whose fiction is enriched by her literary-critical sensibility), Byatt proves an illuminating guide to writers she admires, but she seldom shines with the brilliance of a Simone de Beauvoir or a Mary McCarthy. Although not a literary theorist, she allows herself to become bogged down in the mire of theoretical controversy in a way that should serve as a warning to theoreticians—and practicing book reviewers.

John Barrell (review date 19 November 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “When Will He Suspect?,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 22, November 19, 1992, pp. 18-9.

[In the following review, Barrell complains that although Byatt effectively recreates Victorian style in Angels and Insects, there appears to be little point in the exercise.]

I don't quite know what to say about Angels and Insects. It consists of a pair of novellas, ‘Morpho Eugenia’ and ‘The Conjugial Angel’, which, like Possession, are set in Victorian England, and written in a free imitation of mid-19th-century literary English. My doubts are the obvious ones. It's not that I can't make up my mind about whether or not the work they do, of re-creation and creative imitation, is well done—much of the time it's very well done, as well as I can imagine it could be. But even when it is, I'm not sure of the point of doing it, or of doing it more than once (just to see if it can be done). The idea behind these novellas seems to be something like the converse of the adage that if a thing is worth doing it's worth doing well: if a thing can be done well, it must be worth doing. But the more successfully Byatt re-creates the Victorian novel of ideas, the more she persuades us of the irredeemable pastness of the past she re-creates, and the more the ideas she deals with, of determinism, individual freedom, the nature of life after death, seem to announce that these are no longer our concerns, at least not in this way, in these contexts, in these words and forms. The book seemed far more remote from me than any Victorian fiction, partly no doubt because of my awareness of the factitiousness of the enterprise, but also because that awareness was continually reinforced by the inevitable factitiousness of the style, which becomes Victorian at the cost of using too many formulas and too few resources, like Latin prose written by a thoroughly competent Latinist.

It is possible I suppose to see this not as a problem but as the whole point, and this may be how Byatt thinks of it. The point would be, I take it, to labour in vain in order to establish that the labour is vain—that the attempt to invent Victorian fictions will invite and enable us to reflect on the impossibility of doing so; to realise that the past is indeed a foreign country, and that the closer we seem to approach it the further it will recede. But this is not an idea so difficult to grasp or to exemplify as to account for the dedication with which Byatt in recent years has embraced her task. And if this were the point, it would make redundant the occasional displays of deliberate verbal bad manners: a dog ‘farts’, a man has a ‘prick’, a woman in bed ‘asks for more’. These anachronisms, by reminding us of what Victorian novels could not say, certainly serve to establish the distance between 1870 and 1992, but they do so unnecessarily when the same point will be made by the most faithful obedience to Victorian proprieties.

Then again it may be that moments like these are supposed to function like the table I once saw in Jane Austen's house, which was advertised by its explanatory card as the very one at which Miss Austen is reputed to have written Persuasion, except that (as the card very candidly acknowledged) it could not have been made before 1847. The idea behind this confession was perhaps that it would act as a magnet for our suspicions, leaving us with nothing but the fullest confidence in the authenticity of the other features of the house, the Laura Ashley wallpapers, the glass cabinet with its dingy Regency dolls.

Perhaps I am striving too hard to see the ‘point’ of these novellas, when their only point is to be enjoyable fictions, but I don't think so. They are both urgently didactic, with a striking, and strikingly single-minded, drive to deliver a message—the need to believe in the freedom of the will in an apparently deterministic universe, for example, or the importance of seeking our happiness on earth and not in an uncertain heaven. There is a moral to each novella, thoroughly appropriate to the story, but the appropriateness depends to a large extent on the reconstructed language and context of Victorian religious anxiety, so that the more pressing the message, the less it seems to press upon us. These Victorian novellas of ideas are resolutely novellas of Victorian ideas.

To put it another way, or it may be to make a related point, that appropriateness of moral to story, story to moral, is largely the result of the impressive intelligence with which the thread of the narrative is so inextricably interwoven with the discourses which combine to give it meaning—Victorian religion, science, elegiac poetry, ethics, social description. There is an extraordinary density of signification: the discussions about whether the order of the universe is the product of blind chance or of design, or about the nature of death or the existence of the spirit world, the numerous quotations, the stories within the stories, the description of landscapes, of rooms, of people, of clothes, of social events, all contribute with a fascinating efficiency to the construction of meaning. I began sidelining what seemed to be the salient instances of connectedness, but gave up when I found an almost unbroken pencil line running down every page. And I soon began to feel a relentlessness about the intelligence with which these novellas are constructed; they induced claustrophobia; there is no room in them to discover anything except what has been put there to be discovered; every road is signposted, and to the same destination. The tone of my review is in places a reflection, no doubt, of the relief I felt on emerging from this book; it can be taken as a tribute, however backhanded, to the complexity of its organisation.

The ending of ‘Morpho Eugenia’ made me think of Michael Heseltine. The story opened up the deep mines of the realist novel only to shut them down with the ruthless logic of allegory and fable. William Adamson, the son of a Yorkshire Methodist butcher, is an entomologist who has spent ten years in the Amazon rainforest, studying butterflies, moths, ants and termites. On his return to England, he had expected to be able to finance his future research from the sale of the specimens he had collected, and from the royalties on a book about his experiences and studies. But on the voyage home he is shipwrecked, most of his specimens are lost, and at the start of the novella he has washed up penniless at Bredely Hall, the Gothic mansion of the Rev. Harald Alabaster, a baronet, liberal churchman and anti-Darwinian collector of zoological specimens, who is attempting to write a lengthy vindication of the argument from design.

At Bredely he meets Alabaster's sad and beautiful daughter Eugenia, whose fiancé, a soldier, has recently died. He falls in love with her at first sight; or perhaps what he falls for are the qualities enshrined in her name—her breeding, so much more distinguished than his own, her whiteness, so gleamingly different from the Amerindian women he occasionally coupled with in Brazil. ‘I shall die if I cannot have her,’ he tells his diary; and so when her father invites him to extend his stay at Bredely, as a kind of paid guest, he accepts with enthusiasm. Adamson's duties are to catalogue the baronet's own vast and still unpacked collection of specimens and to act as a sounding-board for his confused attempts to refute the theory of evolution; there are vague promises of funding for future field-work. In addition he agrees (he can hardly refuse) to help with the scientific education of the younger Alabaster children, which is conducted by the knowing Matty Crompton, a poor dependant and un-official governess.

He is of course in no position to propose to Eugenia, but he does find an opportunity to tell her that if only he could, he would. To his amazement and delight, Eugenia brushes his scruples aside; her father raises no objections; and in no time the pair are married. Adamson's life, however, is very little changed by the gratification of his greatest desire. Husband and wife continue to live at Bredely; Adamson continues to feel a less than free and accepted member of the family, and finds himself performing the same duties as before. Plans for a return to the Amazon are indefinitely postponed; and except for the few weeks each year when Eugenia is not pregnant, the couple enjoy little more mutual intimacy than before their marriage. Adamson's closest relationship is with Matty, the only person in the house with whom he is on a footing, socially and intellectually. Together they begin an elaborate study of the local population of ants, with the idea—it is Miss Crompton's originally—that Adamson will write a book about them, at once popular and path-breaking. Conversation and research with Matty Crompton are all that console him for the futility of his new life.

But when will he suspect? The reader has been encouraged to suspect since early in the story, when Adamson sees but does not overhear a conversation between Eugenia and Edgar, her brutal elder brother, which leaves her in tears. Suspicion becomes a racing certainty in the following twenty or so pages, when Edgar reveals the depth of his anger at the approaching marriage, when Eugenia in her bridal bed seems to know much more than she should, and when she insists on christening her first-born Edgar. Her terrible secret, however, is for many years safe from her husband, born too soon to be wise in the way of readers of 20th-century detective fiction, and disabled, by his scientific training, from recognising any but ocular proof. It is not until ten pages from the end that he returns from hunting to discover his wife in bed with her brother. They had been at it for years; when Eugenia's fiancé had found out, he shot himself.

In the final scene, Adamson is in mid-Atlantic, bound once again for Brazil; his fare paid by the advance on his book; beside him on deck is Miss Crompton, the plain Jane who, true to the values of the Victorian novel, has stepped out of her protective covering and revealed herself as a much worthier partner for the hero than the flashy object of his earlier impetuous desire. She, too, has emerged as a writer who can rely on her pen to pay for her liberation. Her first effort was an insect-fable, in which she had suggested to Adamson, at tedious length, the possibility of escape.

It is the fact that Adamson is so slow on the uptake which delays the denouement of the novella long enough to allow the development of the themes, arguments, descriptions, writings, which announce the story's meaning. There is (for example) an extended opposition between Paradise and the Inferno which poses continually the question of which is which and where it is better to be. During his long years in Brazil, Adamson had repeatedly dreamed of the peaceful English countryside, staring at the grotesquely luxuriant, mosquito-infested rainforest and seeing, as if in the calenture, the green meadows of England with their abundant but chastely-tinted flowers. In the landscape around Bredely he seems to have found his English Paradise, complete with Eugenia as an English Eve with whom Adamson can pretend to be a still unfallen Adam. As he begins, however, to become accustomed to his new life at Bredely, the household begins to be revealed to him as a universally coercive system, in which the Alabaster family has become so dependent upon its largely invisible army of servants that its own paradisal idleness is as much forced as is their labour. Worse still, the system persuades those whom it enslaves to identify its ends as theirs, so that it takes much tactful prompting by Miss Crompton, as well as the discovery that his Eve had been seduced by the serpent Edgar, for Will to see that this paralysis of the Will can be shaken off only by a decision to return to the Inferno he has left, the place of thorns and thistles, west of Eden, where there is real work to be done.

Adamson's sense of the Bredely household as a system which operates by itself, independently of the organising will of any of its members, develops mainly from the study he undertakes with Miss Crompton of the ants that live in the nearby woods, the meticulousness of which testifies—as does so much else in these novels—to the meticulousness of Byatt's own Victorian researches. The pair are especially interested in the Formica sanguinea, the red ants who capture ants of other species and make them their slaves. Bredely, Adamson seems to understand, exists only for breeding. It is organised round the red bedroom of its queen, the obese and languid Lady Alabaster, who spends the day in idle deshabille, while endless lines of maidservants dressed in black scuttle back and forth from the kitchen bearing sweetmeats and beverages. By the end of the book, Eugenia, too, has become a mere breeding creature, an incestuous red ant queen, and the authorial voice gives her a thorough dressing-down. This seemed a bit harsh, for I don't imagine Eugenia would have agreed to do the sex-scenes if Byatt hadn't insisted that, like everything else in Angels and Insects, they were absolutely integral to the plot.

By one of the arguments that Adamson considers, the house is no more matriarchal than patriarchal; like a nest of ants—perhaps, he speculates, like a mill, or like society itself—the house is run by no one and for no one's individual benefit, but by the spirit of the system itself. The division of labour includes everyone, the mill-owners as well as the mill-hands, the queens and the drones like Harald Alabaster and Adamson as well as the countless army of subterranean workers. What Adamson still has to learn, however, and he finally learns it from Miss Crompton, is that the analogy between the forms of organisation discovered among the social insects, and human forms of social organisation, is fatally deceptive. The analogy will do for the likes of the amoral Eugenia, who uncomprehendingly defends her incest as ‘natural’; but for a moral being like Adamson it offers no insight into how humans should behave, and to believe in it is merely the symptom of a diseased will.

It is not clear to me whether Adamson and Matty ever reached the Amazon. They sailed on the Calypso, whose captain, Arturo Papagay, is missing presumed dead in the second novella, ‘The Conjugial Angel’, following the wreck of that very ship—though he turns up in the final pages, to the great delight of his semi-phoney spiritualist wife, who much prefers flesh and blood to ectoplasm. She has been attempting, with the aid of Sophy Sheekhy, a medium, and several members of the New Jerusalem Church, to raise the spirit of Arthur Henry Hallam, he of In Memoriam, with whom Emily Jesse, Tennyson's now married and elderly sister, had once had an understanding. In the interstices of their attempts, the novel reflects on the persistence of mourning, partly by means of a reading of Tennyson's poem. When a message from Hallam finally arrives, it assures Mrs Jesse that she and he will be one angel in the hereafter. But Mrs Jesse, most of whose life has been spent waiting, anxiously, guiltily, for just such a promise, realises at once that she wants no part of it, has not done so for years. She wants her present husband, also a seafarer, stolid, loyal, selfless; she wants him now and she wants him after death. The spiritualist group collapses, to nearly everyone's apparent relief.

And certainly to mine: I enjoyed ‘The Conjugial Angel’ much less than its companion-piece. Perhaps I preferred, ‘Morpho Eugenia’ because I read it in almost ideal conditions. I have rented a London flat for the summer and autumn, convenient for the British Library, and after four visits from a pest-control company it is still infested with bedbugs. When the landlord provided me with a new bed, I tied grease bands round the legs, on which several specimens of the species Cimex lectularius are now displayed. It was on this bed that I read Angels and Insects, and I responded with more sympathy to Byatt's account of a house run and overrun by insects than to her reflections on life after death; the only after-life I look forward to at present will begin when my lease expires.

By the time I got to the second novella, the relentless coherence of Byatt's narrative method had come to seem less fascinating—it had become all too familiar. But it was the style that finally wore me down. Its Victorianness is achieved mainly by a series of variations on a sentence whose verbs, like ants, are continually trying to move more luggage—more clusters of adjectives, more relative clauses—than they can comfortably bear. This is good for evoking the oppressive heaviness we associate with some aspects of Victorian life; with the formal interiors, for example, all that plush and polished wood, all those warm colours. Victorians could live in those rooms, no doubt, because they could also be elsewhere, in the chill bedroom or dank shrubbery. But wherever we go in Angels and Insects, inside or out, upstairs or down, it is too often a version of the same sentence that leads us there and tells us what to see, think and feel. ‘The Conjugial Angel’ is set in Margate, and reminded me of a dismally wet afternoon I spent there as a child, trailing behind a great-aunt who was showing my grandmother the sights; each called the other ‘Ma’. My great-aunt, too, was particularly attached to one sentence: every thirty yards or so she would stop and say: ‘And this is the 'igh Street, Ma.’ When my grandmother finally broke her silence, she spoke for us both: ‘Bugger the 'igh Street, Ma.’

Tess Lewis (review date Fall 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Metamorphoses,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Lewis lauds Byatt's Angels and Insects as a spiritual heir to the Victorian era.]

Two years after Possession, a magnum opus of intellectual passion, A. S. Byatt offers us two enchanting novellas set in the mid-19th-century and enlivened by the uneasy dance of extremes. The dominant quarrel in Angels & Insects—the stark division of Victorian society between Darwinists and creationists—is familiar ground for her readers. Of course, the argument itself is not as important in Byatt's fiction as the effects of this spiritual struggle between “angels and insects” on the men and women of the time.

In the first novella, “Morpho Eugenia,” named after a rare tropical butterfly, explorer and entomologist William Adamson barely survives his shipwrecked journey back to England after 10 years in the Amazon. Reverend Harald Alabaster, a wealthy baronet and amateur entomologist, offers William refuge in his estate, Bredely Hall. William earns his keep by cataloguing Lord Alabaster's huge collection of specimens and oddities of the natural world and by acting as a sounding board for a book in which Lord Alabaster is trying to reconcile natural selection and divine providence.

William soon falls madly in love with Alabaster's mysterious, tragically unhappy daughter Eugenia. Despite their vast social differences—William is the son of a Methodist butcher—Eugenia agrees to marry him. William's naive faith in his wife's purity blinds him to facts that are widely acknowledged by the rest of the household. He reads his own fear of “smutching” Eugenia's virtue into her passivity and indifference during the wedding. He ascribes to the tyranny of nurture over nature the utter lack of his features in the many children Eugenia bears, “as though environment were everything and inheritance nothing.” Feeling trapped by the driving spirit of Bredely Hall, he can not help but draw parallels to the ants he is studying for his own book, A Natural History of a Woodland Society. Just as the drones work tirelessly and altruistically to perpetuate their colony, so William seems to serve as little more than an engenderer of little Alabasters.

Byatt's trademark happy ending is not particularly surprising, but is nonetheless welcome. A drastic twist in the plot sets William free to sail off to the Amazon on the Calypso, accompanied by Matty Crompton, one of the Alabasters' dependent relatives and the only one who truly appreciates him.

A delicate narrative thread links the two novellas, though the thematic ties are many and intricate. “The Conjugial Angel” opens with Lilias Papagay, the Calypso captain's wife, on her way to conduct a seance. The captain disappeared at sea 10 years earlier, and Lilias works as a medium as much to support herself and ease the pain of her loss as to contact her missing husband. The seance is held at the home of Emily Jesse, sister of poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Emily was once engaged to the young poet Arthur Henry Hallam, the subject of Tennyson's most famous poem, “In Memoriam.” Four decades after Hallam's death and despite 33 years of marriage, Emily still mourns her lover, though privately—her grief having been eclipsed by her brother's encomium.

The novella's title refers to the 18th-century mystic and spiritual guide of Victorian mediums: Emanuel Swedenborg's belief that “true conjugial love comes to us all but once, that our souls have one mate, one perfect other half, whom we should seek ceaselessly,” and that two human souls joined in “conjugial love” form one angel. Both Lilias and Emily are reunited with their soulmates—one living, one dead—yet both turn resolutely away from the realm of the spirits to the world of living.

The Victorians' loss of certainty in an active, determining God colored every aspect of their society. In Angels & Insects, Byatt brings vividly to life the divided Victorian soul—split between faith in the intellect and instinct, free will and determinism, and rationalism and spiritualism. By intersecting the natural and the supernatural worlds in her novellas, Byatt effectively resolves the two antitheses into a tense, imaginative synthesis.

The sheer beauty of many scenes as well as Byatt's luxurious, evocative language remain with the reader long after the clever plots and intriguing, but occasionally too lengthy, intellectual constructs have faded. Byatt's writing is masterful, whether describing a simple English hedgerow “with roses and hawthorn, honeysuckle and bryony” newly in bloom or a cloud of butterflies in a hothouse as they came “out of the foliage, down from the glassy dome, darting, floating, fluttering, tawny orange, dark and pale blue, brimstone yellow and clouded white, damask dark and peacock-eyed, and danced round [Emily's] head and settled on her shoulders, and brushed her outstretched hand.”

Angels & Insects is a charming, lavishly sensuous recreation of an era whose spiritual legacy we still bear.

Geoff Dyer (review date 23 January 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Aesthetic among the Pinks,” in Guardian Weekly, Vol. 50, No. 4, January 23, 1994, p. 29.

[In the following review, Dyer offers a negative assessment of Byatt's The Matisse Stories.]

We need to look at these stories [in The Matisse Stories] in two ways—as stories and as dramatised essays on Matisse—to come up with a compound verdict that does justice to the twin impulses behind them.

Initiated by the voluptuously distorted Pink Nude of 1935, the first story is about a middle-aged academic's visits to her hairdresser. The hairdresser is self-important, full of small-minded determination to enlarge his mind. Knowing and polite, his client ends up with an absurdly coiffured nest of hair; she throws a tanty and trashes the salon.

In the second story, a failed middle-aged artist gets snooty with his philistine cleaner—only to find that she is having an exhibition in the gallery where he'd hoped to show.

In the third, two academics are in a Chinese restaurant, discussing Matisse-related issues between exclamations of delight at the quality of the scoff.

Diverting, pleasant enough tales, in short—so what is it that is so irksome about them? Perhaps the problem is the familiar one whereby snobbery is frowned upon from a vantage point of all-knowing sophistication, and preciousness is judged in the light of an aesthetic itself supremely precious. Throughout this book, there is an implicit sense that the study of an Oxbridge don is the final court, indeed the very model, of not only aesthetic but moral discrimination. As a consequence—and how often one observes this—the “sophistication” of the authorial viewpoint virtually guarantees its parochialism.

This viewpoint is sustained by an ironic detachment which leaves characters to reveal or incriminate themselves by their own words. However, as in the opening gestures of charades where the initial generic codes are so instantly understood that you may just as well say “book” or “film” and save everyone the trouble of working it out, this style of narration has been worn so thin that the characters don't seem to be incriminating themselves; it's more a question of the author's verdict being vicariously packaged in inverted commas. Only in the portion of the last and best story, “The Chinese Lobster”, given over to a transcription of a feminist student's rant about Matisse's misogynistic manipulation of the female form, are the ironies manipulated with sufficient skill to appear self-generating.

This is also the story in which the most revealing insights are made about Matisse. The student's antagonist, the pompous old aesthete with a passion for well-cooked Chinese food, notes that Matisse paints “silent bliss”; that “almost no one could paint the colour black as he could”. Praising Matisse's artistic cunning, he notes that “[Matisse] knew he had to know exactly what he was doing”. It may be a point worth emphasising, but A S Byatt should have resisted the temptation. People can write a whole sentence in italics, but they can't speak one. The point is not simply typographic: the dramatic mould is unable to contain the expository content.

Aversion of this difficulty manifests itself in several ways. As you would expect, there is a lot of colour in Byatt's writing, but it is ornamental rather than animate (as it is, for example, in some of Jeremy Reed's poems about painters). It is the vocabulary of the colour chart rather than the writer's eye: “topaz eyes”, “salmon pink”, “pinky-beige”, “cobalt blue lobelias”. In the process of this thin verbal reproduction many of the distinctive qualities of the paintings have been lost.

I cannot help comparing her response to imaginative writing on art with another, very different one of which I was reminded by the first story, the one in the hairdresser's. Turner's father was a backstreet barber and, about 10 years ago, I read an essay by John Berger in which he wondered about the effect this may have had on the artist's imagination. “Consider some of his later paintings and imagine, in the backstreet shop, water, froth, steam, gleaming metal, clouded mirrors, white bowls or basins in which soapy liquid is agitated by the barber's brush and detritus deposited.”

Well, take it or leave it—but when I read that essay I leapt on my bike and headed for the Tate.

Read these stories and you have no impulse to rouse yourself. For all the love Matisse clearly inspires in Byatt, his art does not emerge powerfully from them. In what is almost a mirror image of Matisse's art, Byatt's prose contrives to be both exquisite and bland: “Uneven spasmodic falls of glass, like musical hailstones on shelves and floors. A sussuration of hairpins on paper.” Sussuration, indeed!

In a famous passage whose implications and ironies Byatt well understands, Matisse said he hoped his art would serve like a comfortable armchair. Byatt has now given us the slippers to go with it.

Julian Gitzen (essay date Winter 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “A. S. Byatt's Self-Mirroring Art,” in Critique, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 83-95.

[In the following review, Gitzen discusses Byatt's attempt to include literary and artistic theory in her work, and asserts that she does so most successfully in Possession.]

The award to A. S. Byatt of the 1990 Booker Prize for her romance Possession virtually assures that her fiction will receive increasing critical attention, perhaps equaling that previously accorded to the novels of her sister Margaret Drabble. An interwoven texture of letters, journal entries, poems, and straight narrative, Possession is Byatt's most ambitious work to date; but its subject, situations, characters, and, indeed, its hybrid form have been anticipated in each of her previous novels. From the start, Byatt has combined the methods of a traditional realist with the subject matter and the themes of an aesthete. Hers is the sort of fiction that might have been written by her young heroine Frederica Potter, who as a Cambridge undergraduate yearns to become both an academic and a creative writer and imagines herself “writing something elegant and subtle on the use of metaphor in seventeenth-century religious narrative … [and] writing quite different things, … maybe even a new urban novel like those of Iris Murdoch” (Still Life 283). Perhaps because Byatt has written repeatedly and admiringly of Murdoch's novels, reviewers obligingly compare her fiction with that of Murdoch. Summing up her Still Life, for instance, Roger Lewis declares of Byatt that “Margaret Drabble may be her biological sibling, but Iris Murdoch is her creative one” (29). Adam Mars-Jones objects that one scene in particular in that same novel “somewhat infringes Iris Murdoch's copyright” (720). Appropriately enough, Murdoch herself has reviewed at least one of Byatt's novels, singling out for praise the author's “excellent descriptions of the activity of thinking, its pace and texture” (586).

Herself a graduate of Cambridge, Byatt in fact undertook but failed to complete a doctoral dissertation “on religious allegory in the seventeenth century.” Her stated motivation for this project was “partly because I wanted to study the sensuous metaphors of Herbert and Marvell … and partly—the allegory bit of it—because I wanted to write novels, and was interested in narrative” (Passions 3). Eventually her desire for novel-writing prevailed; and fortunately she discovered Proust “at exactly the right moment,” when she had already determined to abandon her dissertation. He supplied her with both precedent and authority, demonstrating that “it was possible for a text to be supremely mimetic, ‘true to life’ in the Balzacien sense, and at the same time to think about form, its own formation, about perceiving and inventing the world” (Passions 22–23).

In her occasional direct addresses to the reader to explain the genesis of or difficulties experienced in writing a given novel, Byatt satisfies postmodernist expectations regarding authorial self-consciousness (and self-parody) and qualifies, at least in a minor key, as a writer of self-reflexive fiction. She and her fictional characters remain tirelessly alive to both the bond and the gap between words and their referents and between art and its subject. Her fiction persistently dramatizes this distinction by making it either a significant feature of the narrative or the very focus of action, as when the lives of her characters mirror or reenact works of art, either those produced by historical figures or by other Byatt characters. Such parallel situations appear to reverse the classical precept that art “holds the mirror up to nature,” demonstrating instead how reality may imitate art. Because Byatt's characters necessarily are fictional creations rather than actual persons, the situation is more accurately formulated as: “Fictional realism imitates art.” This formula certainly did not originate with Byatt. One thinks of works following similar patterns in genres as diverse as Gide's The Counterfeiters, Nabokov's Pale Fire, and Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam. Byatt, however, has made the equation distinctly her own.

From the beginning, her chosen framework was the traditional realistic novel. To write effectively in this mode, she required the authenticity that could be conveniently furnished by her own experiences and those of friends and family members. Accordingly, each of her novels features major characters, who, like Byatt and others of her acquaintance, are either scholars or artists. In her first novel, Shadow of a Sun (1964), the great but self-absorbed novelist Henry Severell is confronted by the academic Oliver Canning, who struggles to bring Severell's talented but frustrated daughter Anna out from her father's intimidating shadow, only to fall in love with the girl. Byatt's second novel, The Game (1967), features two sisters, Julia and Cassandra Corbett. Cassandra, the elder, is a medievalist lecturing at Oxford; Julia is a writer of popular novels. The two compete for the affection of Simon Moffitt, a renowned herpetologist, who resembles several of Byatt's other male protagonists in being more attracted to Platonic than to sexual intimacy. In her next novel, The Virgin in the Garden (1978), conceived as the first volume of a tetralogy, artistry is represented by the playwright Alexander Wedderburn and by the adolescent Frederica Potter, who is drawn to artists such as Wedderburn and passionately desires to be an actress.

Perhaps owing to its open-ended nature, the narrative scope of The Virgin in the Garden is considerably more ambitious than that of Byatt's previous novels. The action extends to associated clusters of characters, among the most interesting of which are Frederica's visionary brother Marcus and a biology master named Lucas Simmonds, who communicates telepathically with Marcus. Byatt is attracted to (and convincingly portrays) characters who occasionally achieve transcendent states, during which their surroundings are bathed in a radiance reminiscent of Wordsworth's “celestial light.” She evidently regards such visionary experiences as forms of creativity analogous to the artist's exercise of imagination. Appropriately enough, the first such figure to appear in her fiction is the novelist and student of Romantic literature and philosophical idealism, Henry Severell. The visionary Marcus reappears together with Frederica in Still Life (1985), the second volume of the projected tetralogy. Also present here is Alexander Wedderburn, now busy with a new play portraying the final years of Van Gogh, but superseded in Frederica's affections by the Cambridge poet and don Raphael Faber. Van Gogh himself is represented, both through his letters, which are extensively quoted, and his paintings, which are described and discussed by various characters, and by the author speaking in her own voice.

In Possession (1990) all of the major (and most of the minor) characters are either artists or academics, and at least one, Roland Michell, is both scholar and poet, whereas the two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, are avid readers and conversant with the medieval myths and legends in which Byatt delights. Action proceeds simultaneously in two centuries, as we are introduced to the nineteenth-century lovers LaMotte and Ash through their letters, journals, poems, and other literary remains. The hitherto unsuspected affair between these two is brought to light by two latter-day academic sleuths, Maud Bailey and Roland Michell, who in the course of their inquiries in turn fall in love. Once again, though the action occupies a broad front ranging from Lincoln to Brittany, the most dramatic scenes are reserved for the author's native Yorkshire, which, as in her previous works, is suffused with an Edenic atmosphere.

The realistic novelist's immediate circle of acquaintance offers the most accessible source of materials, but the unscrupulous notation and exploitation of their thoughts or actions for fictional purposes may well appear to these persons as a cannibalistic invasion of privacy. Byatt describes the novelist as “one who eats up reality,” and maintains that the cliché “food for thought” aptly summarizes the fate of those victims so ingested. She testifies, “I have known, personally, human beings whose lives have been wrecked or mutilated by being made the object of other people's fictive attentions” (Passions 22). Whatever her own views about this matter, Julia Corbett of The Game cannot resist her need to observe and note or memorize, but her observational zeal does arouse resentment, most notably in her daughter Deborah, who complains to Cassandra that much of her life and her father's have been appropriated for Julia's fiction.

Cassandra herself has long recognized Julia's greed for narrative material and indeed contributed substantially to her younger sister's first literary success. At the age of sixteen, Julia won a fiction contest with an adaptation of a story written three years previously by Cassandra. Throughout her life Julia has sought to emulate or surpass her sister, most conspicuously in her attachment to Simon Moffitt, with whom Cassandra is in love. Prompted by telecasts featuring Moffitt's experiences on the Amazon, Julia embarks upon a novel that will portray the re-union of Simon and Cassandra at Oxford. After the novel's publication, when informed that Simon has recently appeared at Oxford, Julia can only conclude, “I did it, he went there because I feared it, because I planned it, because I imagined it” (Game 208). In this instance Byatt might well be speaking ironically of her own powers of creation, including her portrayal of objectionable novelists. The existence of Julia's novel presents Cassandra and Simon with the appalling possibility that they have lost their free will and have become puppets playing out the destiny reserved for Julia's fictional characters. Fearing that her remaining future is plotted in Julia's fiction and, having concluded that “We could not live if we were made to see ourselves … as others see us” (Game 230), Cassandra breaks the reflecting mirror by taking her own life.

In The Virgin in the Garden, Alexander Wedderburn both observes and participates in the activities that mirror his own art. His verse drama Astraea, which celebrates the life and reign of Elizabeth I, is being performed as part of the festivities honoring Elizabeth II's Coronation in 1953. In part Alexander has created his Elizabeth in his own image, a fact wittily expressed in the epithet ‘the Virgin Queen’ coined in his honor. Alexander is not a homosexual, however, but simply possessed of a low libido. He is currently desired by two women, both of whom have parts in his play. They are Jennifer Parry, a young mother and wife of a local German teacher, and the seventeen-year-old Frederica Potter, who plays the role of the young Princess Elizabeth.

The centerpiece of Alexander's play is a masque assumed to take place in a garden (thus the title of Byatt's novel); during and immediately following the evening dress rehearsal of this masque Byatt's fictional characters most conspicuously imitate or play out in earnest their parts in Alexander's drama. Frederica has been cast as the virgin Princess, resolutely single but happy to flirt with her admirers. Though oppressed by her own virginity, Frederica proves unable at this time to dispose of it. Like young Queen Bess, she is surrounded by male admirers; but Alexander, the man she yearns for, fails to return her ardor. He spends the rehearsal night in dismally impotent communion with Jennifer Parry, while Frederica sulks alone. The following morning she is driven home by Alexander, who fends off her passionate embraces and secretly labels her as “a parody of the virgin in the garden.”

Yet Frederica eventually comes to represent something considerably more sobering to Alexander. As previously noted, his Elizabeth I has been a partial self-portrait. Frederica in turn has been type-cast in the role, and certain features of her personality have become fully apparent to him only during her performances, causing him to appreciate at last her manifold resemblances to himself and making him “afraid of her.” Eventually he recognizes her as “the bitch-goddess in the grove, his own creation … the untouchable girl, safe to want because she could not be had” (373). Oblivious to Alexander's assessment of her, Frederica deliberately sets out to seduce him, until persuaded by a fellow actor that Alexander is not to be possessed, at least not by her. Instead, Alexander departs to take up a new job in London, leaving Frederica to her own devices. In so doing he supplies a variant on Byatt's customary theme. Because Cassandra Corbett believes herself trapped within Julia's fiction, she commits suicide. Alexander, on the other hand, escapes from the vision embodied within his own art, at least insofar as that vision is personified in Frederica. His flight typifies the dilemma of the Byatt protagonist, who must balance emotional needs against the necessity for “solitude” in which to create.

More conspicuously than any of Byatt's previous works, Still Life, the sequel to The Virgin in the Garden, assumes the dimensions of a “problem” novel. The central question posed by the novelist is that squarely confronting any writer of realistic fiction: how accurately may language be made to represent actual phenomena? To exemplify this problem Byatt has chosen the alternative medium of painting, recognizing that the imagination of the painter, like that of the writer, must marry with the materials of which its art is composed. While she examines how Van Gogh viewed and portrayed his surroundings, she observes and describes her novel's characters from a comparably painterly perspective, thereby maintaining her customary mirror-image structure.

The immediate link between the painter's vision and the writer's art is supplied by Alexander Wedderburn, who is at work on a play entitled The Yellow Chair, which treats Van Gogh's final years. Alexander is sadly aware that the medium of dialogue offers limited scope for expressing Van Gogh's internal creative agony. Instead of “the battle with the colours and forms” he must be satisfied to portray the artist's outward conflict with “the whore and the rival, the father, the brother, the nephew Vincent Van Gogh” (83). Alexander currently occupies a room in the apartment of the Poole family, which consists of Thomas Poole, his wife Elinor, and their three young children. Alexander's sparsely furnished room, with its predominant colors of yellow, white, and grey and its Van Gogh prints, resembles a Van Gogh painting. Alexander's interest in Van Gogh's methods has sharpened and extended his perceptions, causing him to realize that in the Poole household communication is “centred in, conducted through things.” He accepts also that wordless self-communication is feasible, and that to apprehend or recognize an object it is not necessary to name it: “You could see things before saying them, indeed without saying them” (163). Prompted by his newly acquired painterly vision, he surveys the apartment's varied combinations of form, color, and composition and particularly notes the seasonally changing offerings of fruit on the breakfast table. The table itself becomes a “still life” where among the “purple-black” plums in the fruit bowl Elinor has placed two lemons, “to intensify the colour.” Even when Elinor Poole calculatingly appears naked in the hall striding toward him, his immediate reaction to her image is aesthetic rather than sexual. He perceives “a woman whose rounds and triangular planes were differently lit as successive open doors cast columns of light across her and then the shadows closed again” (167). For a period Alexander and Elinor become lovers, and in recalling his experiences and sensations during those days, Alexander summons images in colors appropriate to Van Gogh: “bright, clear primary colours, but all softly muffled, or mobled, as if seen through white veiling” (171).

When the novel's action moves to the south of France and settles at the beach of Les Saintes-Maries, where in 1888 Van Gogh painted the fishing boats, Byatt pays appropriate tribute with a comparable full-scale scene-painting of a beach party attended by a company of English vacationers. The chapter involved is fittingly titled “Seascape,” and Byatt supplies immediate clues about what is to follow when Frederica Potter arrives late to find the beach party already “posed,” its members “arranged … around bright canvas bags and wicker baskets in the part-shade of a fishing-boat” (72). Alexander becomes a prominent figure in this seascape as the talk among those present turns to colors, and speculation arises about how best to describe Alexander's colors under the midday light. The playwright is observed standing on the prow of a fishing boat, “pale on the pale sky, with a triangular patch of yellow like a painted sun … between his thighs and his limbs creamy-brown like the foam on the new cappuccino coffee” (75).

The complex image of the beach party calls for a combination of painstakingly exact observation and highly developed descriptive faculties. Elsewhere in the narrative Byatt traces the origins of those impulses and skills that underlie any such densely featured word-painting. Each of the Poole children is furnished with an easel, and in the presence of a half-finished painting of a spider-plant produced by the eldest, Alexander reflects that the children's mimetic drawings exemplify a compulsive and enduring human need. He puzzles, “Did we make these images to understand the world, to decorate it, or to connect ourselves to it?” (174). Though no satisfactory answer suggests itself, Alexander finds particularly apt an illustrated alphabet frieze (i.e., a combination of letters and images) being painted by the Poole children for their playroom. Meanwhile, Frederica's elder sister Stephanie listens with keen interest as her baby William commences a lifetime of verbal expression: “‘Cat’ ‘Wottit,’ he said. ‘Wiwottit.’ She interpreted. ‘Will wants it.’ ‘Un,’ he agreed. ‘Wiwotticat’” (230). In wonder Stephanie hears a “new” voice shaping “words that had been spoken generation after generation.”

For Byatt the most powerful feature of language remains metaphor, that imaginative vehicle of implied or explicit comparisons. Painting may assume an analogous power, as instanced in the works of Van Gogh, which convey meaning beyond their outward images, at least when those images possess symbolic shapes and colors. Both in Still Life itself and in an essay entitled “Van Gogh, Death and Summer” Byatt singles out two Van Gogh paintings, “The Sower” and “The Reaper,” as striking combinations of the real and the symbolic, representing “the beginning and the end of life.” Still Life includes one of Van Gogh's letters, confirming the painter's own assumption that these two works express opposing symbolic meanings: “I saw then in this reaper … the image of death, in the sense that humanity would be the wheat one reaps. So it is, if you like, the opposite of the sower I tried before” (310–311). The analogous symbolic or trope-creating faculties of language are universally recognized, above all by poets such as Raphael Faber. Frederica Potter singles out for particular admiration one of his poems that has as its central image oil spilled on a highway. It is, she affirms, “metaphoric”: “You do the oil with images—the rainbow colours, the reflected sky—and when you talk about the darkness and the wetness of it I think of spilled blood. … It is so exact and means so much more than itself” (210). Faber is gratified that at least one reader has “noticed and understood” an evocative image overlooked by his reviewers.

Metaphor, Byatt argues, embodies an essential function of the human mind, for “analogy [is] a way of thought,” upon which further learning depends. To appropriate metaphor is a perpetual challenge to the writer, as when Alexander Wedderburn considers how he might accurately describe a damson plum. Terms that might be employed include: oval, purple-black, hazed with bloom, and marked with a pronounced cleft. His subject is merely a plum, but to attach to it certain descriptive terms inevitably would lead the “busy automatically-connecting mind” of his reader to supply implied figures of speech having to do with “flower-bloom, skin bloom, bloom of ripe youth … human clefts, declivities, cleavages” (164). Byatt's long-standing fascination with metaphors leads her in this novel to extensive outright commentary on the metaphoric basis of language in general and names in particular, as when, for his high school botany class, Marcus Potter draws up a taxonomic list of grasses. Prominent among these is Panicum or panick-grass, which the author notes with satisfaction derives its name from panis or bread, “because the seeds of this grass can be milled and eaten” (302).

Mindful as she is of the powers of metaphor, Byatt at length considers its potential to inspire or shape the writer's art. In Still Life her most noteworthy comments on this subject occur in a chapter entitled “Growing Things,” which emphasizes the fruitfulness of the marriage between Stephanie Potter and the clergyman Daniel Orton. Absorbed in the rapid growth of her infant son William, Stephanie becomes “obsessed with growing things” and in this state of mind appropriately enough conceives her second child. She also plants a vegetable garden and nasturtiums. Though the fortunes of the vegetables are uneven, the nasturtiums flourish, carpeting the back wall of Stephanie's cottage. According to Byatt, the germ of Still Life came to her in the image, “which was also a metaphor” of Stephanie, accompanied by baby William, contemplating a tray of seedlings and holding a nasturtium seed packet. In this image the novelist's fictional subject presented itself to her as the failures and successes of human and organic creativity.

Whereas Still Life afforded Byatt an outlet for her scholarly interests in painting and metaphor, Possession relies heavily upon her expertise in medieval legends and Victorian literature. It is subtitled “A Romance” and features an epigraph taken from the Preface to Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables. The excerpt in question claims for the romance increased freedom in matters of verisimilitude and links Hawthorne's own tale with traditions of romance by virtue of its “attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.” Possession centers upon just such a juncture between past and present, as two 1980s literary scholars become “possessed” by the evidence that they gradually uncover concerning a love affair between two Victorian poets. As they retrace the poets' steps from Richmond to Yorkshire and eventually to Brittany, the scholars too fall in love, thereby recapitulating not only the previous journey but also some at least of its associated emotions.

The above synopsis suggests that in this instance Byatt has modified her favorite structural formula, so that instead of fictional life imitating art, one form of fictional existence mirrors another. The correspondences increase, however, because the two poets are inspired by their love to pen lengthy verse narratives and monologues that reflect their situation, and those poems in turn become relevant to the circumstances of the enamored scholars. The meticulousness of Byatt's art is highlighted in the extensiveness of the various parallels.

The intrigue begins when the young scholar Roland Michell, working in the archives of the British Museum, discovers a letter addressed to an unknown woman by the famous Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. In pursuit of the woman's identity, Michell enlists the aid of another scholar, Maud Bailey. Together they establish that Ash's correspondent was the poet Christabel LaMotte, about whom Maud is an authority. Maud's detailed knowledge of LaMotte's poems combined with her intuition eventually lead the pair to a cache of love letters preserved and hidden by LaMotte.

As their search for additional evidence about the love affair intensifies, both Maud and Roland read with fresh understanding the love poems of Ash and LaMotte. Foremost among these is LaMotte's heroic narrative, The Fairy Melusina, which figures prominently in the correspondence between herself and Ash. On one occasion she protests that she cannot separate her life from the Melusine epic, for the two “are so intertwined.” According to a knowledgeable colleague of Roland, extant versions of the Melusine legend agree that “She was a fairy who married a mortal to gain a soul, and made a pact that he would never spy on her on Saturdays, and for years he never did, and they had six sons” (33). Eventually, of course, the husband's curiosity overcame his judgment. Peering through the bathroom keyhole, he discovered his wife in her bath, her lower body transformed into “a fish or a serpent.” When reproached by her husband on account of her metamorphosis into a mermaid, she assumed the even-more-alarming form of a dragon and disappeared but continued to linger near his castle, concerned for her children.

Understandably, Byatt supplies only the Proem and Book I of LaMotte's Melusina, but these lines contain a description of the fairy singing softly while seated on a rock beside a pool. She is dressed in white and green, has long blonde hair, and her feet are submerged in the pool “like white fish” (i.e., mermaid fashion). Accompanying her is a “gaunt hound” with fur of a “smoky grey” color. In comparison, Christabel LaMotte's “sleek silver-gold” hair is repeatedly noted, as is the fact that she wears boots of “emerald green leather.” LaMotte's constant companion is a grey Irish wolfhound. Like the fairy, who demands a measure of privacy from her husband, LaMotte guards her solitude and regrets that the passion between herself and Ash will inevitably break through the eggshell of privacy that incubates her creativity. When at last she joins him on an expedition to Yorkshire, she imitates the fairy and sings “like Goethe's sirens and Homer's from the rocks on Filey Brigg.” After separating from Ash, Christabel secretly gives birth to his daughter, refusing for years to inform him of the girl's existence. The child is adopted in infancy by Christabel's sister, a situation which at length prompts the poet to write despairingly, “I have been Melusina these thirty years. I have so to speak flown about … the battlements of this stronghold crying on the wind of my need to see and feed and comfort my child, who knew me not” (510).

To complete the mirror-images, Maud Bailey bears striking physical resemblances to both Melusina and LaMotte. She too has long blonde hair, and her favorite color is green. Not only does she customarily wear green, but she even drives a “glossy green Beetle.” A conspicuous item of adornment pinning up Maud's green scarf is a jet brooch featuring the carved figure of a mermaid seated on a rock. That this same brooch was almost certainly presented to Christabel by Ash during their Yorkshire idyll. That it should have come into Maud's possession is plausibly explained when evidence is literally unearthed showing Maud to be the direct descendant of Christabel's daughter.

In addition to her physical appearance, Maud resembles both the fairy and LaMotte in cherishing her solitude. Though she has had lovers and remains haunted by the image of “a huge, unmade, stained and rumpled bed,” she agrees with Roland Michell that “the best state is to be without desire” and dwells longingly on the vision of “a clean empty bed in a clean empty room, where nothing is asked or to be asked” (267). How fitting then that in time Roland Michell should be offered an academic post in Amsterdam, conveniently removed but not prohibitively distant from Maud's home in Lincoln. Unlike her previous lover, whom he describes as a “devourer,” he promises that he will not “threaten your autonomy.”

While on this occasion Roland pledges to respect Maud's need for solitude, he has not invariably behaved so discreetly, particularly in a scene clearly intended to signal the existence within the novel of comic parallels. Inclement weather has forced the two scholars to stay overnight in the rambling country mansion of Sir George and Lady Bailey, custodians of the Ash-LaMotte correspondence. At bedtime Sir George loans Maud a kimono “embroidered with a Chinese dragon” and directs her toward “a majestic Gothic bathroom.” After having allowed adequate time for Maud's ablutions, Roland approaches the bathroom in his turn; but, fearing to disturb her, he kneels at the keyhole in an effort to determine whether the room is vacant. While he is in this posture, Maud flings open the door and nearly falls over him. Obviously the two are re-enacting in comic fashion the fairy's betrayal by her husband, a point underlined as Maud retreats down the hall, leaving behind an image of the “long Chinese dragon” decorating the back of her robe.

Additional parody features lurk elsewhere in the narrative. For instance, emotional jeopardy in the Ash-LaMotte affair is jointly supplied by Ash's faithful but apparently frigid wife Ellen and by Christabel's housemate, working partner, and presumed Lesbian lover, Blanche Glover. Just as Ash deceives Ellen in order to escape to Yorkshire with Christabel, so Roland evades his lackluster companion Valerie while retracing with Maud the footsteps of the Victorian lovers. For her part, to enjoy Roland's embrace, Maud Bailey must fend off the advances of the plump and effusive feminist scholar and bisexual, Leonora Stern. Leonora also exemplifies a streak of broad humor missing from previous Byatt novels and which in Possession is concentrated particularly in the caricatured academic figures who cluster greedily around the poet's literary remains, and who bear such appropriately Dickensian names as: James Blackadder, Mortimer Cropper, and Fergus Wolff.

Despite its lighter tone, Possession resembles Byatt's other major novels, not only in its mirror-image situation, but also in its persistent linking of foreground narrative events with traditional European myths and legends. For example, Morte d'Arthur legends have inspired the medieval game at the center of Byatt's second novel. One such legend recounts the temptation of Sir Lancelot by four queens. When informed that either he must select one of the four as his paramour or face life imprisonment, the knight refuses the onerous choice. Similarly, rather than choose between Julia and Cassandra, Simon Moffitt escapes from both sisters by launching a specimen-collecting expedition up the Amazon. There he has an adventure worthy of an Arthurian knight threatened by a dragon when a huge anaconda suddenly drops upon him from a tree.

Despite having to be “rescued” from the snake and having witnessed a fatal attack upon a man by piranhas, Simon steadfastly describes the Amazonian jungles as “a real Garden of Eden.” His is a vision similar to that of Byatt herself, who maintains that “We all make meanings by using the myths and fictions of our ancestors as a way of making sense, or excitement out of our experience on earth,” (Passions 312) and who accordingly plants gardens throughout her fiction and persistently situates her lovers in or drives them out of these symbolic spots. For instance, in The Virgin in the Garden the estate in which Alexander's play Astraea is first performed is furnished with a “pleasure garden, winter garden, herb garden, water garden [and] Ancient Maze” (283). Frederica, of course, has hoped for a career as an actress; but, when the performances end, the play's producer discourages her further expectations. As she leaves the estate after receiving this rebuff, it occurs to her that “It really was like being shut out of Paradise. The gate should have clanged shut, but did not, for there was a lot of other traffic” (395). Near the conclusion of The Virgin in the Garden yet another garden proves uncongenial when Alexander Wedderburn waits vainly for Frederica in the garden of her parents' home. She has led him to expect dinner there, followed by an evening of lovemaking, but in the interval she has disappeared with another man, and both house and garden are vacant.

In the frequency of its Edenic allusions Possession rivals The Virgin in the Garden. Indicatively, the first private meeting between Ash and Christabel LaMotte occurs in a public park in Richmond. Thereafter, several bucolic settings provide backgrounds for their lovemaking. Later, when Roland and Maud, themselves on the brink of falling in love, chance upon the Yorkshire seacoast site of the poets' former idyll, they admire the beauty of the “flowering lanes” leading to a sheltered cove and both reflect that never before have they “seen or smelled such extravagance of wildflowers in so small a place” (268). Readers confronted by such a scene may well hear Tennyson's refrain, “Come into the garden, Maud,” and recall another pair of ill-starred Victorian lovers.

Possession's final garden experience is reserved for Roland Michell. He and Val occupy a flat adjoining an attractive garden, to which, according to their landlady, Mrs. Irving, they have “no right of entry.” After successfully concluding his investigation of the Ash-LaMotte correspondence, Roland returns to the flat to find the building abandoned not only by Val, but also by Mrs. Irving, who has been hospitalized with a stroke and a broken hip. Among the letters awaiting him are several job offers, and in his exhilaration at this unexpected improvement in his fortunes, it occurs to him that “there was no reason why he should not go out into the garden” (474). While treading the garden path, he experiences the sudden onrush of poems that for some time have been teasing his imagination.

Just as myths and legends are vital to both Byatt and her fictional characters, so too language and literature dominate the thoughts of both the author and her protagonists. To illustrate her lifelong fascination with language, Byatt recalls, in her memoir Sugar, the pleasure she derived as an eight-year-old from choosing the terms “spun-glass” and “emerald” to describe the candy produced in her grandfather's factory. As for Frederica Potter, we are assured that “language gripped and drove her.” Indeed, “Language was [so] ingrained in her” that when considering King Lear, she “imagined that poem and play were somehow more what they were than those things they were images of” (Virgin 104). Roland Michell, too, is described as having a “word-obsessed” mind. Confronted by unfamiliar “canvas-like carpets” in the mansion of Sir George Bailey, he automatically searches for a fitting name and hesitantly supplies the recondite “drugget.” As the mother of two small children Frederica's sister Stephanie conceives of herself as “sunk in biology,” yet she is a Cambridge graduate and a former ardent reader, who laments that she is forgetting numerous words that have been rich in meaning and association for her. Ironically, her fascination with words persists even to the moment of her death. Seconds before she loses consciousness from accidental electrocution, to her surprise the word “altruism” occurs to her, evidently prompted by her concern as to who will care for her children. Similarly, Alexander Wedderburn cannot shed his preoccupation with language even at moments of intense sensation or emotion. While fondling Jennifer Parry, he inopportunely recalls a passage from Eliot's The Waste Land, and realizes that one of the lines in Astraea, which he had believed to be his own, must be altered, for “the damned cadence was certainly Eliot's” (Virgin 45).

Byatt's own admiration for Eliot may be inferred not merely from the frequency with which her characters cite The Four Quartets but also from the Eliotic quantity of literary allusion and mythic parallels woven into her fiction. Her intimate knowledge of Donne, Shakespeare, Marvell, Milton, Wordsworth, and Coleridge and of the novelists George Eliot and D. H. Lawrence emerges in the corresponding literary interests of her characters. This display of erudition (though modest indeed when compared, say, with that of Joyce) has annoyed several reviewers, among them Rosemary Dinnage, who complained that The Virgin in the Garden “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” (“England in The 50's” 20).

While one might dispute Dinnage's judgment, she does point to a potential shortcoming that assumes more troublesome dimensions in Still Life, where Byatt's passion for inquiry, particularly as it relates to the vast subject of metaphor, has temporarily usurped her role as a novelist, causing her to resort to transparent rhetorical devices, including lectures on linguistics and aesthetics by an Oxford don and a university vice-chancellor, contrived purely to argue and extend her points. As previously noted, in this novel she occasionally abandons fictional artifice and addresses the reader outright. Whatever their intrinsic interest, these discursive intrusions significantly arrest or retard the narrative's forward momentum. In contrast, Possession incorporates Byatt's learning to good effect. Like the author, her Victorian lovers are enamored of words. Christabel LaMotte describes herself as “a creature of my Pen,” and Ash expresses a corresponding sense of the power and importance of language in his narrative poem The Garden of Proserpina.Possession allows Byatt to combine her knowledge of Victorian literature, her fascination with words, and her stylistic skill to compose credible period letters and journals as well as a variety of poems that are frequently more than merely competent. Her customary mirror-image framework supplies this lengthy narrative with a distinctive symmetry, and the shreds of literary evidence so composed produce a densely textured and appealing portrait of two Victorian literati and poets.

Works Cited

Byatt, A. S. The Game. London: Penguin, 1983.

———. Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings. London: Chatto, 1991.

———. Possession. New York: Vintage, 1991.

———. Still Life. London: Penguin, 1986.

———. The Virgin in the Garden. London: Penguin.

Dinnage, Rosemary. “England in the 50's,” New York Times Book Review 1 April 1979: 20.

Lewis, Roger. “Larger than Life,” New Statesman 28 June 1985: 20.

Mars-Jones, Adam. “Doubts about the Monument,” Times Literary Supplement 28 June 1985: 720.

Murdoch, Iris. “Force Fields,” New Statesman 3 Nov 1978: 586.

Alev Adil (review date 6 January 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Obeying the Genie,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4788, January 6, 1995, p. 20.

[In the following review, Adil calls the use of language in Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye “rich and archaically extravagant.”]

Like Charles Perrault at the end of the seventeenth century and Oscar Wilde at the end of the nineteenth, A. S. Byatt has chosen to explore the possibilities of the fairy story. Perhaps the fin de siècle creates a sense of cultural unease, of the need for some soul-searching. The fairy story is, after all, the soul of literature, the bedrock of narrative. Byatt's latest collection [The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye] consists of four short stories set in the familiar fantasy world of princesses, dragons, glass coffins and wizards; and a novella, the title-story, which relocates the fairy story in a contemporary landscape.

Her florid baroque style enriches this contemporary fairy-tale, translating the post-industrial into the language of the pre-modern, “the green sea was black, sleek as the skin of killer whales”, in an all too recognizable present where “the empty deserts were seeded with skulls, and with iron canisters, containing death”. Byatt's prose is opulent, sometimes lurid. Her extended descriptions of gradations of colour can descend into the language of paint charts: “mackerel-puckered and underwater-dappled with lime-green and bottle green and other greens too, malachite and jade”.

While Byatt's language is rich and archaically extravagant—lovers “tup”, girls glance with “glimpsy eyes”, ghosts run “widdershins”, genies give off a “horripilant male smell”—her intentions are altogether more modern and subversive. Here the fairy story is not a retreat into the fabulous, it is an opportunity to examine narrative determinism and the limitations it imposes on women. “The stories of women's lives in fiction are the stories of stopped energies.” In “The Story of the Eldest Princess”, the princess knows that her failure is inevitable, the story depends on it. “I am in a pattern I know, and I suspect I have no power to break it, and I am going to meet a test and fail it.” She wins her freedom by abandoning the Quest and looking for her own adventures in the Forest. The wise woman who helps her tells her: “You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one.”

Like the princess, Gillian Perholt (a distant descendant of Perrault perhaps), the heroine of “The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye”, collects stories. She is a narratologist whose days are spent “scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world”. As well as discoursing lengthily with the djinn about the perfect narrative structure of scoring in tennis, Gillian gives several lectures with titles like “Wish-fulfilment and Narrative Fate: Some aspects of wish-fulfilment as a narrative device”. This gives Byatt plenty of scope to explore theoretical questions about form and fiction. These theoretical meditations are lucid and erudite; rather than impeding the flow of the tale, they are artfully contained within Chinese boxes of story within story.

Unusually for the genre, if not the author, these stories are more intellectual than they are sensual. They do not engage with the perverse and sexually disruptive aspects of the fairy-tale which writers such as Angela Carter and Marina Warner have explored. Determinism, rather than desire, is the issue here. The chief way of avoiding submitting to fate, of negotiating some choice in these stories, is by rejecting sensual pleasure. Byatt's heroines are successful only when they contain and repress their sexuality. Gode impulsively submits to her passion, and her punishment is terrible. Gillian does make love with her genie (“she became arching tunnels under mountains through which he pierced and rushed, or caverns in which he lay curled like dragons”), but the protestations of her pleasure are unconvincing. More resonant is Gillian's sense of sex as a source of danger. She remembers her body when it was young and beautiful, she says that it was terrifying, “a weapon”. Recounting how the father of a friend attacked her, she asserts that her body was to blame, “out of that was spun snuffling and sweat and three-piece suites”. Even when the decadence of the Ottoman court is recounted by the djinn, the excesses of sultans like Ibrahim ravishing fat ladies in fur-lined rooms, the descriptions are more perfunctory than lascivious.

Perhaps Byatt, like her protagonist, is circumspect because she feels that she is under the scrutiny of gimlet-eyed “orientalists”, constantly “on the watch for western sentiment and distortion”. Gillian admonishes her djinn, “don't sound like the Arabian nights”. Byatt is a fastidious conduit of both the facts and flavour of Turkey. Anyone planning a visit to that country will find the story an invaluable source of information. Avoiding the racist stereotypes that bedevil the Western vision of Turks (every Turk in the story is cultured; even the carpet-seller in the grand bazaar has completed a PhD on Tristram Shandy), she still conveys a sense of the exotic.

Unlike Marina Warner, who sees the fairy story as a space for social disruption, Byatt seems to experience it as an oppressive structure. Gillian observes that characters in fairy stories are ruled by fate, those in novels by choice. Byatt seems to favour the latter. The fairy-tale is both the source and the eraser of the teller's identity; it is communal, designed to be retold. The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye refuses re-telling, the excellence of the prose undermines the attempt. These stories are not entirely successful as fairy stories, but as an elegant reflection on the nature of narrative they are a triumph.

Merle Rubin (review date 20 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “A Novelist with a Civilized, Artistic Eye,” in Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review, Rubin offers a positive assessment of Byatt's The Matisse Stories, emphasizing their connection to famous paintings by Matisse.]

A. S. Byatt is an artful writer, craftsmanlike in her approach and drawn to themes involving art and artists. An academic critic as well as a novelist, she has a painter's eye for form and color, a scholar's respect for significant detail.

Her novel Possession, winner of the 1990 Booker Prize, portrayed the discovery of a secret romance between two Victorian poets (he, somewhat Browningesque; she, a sort of Christina Rossetti with a dash of Emily Dickinson). Byatt also recreated Victorian milieus in Angels and Insects (1992), which will be released as a film later this year.

Now in The Matisse Stories, her most painterly book to date, Byatt offers a triptych of short novellas, each linked to at least one painting by the great modern master of color and form.

The first story, “Medusa's Ankles,” is the slightest. A sensible married woman, a university lecturer, long accustomed to relying on her natural (i.e. uncosmetically aided) good looks, has more recently been resorting to the ministrations of a skilled hairdresser to counter the depredations of encroaching middle age. Susannah has come to frequent “Lucian's,” a cozy pink-and-cream beauty salon featuring a reproduction of one of her favorite pictures, Matisse's “Rosy Nude.”

When the hairdresser's magic one day goes awry, the usually sedate Susannah loses her cool: “I want my real hair back,” she cries, meaning much more than that. Although this novella is something of a set-piece with some stagily predictable turns, it is redeemed by delicate touches of irony, pathos, and humor.

“Art Work,” the middle story, is the longest and most elaborate. The calm, yet subtly mysterious domestic scene of Matisse's “Le Silence habité des maisons” (“The Silence That Lives in Houses”) serves to introduce the Dennison household.

Debbie Dennison is design editor of a women's magazine, the mother of two children (Natasha and Jamie), and wife of Robin Dennison, a serious artist whose years of dedication have not brought commercial success. Debbie is the breadwinner, managing her balancing act with the help of her reliable, if eccentric, housekeeper, Mrs. Brown, whose gruff, somewhat coarse qualities get on Robin's sensitive nerves.

Debbie loves her husband and believes in his talent, but she is terrified of losing Mrs. Brown. She finds herself acting as a buffer between them, while mothering the children, doing her magazine job, and trying to get influential gallery owners to consider her husband's work.

There are further complications when it is revealed that there is more to Mrs. Brown than meets the eye. Byatt provides a gently mocking yet essentially sympathetic portrait of this flawed but definitely functional and loving family.

Although the last novella, “The Chinese Lobster,” takes place in a single scene, it summons up the most complex blend of thought and emotion. Dr. Gerda Himmelblau, the dean of women at a London university, is meeting a colleague for lunch at her favorite Chinese restaurant.

Prof. Peregrine Diss, a tall, well-groomed gentleman-scholar and artist of the old school, has been accused of misconduct by a hysterical, rage-filled woman student, who has also formed a virulent hatred for the “sexist” paintings of Matisse.

Dr. Himmelblau shares Professor Diss's love for Matisse and for the discipline, beauty, and joy of great works of art. But she is also worried about the woman student, who is anorexic and suicidal.

The two colleagues' conversation over their delicious, thoughtfully ordered Chinese lunch is itself a demonstration of what it means to be, in the best sense, civilized.

Philip Hensher (review date 11 May 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Her Shaping Spirit of Imagination,” in Spectator, Vol. 276, No. 8756, May 11, 1996, pp. 34-6.

[In the following review, Hensher praises Byatt's Babel Tower as “a remarkable book, of exceptional gravity and serious charm.”]

Babel Tower, the third in a series of novels which began with The Virgin in the Garden and continued with Still Life, is largely about a marriage and its breakdown. It's not just the literal marriage of A. S. Byatt's heroine, Frederica Potter, and its disastrous outcome. The subject of the book—one is tempted to write, the ‘real’ subject—is the tragic afterlife of Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell; it's the breakdown of the Marriage, in the sad and hopeful projects of the 1960s, which Byatt is chronicling here.

Byatt, in all these books, has been constructing a novelist's history of the post-war years. Not a literal history, nor a history of external events, though real people, real events do impinge on the events of the novel, and influence its course. The first volume was largely interested in a consideration of the meaning of the Coronation; this circles around, and finally alights on the trial of the Moors Murderers. But these real events are always presented, not as glamorous importations to add seriousness and truth, but as outcrops of the intellectual life of the time. Byatt is concerned not just to map out in solid, realistic style the lives of her characters, nor to recreate public events; rather, what these books attempt to do is to trace the subterranean, shifting history of the post-war years by tracing the history of the imagination. In The Virgin in the Garden, a loving recreation of a Festival of Britain verse drama about Elizabeth I formed the basis for a story about a young woman's discovery of power; Still Life incorporates Van Gogh, appropriately but never over-emphatically, to shadow the aspirations, failures, and, finally, tragedies of its main characters.

Babel Tower continues the enterprise with an examination of what we like to call ‘the Sixties’; it's a convenient shorthand for a whole bag of social and sexual freedoms. But, as Babel Tower demonstrates, they aren't specifically 1960s values; they certainly didn't come in at the time. They are the values of Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell; of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. And the currency of the novel is not, for the most part, the writers of the 1960s, but the writers the 1960s valued. Byatt is a learned author, and one greatly concerned with the imagination of others—there are few writers who could compare a character's appearance to ‘the ghost of Britomart’—but it is not idle learning. Rather, the subject of these books is just that, the imagination of others; the uses to which ancient imaginings are put; and the ways in which ideas and fictions alter the history of a time. Here, the running current of the books is the dark side of the Enlightenment; the calls for unfettered freedom by Blake and Sade which, 200 years on, began to be answered.

Frederica Potter, left at the end of Still Life bereaved by the sudden death of her sister, is now married to the rich, brutal landowner Nigel Reivers, with a small son. His sisters—sinister, tweedy presences—and a succubus of a housekeeper, Pippy Mammott, mutter about Frederica's neglect of the child, the absurdity of her intellectual pretensions. Isolated in her country house, prevented from seeing her friends by her husband, she grows increasingly terrified by his violence and physical assaults; a chance encounter in a wood enables her to escape with her son. In London, she is secure from Nigel's bullying and blandishments, and lives by teaching in an adult education college and by reading manuscripts for a publisher.

At the adult education college she encounters a strange, unwashed mystic, Jude Mason—a regular abuser of telephone help-lines and artist's model. Like her, he is in flight from some mysterious oppression. With her help, he publishes a novel, Babbletower. A good deal of this is given in the novel; it is a variation of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, in which emblematic figures retreat to a remote castle to live a life of complete freedom, which breaks down in cruelty and violence. The novel is a success. At the same time, Frederica has embarked on an affair with one of her pupils, John Ottaker; the new freedom she finds is mirrored by the licentiousness of her lover's half-mad identical twin, who turns up at her house to burn her books and caper in a demonic spirit of Walpurgisnacht. The road of excess, Blake thought, led to the palace of wisdom; things, here, are no longer quite so clear.

The novel culminates in two court cases: the first, Frederica's divorce proceedings, the second, the prosecution of Mason's novel for obscenity. In both, the virtues of liberty and restraint are aired; in neither case is there a clear answer to the question of the limits of liberty. The liberty and sexual freedom Frederica achieves is a clear gain; the freedom of her son's education, on the other hand, may not be quite so beneficial. In the obscenity trial, the argument is scrupulously not martialled to demonstrate a particular point. The imagined evidence of witnesses—some from real people, like Anthony Burgess, some guessable, like Efraim Ziz, from Cambridge, author of Babel and Silence—all miracles of ventriloquy, all permit the reader, with characteristic authorial civility, to think about the questions, and not to be bullied into premature conclusions.

It is a remarkable book, of exceptional gravity and serious charm. Like its predecessors, it juggles themes and ideas across its comments on writers and art, its intense, realistic drama of characters and passions; it balances an acute sense of the values of art and intellect with an imaginative sympathy. Its ambition is almost unique in the English novel. The ideas of liberty are the public face of the book, as it were; running alongside them are more private, secret motifs of parenthood and barrenness. I think it was Angela Carter who first pointed out that the worst tortures in Sade are reserved for the mothers; similarly, in the book Mason writes, motherhood is regarded by most of his characters with loathing and derision. The forces of sterility and false parentage invade the rest of Babel Tower, most strikingly the housekeeper, Pippy Mammott ‘in rust, with her face scrubbed pink and shining and her hair full of iron pins’, who tries to usurp Frederica's maternal strength. But, apart from literal parentage, the book is filled with real creative figures and their empty imitators, stealing from Blake, trying to be Tolkien. These intricate patternings fill the book with a life of ideas, a swarming life of thought which demand to be looked at again, and which will keep the mind busy for a long time to come.

But, of course, if it were just a series of good ideas put into fictional form, Babel Tower would be not much more interesting than Jude Mason's Babbletower. A. S. Byatt is, I think, a novelist with tremendous technical skills; often, one admires a moment when sleight of hand brings different elements of the novel together. A small example comes in The Virgin in the Garden, in a conversation between Frederica and Edmund Wilkie:

She spoiled what politeness she had managed by saying that Marina Yeo reminded her of the Tenniel illustration of Alice as serpent frightening the dove.

Perfect, and brilliantly economical, the sentence tells one simultaneously about Marina Yeo's appearance, Frederica's envy and cleverness, and Wilkie's need to be amused. Here, a similar moment came with Frederica's running away from her husband's house. In many novelists, one feels that it hardly matters what plot they choose to orchestrate their ideas; another would have done quite as well. At this point, there is a sense of a grippingly dramatic plot and the thematic life of a book coming together with thrilling force. Frederica is running through her husband's woods in the dark:

She hears another sound in the bushes, a kind of blundering sound … some creature, foraging. She reaches the orchard door, and turns the key, and opens it. Beyond, the field is dark and clammy and open. Behind her there is a sudden rush of running feet and she swings round in fury and turns the blinding light of the torch towards her pursuer. ‘And what will you do now?’ she hears in her head. But there is no face in her torchbeam, only a flurry of sound and then arms clasping her damaged leg like a serpent coil tightening, strong small arms, and a face buried in her wound and butting it.

It's a moment of formal perfection worthy of Henry James. Frederica, fleeing from her husband, is caught by her five-year-old son, the wound caused by her husband is embraced by her child, who will cure it.

Impressive, too, is the characterisation; I hadn't thought of Byatt as a novelist who captures a character swiftly, rather as someone who prefers to build up detail to massive, imposing effect. But, though there's no loss in psychological sharpness, there is a new quickness about the portraits. The self-promoting educational expert Roger Magog, for instance—

he imagines the boy Magog was: fat, thick-kneed, curly, sulky, aggressive, never the best boy at anything in the class, always near the best.

Or the pregnant, ironic twist to the account of a sociologist, Brenda Pincher—

she will write a book, in the early 1970s, called Hen-parties, which will be a huge best-seller and change many lives, including her own.

Like her heroine, Byatt ‘has a distaste for mass emotion’. She analyses what individuals feel; she has no time for what they ought to feel, or what, in the work of most novelists, they would feel. She is a startlingly intelligent novelist, and intelligence is her subject; she sees both its importance, and the limitations of intelligent people. What directs the book is the musculature of ideas; what engages the reader is largely the looming presence of Blake, of Sade, of Fourier; but that wouldn't be enough without the imaginative energy which drives the characters, and constructs other lives.

Shashi Tharoor (review date 12 May 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Tongues of Fire,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, No. 19, May 12, 1996, pp. 3, 10.

[In the following review, Tharoor argues that in Babel Tower, “too many characters and plot lines are introduced and unevenly developed, leaving the reader with a vague sense of dissatisfaction despite the author's undoubted flair and artistry.”]

“Well, let us start with the title … It is an image of the Tower of Babel which was constructed to displace God from Heaven, and was punished for its presumption by having a spirit of discord sent amongst its members, so that their languages were confused, they could no longer understand each other …”

In the author's very words, no less. Or rather in those of Professor Marie-France Smith, expert witness in the defense of a novel called “Babbletower,” much of which is interwoven through A. S. Byatt's extraordinary new novel, Babel Tower, her first since the award-winning Possession. But I shouldn't have said “extraordinary”—Byatt has already taught me that's a tired word, like “brilliant” or “outstanding,” adjectives etiolated by overuse in book criticism. Book criticism is what her characters all indulge in, at various levels—conversing about books, lecturing about books, writing reports for publishers on would-be books, reviewing books, testifying for and against books, even burning books. None of them uses a cliché without immediately recognizing it as one, explaining it away, apologizing for it. To read this novel is to be immersed in an overwhelmingly literary experience, an experience about literature at its most self-conscious. “Only connect,” screams the title subliminally, before the Forsterian phrase is echoed by its main protagonist. Babel Tower is, in part, a book about a book that is itself about the nature of all books.

So let us not start with the title, because Byatt's characters actually all understand each other rather well, and do so with an articulateness rarely found outside the world its characters inhabit. (Even a 4-year-old uses words like “simultaneously” and “luminous.”) Babel Tower is overtly a novel of ideas, ideas about literature, and the meaning of language, and the teaching of both. But it is also a novel about Frederica, who when the book begins finds herself in a stifling marriage with a son she loves and a husband who terrifies her. Her escape with the help of old Cambridge friends, her new life, her rediscovery of family and of love, carry the novel forward through the turbulent uncertainties of Britain in the mid-1960s. Interspersed with her story, in a different typeface, are extracts from the dark tale of a dystopic commune in post-revolutionary France, full of sexual experiments and sadistic tortures. We soon discover that this is the repellent Jude Mason's “Babbletower,” which Frederica recommends for publication, and whose prosecution for obscenity occupies the concluding section of Byatt's novel.

It is all rich and often exhilarating. A. S. Byatt writes with a fierce intelligence and a sharply observant eye. Her characters are described with rare acuity and precision (“He is a dark man in a dark suit, a soft armour, with the blue shadow of a dark beard on his solid cheek”). She has an exceptional gift for the anatomizing of emotional detail, so that each thought, each feeling, is expressed with just the right nuance. (“We hate people when we love them. Sometimes.”) There are sharp one-liners: “Bill has his fanaticisms, one of which is a fanatical rejection of fanaticism.” Byatt captures, pitch-perfect, a variety of authentic, credible voices—the letters of Frederica's male friends from Cambridge, the mannered prose of the Mason manuscript, the didacticism of literary scholarship, the legalese of a divorce petition, the cross-examinations at a court proceeding, the fantasy world of a children's adventure story.

There are times when the novel risks reading like an immense compendium of high culture: Byatt has delved into, and swept up into her narrative, Nietszche and Seurat, Chomsky and Lukacs, Heine in the original German, untranslated French couplets, lectures on Lawrence and Vermeer, and copious allusions to William Blake, who many of the characters love (and quote) and who even lends his name to a child's school in the book. Her research, too, is extensive and eclectic, ranging from the ideas of Fourier and Sade that underpin “Babbletower” to the legal arguments at the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial and the mating habits of snails (Helix Hortensis) on the Yorkshire moors. There are, in the background, references to the “burning issue” of the day, the freedom conferred by the Pill, the imminent prospect of nuclear destruction and the grisly Moors Murders.

Babel Tower, in other words, offers strenuous intellectual fare: To clamber onto its pages is to mount a fictionist's Stairmaster for the mind. But as even the most addicted exerciser knows, there can sometimes be too much of a good thing. I enjoyed the uncommon self-awareness of her characters myself: (“She thinks, I am a woman, and thinks what a silly pretentious thought that is. She thinks, I thought that, because the kind of woman I am is not quite sure she is a woman, she likes to be reassured about that.”) Nor did I mind the literary jokes and insider's puns (some of which are even explained, like the pseudonymous Jude Mason taking his name from Hardy's Jude the Obscure, who was a stonemason). But Byatt has plied on so much that the book suffers from a sprawling shapelessness; too many characters and plot lines are introduced and unevenly developed, leaving the reader with a vague sense of dissatisfaction despite the author's undoubted flair and artistry. Indeed, far too many minor characters are named and described—the members of the Steerforth Commission on the teaching of English, the guests at a cocktail party, each student at an adult education class.

Perhaps the reason for this disorderly profusion is that Babel Tower is actually the third book in a planned quartet, and these minor characters have a resonance for those who have encountered them earlier in The Virgin in the Garden or Still Life; or perhaps they will resurface in the fourth book, where their innocuous remarks here will acquire a greater significance. Reading the novel in isolation gave me a distracting sense of hidden histories, of past connections among the characters the knowledge of which might have enhanced my pleasure. But pleasure there undoubtedly is in these pages. “Novels,” a minor character says, “are obsessed with sex and love and God and food,” and there is enough of all those in Babel Tower to offset the plangent arguments and verbatim extracts that give the book its cerebral ballast.

Jackie Buxton (essay date June 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “‘What's Love Got to Do with It?’ Postmodernism and Possession,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 22, No. 2, June, 1996, pp. 199-219.

[In the following essay, Buxton analyzes Byatt's Possession in terms of its relationship to postmodernism.]

The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, “I love you madly,” because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.” At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony. … But both will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love.

Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose 67–68

The year 1990 saw the publication of an academic novel that became “a surprise best-seller”; within three months it had carried off the Booker Prize and the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Award. By mid-January 1991 it was into its eighth print run and was being lauded as the season's runaway success. The book was Possession, a title that uncannily prophesied its readerly effect. Unabashedly subtitled A Romance,Possession concerns the illicit passion of two Victorian poets, and the contemporary scholars who discover, and subsequently map, their relationship. As weighty as any of its Victorian antecedents, Possession encompasses two centuries and a good many of the generic forms of literary history. In more than five hundred pages, the reader is presented with substantial examples of memoirs, fairy tales, academic essays, diaries and journals, public and private correspondence, and, of course, poetry—over sixteen hundred lines of it, in fact. Clearly, Possession is no ordinary novel. Reviewers were unanimous in their praise, and virtually unanimous in their implicit or explicit tagging of the novel as postmodernist. Highly forthcoming in their approval, they were less forthright in outlining the reasons for this postmodern classification. Perhaps this is so self-evident as not to require explanation? Even the most cursory of surveys of literature on the subject, however, shows that “postmodernism” is by no means an uncontested category; indeed, to claim that “postmodernism” is problematic is almost a satiric understatement of the case. No doubt, if questioned, these reviewers' responses to the question of what postmodernism is would run the length of the definitive spectrum. What is more interesting to me is the repeated descriptive attribution to Possession of that single term. Thus it is not my intention to throw another definition of postmodernism into the theoretical arena (although that will probably be inevitable); rather, I want to examine those aspects of the novel that may have led to its categorization as postmodern, and the political and aesthetic consequences of that critical understanding. My concern is less with what postmodernism is, than with what its proponents and detractors claim that it does. How might the debate settle on and around Possession, and, more important, how does Possession quite self-consciously activate this debate? What's love got to do with it? Everything, it seems.

While reviewers applaud Possession as a virtuoso performance of academic erudition, nineteenth-century ventriloquism, comedy, passion, and narrative allure, they are divided with respect to an explicit identification of its literary placement. Drawing attention to Possession's generic pastiche, its self-conscious interrogation of literary and historical Truth, and a plot that resembles a corridor of mirrors, many critics employ the language of post-modernism, if not the label itself. To Ann Hulbert, for example, Byatt “mixes up styles, genres, voices in good postmodern manner” to produce “old-fashioned mystery, comedy, and romance tricked out in newfangled, self-reflexive style” (47). Others are more definite in their categorization, although some confusion remains as to what kind of postmodern tag best classifies the text. Possession is variously cast as “postmodern romance” (D'Evelyn, 13), “postmodern gothic” (Heron 90), or as belonging to “that genre of ingenious books” known as “postmodern literary thrillers” (Thurman 151). What is perhaps most strikingly common to all these responses is the reliance on comparative texts with which to illustrate the argument. Interestingly enough, the names that crop up with extraordinary regularity are those most often cited in postmodern literary criticism: Nabokov, Borges, Fowles, Eco, D. M. Thomas, and David Lodge.


Although these reviewers (myself included) deploy the term “postmodernism” in a literary context, it is by no means clear to what postmodernism we are referring, or, more correctly, to whose. Whether constituted in literary, artistic, architectural, social, political, economic, or epistemological terms, postmodernism boasts no lack of commentators. Given the broad range of contributions to the debate—and it is a debate—“postmodernism” might best be thought of in the plural rather than the singular. Postmodernism has been variously identified with an incredulity toward master narratives (Lyotard); the cultural logic of late capitalism (Jameson); the simulacrum (Baudrillard); the closing of the gap between high and low culture (Fiedler); an impulse toward (self-transcendent) silence (Hassan); suspensive irony as opposed to modernist disjunctive irony (Wilde); an ontological dominant rather than modernism's epistemological dominant (McHale); literature against itself (Graff); complicity and critique, self-reflexivity and historicity (Hutcheon). An exhaustive list? It is only a partial one. Within this plurality, two distinct usages can be discerned: on the one hand a postmodernism understood as a literary or artistic manifestation within cultural practice, and on the other a postmodernism understood as a socio-economic, epistemological condition. It is with the former that I am concerned, but the latter requires brief comment before I can proceed.

Informed by post-structuralist theory, Lyotard, Jameson, and Baudrillard consider postmodernism an inescapable fact of contemporary life. For Lyotard, postmodernism is the episteme of our era; the postmodern condition is the condition of all knowledge: scientific, cultural, aesthetic, philosophical, and economic. Nor do Jameson and Baudrillard regard the critical and cultural realms as distinct, but their postmodernism is presented as a global consequence of multinational capitalism. Asserting the loss of a historical consciousness (Jameson), and of the real (Baudrillard), they argue that the postmodern era has witnessed the commodification of representation itself. Culture and signification are no longer subordinate to the realm of economic activity, they are its quintessential expression. Neither theorist could be described as overjoyed in the face of this cultural explosion: Baudrillard sees only the panic-stricken production of the hyperreal (Simulations 13), while Jameson proclaims the impossibility of separating culture from anything else (48). It is also presumably impossible to separate postmodern theory from the phenomenon it seeks to elucidate. Herein lies the paradox at the heart of the postmodern condition. Is not cultural criticism by its own definition a cultural product, and therefore a part of the terrain it claims to map?1 While I find their ideas theoretically provocative, and their description of some postmodern characteristics of contemporary aesthetic production useful, ultimately their periodization of postmodernism into one ineluctable global era leaves me suspicious of the utility of their particular formulations.

If Jameson et al. engage the issue of postmodernism in the interests of formulating a cultural critique, then the remaining theorists can be broadly categorized by their concern with postmodernism as cultural practice. For them, postmodernism is constituted by its relation to modernism rather than to modernity. The nature of that relationship, however, gives rise to much disagreement. It would be pointless to rehearse those debates here when Hans Bertens has provided such a comprehensive survey of the field. Of more interest to me is the political and aesthetic problems that they raise. Apologists for postmodernism emphasize its separation from the modernist project. They claim that literary modernism represents an elitist aesthetic of extreme artistry wholly removed from worldly concerns and the vulgar productions of mass culture. While modernists recognized a decentred, fragmented world, their quest for adequate ways to represent it went hand in hand with a desire to transcend it. In contrast, postmodernists, although no less artful, revel in the loss of formal order, accepting the incoherent, random nature of experience. Wilde marks this shift when he comments that in postmodernism “a world in need of mending is superseded by one beyond repair” (131). Although the split may perhaps be justified by a distinction between informing sensibilities, the fact remains that the techniques of post-modernist literature can be just as easily discerned in the works of so-called high modernism. Indeed, modernism seems to have acquired its salient features and driving force only in the wake of an anxiously influenced movement that takes its place. Noting the alacrity with which postmodernism has been taken up by literary critics, Steven Connor points to an affirmatory agenda behind the modernist/postmodernist antagonism: “It even seems that the urge to identify and celebrate the category of the postmodern has been so strong as to produce by back-formation a collective agreement about what modernism was, in order to have something to react against” (105).

Andreas Huyssen sees another kind of critical involvement in the production of postmodernism. He suggests that the postmodernists were initially reacting not against modernism per se, but against a certain construction of high modernism propounded by the New Critics (242). The latter's reverence for the well-wrought urn of modernist literature veiled an elitist mastery of mystified texts accessible only to the correctly educated and artistically sensitive critic. Huyssen's suggestion raises two troublesome aspects of postmodern literary criticism: the assumed homology between postmodernism and post-structuralism, and, subtly connected, an unacknowledged elitism both of object and of critical endeavour. If modernism bred New Criticism, then contemporary literary criticism seems to operate on the tacit understanding that postmodernism is merely the artistic expression of post-structuralist theory. Obviously, many of the concerns of contemporary fiction and contemporary theory are shared ones, but the relationship must be argued, not merely assumed. I want to return to this relationship in the context of my argument for the constructed nature of postmodernism; for the moment, let me say that postmodernist fiction enacts a double bind that post-structuralist theory—by its theoretical nature—has managed to cover over or ignore: fiction tells stories (even if those stories foreground their own fictiveness), constructs characters (no matter how fragmented or illusory), and weaves a plot, (even if that plot is plotless). Even a representation that self-consciously acknowledges its own production is still nevertheless a representation.

Ihab Hassan, the self-appointed advertiser for postmodernism in the 1970s, was the first to imbricate post-structuralism with postmodernism. Although Hassan claims in The Dismemberment of Orpheus that “the postmodern spirit lies coiled within the great corpus of modernism” (139), in his 1982 postface he confidently presents a list of modern/postmodern oppositions. Hassan does not admit it, but the attributes of postmodernism are clearly valorized in comparison with those of modernism in a positive characterization of both theory and method. If the New Critical construction of modernism required the sophisticated exegesis of their own critical methods, then Hassan's postmodernism clearly requires the interpretative skills of a literary philosopher, the explanatory power of the intrepid metacritic. When the implications of Hassan's privileging of the postmodern episteme are considered alongside the avowed difficulty of some postmodernist texts, then postmodernism acquires the same critical aura of mystification so decried in the New Critics' view of modernism. It is an implicit elitism that pervades the postmodern field. Thus, even the tongue-in-cheek contribution by Umberto Eco with which I prefaced this paper exhibits this tendency: the postmodern attitude can only be recognized by “a very cultivated woman.” And presumably it can only be demonstrated by a very cultivated man.

What should by now be clear is that postmodernism is not so much a quantifiable literary phenomenon as a constructed one, reflecting the ideological interests of those who theorize it. Thus, for those critics schooled in post-structuralism, and therefore suspicious of any notion of stable identity or epistemological certainty, postmodernist texts represent the perfect object on which to practise their literary skills. I am not attacking theoretically informed critics here, merely pointing out the inevitable investments involved in any critical practice. Just as Brian McHale's ontological postmodernism reflects his interest in how we understand ourselves in relation to the worlds we inhabit, so Linda Hutcheon's parodic, duplicitous postmodernism reflects her interest in the ways by which we can critique those dominant understandings. Even when critics cite the same authors of the postmodern, they are still at odds over whether all or only some of their texts “truly” represent a postmodernist sensibility. But perhaps I have been too critically divisive and misleading. Despite their differing agendas and examples, postmodern theorists have constructed a field that can be labelled postmodern. I do not believe that anyone would disagree that postmodernism exhibits or embodies the following: parody, irony, indeterminacy, and a self-conscious questioning of traditional borders and the a prioris of subjectivity, Truth, History, and narratology. (And if the contention is raised that these are also the hallmarks of modernism, then the answer surely lies in the matter of degree. Postmodernist works are more self-conscious, more self-reflexive, more interrogative than their modernist counterparts.) How then can these general postmodernist characteristics inform an examination of Possession?


Possession opens in the London Library, where Roland Michell, a rather dull English postgraduate, is researching the work of the famous Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash. His discovery—and subsequent theft—of two passionate letters by Ash to an unknown woman constitutes the basis of the mystery that drives the novel. Certain clues in Ash's letters lead Roland to the lesser known Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte, and the contemporary feminist scholar whose work concerns her: Maud Bailey. Together, Roland and Maud track down yet more letters, which confirm an unsuspected romance between the married Ash and the reclusive LaMotte, and in the process they establish one of their own. They are both aided and hounded in their quest by a bevy of rival academics eager to discover the full story of the Victorian poets' liaison. In the weaving of this intricate, heavily literary plot, Byatt mercilessly parodies contemporary academia, employs a pastiche of styles and forms, and exploits the popular narrative models of romance, gothic, and detective fiction. By mixing ontological worlds in an epistemological quest, she self-consciously plays with the competing meanings of both “possession” and “romance.” Possession also exhibits a postmodern obsession with “the question of how we can come to know the past today” (Hutcheon 47). The American academic, Mortimer Cropper, seeks to own the past by accumulating its material artifacts; Beatrice Nest seeks to protect the past by guarding its inhabitants' privacy; Roland and Maud's method is not that of biographical pilgrimage, but the discovery of the past through its textual monuments, “the twists and turns of [its] syntax” (25).2 Their endeavours raise the novel's implicit questions: is the past the possession of scholars or blood descendants, of those who physically hold its remnants, or of those who “truly care” about their meanings? Possession is thus an academic novel in both senses of the word.

Byatt is not only intimately acquainted with the nineteenth-century world of letters, but also with the trends and discourses that characterize late twentieth-century academia, and her parodic representations of various scholarly types can be very amusing. There is Beatrice Nest, the reluctant editor of Ash's wife's journals, and the victim of changing critical interests, as described by James Blackadder, Roland's graduate supervisor:

Poor old Beatrice began by wanting to show how self-denying and supportive Ellen Ash was and she messed around looking up every recipe for gooseberry jam … for twenty five years, can you believe it, and woke up to find that no one wanted self-denial and dedication any more, they wanted proof that Ellen was raging with rebellion and pain and untapped talent.


There is Blackadder himself, the footnote-fettered editor of Ash's poetry and plays, and the victim of his New Critical mentor's pedagogic ministrations: “Leavis did to Blackadder what he did to serious students: he showed him the terrible, the magnificent importance and urgency of English literature and simultaneously deprived him of any confidence in his own capacity to contribute to or change it” (32). There is Maud's fellow psychoanalytic feminist critic, Leonora Stern, an exuberant bisexual whose “loud” personality is in total contrast to Maud's reserved English coolness. For Byatt, Leonora is the epitome of the new feminist criticism, insisting as she does on seeing everything LaMotte wrote as a metaphor for feminine sexuality.3 Byatt's imitation of this kind of enquiry is so exaggerated that it only confirms Leonora's satiric status:

When I last wrote I mentioned I might write something on water and milk and amniotic fluid in Melusina—why is water always seen as the female? … I could extend it to the Drowned City—With special reference to non-genital imagery for female sexuality—we need to get away from the cunt as well as from the phallus—the drowned women in the city might represent the totality of the female body as an erogenous zone if the circumambient fluid were seen as an undifferentiated eroticism, and this might be possible to connect to the erotic totality of the woman/dragon stirring the waters of the large marble bath, or submerging her person in it as LaM. tellingly describes her.


Given this kind of intensely intellectualized sexuality, Maud's comment to Roland on the meaning of their shared desire for a clean white bed in an empty room is indeed telling: “Maybe we're symptomatic of whole flocks of exhausted scholars and theorists” (291).

Byatt reserves her most biting satire for the academic representatives of sexual and material possessiveness: Fergus Wolff and Mortimer Cropper. A child of post-structuralism, Fergus engages in some convolutedly erudite scholarship. When he first appears in the novel his current textual project faces him with “the challenge” of “deconstruct[ing] something that had apparently already deconstructed itself” (37). His lupine insincerity is indicated by the Harlequin Romance-like language with which he lures Maud to his bed: “You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen or dreamed about. I want you, I need you, can't you feel it, it's irresistible” (64). Cropper exemplifies the personal scholarly stake in the construction of one's literary object, and his biography of Ash bears the marks of his own self-aggrandizement (268). His interest in Ash is implicitly necrophiliac and ghoulish; he wants to imprison his artifacts in the airless glass mausoleum of the Stant Collection, and his grave-robbing expedition pulsates with sexual undertones (535–36). Not only is Cropper quite literally a pornographic voyeur, but he is also symbolically one. Lacking the time required to win access to the correspondence by means of his chequebook, he laments the lost chance to subject those letters to the erotic embrace of his “black box” desire (415). The most telling indictment of Cropper, however, is the locale in which he is first found furtively photographing Ash memorabilia. A lengthy description of his environs builds to an image of his enthroned activities. Cropper is presented—not to put too fine a point on it—on the crapper. In contrast to Cropper's interest in dead relics is Roland and Maud's shared sense of the vitality of the poets' textualized passion: “They were alive,” declares Roland, in an attempt to explain his theft of the letters (56). Before long, Maud too is infected by the sense of urgency in the relationship between two long-dead poets whose work, they agree, “stayed alive, when [we'd] been taught and examined everything else” (62).

It is therefore highly appropriate that Possession begins with a description of a book at once funereal and alive; a book concerned with seeking “historical fact in the poetic metaphors of myth and legend” (5), with finding fact in fiction. Certainly, Possession is a detective story, but it is a detective story concerned with reading. The novel is bursting with addressors and addressees, textual authors and consumers, and fictions within fictions. Its detectives are literary analysts, but these intrepid textual sleuths are not dealing with the cause and effect rationalization of a recent event (customarily a murder), but with a “crime scene” from which they are distanced by a century or more. Roland and Maud's “case” is primarily historiographic in nature; by means of historical and fictional documents they not only reconstructively track their “villains,” but they also rewrite literary history. Thus, to rework a term of Hutcheon's, the novel is a historiographic (detective) metafiction, one in which “possession” acts as both arche and telos, question and solution. Although the possibility of a death is implicitly raised (that of the poets' child), the mystery resides not in the conventional detection of the perpetrators of a murder, but rather in tracing the trajectory of the crime itself: passion. In this inversion of the genre, the criminals—Ash and LaMotte—are discovered at the outset, the narrative progression is in detecting the exact details of their illicit exploits.4

On the Ash/LaMotte trail, all of the contemporary scholars' analytical skills are brought to the fore. Increasingly they discover interconnections in the Victorians' poetry that provide fresh evidence of their liaison, hardly surprising, since “literary critics make natural detectives” (258). Just as Maud is led to the original correspondence by a supposedly insignificant poem of LaMotte's, so a seemingly casual reference in her longer poem, Melusina, begins to read, “like a classic literary clue” (258). It is a self-conscious choice on Byatt's part, and a relationship on which she is quite willing to comment:

I felt I could write a literary detective story that needn't be quite so papery [as Eco's Name of the Rose], because once I'd written the poetry the scholars were actually doing the kind of detection that one really does with poems, which is finding out their meaning … what the poet was really concentrating on. The poems I wrote contain various clues to the detective-story plot.

(Interview 81)

Although Maud and Roland are generally successful in their use of a poetic treasure map, not all of the clues that they discover lead to the correct interpretation. LaMotte's painfully Dickinsonian poem on the subject of spilt milk is a case in point (411–13). It is understandable that they conclude that the poet's child was still-born in the light of such lines as “It came all so still / The little Thing— / And would not stay— / Our Questioning—.” So, although Byatt introduces some helpful clues, she is clearly not averse to the introduction of a red herring either. What is perhaps the most subversive inflection to the conventional object of detection is the revelation of Maud's direct genealogical descent from the woman she has been investigating. When she realizes that the myth of her own origins is a maternally centred one, her earlier comment acquires a retrospective irony: “You know the theory that the classic detective story arose with the classic adultery novel—everyone wanted to know who was the Father, what was the origin, what is the secret?” (258).

Possession is full of such self-reflexive comments on the fictive nature of readerly—and writerly—constructs. Indeed the novel is prefaced with an authorizing statement of deception. One aspect of the novel's subtitle is outlined in the epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Instead of a mimetic fiction of “minute fidelity” to the “ordinary course of man's experience,” we will presumably be presented with a created truth “of the writer's own choosing,” offered by way of the latitude inherent in the romance form. The second epigraph from Browning's “Mr Sludge ‘the Medium’” promises even more postmodernist delights. The satirical tone of the poem arises from the self-confessed suggestion that Sludge's abilities are rooted in sleight of hand rather than in authentic spiritual communication with the world of the dead. This medium-conjuror argues, however, that his trade is simply that of all (literary) artists; he offers the pleasurable fruits of the past by means of a few useful falsehoods. Quoting the common exclamations of admiration for the production of “such solid fabric out of air,” Sludge exposes their unacknowledged implications in a more accurate restatement: “How many lies did it require to make / The portly truth you here present us with?” Thus Sludge's preface contains both an implicit proclamation of the constructedness of the fiction that follows, and multi-layered ironies surrounding its own “authorizing” status. Presumably the “helpful lies” of Robert Browning and Emily Dickinson inform the “portly truths” of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. And this is only the beginning of Byatt's manipulation of the notions of “truth” and “fiction.”


Possession contains many self-conscious moments, either in references to other fictions, or in implicit or explicit postmodern gestures. Just as Roland is indeed the “childe” of his poet-mentor, so it is no accident that Maud, often described as “icily regular, splendidly null,” and emotionally sequestered like “The Lady of Shalott,” is housed atop Tennyson Tower (45). By Byatt's own admission, Eco's Name of the Rose inspired the writing of Possession, and the novel is strewn with allusions to the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson, Browning, Donne, and Herbert, and the novels of Dickens, Woolf, and Eliot. The most important postmodernist hat-tipping is to John Fowles's French Lieutenant's Woman, another text that considers the Victorian age alongside (and through) the contemporary one. When chapter fifteen opens with “The man and the woman sat opposite each other in the railway carriage” (297), the reader might presume that the couple are Roland and Maud returning from their Yorkshire expedition. In fact, it is Randolph and Christabel embarking on theirs. In an unusual break from the twentieth-century locale in which the story has been conducted to this point, Byatt presents an omniscient time capsule: the crucial tryst-“elopement” by the two Victorians. Or is it omniscient? The poets are introduced through the speculations of a “hypothetical observer” who studiously documents their appearance and demeanour in an attempt to discern their relationship (298). Implicitly, the reader (and the writer) is that observer, projected into the novel as a fellow traveller. Although certainly not as emphatically authorial as John Fowles's intrusion, the situation, description, and tone of this episode echos Fowles's embodied entrance into his own fiction. If the revelation of the consummation of Ash and LaMotte's relationship is a knowing one, then the consummation of their modern-day counterparts' relationship is an equally self-conscious one: “With infinite gentle delays and delicate diversions and variations of indirect assault Roland finally, to use an outdated phrase, entered and took possession of all her white coolness” (550 emphasis added).5

The twentieth-century scholars' activities are marked by an awareness of their contemporary condition, that they are studying art in an “age of mechanical reproduction.” So, when Roland and Maud visit Bethany, the scrupulously restored former home of LaMotte and Blanche Glover, they are unable to distinguish the real from its referent. Maud refers to the house as a “simulacrum,” while Roland comments that “it would have looked older. When it was younger.” Both recognize it as “a postmodern quotation” (230). Similarly, Cropper's carefully orchestrated and illustrated lectorial is indicative of his perverse admiration for the hyperreal. The finale of his high-tech (self-)performance is “a product of his passion”: a hologram of Ash's snuff box “floating in the church like a miraculously levitated object” (417). In an effort to foil the self-interested scheme behind Cropper's scandalous exposé, Blackadder and Leonora employ an equally public medium: they appear on national television to defend and to sell their poets to the masses. Leonora's pep-talk with Blackadder prior to going on air is a hilarious comment on the perceived philistinism of contemporary appetites:

“I guess we've got three minutes to make out the importance of all this stuff to the great greedy public and that don't include illustrations. No, you've got to make out your Mr Ash to be the sexiest property in town. You've got to get them by the balls, Professor. Make 'em cry. … One thing you'll get said in the time, and that's your lot, Professor.”

“I see that. Mmn. One thing—”

“One sexy thing, Professor.”


But is it philistinism, or merely a comment on the novel's own narrative strategies? In Possession, Victorian poets (and poetry) are presented as “the sexiest property in town.” Glossily packaged as a romance, Possession has been sold to “the great greedy public,” and what's more that public has bought it.

If the novel calls into question such notions as originality and truth, then the idea of an authentic, centred, Cartesian self is also given a postmodern twist. While Mortimer Cropper's ubiquitous appearances in his lectures and writings on Ash suggest an over-inflated sense of self, there is a very Freudian point in his self-examinations beyond which he will not go (118). Blackadder's subjectivity is so inextricable from that of his subject that even he questions his own originality. Blackadder is not the only one to be subjected to the influence of the Victorians. After reading Blanche Glover's account of “the prowler” at her and Christabel's door, Roland groups Maud in their seclusion and likens himself to Randolph Ash, “an intruder into their female fastnesses” (65). Maud's self-possession—her Christabel-like fear of love as a loss of freedom—reveals a highly personal stake in the preservation of a poetic subject uncontaminated by romantic assignations: “Part of her was still dismayed that Christabel LaMotte should have given in to whatever urgings or promptings Ash may have used. She preferred her own original vision of proud and particular independence, as Christabel, in the letters, had given some reason to think she did herself” (268). It is her own sense of self that she protects. But Maud and Roland are too well educated to support anything as romantic as the notion of a coherent self: “Narcissism, the unstable self, the fractured ego, Maud thought, who am I? A matrix for a susurration of texts and codes? It was both a pleasant and an unpleasant idea, this requirement that she think of herself as intermittent and partial” (273). An “old-fashioned textual critic” Roland may feel, but he is nevertheless fully “trained in the post-structuralist deconstruction of the subject” (56, 13). Consequently, he has “learned to see himself, theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems, all loosely connected. He had been trained to see his idea of his ‘self’ as an illusion, to be replaced by a discontinuous machinery and electrical message-network of various desires, ideological beliefs and responses, language-forms and hormones and pheromones. Mostly he liked this” (459).6

Their subjectivities, however, become increasingly intertwined with those of Ash and LaMotte, as the gulf between the past and the present rapidly diminishes with the novel's progression. As the Hawthorne epigraph promises, this romance “connect[s] a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.” That bygone time constantly interrupts the present diegesis of the novel as Byatt weaves the contemporary and the historical into one immediate textual present. The borders between then and now, fiction and reality, are continually undermined. LaMotte and Ash—two fictional characters—are given historical weight through their interaction with non-fictional figures: Coleridge, Crabbe, Ruskin, Manet, and Watts, while Maud and Roland are “filled out” through reference to the poetic fictions of Tennyson and Browning. The former instance is what one may expect of the historical novel; the irony lies in the question of accessibility. With two notable exceptions, the world of Ash and LaMotte is a wholly removed one, only accessible through its surviving documents, yet it is presented as more vital and immediate than the constrained world that Roland and Maud (and we) occupy. The sterility of their existence is blatantly indicated by the nature of Roland and Val's love-making. Completely unstimulated by Val's declarations of love and desire, Roland can only achieve an erection by contemplating an image which is “half-fantasy, half-photogravure,” an image of Ellen Ash (141). When Maud and Roland join forces, however, their relationship is increasingly charged with the galvanic kick of Victorian passion. The text seems to suggest that Victorian fictions are somehow dictating contemporary realities. There is one other crucial postmodernist gesture in the relationship between these two interconnected worlds: the conclusion of Maud and Roland's historiographic journey. Armed with every piece of documentation they are ever likely to gain, the scholars assume that they have discovered the truth that lies at the heart of the lovers' tragic relationship, and firmly established the ownership of the locket of hair stowed in Ash's pocket watch. That they are utterly wrong in their interpretation only ironically underscores the constructed, fallible nature of the historical enterprise, and the impossibility of discovering any ultimate Truth.

It is the pursuit of this “truth” that constitutes the investigative plot that drives the novel, but detective fiction is not the only narrative model in operation in the text. Romance, in both its “high” and “low” forms, is the “significant other” in evidence in Possession's complex plot structure. Neither model, however, has a consistent priority. Thus the quest form of Roland and Maud's discreet private-eye sleuthing transmutes into the classic stampede of an academic “cops and robbers.” LaMotte and Ash's passion may bear the hallmarks of tragic romance, but the moderns experience a conclusion not unlike that of Shakespearean comedy, a conventional ending of which they are quite cognizant (524). The Ash-LaMotte romance is also all-consuming in more ways than one; as Maud and Roland map its progression, it progressively maps them. Expressing a desire to see “something new,” something “without layers of meaning,” Roland proposes a picnic at the Boggle Hole: “Perhaps we could take a day off from them, get out of their story, go and look at something for ourselves” (291).7They may not know it, but we discover in the following chapter that it is a part of the poets' story, for Ash and LaMotte also visited the beach on a similarly perfect day a century before (311). Clearly, there is no escape; Maud and Roland are imprisoned in a plot that both is, and is not, their own. It is an observation that Roland himself makes late in the novel. Recognizing that he is in “a Romance, a vulgar and a high Romance simultaneously” (460), he feels the frightening attraction of that narrative model: “Roland thought, partly with precise postmodernist pleasure, and partly with a real element of superstitious dread, that he and Maud were being driven by a plot or fate that seemed, at least possibly, to be not their plot or fate but that of those others” (456). Roland's pleasure stems from his participation in a “postmodernist mirror-game”; his dread stems from his belief that the game has “got out of hand” (456). To act in accordance with this narrative compulsion is somehow to compromise or to surrender one's integrity, Roland dispassionately theorizes:

“Falling in love,” characteristically, combs the appearances of the world, and of the particular lover's history, out of a random tangle and into a coherent plot. Roland was troubled by the idea that the opposite may be true. Finding themselves in a plot, they might suppose it appropriate to behave as though it was that sort of plot.


Consolation, however, is at hand. They may be plot-entrapped, but at least that plot is of a safely variable nature: “In any case, since Blackadder and Leonora and Cropper had come, it had changed from Quest, a good romantic form, into Chase and Race, two other equally valid ones” (460).


But how postmodernist is Possession,really? Is the relationship between the past and the present an instance of postmodernist intertextuality or “merely” the result of a well-crafted fiction? Is the novel truly self-reflexive, or simply self-conscious? Is there a difference? I would argue that there is. While Maud and Roland exhibit a scholarly postmodernist sensibility, the text itself exhibits a strong suspicion of that epistemic condition, even a condemnation of it. For all its postmodern gestures, Possession is first and foremost a “straight” narrative, a realistic fiction. Although Fergus Wolff and Beatrice Nest may recall Dickensian characters; although Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash echo Emily Dickinson and Robert Browning; although Roland and Maud seem to be reincarnations of their respective poets, these allusions are implicit rather than explicitly metafictional ones. The contemporary scholars might reflect on their theoretically unstable subjectivity, their textualized status as a nexus of competing discursive formations, but they do so as fully rounded fictional characters. Never once in the novel is their fictionality, or the fictionality of either temporal locale, called into question. Possession is in many ways a Victorian novel, for it replicates the realism of its forebears in capturing the nineteenth-century ethos. In another sense, Possession is a nineteenth-century novel because that is where its real passion—and its author's passion—lies. One world is obviously given ideological priority in this text, and it is the Victorian one, this literary Golden Age from which the present one is construed as a falling away. In comparison to the engaged Victorian poets, the contemporary academics appear not only anemic, but also decidedly repressed. A comment of Byatt's is indeed illuminating in this respect:

This is part of the whole joke of the novel: the dead are actually much more alive and vital than the living. … The poor moderns are always asking themselves so many questions about whether their actions are real and whether what they say can be thought to be true, given that language always tells lies, that they become rather papery and are miserably aware of this, and this is part of the comedy.

(Interview 82, 83)

In Possession, Byatt honours the Victorians, but she also unashamedly celebrates romance in both its “high” and “vulgar” forms. Part of Maud and Roland's problem is their very unwillingness to become passionately involved, and not just in a romantic sense. These emotional incapacities, it is suggested, are the result of their education: a sexualized knowledge so devoid of passion that it has only produced a kind of sexual exhaustion. Here is the omniscient narrator on the paradoxical nature of this all-too-knowing age:

They were children of a time and culture that mistrusted love, “in love,” romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure. They were theoretically knowing: they knew about phallocracy and penisneid, punctuation, puncturing and penetration, about polymorphous and polysemous perversity, orality, good and bad breasts, clitoral tumescence, vesicle persecution, the fluids, the solids, the metaphors for these, the systems of desire and damage, infantile greed and oppression and transgression, the iconography of the cervix and the imagery of the expanding and contracting Body, desired, attacked, consumed, feared.


Faced with such distrustful knowledge, Roland and Maud conduct their burgeoning romance in silence. As the academics' relationship strengthens, however, their faith in the theories in which they have been trained wavers. Alone together at Thomason Foss, they make some personal admissions that are most informative. Maud muses on the frequency with which sexuality is identified in and by our culture, and continues:

We know all sorts of other things, too—about how there isn't a unitary ego—how we're made up of conflicting, interacting systems of things—and I suppose we believe that? … We never say the word Love, do we—we know it's a suspect ideological construct—especially Romantic Love—so we have to make a real effort of imagination to know what it felt like to be them.


Roland agrees. Responding, he mourns the loss of “Mystery” in such knowledge, and suggests the destructive nature of such investigations: “And desire, that we look into so carefully—I think that all the looking-into has some very odd effects on the desire” (290). Since this discussion informs their professed longing for a clean white bed—a moment of connection between the two scholars—then I suspect a strong authorial investment in these “revolutionary” revelations (see also note 6). Byatt, it seems is using postmodernism—or, at least, post-structuralism—against itself.8

According to Hutcheon, postmodern fiction makes explicit the conventionally veiled processes of narrative representation; historiographic metafiction foregrounds the textual—and, therefore, constructed—nature of the means by which we approach the past, today. The modern scholars' access to the past is certainly documentary in nature. The Victorians are tracked “like any other dead soul” (37) through bio/bibliographical texts and surviving archival material. The only way that they can know history is through its inscription. While the conclusions reached by the grouped academics at the end of Possession (retrospectively) underline the impossibility of any totalizing knowledge, the reader's experience is exactly the opposite. Transgressing the boundaries of historical knowledge, the true facts are proffered in an omniscient authorial deus ex machina. “There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace,” we are told at the beginning of the postscript; “This is how it was” (552; emphasis added). We discover that Ash did meet his daughter, and that the lock of hair in his pocket watch is not Christabel's but hers. Essentially, we are presented with privileged information about events that Roland et al. will never know.9 The postscript is clearly a playful sideswipe at postmodern historicism, for it concerns things that “are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been” (552). What Byatt presents here is not a textual construction, but a living human being, a materiality as opposed to a discursive trace. Maia Thomasine Bailey is something of the past that is not “merely” an inscription, but is emphatically corporeal, an undeniable product of her parents' (literary) liaison.

Although Maud and Roland's interest in the outcome of the poets' affair is somewhat voyeuristic, it is mitigated by the intention that informs it (and the romance that their investigation breeds). In contrast to their rival academics, it is implied that only Roland and Maud can make the effort to imaginatively “know” how Ash and LaMotte felt. Their will to knowledge stems not from professional greed, but from “something more primitive”: “narrative curiosity” (259). Presumably, their obsession with discovering the truth becomes the reader's obsession as well. And in the three “transgressive” time capsules that punctuate the novel, our narrative curiosity is satisfied. “Coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable,” thinks Roland in the midst of his postmodernist musings (456). Implicitly, the conclusion to Possession is therefore an unfashionable one. Poignant though it may be, the ending is fundamentally a happy one: Ash meets his daughter in an idyllic summer setting, and she repeatedly asserts that she is “extraordinarily” content (554). Byatt herself is an enthusiastic advocate for the plenitude offered by traditional forms. Referring to a contemporary “narrative hunger,” she defends both the well-made plot and the satisfactions of all-encompassing narrative closure:

I haven't used the plot naïvely. … But it has given me intense pleasure. I love those Victorian novels in which, when you come to the end, you're told the whole history of every character from the end of the story until their dying day. I love that kind of thing, it makes me very happy. I don't see why we shouldn't have it: it's not wicked, as we were told in the sixties, it's just pleasant. Everybody knows it's fiction, but then everybody knows the whole thing is fiction.

(Interview 88)

Given the authorial investment in Roland's emerging poetic sensibility, Byatt is also an advocate of traditional conceptions of readerly and writerly practice (not to mention a Romantic conception of the Imagination). On his return from Brittany, Roland begins to make lists of words, words that resist “arrangement into the sentences of literary criticism or theory” (467). He subsequently learns that Ash's artistic message is a crucial one: the “important thing” is “the language of poetry” (513). Roland's realization is accompanied by the narrator's self-conscious meditation on the intense pleasures of reading. Proclaiming the visceral nature of this involvement, the narrator invokes a readerly erotics of “acute sensuous alertness” (511). A variety of reading strategies is outlined—formalist, structuralist, subjective, etc.—but “impersonal readings” constitute the privileged form (512). T. S. Eliot is alive and well, it seems. Rereading Ash's poem, Roland experiences this impersonality, and the result is akin to that of a modernist epiphany. A deconstructionist, Roland has been trained in the theories of linguistic indeterminacy: “He had been taught that language was essentially inadequate, that it could never speak what was there, that it only spoke itself” (513). His altered interest is therefore an implicit indictment of the centrality of that post-structuralist tenet. It is also significantly focused on the death mask image of the man who inspired it, Randolph Ash: “He could and could not say that the mask and the man were dead. What had happened to him was that the ways in which it could be said had become more interesting than the idea that it could not” (513; emphasis added). Roland's aesthetic narrative “reward,” then, suggests the ideological component to Byatt's project: a rejection of criticism—or at least certain kinds of criticism—in favour of an outright celebration of the creative poetic sensibility, of the imagination, and, most important, of the “power and delight of words” (511).


What then is Byatt's relationship to postmodernism, considering the modernist-inflected concerns that dominate the latter half of the novel? And is there not in that very question an unacknowledged criterion of postmodernist commitment? Undoubtedly there is. But it seems to me that postmodernist usage need not necessarily indicate a wholesale celebration of postmodernism per se. Of all the constructions of postmodernism outlined, it is Hutcheon's that I find most compelling, since it maintains a relational tension between aestheticism and ideological critique, an acknowledgement of the political impulse that unites aesthetic characteristics with worldly concerns. Moreover, although The Politics of Postmodernism does not broach the subject of self-referential critique, the text does suggest the possibility of a postmodernist challenge to postmodernism itself (see note 8). I take Hutcheon's political impulse to mean a politics of resistance.Possession, however, is hardly a subversive text; indeed its ideology is a heterosexual, humanist one. We can know everything, the novel seems to imply, but Byatt remains (coyly?) silent on the exact details of the purportedly lesbian nature of Blanche Glover's relationship with Christabel LaMotte. Blanche is the one Victorian character whose story is not told. If Blackadder and Beatrice Nest are the protective, custodial “parents” of the Victorian poets, then Roland and Maud are the poets' heirs. Roland, however, becomes the aesthetic, creative heir to Randolph Ash, while Maud remains “merely” the biological heir to Christabel LaMotte. There is also, of course, the privileging of the romantic world of the Victorians, a priority that leads one reviewer to wonder “if there is not a repressed Byatt, more robustly reactionary than she knows, longing to burst out and declare that traditional country life is best, and the modern world is scruffy and smutty, and what a girl needs is a strong, handsome man to look after her” (Jenkyns 214). I believe that Jenkyns is tonally accurate in this comment, but not quite contentially correct: I fail to see where, exactly, he finds a celebration of country life in the novel; the modern world is not smutty, but deprived of romance; and LaMotte's independent, feminist perspective is too sympathetically drawn to make of her a wilting romantic heroine. Nevertheless, Possession does reflect the ideology of the conventional romance narrative: Roland meets Maud, they court, kiss, make love, and presumably live happily ever after. But is Love the “suspect ideological construct” that Maud perceives it to be? Obviously not for Byatt, who makes it clear that Roland and Maud's romance is a productive, liberating affair.

No doubt the criticism could be levelled that I have offered an overly simplistic reading of postmodernist theories, but it is a critique that is in part enacted in this essay. Responding to reviewers' designations, I have attempted to outline those aspects of the novel that could be considered to be postmodernist. Possession's postmodernism in one light, however, is its modernism in another; the construction is a critical, interpretative one rather than a given of the text. Perhaps, then, postmodernism is best considered as a style; there are discernible characteristics of postmodernism, but because those characteristics are historically non-specific—Sterne's Tristram Shandy is an example—postmodernism is a literary device rather than an inevitable product of postmodernity. If Possessionis a postmodernist text, then it is one that is deeply suspicious of “postmodernism” whether it is construed as an aesthetic practice or as a historical condition. Possession may not celebrate the postmodern, but what it does do as a literary text is seduce the reader into the consumption of Victorian poetry (or its simulacrum!). Outside the academy—and even within it—it is unlikely that “the average reader” would encounter as much poetry in one year as Possession presents in one sitting. (Of course, I am acutely aware of the canonical elitism of such an observation, but that is, I think, an undeniable aspect of Byatt's project.) While it could be argued that readers could quite easily skip over “the words that don't reach to the edge of the page,” they cannot avoid the generic levels of textual discourse that the novel presents. “Possession,” as both title and concept, quite literally describes the text's allure. Solicited by an initial suggestion of illicit love, the reader's attention is maintained by the lure of a soluble romantic mystery. Possession may not, à la Roland Barthes, shift bliss to the sumptuous ranks of the signifier, but on one level it does present something of an erotics of reading (albeit a heterosexually inflected one), a readerly seduction that Barthes refers to as “the pleasure of the text.” I suspect that Possession will ultimately be denied access to the canon of postmodernist texts for the very reasons outlined: the novel offers modernist ideology in postmodernist guise. What is most interesting is that, at this historical moment, Possession is deemed to inhabit the postmodernist category; it is an identification that only supports my contention that postmodernism is more of a constructed “reality” than a quantifiable materiality.


  1. And is not Lyotard's a metanarrative on the demise of metanarratives? In an illuminating discussion of Jameson's theoretical positionality, Bennett makes a similar observation: “Like any self-reflexive art … the discourse of the oppositional wrapping-up of ‘postmodernism’ as a ‘period’ is always in varying degrees complicit with what it opposes” (258).

  2. Roland has “never been much interested in Randolph Henry Ash's vanished body” (24), while Maud feels a positive discomfort at physical proximity to her distant ancestor: “I very rarely feel any curiosity about Christabel's life—it's funny—I even feel a sort of squeamishness about things she might have touched, or places she might have been—it's the language that matters, isn't it, it's what went on in her mind—” (62). Of course, their cerebral responses are ironically telling in terms of subsequent events.

  3. It is a view that is undermined by the discovery that Christabel's landscape has a geographic rather than a metaphysical basis: her Yorkshire wanderings over the period of her affair with Ash.

  4. In this respect, it could also be argued that Byatt's generic inversion is, in fact, two-fold. As the narrative progresses it appears that Ash and LaMotte—the supposed criminals—increasingly become the victims of the contemporary detectives' quest for the truth.

  5. The combination of coy Harlequin Romance phrasing and an admittedly archaic usage leads me to suspect that Byatt's tone can only be a tongue-in-cheek one, here. It is indeed ironically appropriate that, in a text so concerned with romance, this is the final—and only—use of “possession” in a sexual sense.

  6. It must be acknowledged that Byatt introduces a negative tenor to both these self-conceptions; an issue that I want to address in the latter half of this paper. Each self-construction bears the seeds of its deconstruction. Maud's textualized subjectivity is problematized by her subsequent musings on materiality and history: “There was the question of the awkward body. The skin, the breath, the eyes, the hair, their history, which did seem to exist” (273); Roland's “learned” sense of self is something that he is content with. Mostly.

  7. Even at this point, however, there is an implicit allusion to the Victorians' presence in the intertextual transposition of Charles Smithson from the The French Lieutenant's Woman. When they arrive at the beach, there is a fossil-collecting young man “with a hammer and a sack … busy chipping away at the rock-face” (292).

  8. Considering Hutcheon's identification of postmodernism as complicity with, and critique of, dominant ideologies and narrative modes, I wonder if she would characterize Possession as doubly metafictional? Does its complicity and critique of postmodernism itself make it post-postmodern?

  9. It could be argued that this information is essential in establishing the partiality of the moderns' knowledge, and therefore is part of a postmodernist comment on the impossibility of attaining (historical) Truth. But an undeniable (and paradoxical) consequence of this narrative necessity is that the truth is not withheld from the reader.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill, 1975.

Baudrillard, Jean. The Mirror of Production. Trans. Mark Poster. St. Louis: Telos, 1975.

———. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Bennett, David. “Wrapping Up Postmodernism: The Subject of Consumption Versus the Subject of Cognition.” Textual Practice 1.3 (1987): 243–61.

Bertens, Hans. “The Postmodern Weltanschauung and its Relation with Modernism: An Introductory Survey.” Approaching Postmodernism. Ed. Douwe Fokkema and Hans Bertens. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1986. 9–51.

Byatt, A. S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Random, 1990.

———. Interview, Writers and Company. Ed. Eleanor Wachtel. Toronto: Knopf, 1993.

Connor, Steven. Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to the Contemporary. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

D'Evelyn, Thomas. “A Book About Books.” Rev. of Possession: A Romance, by A. S. Byatt. Christian Science Monitor 16 Nov. 1990: 13.

Eco, Umberto Postscript to The Name of the Rose. Trans. William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt, 1984.

Fiedler, Leslie. Cross the Border—Close the Gap. New York: Stein, 1964.

Graff, Gerald. Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Hassan, Ihab. The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.

Heron, Liz. Rev. of Possession: A Romance, by A. S. Byatt. Times Educational Supplement 6 April 1990: 90.

Hulbert, Ann. “The Great Ventriloquist.” Rev. of Possession: A Romance, by A. S. Byatt. New Republic 7 Jan. 1991: 47–49.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Huyssen, Andreas. “Mapping the Postmodern.” Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990. 234–77.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Jenkyns, Richard. “Disinterring Buried Lives.” Rev. of Possession: A Romance, by A. S. Byatt. Times Literary Supplement 2–8 Mar. 1990: 213–14.

Lyotard, Jean-Franĉois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: U of Manchester P, 1984.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1987.

Thurman, Judith. Rev. of Possession: A Romance, by A. S. Byatt. New Yorker 19 Nov. 1990: 151–55.

Wilde, Alan. Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

J. M. Coetzee (review date 6 June 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “En Route to the Catastrophe,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 43, No. 10, June 6, 1996, pp. 17-9.

[In the following review, Coetzee discusses Byatt's Babel Tower.]

In the 1970s the British novelist A. S. Byatt (b. 1936) embarked on an ambitious project: a sequence of novels that would trace the growth of a woman of her own class and generation and education, from the drab early 1950s through the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Byatt planned four novels. In The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985) she followed her heroine, Frederica Potter, the daughter of two middle-class literary intellectuals, through the last of her Yorkshire schooling and her three years at Cambridge; Still Life ended with Frederica in the arms of Nigel Reiver, the first man to awaken her sexually.

Since then six years have passed. Babel Tower, the third novel of the series, opens in 1964. The marriage with Nigel is not going well. Cooped up with his horsy sisters and odious housekeeper in a house in the Home Counties, Frederica feels stifled. She would like to see her old college friends, now making names for themselves on the buzzing London cultural scene, but Nigel doesn't like them. When they write, he intercepts their letters. An ex-commando, he has no scruples about roughing her up in ways that leave no telltale marks. She becomes a virtual prisoner. In a terrifying episode he hunts her around the outbuildings in the dark, flinging an axe that wounds her in the leg. Frederica flees with her four-year-old son, to find shelter with friends in London. Nigel pursues her, leaving a trail of violence in his wake, demanding her back, or, if not her, then the child.

Marital cruelty is not the central concern of Babel Tower. Nevertheless, the Reiver marriage stands out only in the egregiousness of its violence. At the ever-so-polite cocktail parties that Frederica begins to frequent, the talk is dominated by men; the women huddle in corners exchanging notes on anti-depressants. At one such party the wife of an eminent academic makes a scandalous outburst. With the discreet efficiency for which the British are renowned, she is spirited from the scene and order returns. It is this kind of future, as much as Nigel Reiver, that Frederica knows she must escape.

Frederica has been brought up in “that tolerant, non-conformist, cautiously skeptical tradition that requires you … to look for the good and the bad in everything.” On the one hand she fears and hates Nigel, on the other she is unnerved by her hatred; her urge to cut all ties with him is balanced by a puritanical determination to be fair to him. In sexual relations Nigel may be a practiced cynic (he operates by rules like “If you say ‘I love you’ to a woman, it makes her wet”). Nevertheless, Frederica continues to be fascinated by him. Even at the divorce trial she feels a hot rush of desire.

It is the Lawrentian flavor of her response (“the dark, dark look, the intentness that always stirs her”: the very language is Lawrence's) that, to Frederica, identifies it as a symptom not of a merely individual masochistic dependence, but of a sexual pathology belonging to her entire generation, the generation of girls who came to maturity in the 1950s taking as gospel Lawrence's fictions of women who abnegated the intellect in order to find salvation in the service of the phallus. “That was our myth,” thinks Frederica—“that the body is truth. Lady Chatterley hated words … [whereas] I cannot do without them.”

Just as, during adolescence, Frederica and her sister had felt Lawrence's Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, thrust upon them as models (“I don't want the immemorial magnificence of mystic palpable real otherness,” protested Frederica, ridiculing Lawrence's purple prose), so in Babel Tower she finds herself resisting the model of Connie Chatterley. The trial scene that ends the book parodies the famous obscenity trial of 1961; but this is not the only way in which Lady Chatterley's Lover looms over Babel Tower. In making a new life for herself as a woman and a sexual being in the 1960s, Frederica has to question and in many respects repudiate her earlier moral education, an education imbibed from teachers who had sat at the feet of F. R. Leavis, Lawrence's enormously influential champion at Cambridge.

The conflict between Frederica and Nigel comes to a head in a divorce trial, an extended scene into which Byatt throws all her considerable resources as a writer. The trial is a chastening experience for Frederica, who, under the remorseless interrogation of her husband's lawyer, backed by a private detective hired to spy on her and a Reiver family prepared to lie through its teeth, is portrayed for the benefit of the court as a selfish, promiscuous woman, unfit to care for her son.

Yet there is a surprise to come. The court may seem dominated by men with public-school backgrounds, men who might be expected to gang up against a woman who has not only bucked the system but, coming from the north of England, from a different class and a different political tradition, has never really been part of that system. Nevertheless, the court, in its patriarchal wisdom, and to the rage of the Reiver family, decides that a young child belongs with its mother, and awards care of Leo to Frederica.

Much of Byatt's long novel is given to the relationship between Frederica and her son. Leo comes across as anything but cute. Sensitive to the crackle of conflicting emotions around him, angry with the adults for disturbing an entirely satisfactory life replete with pony rides and jam scones and adoring aunts, he resorts to all means, fair and foul, to keep his parents together, doing his best to annex his mother to the family home and prevent her old friends from taking her away from him. Fiercely he demands that she subordinate her happiness to his.

For her part, Frederica—who to her secret shame had planned to abscond without Leo, and when he clung to her had felt a flush of anger—slowly, discovers the centrality of motherhood to her life: “This person [Leo] is the centre. It is not what she would have chosen but it is a fact, it is a truth stronger than other truths. It is a love so violent that it is almost its opposite.”

Frederica spends a lot of time reading stories to Leo, stories that pay him the compliment of taking him seriously as a moral intelligence, a being trying to find his own way in a world full of passion and violence. What Byatt has to say, via Leo and the stories he listens to (often given in extenso in the text), is interesting and challenging in times when the orthodoxy among teachers and librarians is that young children should not be exposed to disturbing material, to say nothing of difficult words. Just as Byatt is in favor of Racine for high-school students, she is in favor of tales of magic and terror, of heroism and resourcefulness, for preschoolers. The education of the imagination comes first: it is because the creative imagination is still alive among the writers and painters and scientists with whom Frederica chooses to cast her lot that they are better people than Nigel, his family, and his business friends.

In this respect Byatt belongs squarely in a liberal-humanist Arnoldian tradition. In time of crisis, her people do not go into therapy. For them, salvation is a matter of private wrestling with their consciences; the best aids in doing this are hard work, native intelligence, and a good knowledge of the classics, preferably in several languages. In the struggle of life, happiness is not the goal, but self-improvement; childhood is not an island of joy but a time of testing.

Yet the lives of Byatt's characters are not so simple or so puritanically grim as that. At the very moment when Frederica and her closest woman friend agree that their own childhood was not paradise but a hell of inauthenticity, the key poem on childhood, for people of English culture, comes unbidden to the minds of both: Wordsworth's ode “Intimations of Immortality,” with its evocation of

Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all
our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our

This is a telling moment, as the voice of their culture speaks through the two women. Byatt returns to such moments elsewhere, through Frederica's poet-friend Hugh Pink, who, tramping through the countryside, experiences what he calls “the English feeling,” a feeling of belonging to a soil that his ancestors have been rooted in and buried in for thousands of years, yet nuanced and colored by lines of verse so well known that “like turf and stones, [they] are part of the matter of the mind.”

Though a brilliant student at Cambridge, Frederica has resisted becoming a teacher, mainly to escape the overpowering example of her father. But the need to make a living in London forces her to take on evening teaching. These classes allow her to extend her horizons. She reads Nietzsche and Freud, and begins to see how insular her education has been. She expands her teaching to include Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Sartre, while putting behind her some of the writers who have formed her outlook. She can no longer believe in Lawrence's dark gods or follow E. M. Forster's commandment to “only connect.” Lawrence and Forster seem to her latter-day religious writers, trying to elevate the novel to where the Bible used to be. From the perspective of 1964, “Oneness, Love, the Novel” seem “so far away, so finished.

If she does not want oneness, then what does she want? Her answer: that the various identities, linguistic, intellectual, sexual, that make her up be left “juxtaposed but divided, not yearning for fusion.” She has a presentiment of the kind of art work in which such a self as hers might express itself: “an art-form of fragments, juxtaposed, not interwoven, not ‘organically’ spiralling up like a tree or a shell, but constructed brick by brick, layer by layer.”

In her restless intelligence and scrupulousness of mind, and her steadily growing sense of herself as a being formed not only by books but by the larger narratives of family history and national history, Frederica begins to emerge here as one of the more interesting characters-in-progress in contemporary fiction, both as a woman and as a social type, even if one sometimes wonders whether her author has not made her self-aware beyond her years.

Taking a lead from William Burroughs, Frederica experiments idly with cutting up her husband's divorce lawyer's letters and rearranging the fragments. She enjoys the effect so much that she does cutups of Lawrence and Forster too. Her notebooks become a mosaic of diary entries and quotations from writers in fashion at the time (Allen Ginsberg, Samuel Beckett, R. D. Laing, William Blake, Nietzsche, Norman O. Brown) as well as from the newspapers.

Frederica calls these layers of text “laminations”; she has already set out a theory justifying them in The Virgin in the Garden. An ambition grows in her to turn her notebooks into “a coherently incoherent work,” a “plait of voices” from the “many women in one” of whom she is made. The implicit promise is that Frederica will grow into a writer: we wait for the fourth volume to see whether this indeed happens. (The heroine of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, also wrote in a layered set of notebooks corresponding to her various identities: dissatisfaction with the organic novel as much as with the organic, integrated self was clearly in the air.)

Frederica's diary begins to take on an avant-garde and even Parisian tone:

The real “I” is the first I of “I hate I”—the watcher—though only until I write that, once I have noticed that, that I who hates “I” is a real I, it becomes in its turn an artificial I, and the one who notices that that “I” was artificial too becomes “real” (what is real) and so ad infinitum.

Yet her attitude toward the new fashions of thought remains cautious. “In a world where most intellectuals are proclaiming the death of coherence,” comments Frederica's author in one of her more magisterial interventions, “Frederica is an intellectual at large … driven by curiosity, by a pleasure in coherence, by making connections.”

The Bildung of Frederica continues on all fronts. She learns how to look at paintings; she has an affair with a painter, and later with one of her students, from whom she learns about computers. There is in fact no shortage of men in Frederica's life. But having spent the first novel of the series trying to lose her virginity (Byatt is good on sex: Frederica's adventures are amusing, sympathetically rendered, and wholly convincing), and the second having friendly sex with fellow students, she is now learning to enjoy the companionship of men without sleeping with them. In 1953 she had acted Elizabeth I in a play celebrating the coronation of Elizabeth II (this production forms the centerpiece of The Virgin in the Garden). Now she begins to appreciate the power of separateness, the power of the Virgin Queen.

In his more somber moments, Hugh Pink wonders how many of the English would any longer recognize “the English feeling.” Nevertheless, he holds to it as a touchstone. One of the tensions in Byatt's work since the 1980s is that, formed though she has been, as writer and as Englishwoman, by the interplay of natural landscape and literary tradition that Pink describes, she has had to confront the exhaustion of that tradition as a resource for the practicing novelist.

Her more recent fiction shows a great deal of textual variety (embedded stories and documents and so forth) and plays with some of the devices of postmodernism; nevertheless, at base it continues to rely on the close social observation and moral attentiveness of the great English realists. Though Babel Tower shows Frederica (whom it is impossible not to read, in this respect at least, as a stand-in for Byatt) reflecting (rather tentatively) on the poststructuralist criticism of realism, it is hard to see that this critique has had any effect on Byatt's own language. In Still Life she quoted William Carlos Williams with approval: “No ideas but in things.” In her respect for the truth of accurate observation, Byatt has been formed by Pound (what are Pound's Cantos but “laminations”?) and Williams; her practice is modernist rather than postmodernist.

In an interview given more than a decade ago, Byatt listed some of the features she admired in George Eliot's novels: their “large number of characters, wide cultural relevance, complex language.” “It's important for a writer to have a large canvas and plenty of characters,” she emphasized. While Babel Tower is a recognizably late-twentieth-century novel, here as in the earlier two books, Byatt aspires to a large canvas, wide cultural relevance (cultural, note, not social: Byatt's social range is rather limited); and, by no means least, plenitude of characters. As an exercise I began counting the named characters in Babel Tower, leaving out the real-life people with walk-on roles, leaving out also the stories within the story. I stopped at one hundred: one hundred names to remember, most of them from what in England are called the chattering classes; one hundred-roles, most of them minor. I doubt that even Dickens wrote as many names into a novel; and Dickens's minor names are thumbnail sketches in their own right, whereas Byatt's could come straight out of the telephone directory.

This complaint may seem tetchy, but it points to one of the weaknesses of Babel Tower: a multiplication of data, a failure to push narrative situations to their limits. Mark Twain remarked that when an American writer does not know how to end a story, he shoots everyone in sight. When Byatt does not know what to do next, she trots a set of new characters onto the stage.

Although Babel Tower may be read as a free-standing work, readers will be puzzled by certain characters who are presences in the novel rather than participants in its action. Frederica's brother-in-law Daniel, for instance, promises to be a major figure but in the end does little except cast gloom wherever he goes, as he broods on his dead wife. Only a reader who has read the account of her death in Still Life, and the powerfully extended Tolstoyan exploration of Daniel's grief, will see the point of his substantial but static presence in the new book. Similarly, Frederica's concern for her brother Marcus will remain mysterious without the background of his fragile mental health and frightening mystical-mathematical experiences as a child.

One substantial subplot involves a government-appointed commission that goes from school to school investigating the state of English teaching. Its activities afford Byatt rich opportunities for satire on academic pretensions. They also allow her to comment upon fashions in education. Thus she opposes free expression in the classroom because (in a revealing turn of thought) she fears it will deny children a space in which to live their private lives.

Babel Tower is a novel of ideas, and many of its situations—the activities of the commission, for instance—are contrived as occasions for the discussion of ideas. Not only does the new Parisian structuralism come up but also advances in the sciences: in genetics, biochemistry, animal psychology, linguistics, computer science. To an extent these conversations bring to life the intellectual excitement of the mid-1960s. Nevertheless, in the end one is left puzzled. Much of the science is now outdated: What can Byatt's motive be for devoting so many pages to it?

At her college, Frederica crosses paths with Jude Mason, a Diogenes-like cynic who scrapes together a living modeling for drawing classes. Mason is busy writing an anti-utopian fiction about a Frenchman named Culvert who leads a band of friends out of the Paris of the revolutionary Terror to an impregnable castle in the countryside, where he founds a community based on the principle that whatever is human is good, and therefore that there should be no bar on the acting out of one's desires.

The debt to Sade's 120 Days of Sodom is obvious; but as a political allegory Mason's book is aimed at all utopian projects spawned by the Enlightenment, from Fourier's to Mao's. Culvert's cultural revolution begins with an attack on family ties and proceeds to the reconstruction of language. Predictably, the community degenerates into a savage tyranny, with the children revealing themselves to be no less proficient in evil than the adults.

Mason brushes Frederica's life only incidentally. Byatt has evidently brought his book (entitled Babbletower: A Tale for the Children of Our Time) into her own so as to allow reflection on the naive utopianism and irrationalism of the 1960s. (At the college where Frederica teaches, William Blake is pressed into service as bard of the age, and Proverbs of Hell like “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction” and “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” are quoted like mantras.) Later, when Babbletower has become a cult book, and its author and publisher face prosecution for obscenity, Byatt is able to use the occasion of the trial for some rather tepid satire on the vanity and muddleheadedness of the intellectuals who appear as expert witnesses for the defense.

Apart from allowing these rather jaundiced glances at the 1960s, however, the incorporation of so much of Babbletower into her book seems a sorry miscalculation on Byatt's part. Whole chapters of this fictive book are given, written in a mannered, pseudo-archaic soft-porn prose so stickily rich as to be almost unreadable (“His brain was in a turmoil, protested Culvert, transferring his delicate fingering to the left nipple and leaving the right one straining upright. The Lady Roseace stared dreamily out of the window, and shuddered agreeably. …”); while no fewer than seventy pages are expended on the obscenity trial itself.

What is Byatt up to? She is a gifted literary ventriloquist, as she proved in Possession (1990), where she created the lovers Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte by the herculean means of forging a body of poems and letters for each. But Possession was a highbrow detective story and satire of academic manners, a considerably less ambitious project than the tetralogy. Because the realism of Possession was purely textual, a matter of imitating surfaces, such real-world questions as why an academic industry should be devoted to such mediocre and (necessarily) derivative creative spirits as Ash and LaMotte could be finessed.

The researches of the (fictional) naturalist William Adamson into the social life of ants, in the 1992 novella “Morpho Eugenia”—recently filmed under the title Angels and Insects—allow Byatt to do more high-Victorian ventriloquizing. Maintained in a dronelike existence on the country estate of Sir Harald Alabaster, apparently with the purpose of fathering children on his daughter Eugenia, Adamson is shocked to discover that the Alabasters in fact reproduce endogamously, by incest; furthermore, that the Alabaster household, from top to bottom, runs itself on much the same lines as an ant nest, the good of the collective rendering individual conscience irrelevant. Inbred, blue-blooded country families will never look the same again after this witty but chilling fantasy, a minor work but one that shows Byatt at her satiric best in a world that is textual (Darwin, Tennyson, Lewis Carroll) rather than real, a world she is at home in and reproduces expertly.

Is Babbletower just another a piece of literary ventriloquism, carried this time to tedious lengths? If so, why are the defense witnesses at the trial so warm in their praise of it? One, a playwright we are meant to take seriously, attests that it is “good writing.” Anthony Burgess, making a cameo appearance, calls it a “very promising, serious piece of writing.” (One of Byatt's modest postmodernist moves is to mix in real people with her fictional characters; another is to refer to her heroine loftily as “poor Frederica.”)

How are we to understand these witnesses? Is it possible that they are lying under oath, perhaps as a form of protest against the machinery of the law being trundled out against any book at all, no matter how badly written? Byatt makes the question even harder to answer by failing to reproduce (or, more accurately, to produce) the key passage for the prosecution, a passage in which—we are to understand—a woman is put to death with particularly repulsive sadistic salaciousness. But why then recount at length, in a work of fiction, the trial of another work of fiction whose substantial offense is not only fictive but a matter of hearsay?

Byatt's own Babel Tower winds down in 1967 with the smoke of catastrophe in the air. The newspapers are full of the Moors Murders and Vietnam. Frederica's lover turns out to have an identical twin, a pop musician (Frederica hates loud music) who stages “happenings” at which blood-orgies take place and “skoob” towers (“books” back to front) are set on fire. The good brother seems incapable of taming the bad; there are moments when Frederica wonders which of them she has held in her arms. The prophecy of Babbletower (the bad twin of Babel Tower?) seems on the point of coming true: that energy without restraint leads ineluctably to apocalypse. Even the law that had restrained Babbletower itself yields: on appeal the book is declared good.

Frederica had thought of herself as a child of the 1930s and 1940s, the gray era that had ended, symbolically, with the accession of Elizabeth II in 1953. Her generation had grown up “politically placid.” Now, in 1967, she must face up to the reality of the new age, an age not only of turbulence in the arts and exciting advances in the sciences but of nuclear power plants on the Yorkshire moors and “lifeless lakes where no birds sing,” of a blighted countryside in which “the English feeling” as she has known it will have a hard time surviving.

On the brink of the fourth decade of her life, Frederica in Babel Tower looks in two directions: toward a past of which she must take stock; and toward a present with which, after her Rip van Winkle years in the countryside, she has to catch up. The equipment with which Byatt has endowed Frederica to perform these tasks is essentially critical: a critical spirit informs the assessment Frederica makes both of her life hitherto (namely, that its plot has been dictated by the books under whose influence she has fallen) and of the London around her. If Frederica wrestling with the past is more arresting than Frederica engaging with the present, this is because Byatt does not yet, in this third of the projected four volumes, seem to have decided whether Frederica has it in her to be creative—in her own terms, to write her book of “laminations”—or whether her response to the world outside her will continue to be—and to be only—to subject it to the operations of a sophisticated but rather passive critical intelligence.

Gail Pool (review date July 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Chronicle of Higher Education,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 13, Nos. 10 and 11, July, 1996, p. 35.

[In the following review, Pool questions the excessive length of Byatt's Babel Tower, but also praises the novel as an “intelligent and often funny work [which] is also satisfying in its scope.”]

When A. S. Byatt's novel Possession appeared here in 1990, I doubt many Americans had heard of the English writer. But in fact, when Byatt wrote that Booker Prize-winning work she was hardly a new author. In addition to literary criticism, she had previously published five works of fiction, including The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985), the first two novels in a planned quartet. Babel Tower is the third.

This series centers on Frederica Potter, an intelligent, intellectual, self-important young woman who comes of age in Yorkshire and at Cambridge University in the first two volumes. Like all of Byatt's work, these early novels are infused with ideas; she is, always, a cerebral writer. But unlike Possession, with its intricate construction, those were relatively straightforward stories. Returning to her series nearly twenty years after she began it, Byatt now combines a more sophisticated style (there is a novel within the novel) with a continued interest in chronicling her characters' lives.

Taking up Frederica's story six years after the conclusion of Still Life,Babel Tower is set in the sixties. The timeframe involves more than colorful trappings. Byatt is fascinated by the ways in which the terms of an era determine people's thoughts about life and how to live it, and the terms here are sixties terms.

As the novel opens, 1964 finds Frederica disastrously married to a businessman who objects to her working or seeing her Cambridge friends (all men), and whose violence drives her to London with her son. The main story follows her new life as she begins to teach literature and work as a publisher's reader, and initiates proceedings for divorce and custody.

A second story line revolves around a fable-like tale—portions of which appear from time to time—in which a group in what appears to be post-revolutionary France attempt to found a Utopian society based on absolute freedom, but grow increasingly debased. As we discover, this tale, “Babbletower,” built upon the ideas of Charles Fourier and the Marquis de Sade, has been written by the unkempt, provoking Jude Mason, an acquaintance of Frederica's. “It's not a nice book,” Frederica's publisher-boss observes; once published, it is charged with obscenity.

The two stories ultimately connect in two absorbing courtroom trials, both involving sixties concerns with freedom and rules: Frederica's divorce trial raises issues associated with women's independence, from mothering to sexual mores; the Babbletower case involves not only the freedom to publish but also the implications of Mason's tale, in which total freedom brings out the worst in human nature.

As its title suggests, Babel Tower explores language. Emerging from the trials, Frederica feels that “she and Jude have been made to recite travesties of their life stories, in language they would never have chosen for themselves.” Wondering how someone as clever as she could have gotten into her present mess, she reflects upon the impact of two literary constructs on her marital choice: E. M. Foster's “Only Connect” and D. H. Lawrence's “Union of Opposites.” At the obscenity trial, the jury is warned that books matter, that the sadistic Moors Murderer Ian Brady, then in the news, was influenced by such works as The Scourge of the Swastika.

Babel Tower is too long and would have benefited from serious trimming (“Babbletower,” especially, grows burdensome). But this intelligent and often funny work is also satisfying in its scope. It is a large novel, made larger by the novels that precede it, which focus it more sharply on the education of Frederica Potter—the education of contemporary woman. The series' final volume will bring this chronicle to what, in Byatt's hands, should be an anything but facile close.

Dana Shiller (essay date Winter 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 538-60.

[In the following essay, Shiller uses Fredric Jameson's critique of postmodernism to analyze the relationship between Byatt's Possession, Peter Akroyd's Chatterton, and the historical novel, in particular the neo-Victorian novel.]

Over the last decade a number of novels have displayed a various and intriguing range of historical commitments. Although I will not attempt to take on the whole range here, I do want to explore a subset of the historical novel I think I can clearly delineate, or at least two exemplars of this subset. I call this particular category the neo-Victorian novel, and I read it as at once characteristic of postmodernism and imbued with a historicity reminiscent of the nineteenth-century novel.1 In order to develop my own argument, I will make rather free use of Fredric Jameson's critique of postmodernism, particularly his critique of postmodern representations of history.

In his attacks on postmodernism, Jameson has decried its supplanting of the redemptive project of history with “the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past,”2 an approach he finds problematic because if one's relation to the past is a matter of randomly retrieving various “styles,” then one loses the impetus to find out what actually happened in that past. As a Marxist critic for whom the purpose of history is “the resurrection of the dead of anonymous and silenced generations, the retrospective dimension indispensable to any vital reorientation of our collective future” (CL, p. 18), Jameson finds in postmodern historicity an ever-widening gap between the actual lived past and its representation. According to Jameson, postmodern skepticism regarding how much we can really know about the past has resulted in nostalgia for the “look” of the past without significant interest in its substance.3 Consequently, the past as historical referent is dissolved in self-reflexive textuality: “the past as ‘referent’ finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts” (CL, p. 18). Jameson acknowledges that history is an “absent cause” that is never completely representable, and yet he insists that “History is not in any sense itself a text or master text or master narrative, but that it is inaccessible to us except in textual or narrative form, or in other words, that we approach it only by way of some prior textualization or narrative (re)construction.”4 Jameson is concerned that the postmodern preoccupation with history-as-text has shifted attention away from the actual events of the past, toward the interpretation of those events.

What appears to disturb Jameson most about postmodern representations of the past, be they fictional, filmic, or architectural, is that they strip away its specific political content to focus on its aesthetics. Instead of respecting the radical difference of bygone eras, postmodernism projects onto them contemporary culture, fabricating a “privatized,” or subjective, history denuded of its specific cultural resonance.5 Epitomizing this kind of historicism for Jameson is a film like Body Heat, which stylistically “connotes” 1940s film noir through the language of nostalgia, but is actually set in 1980s Florida (CL, p. 19). The past, according to this cultural logic, becomes a treasure trove to be mined for pertinent connections and similarities to our postmodern world, an approach that for Jameson creates a false continuity between past and present. Jameson argues that using history responsibly means reading it for traces of the “uninterrupted narrative” of class struggle, and bringing to the surface of the text this “repressed and buried reality” (PU, p. 20). In effect, he sees past and present as having continuity only insofar as they can be united in a Marxist interpretive framework, which he claims is uniquely qualified to evade the “double bind” of antiquarianism and the postmodern tendency to project contemporary relevance onto history (PU, p. 19). The former posits an artificial rupture between past and present; the latter creates a false connection.

In his well-known indictment of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Jameson claims that the historical novel can no longer represent the historical past, but can only represent our ideas and stereotypes about that past (CL, p. 25). He argues that Ragtime's postmodern aesthetics work to negate Doctorow's leftist politics: by commingling real and fictional characters, and by assuming an essentially nonrepresentational style, the novelist ends up with a text that ultimately fails to engage with the “left doxa” it tries to express. Although the novel makes claims on realism, its style functions to keep the past at a distance, so that 1920s New York is replaced by popular images and simulacra of that time and place (CL, p. 25). Rather than restoring to us “the essential mystery of the cultural past, which … is momentarily returned to life and warmth and allowed once more to speak, and to deliver, its long-forgotten message in surroundings utterly alien to it” (PU, p. 19), we have the historical novel as postmodern artifact, a monument to the waning of content and the primacy of the image. Again, Jameson's concern is that once we have reduced history to a collection of glossy images sundered from their real-life roots, we have deprived the past of its capacity to transform our collective future.

I want to argue in this essay that neo-Victorian fiction addresses many of Jameson's concerns by presenting a historicity that is indeed concerned with recuperating the substance of bygone eras, and not merely their styles. These historical novels take a revisionist approach to the past, borrowing from postmodern historiography to explore how present circumstances shape historical narrative, and yet they are also indebted to earlier cultural attitudes toward history. It is my concern in this essay to discuss two novels I will call neo-Victorian: A. S. Byatt's Possession and Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton. Both novels are partly set in the nineteenth century, and while Byatt's historical imagination is perceptibly closer to George Eliot's in Middlemarch, Ackroyd also manages to create a postmodern novel that plays on (and with) our certainties about history while simultaneously delighting in what can be retrieved of the past.

George Eliot articulated a view of significant history as fundamentally quotidian, a series of private moments and undocumented acts not coincidentally of a sort that many nineteenth-century novels were concerned to render. Although she was among the first to theorize narrative in such a vein as essentially historical, it is clear from the novel's development into the middle decades of the century that novelists and readers alike were increasingly interested in the sense of character and emplotment Eliot fostered. What the neo-Victorian novels do with history is closely connected to both Eliot's sense of history and that of the postmodern historiographers whose work appreciates the fluidity of a historical record that is perpetually open to reinterpretation and therefore constantly assuming different permutations.6 Furthermore, all three of these versions of history share some common ground with Jameson. The fact that neo-Victorian novels employ Eliot's sense of history as a referent, and that this sense of history is in many ways consonant with Jameson's own, serves to complicate Jameson's argument by suggesting that his historical purposes can indeed be achieved in postmodern fictions, although his purposes must be qualified in the process.7

In postmodern historiography, the historical record is in itself understood as a text always already processed into narrative, and not merely “an unimpeded sequence of raw empirical realities.”8 Like other historiographic metafictions, neo-Victorian novels are acutely aware of both history and fiction as human constructs, and use this awareness to rethink the forms and contents of the past.9 Such novels repudiate the traditional boundaries between historical fact and fiction, showing them to be interrelated in their dependence on what Hayden White calls “emplotment” and in their hyperconsciousness of their own tenuous relation to the “truth.”10 Dominick LaCapra's recursive model of history, in which the historian's understanding of the past is continually augmented and revised by present knowledge, offers a useful template for reading both neo-Victorian fiction and George Eliot's Middlemarch. LaCapra's contention that “the narratives of historians may be opened to some extent by the attempt to explore alternative possibilities in the past that are themselves suggested by the retrospective or deferred effects of later knowledge”11 describes effectively Dorothea Brooke's reinterpretation of her personal history, Byatt's academics' revision of the Victorian literary past, and Charles Wychwood's radical reimaginings of the life of Thomas Chatterton. LaCapra's historiographical model might seem dangerous to Jameson, since using present knowledge to explore alternative possibilities in history appears inherently unfaithful to any concept of the “historical record.” However, what would seem initially to be opposite arguments begin to look more consistent when the connections between LaCapra, Byatt, Ackroyd and Eliot become more apparent, and when it becomes clear that the neo-Victorian novels rely on both “new” historiography and Eliot to achieve recursively postmodern historical imaginations while maintaining a sense of a referent.

I argue in this essay that neo-Victorian fiction is motivated by an essentially revisionist impulse to reconstruct the past by questioning the certitude of our historical knowledge, and yet I want also to claim that even as these novels emphasize events that are usually left out of histories, they nonetheless manage to preserve and celebrate the Victorian past. In their invocation of a specifically Victorian referent, Byatt's and Ackroyd's novels refute Fredric Jameson's contention that postmodern historicity works to widen the gap between representations of the past and their specific historical referents. Possession and Chatterton preserve the past while always underscoring that we can never know it prior to its transformation into narrative. Each novel, in its own way, demonstrates that acknowledging that we can only know the past through its textual traces does not mean that historical events are irretrievable, or not worth retrieving. Indeed, both Byatt and Ackroyd suggest that although historical rigor may take on new meaning, it continues to have value, and remains compatible with approaches to history that accept the existence of many possible narratives for any given set of historical facts. In this essay, I will demonstrate that neo-Victorian fiction explores the ground between writing as though there are no persisting truths, a way of thinking that gives the author tremendous latitude in reconstructing the past, and writing as though there is indeed a recoverable past, however attenuated.


I will begin with a reading of Middlemarch in order to establish that the version of history Jameson deplores is not a peculiarly postmodern one, but is one that can be seen as an extension of the historicism practiced by George Eliot—a historicism with which Jameson, moreover, can be said to have affinities. Middlemarch is a foundational text for my argument because it is an historical novel that explicitly deconstructs the assumptions of traditional history and the assumptions of realist fiction in a way that is highly consistent with the project of neo-Victorian fiction. Although Eliot's novel corresponds closely to Avrom Fleishman's definition of the historical novel as an imaginative portrayal of history that conveys “the sentiment de l'existence, the feeling of how it was to be alive in another age,”12 on other points the 1872 novel diverges sharply from Fleishman's theory. Eliot's sense of “truth” is not solely dependent on historical fact, the details of the public record, as Fleishman's definition suggests, but rather on the relationship of the course of human events to the seemingly trivial private actions that drive them. Middlemarch counters Fleishman's contention that historical fiction “[lifts] the contemplation of the past above both the present and the past, to see it in its universal character”13 by insisting that history can never be so easily disengaged from either past or present. For Eliot, there is no “universal” past, but a past that continually changes shape based on individual perspective. History, in Middlemarch, maintains a fidelity to documented events (for example, in Eliot's chronicling of the local political agitations leading up to the first Reform Bill), but Eliot's true focus is on those unhistorical acts that shape the public record in subtle and usually unnoticed ways.

Tertius Lydgate is not alone in his faulty assumption that one's life does not really count unless one garners fame in the public domain. His sense of history as a process of which one can only aspire to become a part is shared by Dorothea Brooke, who yearns for Saint Theresa's epic life, but is bound by her class and gender to a life of privilege that makes little use of her talents. Dorothea's motivation for marrying Casaubon is twofold: she wants to be of use, and she imagines that in becoming the wife of an historian, she will be able vicariously to connect herself to the past: “To reconstruct a past world, doubtless with a view to the highest purposes of truth—what a work to be in any way present at, to assist in, though only as a lamp-holder!”14 But the weight of history turns out to be suffocating in more ways than one: on her wedding-journey to Rome, she feels oppressed by the ancient ruins, which to Dorothea symbolize millennia of idolatrous decadence.

The ruins of Rome come to symbolize on a grander scale the alienation from traditional history Dorothea experiences within her marriage. Her Roman holiday signifies a subtle shift in her psyche, away from a fascination with the “truths” available through a scholarly approach to history, towards a sensitivity to history's more personal resonances (p. 225). Dorothea would be less unhappy in her marriage, the narrator suggests, if only Casaubon “listened with the delight of tenderness and understanding to all the little histories which made up her experience, and would have given her the same sort of intimacy in return, so that the past life of each could be included in their mutual knowledge and affection” (p. 230). To Casaubon, his wife's “little histories” pale next to his Key to all Mythologies, and yet Eliot represents his version of history as cobwebby and soulless. When Dorothea recognizes that Casaubon's “years full of knowledge seem to have issued in a blank absence of interest or sympathy” (p. 229), she enacts the novel's supplanting of Casaubon's totalizing “History” with its lower-case counterpart, a move which stresses the importance of the personal past.

A crucial movement in Middlemarch, then, is the progression from Dorothea's and Lydgate's misconception that history takes place on a higher plane than the mere lives of men and women, to their mutual recognition that history is shaped on a far more local, personal level than they had previously imagined. Hayden White argues that Eliot uses the marriage of Dorothea and Casaubon, and particularly their disastrous Roman honeymoon, to hand down an indictment of antiquarianism.15 According to White, Dorothea's Roman revelations and her eventual marriage to Will Ladislaw signify “her escape from the incubus of history,”16 yet I have shown that discovering the mummified nature of Casaubon's studies permits Dorothea to forge a sense of the past as personal history. Rather than casting off history for Art (as White claims Dorothea does by marrying Ladislaw), Dorothea's marriage to Ladislaw more precisely weds history and art, providing a fitting capstone for Dorothea's growing conviction that history includes an understanding of the way individual lives unfold and how the progress of one life influences the direction of others.

Lydgate's tragedy is that he does not learn this lesson: although his life is shown to be a success by most men's standards, in his own eyes he is a failure who allowed his ambitions to be thwarted by the constraints of his personal life because he could not see how closely his public and private lives were linked. Dorothea also lives out her life feeling that there was something better which she might have done, but the novel is gentler in its judgment of her. In the Finale's most famous passage, Eliot calls Dorothea's acts “unhistoric” (p. 896), yet we are meant to see that despite the historical and cultural limitations that divert Dorothea's ardor into minor channels, her “hidden life” resonates in subsequent generations in a way that, even though it has been unremarked, richly complicates the traditional notion of history.

Eliot's representation of the past as acquiring meaning only through interpretation gives rise to a text replete with what LaCapra has called “intense moments of inner difference and self-contestation—moments that engage the reader in self-questioning that has a bearing on the present and future.”17 If we take Dorothea as a reader of her own experience, then the moment in which she learns of Casaubon's perverse codicil and revises her understanding of her past accordingly is particularly noteworthy. Dorothea realizes that as a result of her new knowledge, “everything was changing its aspect: her husband's conduct, her own duteous feeling towards him, every struggle between them—and yet more, her whole relation to Will Ladislaw” (p. 532). What LaCapra describes as the “retrospective … effects of later knowledge” suggest entirely new interpretive possibilities for Dorothea's marriage, and cause her to rethink completely her past.

Like Dorothea, Bulstrode comes to see the past as eminently dynamic, as it rises into his “second life” like an unchecked flood. When blackmail forces him to acknowledge long-ago misdeeds, the banker must revise his identity as a pious Christian who has exonerated himself by exalting God, and he must accept that in involving himself with a shady business, deceiving a woman into marrying him and putting all her assets in his name, and disinheriting her daughter, he has sinned in what he sees as irredeemable ways. Bulstrode understands from the start that what will ruin him is not only his denial of his own past, but the opening of that past to the scrutiny of his fellow Middlemarchers, who will doubtlessly interpret events differently. Recalling his tacit decision to keep Sarah Dunkirk's whereabouts hidden, thereby guaranteeing himself her mother's property, Bulstrode compels himself to look squarely at the truth: he had known where the daughter was, he had paid Raffles to keep her location secret, and he had profited enormously from this deception. This, Bulstrode realizes, is the “bare fact” that he is now forced to see in “the rigid outline with which acts present themselves to onlookers,” an entirely different form from his personal memory, in which “the fact was broken into little sequences, each justified as it came by reasonings which seemed to prove it righteous” (p. 666).

The past, in Middlemarch, pervades the present and irrevocably shapes it, just as the present shapes the interpretation of the past. Nevertheless, this fluidity of temporalities that Eliot describes does not efface the historical referent as much as Jameson might fear. Bulstrode's story extends Dorothea's recognition of the recursive operation in which the present sheds new light on past events, by showing how completely open to reinterpretation is anyone's past. Eliot's sense of history as contingent on interpretation, and as composed of private, undocumented acts presages the view of history in which neo-Victorian novels are grounded. However, Eliot's historicism is grounded in certain incontrovertible truths. The “bare facts” of Bulstrode's deception exist, and he is forced to acknowledge them. These facts persist throughout their reinterpretations by both Bulstrode and his fellow townspeople, even though what Eliot calls our attention to are the ways in which these facts are perceived. History, for Eliot, most certainly resurrects the dead: Bulstrode's secret past is unearthed, and her depiction of Dorothea's superficially “unhistoric” life brings to light the history of a woman who (even if she were an actual personage) would not figure in conventional histories. Moreover, the discovery of Bulstrode's long-hidden crime transforms Bulstrode and the rest of Middlemarch. The banker's crime is personal, rather than structural, but nonetheless its revelation does resurrect the past for the redemption of future generations.


Jameson would doubtlessly condemn neo-Victorian texts as participants in postmodernism's “nostalgia mode,” in which the absent past is appropriated and refracted through the ideology of the present, in order to create glossy images of “pastness” through the attributes of fashion—as American Graffiti's poodle skirts signified a lamentation for the Eisenhower years. For Jameson, pastiche has superseded parody as the dominant discourse of imitation, and he finds the replacement discouraging, arguing that pastiche mimics styles without allowing the referent to reassert itself. Consequently, the imitation eclipses the original, which itself then becomes “one more idiolect among many” (CL, p. 17). I wish to contend, however, that neo-Victorian fiction evades easy classification as pastiche due to its careful reconstruction of the Victorian past. The refraction of the past through the present is unavoidable; this makes it even more important to exert ourselves in order to recover the historical referent.

I find particularly useful in this context Linda Hutcheon's discussion of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, in which she argues that postmodern historical fiction can indeed take a redemptive view of the past. Hutcheon claims that Fowles' extended parody of a number of Victorian novels is “not just a game for the academic reader, [but] overtly intended to prevent any reader from ignoring both the modern and the specifically Victorian social, as well as aesthetic, contexts.”18 For Hutcheon, Fowles' parody is inseparable from its Victorian context, which is then placed in a relation to the present. Even though the plot structure of The French Lieutenant's Woman marks it as modern, Hutcheon argues that the novel

requires that historical context in order to interrogate the present (as well as the past) through its critical irony. Parodic self-reflexiveness paradoxically leads here to the possibility of a literature which, while asserting its modernist autonomy as art, also manages simultaneously to investigate its intricate and intimate relations with the social world in which it is written and read.19

Hutcheon's argument demonstrates that contemporary historical novels can explore the past in ways more substantive than merely appropriating its fashions. The self-reflexiveness so characteristic of postmodernist texts does not, in Hutcheon's view, prevent Fowles' novel from being intimately concerned with its specifically Victorian social context. Hutcheon's redefinition of parody to include an ironic distance creates space for an intertextual postmodern novel to be at once self-reflexive and historical. Her remark that the past has been “lost or at least displaced, only to be reinstated as the referent of language, the relic or trace of the real”20 helps to delineate the project of neo-Victorian fiction by suggesting that the “relic” of the real is crucial in that it is the sole existing marker of bygone events. Hutcheon's argument is perhaps the most obvious critique/amplification of Jameson, but I find the lines of argument afforded by Possession and Chatterton to be even richer in implications.

Neo-Victorian fiction, then, is not simply a pastiche of popular mental images of Victoriana: corsets, overstuffed furniture, and highly polished silverware designed to satisfy contemporary nostalgia for a more opulent look. The texts I treat in this essay emphasize the textualization of the past, demonstrating the great extent to which the late twentieth-century sense of “Victorianism” comes to us already emplotted by the nineteenth-century novel. Hutcheon's notion of “textual traces” suggests that we have always known the past through narrative, and indeed that both narrativized history and fiction invariably reshape the past in the light of present issues—the very process that historiographic metafiction calls to our attention.21 However, neo-Victorian novels show that having acknowledged that the past is textual, and that history is always shaped by present concerns, it is still possible to recapture that past in ways that evoke its spirit and do honor to the dead and silenced.


Near the end of Possession, Roland Michell's and Maud Bailey's quest has turned to resolving the fate of the illegitimate child of Victorian poets Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. This quest culminates in the discovery of LaMotte's final letter to Ash, in which she fills in the blank of the twenty-eight years since their brief love affair. “All History is hard facts—and something else—passion and colour, lent by men,” she writes, offering to tell him “at least—the facts.”22 The facts Christabel relates, though—that their daughter was born in a Brittany convent, and taken to England, where she was raised by Christabel's sister as her own—turn out to be all but inseparable from their narrative framework. Like Roland, Christabel is aware that she has shaped the history she narrates, by denying herself the closure of revealing to Maia her true origins:

You will think—if the shock of what I have had to tell you has left you any power to care or to think about my narrow world—that a romancer such as I (or a true dramatist such as you) would not be able to keep such a secret for nigh on thirty years (think, Randolph, thirty years) without bringing about some peripateia, some denouement, some secret or open scene of revelation. Ah, but if you were here, you would see how I dare not. For her sake, for she is so happy. For mine, in that I fear the possible horror in her fair eyes. If I told her—that—and she stepped back?

(P. 545)

Christabel's narrative is deprived of a denouement in more ways than one: sent under cover to Randolph's wife while he lies on his deathbed, the letter never reaches its intended reader. Ellen Ash keeps it from her husband, deciding instead to bury it, unopened, with his body. One hundred years later, Maud Bailey, Maia's great-great-granddaughter, reads the exhumed letter aloud to her fellow literary detectives. It is this reading, and our reading of this reading, which provide the culmination of Christabel's narrative. A typically neat Victorian ending (Randolph dies, clutching the letter to his breast) is evaded through a quintessentially postmodern lacuna: Randolph never reads the letter, but Maud, Roland and their cohorts do, and it augments (and changes irrevocably) their versions of the life stories of Randolph and Christabel.

Possession's postscript, in which Randolph meets his daughter and weaves her a daisy chain in exchange for a lock of her hair, calls attention to what is left out of histories. In a passage hauntingly reminiscent of George Eliot's final assessment of Dorothea's life, the omniscient narrator of Possession points out that “there are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken of or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been” (p. 552). Certain things, Byatt tells us, may go un-narrated, but they do have effects. Meeting Maia must surely have changed Randolph's life. Yet although the message Randolph gives his daughter to pass on to her “aunt” is promptly forgotten and, like Christabel's letter to Randolph, never reaches its destination, the meeting of Randolph and Maia is written of, after all: Byatt invents a “discernible trace” when she includes the episode in her novel.

By modeling the way their histories are composed of events granted meaning over time, with each new discovery altering their sense of who these poets were, Roland's and Maud's revisions of the lives of Ash and LaMotte offer a literary analogue to LaCapra's observation that historical narratives may be opened by the attempt to explore alternative possibilities in the past: possibilities suggested by present knowledge. The knowledge Byatt's academics “possess” may be partial—they never learn with the reader that Randolph did meet his daughter—but the histories of these two poets do open up for them in profound ways that reveal, in LaCapra's words, “how the past is not simply a finished story to be narrated but a process linked to each historian's time of narration” (p. 18).

Possession calls into question how completely we can ever “know” the past from its textual traces. Byatt's novel is full of mysteries that resist the very notion of solution, while it illuminates (and pokes fun at) the insatiable curiosity of her scholar-detectives, who come to learn that collecting the artifacts of dead poets and scrutinizing their marginalia does not in itself produce knowledge and that attention must be paid to what has been left out of the standard biographies. The text contains a struggle between two tensions: the desire for knowledge, which Roland describes as a “violent emotion of curiosity … more fundamental even than sex” (p. 92, ellipsis Byatt's), and the resistance offered by what the old-fashioned feminist critic Beatrice Nest comes to understand as “the mystery of privacy” (p. 129). Although Beatrice reminds Maud that “We were not taught to do scholarship primarily by what was omitted” (p. 241), it occurs to her that Ellen Ash's journal is curiously flat and uninteresting precisely because Ellen is hiding something. There are things she doesn't want future readers to uncover about her marriage, things she is herself loath to confront. Ellen Ash's sense of “the unspoken truths of things” (p. 497) comes from her favorite passage in Lyell's Principles of Geology, in which he notes that certain crystalline formations may appear totally distinct from every substance familiar to us, but are actually the effects of causes even now in action beneath the earth. What is important about these rocks, for both Lyell and Ellen, is that they are not primeval relics, but rather part of “the living language of nature, which we cannot learn by our daily intercourse with what passes on the habitable surface” (p. 497). In short, to understand the geological formations that surround us in the present, we must learn to appreciate the ongoing subterranean processes that have both formed and modified them over time.

Ellen's affection for the passage from Lyell echoes in one of Possession's recurrent themes: the way the mundane texture of daily life is fabricated from cataclysmic events that are themselves barely acknowledged, let alone documented. Much as the passions that drive Dorothea Brooke are channeled into an unhistoric life, Ellen Ash's existence is shaped by experiences she is unable to represent (even to herself) in words. When Ellen says “I keep faith with the fire and the crystals,” she is recognizing her everyday life as the smooth surface beneath which crystals have formed in “intense heat.” Under the polished facade of her long marriage smolder two secrets: that she and Randolph have never consummated their love, and that Randolph once had an affair with another woman. Paradoxically, the only way we as readers understand how “carefully strained” (p. 501) the truths in Ellen Ash's journal are is that Byatt gives us entry into Ellen's innermost thoughts, as if only by knowing the “real” truth can we see how much of it is habitually hidden.

Possession consistently works to undermine its characters' assumption that given access to enough documents, the scholar can attain complete knowledge of his or her subject. When Ash's biographer Mortimer Cropper bemoans Ellen Ash's “prudery” in refusing to publish some of her husband's private papers, he assumes that if Ellen hadn't buried a box of her most precious mementoes with her husband, Cropper himself might have known the whole truth about Randolph. Regretting that at Ellen's burial in 1896 no one saw fit to open the box, Cropper writes, “Such decisions to destroy, to hide, the records of an exemplary life are made in the heat of life, or more often in the grip of immediate post-mortem despair, and have little to do with the measured judgment, and desire for full and calm knowledge, which succeed these perturbations” (p. 484). Cropper errs here in assuming, first, that Ash's “exemplary” life would have contained nothing worth concealing; and second, that “full and calm knowledge” is attainable through a complete set of records, since historical documents are frequently themselves incomplete, a fact to which Possession amply attests.

Cropper's belief in the rewards of exhaustive scholarly research, which for him consist in the painstaking accumulation and inventory of Ash's personal relics, repeatedly comes up against the novel's many silences. “It was all a question of silence,” Ellen murmurs to herself the night after her husband's death, and it is clear that she refers both to the memory of a forty-four-year intimacy that did not require many words, and to the power of what went unspoken between herself and Randolph, herself and Christabel, and between Randolph and Christabel. Although the clandestine romance at the heart of Possession is neither undiscovered nor undocumented, what remains unsaid about it has more resonance than what is uttered. Having read Christabel's letter asking her forgiveness, Ellen composes numerous replies in her head, but writes nothing. “You must understand that I have always known,” one of her imagined responses begins, “that my husband told me, long ago, freely and truthfully, of his feelings for you” (p. 491), and although Ellen is aware that writing that would be uttering the truth, she also despairs of language's capacity for “[conveying] the truth of the way it had been, of the silence in the telling, the silences that extended before and after it, always the silences” (p. 492).

What Ellen cannot relate is the complicity of silence between herself and her husband even during his admission of guilt. Although Randolph does indeed tell her that he was “not alone” on his trip to Yorkshire, and that his affair with Christabel had been like “a possession, as by daemons” (p. 492), what marks the conversation for Ellen is both his refusal to explain (he says “I cannot explain, Ellen, but I can tell you—”) and her own refusal of even this offer to “tell.” Now, preparing to bury Randolph, Ellen realizes that in refusing to discuss his affair, she had chosen not to know the truth, and in her reluctance to acknowledge the core of her husband's emotional life she had (with his tacit compliance) built her life around a lie. In this case, the evasion had been easier for Ellen than the truth, as it was with the other significant falsehood of her marriage: that, as she had assured her sisters, she and Randolph had been “unlucky” in trying to have children. The truth, that her terror had prevented them from engaging in sexual intercourse, was unspeakable even to herself.

Robert Kiely describes a similarly systematic obfuscation of the truth in his reading of the ways history is represented in contemporary American novels by minority women writers. In his study of novels by Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, and Louise Erdrich, Kiely notes that

Within the Chinese emigrant context, as in the African American and Indian context, ‘getting things straight’ and ‘naming the unspeakable’ form a seemingly admirable and yet potentially destructive project. For though sorting out mistakes and confusions, and clarifying ambiguities, may make for a rational and coherent narrative, they also risk reenacting the dominant habits of oppression and neglect that caused, or at least fueled, covert and ‘devious’ practices in the first place.23

The comparison between the fictions of Hong Kingston, Morrison, and Erdrich and Possession may seem farfetched, and I do not mean to suggest that the “dominant habits of oppression” are the same for minority American women as for the Victorians. But I do want to claim that contemporary historical novels by minority women writers and neo-Victorian novels share a commitment to enacting ambiguities and confusions rather than clarifying them, and that this strategy enables both genres to come at history in a way that is recognizably postmodern, but also deeply interested. Although the emphasis in Possession is on the difficulty of uncovering the truth, rather than the nature of the truth, there is always some kind of truth to uncover. In Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, the narrator tells the story of a nameless aunt who gave birth to a child out of wedlock and drowned herself and her baby in a well, and whose memory and name were consequently eradicated by her family. The difficulty of ever recovering her aunt's identity is compounded by the Chinese custom of concealing everyone's real name.24 Kiely comments suggestively that “there is a sense in which ‘No Name Woman’ is the right name for the disgraced aunt and in which the ‘false’ name of the sojourner is the only available substitute—distracting metaphor though it may be—for unspoken reality. A history of falsehoods is not the same as false history.”25 Byatt's evocation of the relationship between Randolph and Ellen Ash is also “a history of falsehoods” which is not a false history: the ellipses and lacunae of their letters and conversations perform the truth of their marriage rather than conceal it.

Possession starts from George Eliot's eminently recursive sense of how we know the past, then extends it to demonstrate history's capacity to provide only a partial rendition of the past, simply because most lives are not open books, and traditional histories have no way of documenting secrets. Randolph writes to his wife from Yorkshire that “We are a Faustian generation, my dear—we seek to know what we are maybe not designed (if we are designed) to be able to know,” and while his comment refers explicitly to the Victorian passion for natural history, its subtext emanates from Randolph's subterfuge, since at the time, Ellen does not know her husband is scrambling over the rocks with another woman. Yet Randolph's words also serve as an abbreviated version of the novel's point: that the desire for knowledge must constantly come up against the limits of the human capacity for interpretation.

Possession underscores the difficulty of interpreting a life: how does one translate into language things one's subject will not admit to him—or herself? When Ellen burns the letter Randolph wrote to Christabel and never sent, we are meant to acknowledge the irreparable loss of such a revealing document, but also to see the necessarily incomplete and arbitrary nature of the textual traces everyone leaves as itself a representation of their life, with its attendant consequences for the projects of biography and history. To return momentarily to Jameson, I would like to point out that although this instance in the novel shows that the historical record is always partial, it certainly points to a referent—what “truly” happened, which if we cannot retrieve wholesale we may nonetheless glimpse in fragments, like Randolph's cryptic notes to Ellen. I am not arguing that the discoveries Roland and Maud make about the lives of Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte (or, as we will see in the next section, Charles Wychwood's investigations into the life of Chatterton) constitute the sort of regard for history that would mollify Fredric Jameson. Byatt's characters are, after all, fictional, and the “facts” they unearth are not what Jameson would call actual historical referents. What remains impossible to overlook, however, is Roland and Maud's drive to uncover the truth of Randolph and Christabel's relationship, a passion that suggests the sort of commitment to a referent that might allow for historical redemption.

Kiely describes the methodology of the postmodern historical novelists he considers as “a continual reaching back, in which believing and caring are inseparable from curiosity,”26 and this kind of “reaching back” into the past is evident in Byatt's novel. In addition, Byatt takes pains to create in Possession a texture that is historically faithful. Even if, like the fictive Jewish family in Ragtime, Randolph and Christabel are not actual Victorian writers, they are obviously composites of real Victorians, possessing as they do recognizable traits of Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as the American Victorian Emily Dickinson. Antecedents aside, Byatt's obvious appreciation for the ways her characters' Victorian mores enriched their love affair (compared to the relatively sterile “romance” of Roland and Maud) emanates from her ability to differentiate between the two historical periods Possession treats—a strategy of which Jameson would unquestionably approve. And, of course, one cannot overlook Byatt's brilliant imitations of Victorian poetry and love letters, which contribute to her reconstruction of the nineteenth-century literary milieu. If it is impossible to separate completely historical narration from the politics of the present, it is still possible to view past eras as distinct from our own. Such distinctions are precisely what make Byatt's novel intimately concerned with the Victorian past: the nineteenth century, for her, is never simply contemporary people dressed in Victorian attire, but a recognizably different world—albeit with some similarities to the present.

Possession foregrounds the necessity (and pleasure) of imagining the way the Victorians saw the world via fiction as a way of knowing. Rather than mockingly negating the standard academic enterprise of recapturing literary and historical periods, Byatt appears more interested in showing that even though we cannot accurately reproduce the past, there is much to be gained by trying, and a great deal to be learned and enjoyed from the traces we can decipher. Narrative, in the end, paves over the gaps and creates plausibility, which for the historian and biographer is the best that can be hoped for. For example, Randolph and Christabel's trip to Yorkshire is Byatt's imagined version of what might have happened, based on the scanty documentary evidence available. Given the difficulty of retrieving the historical truth—the “bare facts” of what transpired between the two poets on that journey—what remains is the best and most satisfying interpretation of the data. As Frederick Holmes notes, the novel emphasizes the efficacy of the imagination in providing us with provisional structures with which to make sense of the past.27 As a historiographic metafiction, Possession constructs a notion of history predicated on interpretation, not on the discovery of historical “truths.” What is foregrounded is the process of attempting to assimilate historical data, and the necessity of literary and historical conventions to make a coherent and satisfying narrative out of the raw details of past lives. This is not to say that Byatt has dispensed with the notion of an historical referent, but that it is the frustrating, imprecise and finally rewarding process of “reaching back” for it that most fully captures her imagination.


Like Possession, Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton is concerned with the human need to imagine and reinvent the past, at the same time as it insists that the past has a way of eluding the grasp of those who would try to represent it. The poet and plagiarist Thomas Chatterton lived in the eighteenth century, but his role in the novel is that of the “text” subsequently reconfigured by two Victorians, the painter Henry Wallis and the writer George Meredith, as well as the novel's fictional twentieth-century protagonist, the struggling poet Charles Wychwood. Chatterton is a novel about plagiarism and forgery and the ways they necessarily complicate traditional notions of truth. The Trew Histories of Bristol, which the young Chatterton patches together from scraps of old manuscripts in the church storeroom and old histories found in his father's library, aims to reunite “the Living and the Dead” by “[shoring] up these ancient Fragments with my own Genius.”28 Chatterton's pastiche constructs history out of the accounts of others, noting that “If I took a passage from each [old history], be it ever so short, I found that in Unison they became quite a new Account and, as it were, Chatterton's Account” (p. 85). The conventional notion of historical “truth” is seen in this novel too as unattainable: layers of texts separate the historian from his subject, and his work becomes that of making the best synthesis of the accounts that have come before him. Dominick LaCapra's definition of historical documents as “texts that supplement and rework ‘reality’ and not mere sources that divulge facts about ‘reality’”29 suggests that history's referent is not so much the empirical past but other texts; this idea is worked out literally (and to great comic effect) in Ackroyd's novel.

Chatterton writes in explanation of his project that “I reproduc'd the Past and filled it with such Details that it was as if I were observing it in front of me: so the Language of ancient Dayes awoke the Reality itself for, tho' I knew it was I who composed these Histories, I knew also that they were true ones” (p. 85). Ackroyd interrogates the idea of plagiarism by suggesting that there is not much difference between Chatterton's inventing his Trew Histories from fragments of old bills and the accounts of earlier historians, and his “forging” the verse of actual dead poets under his own name. In representing himself as the fifteenth-century monk and poet Thomas Rowley, Chatterton notes that “I dressed him in Raggs, I made him Blind and then I made him Sing. I compos'd Elegies and Epicks, Ballads and Songs, Lyricks and Acrosticks, all of them in that curious contriv'd Style which speedily became the very Token of my own Feelings” (p. 87). The point here is that Rowley is Chatterton, and Chatterton's gift is not for forgery but ventriloquism, the ability to refract his own voice through a variety of personae.

Chatterton himself realizes that “The truest Plagiarism is the truest Poetry,” casting into doubt the value (and even the possibility) of originality in a way that persists throughout the three centuries covered by the scope of the novel. When Wychwood's librarian friend Philip Stack discovers that the batty novelist Harriet Scrope has “borrowed” her plots from a late nineteenth-century writer, he shrugs it off by telling himself that “there were only a limited number of plots in the world (reality was finite after all) and no doubt it was inevitable that they would be reproduced in a variety of contexts” (p. 70). What is at stake here is at once plagiarism and an acknowledgment of the inevitability of intertextuality. Umberto Eco has said that in writing The Name of the Rose he discovered “what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.”30 For Ackroyd, literary creativity consists largely of the ability to absorb and then rearticulate the past.

Henry Wallis' famous painting of the dead Chatterton becomes the focus of the debate between Wallis and George Meredith (who sat for Wallis as the model for Chatterton) over whether it is the artist's project to copy the world as it is or was, or whether he actually creates it anew. When Meredith claims that words are the reality, Wallis, personally obsessed with realistically representing Chatterton's death, balks—his trade depends on having a real object to depict. Meredith's rejoinder evokes Jameson's definition of pastiche by suggesting that the invention can actually appear more real than what it ostensibly represents:

I said that the words were real, Henry, I did not say that what they depicted was real. Our dear dead poet created the monk Rowley out of thin air, and yet he has more life in him than any medieval priest who actually existed. The invention is always more real … But Chatterton did not create an individual simply. He invented an entire period and made its imagination his own: no one had properly understood the medieval world until Chatterton summoned it into existence. The poet does not merely recreate or describe the world. He actually creates it. And that is why he is feared. (P. 157, ellipsis Ackroyd's)

Meredith's conviction that the poet “creates” the world anew complicates the question of truth, since it seems to do away with any referent to which the artist's representation is bound. “Creating the world” also has special resonance for the problem of representing the past. When Charles sits down to write the preface for his study of Chatterton, he gets as far as noting that documents recently discovered show that he wrote in the guise of Gray, Blake, and Cowper, among others; consequently, “our whole understanding of eighteenth-century poetry will have to be revised.” Then he stops, uncertain of “whether all this information came from the documents themselves, or from the biographies which Philip had lent him” (p. 127). The major revision of eighteenth-century poetry Charles suggests would be based on an array of contradictory biographies and two bags full of documents given to him—sheaves of poems written in the styles of a wide variety of eighteenth-century poets, poems whose veracity is questionable. To add to the many levels of forgery already in play, Charles has made photocopies of the originals, commenting to Philip with some mirth that “There has to be a copy … How could we know that it was real without a copy?” (p. 93, ellipsis Ackroyd's). This is one of the novel's central questions, and its answer is ultimately the ironic one that imitation proves, rather than copies, reality.

Charles comes to realize that even if he could get a fix on the empirical events of Chatterton's life, he couldn't know the “truth” of that life: although it did exist, there is no privileged textual rendition of it. Indeed, there may not be a way to render it in words at all. Initially irritated by the myriad discrepancies and contradictions in the biographies of Chatterton, Charles soon feels exhilarated by the impossibility of certainty, “for it meant that anything became possible. If there were no truths, everything was true” (p. 127). Charles's seemingly old-fashioned vision of art, with its “dream of wholeness, and of beauty” (p. 152), is opposed by Ackroyd to the cynical Jamesonesque voice which taunts (in the person of Andrew Flint, Charles's college friend and now a successful writer), “Don't you realise … that nothing survives now? Everything is instantly forgotten. There is no history anymore. There is no memory. There is no standard to encourage permanence—only novelty, and the whole endless cycle of new objects” (p. 150).

Ackroyd's novel is precisely the sort of text to give Jameson nightmares: its subject, after all, is the way in which an imitation can not only eclipse its referent, but make it unimportant, “one more idiolect among many.” Chatterton is more open than Possession to Jameson's critique of postmodernism because not only does it suggest that it is impossible to really know the past, but it goes on to imply that since this is the case, why not fabricate historical events? Chatterton's mixture of postmodernist relativism and a degree of sentimentality about the past is characteristic of the neo-Victorian genre. Yet at the same time that Ackroyd is skeptical about retrieving the past, he is painstaking in his recreations of actual historical circumstances. His Chatterton, Wallis, and Meredith are at once historically faithful and plausibly alien—they are meant to be different from Charles, even though their concerns (representation, truth, language) demonstrate a remarkable affinity.

Perhaps the most important factor that keeps Chatterton from being entirely antithetical to Jameson's view of historicity is its faith in the redemptive power of the past. Working on his famous painting of Chatterton's death, Henry Wallis recognizes that although the young poet's image “could never be as perfect upon the canvas as it now was in his understanding” (p. 164), the painting nonetheless immortalizes its subject. This knowledge of the way the past survives into the present, enriching it immeasurably, permits Charles to die peacefully from a brain tumor. Just before he dies, he feels himself to be Chatterton, lying poisoned on his garret bed. Chatterton's death blends seamlessly into Charles' own, and helps him let go of his wife and son: “nothing was ever lost and yet this was the last time he would ever see them, the last time, the last time … Vivien. Edward. I met them on a journey somewhere. We were travelling together” (p. 169, ellipsis Ackroyd's). Charles also lives on, as Edward understands when he goes to see Wallis' painting in the Tate Gallery, and in Chatterton's place on the garret bed sees his dead father instead; and when Vivien looks at her son and sees “the lineaments of Charles' face: her husband was dead and yet he was not yet dead” (p. 181).

This, then, is the lesson of Chatterton: that recycling past lives and past texts serves as a constant reminder that we are not alone, that we are always accompanied by the ghosts of bygone days. The poignancy of Charles' premature death does not detract from the comforts afforded by Ackroyd's playful juxtapositions of historical periods and figures. A world in which a twentieth-century man can meet Thomas Chatterton in an Indian restaurant, or pass George Meredith on an apartment staircase, is one in which the past is never past, in which history perpetually surrounds us and creates a sense of community and continuity. Brian Finney notes that in this novel, “the past resolves itself into a series of texts which themselves interact, bringing past to bear on present and occasionally present to bear on past—or at least the past as it is textually constituted in and by the present.”31 The novel celebrates the construction of literary history from a myriad of voices and documents whose origins we may have no way of tracing successfully, and Ackroyd suggests that knowing whether the poetry attributed to William Blake is truly his or was composed by Thomas Chatterton does not really matter—that it is the cumulative richness of the voices that ultimately counts. This sounds like the sort of cavalier historicism Jameson would despise, and yet Ackroyd's novel is not without historical rigor. Chatterton is a novel about interpretation, and it is important to the novel's point that Charles' rereading of the story of Chatterton's death is proven incorrect. The fact that Charles' quest to discover the truth about the poet ends unsuccessfully shows that some interpretations are more valid than others; even as it calls attention to how little evidence really exists for the generally accepted narrative of Chatterton's early demise. If there are no truths, and therefore everything is true, then the possibility of a redemptive past begins to fade from view—and yet although Charles exults in this statement, it turns out to be unsupported by the events of the novel. Everything is not “true” in Chatterton: the painting of Chatterton at fifty is a sham, and so, consequently, is Charles's revisionist theory.

Chatterton contradicts Flint's cynicism by insisting that history does survive, in texts, and that past figures and events are not “instantly forgotten.” Permanence, for Ackroyd, is found in a literary and artistic culture that infuses present society and helps to shape its identity. At the same time, Chatterton is thoroughly informed by the postmodern world view it gently mocks. In Ackroyd, appropriating the “styles” of the past is the means through which bygone lives become accessible and meaningful. Chatterton, Wallis, and Meredith were alive once, and Ackroyd's novel resurrects them to demonstrate the continuing relevance of their conversation about truth and the difficulty of representing accurately the past. Jameson's fear, extrapolated to Ackroyd's novel, would be that Ackroyd's sense of history boils down to little more than the invention of past lives, and yet I do not believe that is the message at the heart of Chatterton. Ackroyd's implication that we cannot know “the” truth of Chatterton's life is not to say that that one true version never existed. What Ackroyd is claiming is that because the past comes to us in textualized forms, what we are left with is a proliferation of possible “truths,” some more persuasive than others. The original—Chatterton's actual life—is not simply “one idiolect among many,” but Ackroyd does presume it unavailable. The end result is to show us that Thomas Chatterton did exist, and that the novel can bring him back to us—not in a pure state, but filtered through our present perspective. If, as Flint contends, postmodernity is made up of “the whole endless cycle of new objects,” one of the “objects” being recycled is the past, which is never new, but always newly relevant.

If Possession and Chatterton suggest that there are things about centuries past that are simply not knowable, they also exhibit a great deal of faith in the power of human curiosity. These are both, fundamentally, novels about literary detectives, and although Roland and Maud discover a long-hidden love affair while Charles' discoveries turn out to be fakes, what matters more than the substance of the truth is the process of truth-seeking. Jameson's sense of history's redemptive power exists in both novels in what the various “detectives” learn from their forays into the past; however, in these texts it is not the facts that alter irrevocably the present, but rather the protagonists' glimpses of what might have happened. As I have pointed out, it matters that Philip discovers Charles' findings to be invalid, but this seems less interesting to Ackroyd than the possibilities opened up by Charles' initial investigations into Chatterton's life and death. Recalling Charles' excitement over the putative Chatterton manuscripts, Philip realizes that it might be best not to make any further attempts to prove or disprove their authenticity. He and Charles had always agreed that “there is a charm and even a beauty in unfinished work—the face which is broken by the sculptor and then abandoned, the poem which is interrupted and never ended” and Philip wonders “Why should historical research not also remain incomplete, existing as a possibility and not fading into knowledge?” (p. 213).

It seems unlikely that Ackroyd is suggesting here that professional historians work only in the realm of “possibility.” What he is doing, instead, is illuminating the provisionality of historical knowledge. Kiely has described this as the purpose of postmodern historical fiction: not to “correct” mistakes or “set the record straight,” as it would be for the historian, but rather to “remember” mistakes, which for Kiely amounts to recognizing that there have always been alternate paths that documented history might have taken.32 Ackroyd's choice of the word “fading” above articulates the loss that occurs when, in making definitive claims, historians must reduce a web of possible meanings to one piece of “knowledge.” This is a reduction both Ackroyd and Byatt find unnecessary in the province of historical fiction, and that Jameson sees as instrumental to the Marxist historical project.

Neo-Victorian novels like Possession and Chatterton, then, attest to the unflagging desire for knowledge of the past, a desire not extinguished by doubts as to how accessible it really is. Ackroyd and Byatt feed this desire, although not to repletion, by offering visions of the present as an endless recycling of moments from past lives, past days, past texts. Seen in this light, Andrew Flint's comment on the loss of history and permanence and their replacement by a cycle of perpetual novelty seems to be precisely the view of popular culture that Chatterton and Possession counter. Things do survive, words foremost among them, and these moments from the past give us sustenance and remind us that we are not alone. Eliot's Middlemarch paves the way by offering a fictional world in which Dorothea and Bulstrode develop as characters by revising their interpretations of their personal histories. Eliot represents the past as entirely redemptive: because he can bring himself to accept his long-buried misdeeds, Bulstrode is able to repent and salvage some shreds of self-esteem. In Possession, Byatt depicts the past as a rich storehouse of knowledge about the dead. In uncovering the secret romance of Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, Roland and Maud (and their fellow scholars) must revise their understanding of Victorian literary history, and expand their sense of how men and women lived and loved in the nineteenth century. Even Chatterton, with its thoroughly postmodern skepticism regarding how accurately we can ever know the past, exhibits faith in the redemptive power of history by articulating the rich textures of a life in which the past permeates the present. Charles Wychwood's investigations into the life of Chatterton bring him solace: the serendipitously discovered painting of a middle-aged Chatterton, with its implications that the poet did not die at seventeen after all, conjures the undocumented paths history might have taken, and demonstrates the power of these unremarked possibilities to add an intriguing dimension to the present.

The novels I have discussed in this essay disrupt and complicate Fredric Jameson's notion of the “history of aesthetic styles” by showing that postmodern historical novels can indeed represent the past as redemptive. If Jameson sees postmodern consumer society as (like Ackroyd's Andrew Flint) an endless cycle of new objects with only the most superficial relation to the past, Byatt's and Ackroyd's novels, to varying degrees, show the postmodern present to be utterly emplotted by the past, and immeasurably enriched by it.


  1. I am broadly defining neo-Victorian novels as those novels that adopt a postmodern approach to history and that are set at least partly in the nineteenth century. This capacious umbrella includes texts that revise specific Victorian precursors, texts that imagine new adventures for familiar Victorian characters, and “new” Victorian fictions that imitate nineteenth-century literary conventions.

    Although this is not the place for an exhaustive catalogue of the neo-Victorian subgenre, I do wish to offer examples of the three categories I describe above. Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990) epitomizes the first category, while I would place in the second group Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton (New York: Grove Press, 1987) and A. S. Byatt's novella “The Conjugial Angel” (in Angels and Insects, New York: Random House, 1990). Byatt's Possession (New York: Random House, 1990) and Charles Palliser's The Quincunx (London: Canongate, 1989) are two of the best-known exemplars of the final class of neo-Victorian novels.

  2. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1991), p. 18. All references will hereafter be cited in the text in abbreviated form as CL.

  3. The waning interest in historical facts that Jameson sees as endemic to postmodern historicity reaches its zenith in the arguments over Holocaust representation, the paramount example of the problems engendered by the relativism of the postmodern historiographers. Without recourse to historical facts, Carlo Ginzburg argues, there is no way to discredit distortions of the past, fascist or otherwise. See Ginzburg's critique of Hayden White in “Just One Witness,” in Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution,” ed. Saul Friedlander (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 82–96, and “Checking the Evidence: The Judge and the Historian,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1991): 79–92.

  4. Fredric Jameson, “Marxism and Historicism,” in The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971–1986, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 150.

  5. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), p. 34. All references will hereafter be cited in the text in abbreviated form as PU.

  6. For a fuller articulation of the characteristics of postmodern historiography, see F. R. Ankersmit, “Historiography and Postmodernism,” History and Theory 28 (1989): 137–53.

  7. In tracing the relationship of Possession and Chatterton to Middlemarch, I am following in the footsteps of Robert Kiely and David Cowart, both of whom have written well about the Borgesian paradox of texts creating their own precursors. See Kiely, Reverse Tradition: Postmodern Fictions and the Nineteenth-Century Novel (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993) and Cowart, Literary Symbiosis: The Reconfigured Text in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1993). Although my own project focuses on postmodern historical novels, and specifically those concerned (at least in part) with the Victorian Era, I see my work as synchronous with both these authors in its desire to defamiliarize distinctions commonly made between nineteenth- and late-twentieth-century fictions.

  8. Murray Krieger, “Fiction, History and Empirical Reality,” Critical Inquiry 1, 2 (1974): 339.

  9. My discussion here is beholden to Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988). Hutcheon defines historiographic metafiction as “those well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages” (p. 5).

  10. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973). See pp. 7–11 for a definition of emplotment, pp. x, 427 for a discussion of the ways in which historiography and fiction converge. White notes that “the historian performs an essentially poetic act in ‘prefiguring’ the historical field upon which he will bring to bear various explanatory theories” (p. x, italics White's). I want also to stress here that the so-called postmodern historiographers are not the first to express skepticism about history's ability to “reproduce” the past. A. S. Byatt claims in her essay on Robert Browning that the understanding of history as “necessarily fictive” was in fact a “pervasive nineteenth-century perception” (Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings [New York: Turtle Bay Books, 1991], p. 5).

  11. Dominick LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), p. 18.

  12. See J. Hillis Miller, “Narrative and History,” ELH 41 (1974): 455–73. Miller claims that “Insofar as a novel raises questions about the key assumptions of story-telling, for example about the notions of origin and end, about consciousness or selfhood, about causality, or about gradually emerging unified meaning, then this putting in question of narrative form becomes also obliquely a putting in question of history or the writing of history” (p. 462). In Miller's formulation, then, as a novel deconstructs the assumptions of realism in fiction, it also deconstructs “naive” (the word is Miller's) notions about history and the writing of history.

  13. Avrom Fleishman, The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1971). p. 4. According to Fleishman, the “truth” in historical novels must correspond with historical fact and is universal, transcending “pæs own temperaments and preoccupations.” In addition, historical novels as he defines them liberate the reader from provincialism by compelling him or her to “leave home” and travel to other worlds.

  14. Ibid., p. 14.

  15. George Eliot, Middlemarch (London: Penguin, 1965), p. 40, hereafter cited in the text.

  16. Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), p. 32.

  17. Ibid., p. 33.

  18. LaCapra, Intellectual History, p. 18.

  19. Hutcheon, Poetics of Postmodernism, p. 45.

  20. Ibid., p. 146.

  21. Ibid., p. 137.

  22. A. S. Byatt, Possession, p. 542, hereafter cited in the text.

  23. Kiely, Reverse Tradition, p. 187.

  24. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 5.

  25. Kiely, Reverse Tradition, p. 187.

  26. Ibid., p. 213.

  27. Frederick M. Holmes, “The Historical Imagination and the Victorian Past: A. S. Byatt's Possession,English Studies in Canada 20:3 (1994): 331.

  28. Peter Ackroyd, Chatterton (New York: Grove Press, 1987), p. 85, hereafter cited in the text.

  29. LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History, p. 19.

  30. Umberto Eco, Postscript to the Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), p. 20.

  31. Brian Finney, “Peter Ackroyd, Postmodernist Play and Chatterton,Twentieth Century Literature 38.2 (1992): 258.

  32. Kiely, Reverse Tradition, p. 184.

Karl Miller (review date 19 April 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Thinking of England,” in Observer, April 19, 1998, p. 15.

[In the following review, Miller discusses Byatt's inclusions in the anthology The Oxford Book of English Short Stories.]

Virginia Woolf once mentioned, with a hint of displeasure, that Katherine Mansfield's husband had been saying that ‘the most distinguished writers of short stories’ in the England of the Twenties were agreed about Mansfield's importance as a practitioner of the art. Many others have felt that way. But Mansfield is not to be found in this Oxford Book. Insufficiently English, one supposes, since she grew up in New Zealand. Doris Lessing, however, who grew up in Southern Rhodesia, was considered for selection, before being left out. In terms of partiality—the criterion of descent which used to be employed for the admission to Britain of Commonwealth immigrants—there can hardly have been much to choose between them. Angus Wilson and Arnold Bennett are also absent, though not on grounds of nationality. A. S. Byatt is not among the more predictable anthologists.

She ‘decided to be stringent’ about the definition of Englishness, and it is no accident that her collection is published on St George's day. ‘It is not quite nice to think about being English,’ she writes. But she has done so. She took her assignment to ‘mean looking very narrowly for writers with pure English national credentials’. She didn't go searching for English images, and steeled herself against preconceptions concerning English styles and subject matter. Nevertheless, the result is a collection that shows ‘English empiricism, pragmatism, starkness, humour, satire, dandyism, horror and whimsy’. And English teeth. It is the false teeth in an Aldous Huxley story which make it ‘implacably comic, and yet it is also the teeth that provide the unpalatable pathos. Very English’.

The definition has its problems, but it can't be considered perverse. There are plenty of books of Scots, Welsh and Irish stories, and it would appear England has been stinted, if not starved, in this respect. Antonia Byatt goes about her project with gusto. There are a number of realist stories—including an excellent one by Alan Sillitoe about a boy's simultaneous desertion by both parents—together with a fondness for the grotesque and the fantastic. This is a well-crafted anthology which throws out a web of echoes and coincidences.

The Dickens item plays with the idea of forming a seraglio, and is followed by a Trollope which does the same: the narrator feels ‘as though I were a sort of Mohammed in Paradise’. D. H. Lawrence's man who loved islands’ is taken up into a realm where ‘all the souls that never die veer and swoop on their vast, strange errands’, while T. H. White has ‘winter spirits’ who ‘move on their darkling courses’. Lawrence and White are made to seem kindred spirits, if not fellow sorcerers; there's a real mutuality here. The pragmatic English short story has never been afraid to swerve into romance. In one story here, the astral body of H. G. Wells performs a space flight.

Byatt has ranged widely for her specimens and come up with unfamiliar ones. The arrival of the English short story is dated early in the nineteenth century, and she leads off with two tales of the time which not everyone may like as much as she does. The first is a flight of fancy by William Gilbert, father of Sullivan's collaborator, about a pious fraud, a pig and an imp. The second, ‘The Haunted House’ by Dickens, is a garrulous piece written as a preface for a series of tales of the supernatural, which looks vulnerable here.

The third of the 37 stories is a find. This is the Trollope, about two pairs of purloined trousers. A plump Anglican priest visits a Belgian museum where he dons the pantaloons of a war hero, having shed his own. Trollope is a little shy in specifying what the war hero's ‘virile habiliments’ actually look like. By the standards of discretion ascribed to the Victorian age, however, this is not a shy story. The narrator's seraglio of harpy English gentlewomen seizes the prebendary's pants and slices them up for souvenirs. This canonical farce has the air of a ritual castration. It also suggests that the abusive British tourist of recent years has nineteenth-century forebears.

Elsewhere men get their own back. Charlotte Mew's saintly girl is buried alive by some of those Spanish monks who behave so badly in Gothic romance. T. H. White's story is set within the Arctic Circle in a hotel. A troll—at other times, outwardly a professor—is spied through a keyhole making a meal of his wife. Next day, the manageress says a guest has been bereaved. ‘The poor Dr Professor has disappeared his wife,’ as she puts it, all too well. Another lady vanishes in ‘Solid Geometry’ by Ian McEwan. Here, a man removes a spouse by geometric and gymnastic magic. McEwan walks this tightrope without a falter.

The marriage stories include Thomas Hardy's continuously surprising account of an impassive West Country girl who doesn't like schoolteaching, sets off to wed an older man and marries an old flame instead. The bride is her own woman, but a far cry from the independent New Woman of the period. This story goes well with Malachi Whitaker's portrayal of love and marriage at first sight, all in the day's work of a train journey north from King's Cross. A fine Penelope Fitzgerald deals with marriage and childbirth in the New Zealand of the early settlers. She did not grow up in New Zealand, and has lately been hailed in London as ‘a very English genius’; there can have been no doubts as to her eligibility to appear here.

There are anthologies which are or aspire to be representative, and others which are personal. This one is distinctly personal. It sometimes resembles one of those centos from two centuries ago—passages of other people's writing sewn together by an authorial single hand or circle of friends. It's all the better for its themes and correspondences, its ‘threads of connection and contrast’. You might even claim that Trollope's trousers are echoed at the opposite end of the book by Leonora Carrington's flannel knickers, in a surreal story of that name.

Katie Grant (review date 14 November 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Tricks of the Light,” in Spectator, Vol. 281, No. 8889, November 14, 1998, p. 54.

[In the following review, Grant praises the stories in Byatt's Elementals.]

Opening this little collection of short stories [Elementals] is like opening a jewellery box. You extricate a brooch which is, as a concept, essentially a workaday object. It is the coloured gem which is attached to the clasp that, in different lights, transforms the mundane into something magical. This is the art of the lapidarist and this is also the art of A. S. Byatt.

In ‘Crocodile Tears’, the first story of the six, she gives us Patricia Nimmo, a suddenly widowed, unremarkable, middle-aged home counties lady. This perfectly ordinary woman in unfortunate but not unusual circumstances is transformed into something extraordinary as Byatt reveals her in her contrasting lights. ‘Crocodile Tears’ is a tale of warmth and cold, of clarity and obscurity, of the commonplace and the bizarre. It never becomes so fanciful that it loses its sense of the real, yet it is written with a detachment which, despite the detailed, factual descriptions of place and colour, make it as mysterious as a fable or a fairy story.

The following tales—‘Stories of Fire and Ice’, as the author calls them—reach a climax of fancy in ‘Cold’, an unashamed imaginative flight ripe for interpretation by budding literary critics. Then we are slowly brought back to earth until in ‘Jael’ we are, or at least we think we are, listening to the schoolgirl reminiscences of a maker of advertisements. This penultimate story chills the spine even more than imagining the naked rompings of Princess Fiammarosa in the snow. Byatt then adds, as a sort of coda, what she imagines the story to be behind the painting by Velazquez entitled ‘The Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’. This is a faultless short story, told in such a matter-of-fact tone that one must read carefully to take in the build-up of detail which makes the final dénouement so perfect.

It is part of Byatt's talent that she uses the same formula, the mixing of fact and fancy, for both her novels and her short stories to equal effect. That the short stories, in my opinion, seem more memorable is a tribute rather than a criticism. In the spirit of Pascal, when Byatt has time to make her writings shorter, they gain in zest. She is obsessed by obsession but often needs no more than a dozen or so pages, rather than several hundred, to infect the reader.

Obsession for Byatt is a quest for knowledge of some kind. Possession and Angels and Insects are as much living encyclopaedias as novels and it is not necessarily always to her novels' advantage that they display the sort of intricate familiarity with obscure subjects that is more usually to be found in dusty academic tomes. However, in her short stories the lists—of, for example, painting techniques in ‘A Lamia in the Cevennes’—never overwhelm. Byatt uses her methodological expertise as the warp and her imagination as the weft. The result is a rare balance.

If Byatt does not paint herself, maybe she should, for everything in her world is coloured and textured. Descriptions of both are a vital part of the developing stories. Patricia throws off her confident bright yellow home counties suit and buys a white silk jersey dress of falling pleats, gold slippers, ‘a honeycomb cotton robe, in aquamarine’, and a ‘gold-and-silver striped toothbrush’ when she arrives in Nîmes, a place of ‘warm cream and gold stone’ and ‘white places where she blinked and saw water’. Bernard, the painter, wrestles to capture ‘recalcitrant blue’ and ‘amiable, non-natural aquamarine’ but ends up capturing an enchanted spirit trapped in a snake's body, a ‘miraculous black velvet rope’. The ice princess, whose rosy flush gives way to milky paleness ‘like white rose petals’, is only truly herself when she is encased in a ‘crackling skin of ice’ that breaks into ‘spiderweb-fine veined sheets’ as she dances.

This is a happy book whose stories benefit from being taken out and reread from different angles. Whatever the angle, they glitter. Byatt has done it again.


Byatt, A(ntonia) S(usan)