A. S. Byatt
I came belatedly to the reading of A.S. Byatt, beginning with her recent novel, The Children’s Book, and moving to Angels and Insects, and then to the Frederica Potter Quartet. (The omissions, mea culpa, are many.) The latter, The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman, focuses on the family Potter, and constitutes an analysis of a generation that came of age in England in the fifties and experienced the accelerating social change of its post-war years. These were the days of the loss of empire, sexual liberation, wider access for women to male-dominated universities, the welfare state, and the effect of the new mass media. There are also clear pointers to the student revolutions of the time, establishment of communes, as well as expansion of higher education.
Frederica negotiates these upheavals with a self-assured recklessness that is matched by her extraordinary intellect and resilience. She suffers often for her excess and yet develops fierce independence, one that commands respect if not affection. Her friendships and her family’s connections provide the perspectives on education, art and literature, scientific research, aberrant psychology, and the social class structure. There are multiple voices, books that exist within books (as in Babel Tower) and, in an anticipatory look at the latest work, The Children’s Book.
Reading Byatt is rather like attending a free-wheeling graduate seminar – in literature, art and art history, natural science or psychology. The effect is never short of stimulating and demanding. The dialogue can have you reaching for a reference work or rereading passages to gather the import of thought – Frederica’s concern with the history of metaphor for one. The discussions of art, art history, the development of the novel, even the abstruse fantasies of religious mania all find assured places in the dialogue. Byatt seems an author who does not suffer foolish readers gladly.
Her range is wide. She can write with great sensitivity of the demands of parish life, in the person of Frederica’s brother-in-law, Daniel– a man fated to be both a suffering servant and self-effacing counselor. She is just as adept in the grasp of scientific research (in this case the biology of snails and the nascent use of computers in analyzing date) – as remarkable as it was in Angles and Insects. Her grasp of the Victorian arts and science were on display in that work, and in Possession and in The Children’s Book.
There is such substance in The Quartet, emotional, intellectual, stylistic and structural, that I wonder it has not kept in wider circulation. It is not even published in this country in a single volume as it is in the UK. Perhaps her focus is simply too British for greater notice here, but her artistry goes beyond any parochial concerns.