(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 entire section is 793 words.)