The Virgin in the Garden

by A. S. Byatt

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Denser and more complicated than Byatt’s previous books, The Virgin in the Garden appeared after a long period of personal turmoil that resulted in a sort of literary rebirth. The novel’s time line spans the 1952-1953 academic year at Blesford Ride, and it is the first of four novels that will trace the fortunes of the Potter family alongside those of post-World War II England. Fictionally, this is the year in which Stephanie marries, Frederica attains the grades that determine her college choices, and Marcus suffers a nervous breakdown. Historically, Queen Elizabeth II succeeds her father as reigning monarch and accepts the coronation. In Byatt’s novel, however, both the Potter family and 1950’s England witness the rise of a new monarch: sexual relations.

The Potter’s oldest daughter Stephanie resists her attraction to clergyman Daniel Orton as a way of reaffirming the intellectual aspirations that have been lagging since she began teaching grammar school. The middle child Frederica would love nothing more than to be swept off her feet by teacher and playwright, Alexander Wedderburn. Alex’s play depicting the life of Queen Elizabeth I, intended to usher in the era of her namesake, serves as a focal point for much of the novel’s action and permits Frederica and Alexander a greater degree of intimacy than is perhaps advisable. The young woman’s innocence is reaffirmed, however, through her shock and surprise at Alex’s ongoing affair with the wife of the German master, Jenny Parry, and through her obliviousness to the relations between instructor Thomas Poole and her own classmate, Anthea Warburton, although both situations cast their dismal shadow over Frederica’s own escapades.

In the midst of these tensions—sexual, emotional, and intellectual—the youngest Potter child, Marcus, withdraws into a world of his own, mentored by Lucas Simmonds, the math teacher, and thus the antithesis to the children’s father, William Potter, head of the English department. Marcus is an intuitive young man who visualizes a complex network of images and is thus able to solve complicated mathematical problems, until his intuition is subjected to scrutiny. In an attempt to quantify his gift, Simmonds runs the boy through exercises that would now be called paranormal studies, all the while insinuating himself into the boy’s innermost world. Eventually, the teacher makes a sexual advance toward Marcus that causes the older man to attempt suicide and leads the younger to suffer a mental collapse.

As unique as each situation may be, all reflect a facet of the same gem: unconsummated desire. For despite the rampant atmosphere of sexual activity, what is most interesting is all the sex that is not taking place. Stephanie and Daniel, despite their attraction for one another, fumble through the physicality of their relationship hampered by their private emotional and intellectual burdens. Alex’s lover grows increasingly frustrated with the discomforts of stolen love, and her frustration renders him unable to satisfy her. Frederica’s fumbling advances to her teacher could almost be comical were there not such serious repercussions to the corresponding behavior of her classmates and siblings.

For all of the tension, Byatt acknowledges that virginity may offer its own rewards, as in the case of Queen Elizabeth I, who withheld her favors to maintain title and control of her country. In general, however, Byatt treats sexual innocence much like spiritual faith that has not been tested. Both create a tremendous amount of irritation and excitability, but despite all of their rich promise, both remain infertile and barren; hence, the paradox of her title.

However, while sexual desire translates on one plane to spirituality, on another it equates to literary criticism. The innocence...

(This entire section contains 793 words.)

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of Frederica’s body is in stark contrast with the experience of her mind. The girl inherited a keen textual eye from her father, and yet, lacking the creative experience that someone like Alex possesses, can she read responsibly? By posing this complex question,The Virgin in the Garden differs from Byatt’s previous two novels, and she has now landed in the world of postmodernism.

The contemporary reader will necessarily approach a text with a certain amount of knowledge, very much like the brilliantly educated and wickedly smart Frederica. The contemporary author might, like Stephanie, feel some hesitation at imposing the seemingly arbitrary limits necessitated by the narrative framework, although few contemporary critics seem as hesitant as Marcus is to expose the patterns. It will remain to later novels for Byatt to determine whether the contemporary reader, trapped within a dense network of literary theory, can continue to exist in an innocent state or whether only a creative act of one’s own will finally initiate the reader into a realm of knowledge commensurate with the author.