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About this book

This comprehensive new study offers a detailed analysis of all of Byatt's fiction and also discusses her critical output. Mariadele Boccardi examines Byatt's work in the light of postmodern concerns with language, narrative and self-referentiality.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Frontmatter

1. Introduction: A.S. Byatt — A ‘New’ British Novelist?

Abstract
A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance won the 1990 Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary accolade. This novel appeared to encapsulate the literary trends of the previous decade: formal experimentation, a concern with the representation of the past, a sprawling plot centred around a mystery, the ludic proliferation of texts whose status as real or invented was insistently questioned and the metafictional dimension of action and narrative. Possession also heralded the direction that fiction in Britain would take in the following decade and beyond, most notably in its preoccupation with the factors shaping individual identity and its corollary gesturing towards a postmodern, millennial socio-intellectual context shared by characters, authors and readers alike. As Peter Childs cumulatively phrases it, in the novel Byatt ‘brought together satirical slants on post-structuralist theory, the academic novel, detective fiction, the late Victorian Romance, and literary biography’, and thus ‘succeeded in blending the social perspective of the liberal realist novel with a dissection of history, identity, and language more typical of postmodernist writing’ (11).
Mariadele Boccardi

2. A Resistance to Biographical Readings: The Shadow of the Sun (1964) and The Game (1967)

Abstract
Professor Mortimer Cropper, biographer of Randolph Henry Ash in Possession, is a ghoulish hoarder who will stop at nothing to appropriate his subject; Scholes Destry-Scholes, the biographer who becomes the subject of Phineas G. Nansom’s biographical aspirations in The Biographer’s Tale, turns out to have fabricated much of the accepted lives of his subjects. Byatt’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sun (1964), dramatises the relationship between a creative artist and his greedy critic, with the former complaining of the latter: ‘he pries, he nibbles, he draws conclusions, he defines, on scraps of information no one with any real tact would try to make anything out of’ (7). These are warnings of the dangers of believing that the meaning of a text should or can be approached via the person of the author. Indeed, in the essay ‘Identity and the Writer’ (1987) Byatt states that one of her aims is ‘to expunge the presence of the self, the presence of the “I” from my idea of writing’ (23), a sentiment Christien Franken glosses as a dislike for ‘the idea of the writer as somebody who autobiographically expresses him- or herself in fiction’, when instead ‘writing serves as an escape from the self towards the imagination of other worlds, other people’s minds, lives, feelings and thoughts’ (13).
Mariadele Boccardi

Major Works

3. Chronicles of Post-War England: The Virgin in The Garden (1978), Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996), A Whistling Woman (2002)

Abstract
The four novels centred around the Potter family and particularly the younger daughter Frederica, which are generally referred to as the Tetralogy or the Frederica Quartet, are emblematic of the representational, intellectual and historicist project of Byatt’s fiction more generally. They function singly, as narratives dealing with the broad sociocultural conditions of a particular moment in England’s post-war history (the early and late 1950s, the early and late 1960s, respectively), but also as a sequence, proposing a chronicle of the changes in the nation’s attitudes towards education, gender, power and art. The connections between the individual texts, both backwards and forwards, thus bind each temporal and geographical setting closer to the others and foster the sense of a historical continuum, even if the direction of this ideal chronological line is not univocal and much of the sense of historicity comes from the later novels’ return to earlier themes, events and locations.
Mariadele Boccardi

4. Victorian Echoes: Possession: A Romance (1990), Angels and Insects (1992), The Biographer’s Tale (2000)

Abstract
If the ambitious scope of the Tetralogy recalls the breadth of the Victorian realist novel, Byatt’s best-known book, Possession: A Romance (1990) explicitly returns to that narrative model in the setting as well as in its form. Using the strategy of alternating between two time frames — the mid-nineteenth century and the contemporary 1980s — the novel foregrounds both the unbridgeable differences between the two periods and the underlying correspondences. Richard Todd traces the worldwide success of the novel, in sales as well as critical reception, after it was awarded the 1990 Booker Prize for fiction, and suggests that ‘[t]here was clearly something in Possession that appealed to a quite astonishing variety of readers’ tastes in the British Isles, mainland Europe, the “Commonwealth” market and — unusually — the United States’ (30).
Mariadele Boccardi

5. Colours, Textures and Narrative Patterns: A.S. Byatt’s Short-Story Collections

Abstract
‘On the Day that E.M. Forster Died’, collected in Byatt’s first volume of short stories, Sugar and Other Stories (1987), epitomises not only the author’s concerns in this book but also the general nature, structure and narrative tone of her short stories in the five collections to date. It has an intrusive, authoritative and omniscient narrator who controls the direction of the story from a clearly articulated position of power, starting with the statement that‘[t]his is a story about writing. It is a story about a writer who believed, among other things, that the time for writing about writing was past’ (129). This opening explicitly separates the narratorial position from the protagonist’s. It features a female protagonist (Mrs Smith) who is both a writer and a wife and mother, whose thoughts and feelings are openly available to the reader, though disclosed through the distanced perspective of the narrator. The most consistent of these concerns is the apparent contradiction of an intense passion for art as an integral part of her life and a mistrust of the claims made for art as a form of salvation from the world. The story has a loosely episodic plot punctuated by reflections on language and plotting by both narrator and protagonist.
Mariadele Boccardi

6. The Inexorable Movement of History: The Children’s Book (2009)

Abstract
Byatt’s most recent novel to date, The Children’s Book (2009), recapitulates many of the concerns of her earlier fiction and refines some of the narrative strategies and metafictional elements deployed in previous works. The book marks a return to the historical novel, the genre that had brought the author worldwide recognition with Possession and, like the former novel, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (without, however, winning it). It features an author of fairy tales for children as one of the central characters, giving Byatt the opportunity for metafictional forays into the relationship between fantasy fiction and its material sources, as well as a vehicle for the interpolation of original stories within the main narrative, in the manner of Possession’s poetry and tales and, of course, of Byatt’s own collections, particularly The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and Elementals. The scope of the novel is as ambitious as that of the Tetralogy, with numerous locations, dozens of variously important characters, a range of minutely detailed artistic and political enterprises from which analogies can be drawn to the main action and the narrative form, and a span of two decades, all matching the characteristics of the Frederica novels, but in one volume.
Mariadele Boccardi

Criticism and Contexts

7. A Survey of Landmark Interviews

Abstract
As is the case with several other aspects of A.S. Byatt’s career, the publication of Possession in 1990 marks a watershed in the subject matter, frequency and length of the interviews with the author; it also sees her profile raised in the national and international press beyond academic publications, where early conversations with critics appeared. Broadly, interviews before and immediately after that landmark novel centre on establishing the author’s credentials and track record as a woman writer and a contemporary, sophisticated practitioner of realism. Subsequent examples range much more widely in their (and Byatt’s) interests to include her views on science, philosophy, religion, education and current cultural trends. They serve to confirm her acknowledged status as a public intellectual in the Arnoldian mode, as is made apparent by her ‘privileging of aesthetics and devaluation of politicized criticism … within a rearticulated Arnoldian framework that clearly places the connection between the creative and the critical in contemporary discourse in a hierarchy’ (Adams 2008a: 339–40).
Mariadele Boccardi

8. Other Writings

Abstract
A.S. Byatt’s critical writings span her whole career and stand in an elusive and yet inescapable relation with her fiction. In the ‘Introduction’ to Passions of the Mind (1991), the volume which collects 21 pieces which first appeared elsewhere and which range widely in subject matter, nature and length, Byatt asserts her difference from ‘[n]ovelists’ who ‘claim that their fiction is quite a separate thing from their other written work’, declaring instead: ‘I have never felt such a separation’ (1). Indeed, the very title of the book, published only a year after the success of Possession, seems to return to the central theme of the novel, the communion of intellectual and romantic pursuits. It is therefore tempting to assess her criticism in light of the fiction, so that, for instance, the long essays on Robert Browning’s use of the figure of Lazarus or on George Eliot’s essays and religious belief in that collection, with their expert historical and literary knowledge of the Victorians and their ideas, are seen as companions to the re-creation of the nineteenth century (and, of course, the creation of the character of Randolph Ash) in Possession.
Mariadele Boccardi

9. Critical Reception

Abstract
One of the most intriguing aspects of A.S. Byatt’s long and distinguished presence on the British literary scene is that, by looking at the critical reception of her work, one can glean as much about trends in criticism as about the author’s production. Despite the variety of genres, settings and themes of Byatt’s oeuvre, some underlying preoccupations persist and are evident from her earliest novels (and from the critical interest in Iris Murdoch), notably the importance of adequate form and accurate language to represent what can be highly rarefied or intensely material realities and are frequently both. However, the critical discourse of the 1960s and 1970s, which was dominated by a Leavisite liberal humanism that placed ‘Life’ (so-called — a capitalised and largely undefined notion) above all considerations of form and patterns, as exemplified by Bernard Bergonzi’s (1970) naively impossible plea for fiction that is ‘about life in a wholly unconditioned way’ (26), did not possess a paradigm that could make sense of Byatt’s metafictional and metanarrative gestures, or of her highly patterned and intellectually stringent writing.
Mariadele Boccardi
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