Antonia Susan Byatt (BI-uht) began her career as a novelist in the shadow of her younger sister Margaret Drabble’s reputation as a novelist of quality and considerable popularity. Drabble, who used the family surname, began writing novels in the 1960’s, and it was assumed that Byatt, who took her first husband’s surname, would become an academic. Byatt’s first book was a study of the novelist Iris Murdoch, and she became a part-time lecturer at the University of London in the 1960’s, after studies at Cambridge, Bryn Mawr, and Oxford.
Byatt published her first novel, Shadow of a Sun, in 1964 and a second, The Game, in 1967. These were received with quiet approval but had only modest sales, and in 1972, she became a full-time lecturer at the University of London. Drabble, who continued to publish novels throughout this period, became a popular book reviewer and a minor media celebrity, while Byatt quietly pursued her academic career. In 1978 Byatt produced a substantial novel, The Virgin in the Garden, a formidable study of two intelligent, charming sisters starting out on their adult life. It was offered as the first of a quartet. The second volume, Still Life, appeared in 1985, the third, Babel Tower, was published in 1996, and the fourth, A Whistling Woman, in 2002. The latter book brought the story of the two sisters up to the 1960’s. Byatt’s fifth novel, Possession, which won the prestigious Booker Prize, has overshadowed the trilogy in both popularity and critical acclaim, although it may not be, in fact, quite as fine artistically as The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life.
Possession is an unusual example of a novel of literary merit and technical weight transcending the public’s usual lack of interest in serious novels. This is partly because the book is, at heart, a love story, but part of its appeal lies in its technical complexity and in its incorporation of formidable amounts of poetry, supposedly written by the lovers. Two time frames are used in the plot, in which late twentieth century scholars are on the trail of two famous English writers of the nineteenth century. Byatt draws on her scholastic background to create successful imitations of nineteenth century poetry, using the style of Robert Browning for the male lover and a combination of Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson for the female writer. The novelty of this, combined with a kind of scholastic, twentieth century mystery tour, caught the fancy of both the critics and the public. (The book was turned into a movie directed by Neil LaBute in 2002.)
The novel is, in fact, not so much a surprise as it might seem, as there is in Byatt’s fiction a strong dependence on literary themes. Shadow of a Sun is a study of a young girl coming into maturity under the influence of her father’s celebrity as a popular novelist. The Game is even more autobiographical in its investigation of the rivalry between two sisters, one a novelist and the other an academic. The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life also use the relationship between two sisters with strong literary interests. In Possession Byatt went even further, including long stretches of poetry, supposed diary entries, letters, and complicated literary clues. The Biographer’s Tale, in which a young literary scholar begins researching not a nineteenth century writer but his biographer, includes the biographer’s index cards full of notes; one reviewer called the book a “detective story for the MLA set.” Byatt’s novels have their romantic attractions, but they are also witty explorations of the mean-spirited chicanery of the academic world and the emotional problems of late twentieth century women who are intent upon their careers. Byatt’s interest in how women make lives for themselves connects her, if modestly and undoctrinally, to the feminist movement in literature.
Byatt’s writing, like Drabble’s, is intelligent, witty, and unpedantic and her works are accessible to a wide range of readers. Possession made Byatt a literary celebrity, and she subsequently succeeded to the role of intellectual commentator that her sister had filled previously.
After Possession, Byatt busied herself with considerable work as a book reviewer and with producing shorter fiction. The resort to the narrower form does not cramp her zest for the odd idea. In “Morpho Eugenia,” one of the two tales in Angels and Insects (made into a movie in 1995), she presents a young Victorian naturalist and his problems as a lover, husband, and scholar in a grand country house; the tale is furnished with long disquisitions on the exotic world of insects, which, like the literary intrusions of Possession, have a perverse charm. Byatt seems intent on reminding the reader of the pleasure of reading for reading’s sake, which was a commonplace in the Victorian age. Thus it seems reasonable that stories about Victorians should be similarly indulgent and expansive. The Matisse Stories are less eccentric but have a refreshing oddity of their own in using three works by the French painter Henri Matisse as the basis for short tales of contemporary urban living—a version of one kind of art imitating another.
Byatt’s short story collections The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and Elementals mark a turn to writing folk and fairy tales and about the study of folk and fairy tales. The title story of The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, for instance, concerns a folklore scholar attending an academic conference in Istanbul who encounters a djinn. Offered the traditional three wishes, she uses her knowledge of folk tale conventions to make three decidedly unusual requests.
Antonia Susan Byatt was born into the Drabble family in Sheffield, England, on August 24, 1936. Her parents were educated at Cambridge University, and she and her sister, Margaret Drabble (also a fiction writer and respected literary critic), were educated at Cambridge, where they had distinguished careers. Their father was a High Court judge and their mother a teacher. Part of Byatt’s education took place in a boarding school, Mount School, a Quaker girls’ school in York. Upon graduating from Cambridge in 1957, she spent a scholarship year at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, and did further study at Oxford in 1958-1959. In 1959, she married Ian Byatt, with whom she had two children. They divorced in 1969, and she married Peter Duffy, with whom she had two more children.
Her academic career began at the University of London, and she became a full-time member of the English Department in 1972. In 1964, her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, appeared. She began to publish criticism in 1965 with her study of Iris Murdoch, Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch. In 1978, she offered a first volume of a set of four novels, The Virgin in the Garden. She continued her academic career until 1983, and a second novel in the tetralogy, Still Life (1985), added to her growing reputation. Possession: A Romance (1990) was both a critical and a popular success, and her career has flourished internationally ever since. In 1996, she published the third volume of the tetralogy, Babel Tower, and in the 1990’s she added a considerable number of short stories to her bibliography.
A. S. Byatt, born Antonia Susan Drabble, grew up in an intellectual household. Her father was a judge, and her sister, Margaret Drabble, also became a novelist—indeed much better known than Byatt until the publication of Possession. Byatt’s second novel was regarded as autobiographical, exploring the relationship with her sister in terms that reminded certain critics of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Byatt attended both Oxford and Cambridge universities, both of which form the fabric of her novels.
Byatt’s career proceeded slowly. She gave birth to four children and taught in London, Spain, India, and Korea. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, there were other interruptions and disturbances as well—major life changes and events such as her divorce from Ian Byatt, her marriage to Peter Duffy, and the death of her son Charles. She did not devote herself full time to writing until the mid-1980’s, remaining in the shadow of her highly successful sister.
The publication of Possession fundamentally altered perceptions of Byatt’s reputation. This novel’s re-creation of the past, its commentary on modern literary criticism and the mores of the Victorians, and its panoply of vivid characters solidified Byatt’s role as one of the central writers on the modern period and its relationship to the immediate past. Possession won the prestigious Booker Prize, and Byatt was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
While no subsequent novel by her has achieved both the critical and popular success of Possession, Byatt’s reputation as one of the foremost contemporary novelists has been secured. Critics acknowledge her riveting narrative power as well as her deft handling of ideas in ambitious, sprawling novels.