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A. S. Byatt began her career as a critic with Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965) and has continued to produce occasional literary criticism. Her major work, however, has been in the novel; she has produced several novels and since the late 1980’s has published a considerable amount of short fiction.
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In 1986, A. S. Byatt received the Silver Pen Award for her novel Still Life (1985). She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1959 and was awarded an English Speaking Union Fellowship in 1957-1958 and a Royal Society of Literature Fellowship in 1983 for her services to English literature. In 1990, Byatt was awarded the prestigious Booker McConnell Prize for her novel Possession (1990), which also received the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize and the Best Book in Commonwealth Prize. She has become an international literary celebrity and is often asked for comment on artistic and social matters by British newspapers, journals, radio, and television.
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A. S. Byatt (BI-uht) has been a prolific writer of short fiction and has collected her stories in Sugar, and Other Stories (1987), The Matisse Stories (1993), The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories (1997), Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998), and Little Black Book of Stories (2003). An accomplished literary critic, she has published Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965), Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time (1970; republished as Unruly Times, 1989), Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings (1991), On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays (2000), and Portraits in Fiction (2001). These works reflect Byatt’s strong interest in philosophy, the history of ideas and of literature, and literary criticism. Vintage Byatt (2004) includes stories and excerpts from her long fiction.
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Although A. S. Byatt began writing fiction in the 1960’s, her achievement as a novelist did not receive widespread recognition until the reviews of her tour-de-force novel, Possession, which combined many of the elements of her earlier novels and literary criticism: the ambiance of academic life; the roles of creative writers, scholars, and critics; the search for religious meaning; and the relationship between the modern and Victorian eras.
Byatt’s first novel, Shadow of a Sun, focused on a novelist, and her second examined the relationship of two sisters in the environs of Oxford University; neither book excited more than respectful attention. However, her third novel, The Virgin in the Garden, seemed to many critics a major advance that put her in the same league as Doris Lessing, Anthony Powell, Lawrence Durell, and other important modernist writers. Set in the early 1950’s, the novel pursues the questions of religious faith, modern science, and England’s effort to redefine itself in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952.
Byatt’s novels reflect the lives of highly intelligent people, like the novels of Iris Murdoch, one of Byatt’s influences. Indeed, the process of thinking, of sorting out positions on literature, science, history, and religion, is central to all of Byatt’s fiction. She is the novelist as historiographer—that is, she is interested not only in theories of history, of how history is interpreted, but also in how her characters are themselves the products of the periods in which they live. Although critics have noted that her novels are often built like works of Victorian long fiction, with many story strands and large casts of characters, critics also recognize her modernism insofar as her narrative is also hermeneutic, concerned with how characters interpret their fate and the shaping forces of nature, history, and cultural manners.
On one hand, Byatt’s fiction has been compared to that of the Brontës because of Byatt’s intensely romantic plots, but on the other hand, she has also been compared to writers such as James Joyce because of her affinity for experiments withpoint of view. Byatt is very much the modernist in her concern with the teller as well as with the tale.
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What does A. S. Byatt define as a healthy balance between career success and emotional fulfillment for women?
What does Byatt believe is the role of religion in contemporary culture? What distinctions does she draw between religion and faith, or spirituality?
What themes are common to the two novellas in Angels and Insects?
Identify a scene in either “Morpho Eugenia” or “The Conjugial Angel” that you believe is implausible. Justify its inclusion in or state how it detracts from the story.
What solace do the characters in The Virgin in the Garden find in various types of artistic expression? Does Byatt appear to favor one creative endeavor, such as painting, over another, such as literature?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496
Adil, Alev. “Obeying the Genie.” Times Literary Supplement (January 6, 1995): 20. Discussion of the language in Byatt’s short stories, with particular emphasis on the fairy stories.
Alfer, Alexa, and Michael J. Noble, eds. Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. For the advanced student of Byatt. This volume includes at least one essay on each of her major works (two on Possession). Includes an index and a select bibliography.
Bawer, Bruce. “What We Do for Art.” New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1995, p 9. It is often suggested that Byatt’s world lacks realistic credibility. The Matisse Stories are discussed with that charge in mind.
Brookner, Anita, et al. “A. S. Byatt: Possession: A Romance.” Contemporary Literary Critics Yearbook 65 (1990): 121-133. Anita Brookner, the prominent British novelist and book reviewer, is joined by six other reviewers in commenting on the novel, but it is put in a context with her other works, including the short stories.
Burgess, Catherine. A. S. Byatt’s “Possession”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2002. A clear and comprehensive introduction to the novel, including sections on Byatt, background reading, and critical commentary.
Campbell, Jane. A. S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2004. A comprehensive reading of Byatt’s fiction, including A Whistling Woman. Campbell focuses on Byatt’s feminism and literary development.
Franken, Christien. A. S. Byatt: Art, Authorship, Creativity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. An especially useful commentary for students of Byatt’s sophisticated commentary on modern art and the role of the author or creator in the context of contemporary literary and art criticism.
Hulbert, Ann. “The Great Ventriloquist: A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance.” In Contemporary British Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Robert E. Hosmer, Jr. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A serious investigation of Byatt’s work with feminist overtones.
Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. A. S. Byatt. New York: Twayne, 1996. Part of a well-established series of introductions to literary figures, this volume includes a chronology, annotated bibliography, biographical sketch, and commentary on Byatt’s individual works.
Reynolds, Margaret, and Jonathan Noakes. A. S. Byatt: The Essential Guide. New York: Random House, 2004. Provides a close reading of Byatt’s novels, a well-developed interview with Byatt, and a thorough discussion of themes and techniques.
Spufford, Francis. “The Mantle of Jehovah.” London Review of Books (June 25, 1987): 22-23. A review of Sugar and Other Stories put into the context of her other work, with special emphasis on the relation of her fiction to the genre of the British middle class novel.
Todd, Robert. A. S. Byatt. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1997. A short critical introduction to Byatt and her works.
Wood, James. “England.” In The Oxford Guide to Contemporary Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Byatt expects her readers to be well educated, and with that presumption in mind, she adds artistic and general intellectual allusions to enrich her themes. Wood suggests that much of the time such additions are unsuccessful and intrusive.
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