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.