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About this book

This Guide examines the key critical responses to Byatt's fiction (both her novels and short stories) tracing the wider debates about realism, postmodernism and feminism with which they engage. The Guide also explores the themes which are central to Byatt's work, such as her depiction of writer-figures and her conception of artistic vision.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
A.S. Byatt was born Antonia Susan Drabble in 1936 in Sheffield. Her mother, a Cambridge graduate who had given up teaching to raise her family, insisted that her children gain a good education and placed huge emphasis on the importance of going to Cambridge. Byatt attended Newnham College, Cambridge, in the 1950s, studying English Literature in an atmosphere dominated by the famous literary critic F. R. Leavis (1895–1978). Leavis’s views on the moral import of literature deeply affected Byatt and her subsequent writing: ‘my early novels are in one aspect a sort of questioning quarrel with Leavis’ vision and values, which nevertheless I inherit and share’.1 After graduating from Cambridge Byatt began a PhD on religious imagery in seventeenth-century poetry; however, when she married Ian Byatt in 1959 she had to abandon her studies, as married women were not eligible for grants. Although Byatt divorced her first husband and married Peter Duffy in 1969, she has kept the name with which she began her literary career.2 Richard Todd sees in the ‘manly initials’ of Byatt’s pseudonym a connection to the similarly masculine pseudonym of George Eliot (1819–80). Byatt herself, however, relates her choice of name to another Eliot, T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), and his notion that writers should remain anonymous.3
Louisa Hadley

Chapter One. Autobiography, Art and Gender: Shadow of a Sun (1964) and The Game (1967)

Abstract
In 1964, A. S. Byatt published her first novel Shadow of a Sun. Written during her time as an undergraduate at Cambridge, the novel tells of the coming of age of Anna Severell, daughter of a famous writer and supposed literary genius. Given the novel’s plot, it is unsurprising that many critics of the novel interpreted it as stemming from Byatt’s own struggles to become a writer in the shadow of her novelist sister, Margaret Drabble, whose first novel A Summer Bird-Cage had appeared in 1963.
Louisa Hadley

Chapter Two. The Past, Language and Reality: The Virgin in the Garden (1978)

Abstract
In 1978 Byatt published her third novel, The Virgin in the Garden, which marked the beginning of a planned quartet. This project spanned several decades, in both its setting and its production, and came to comprise The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002). So, reviewers of this initial novel had to deal with it as a novel in its own right and as the first of a yet-to-be written series. Although this was Byatt’s third novel, it still received relatively little attention in terms of review space. However, it was to mark a change in opinion towards Byatt, as after its publication she came to be widely recognized as an important writer and acquired a growing readership.
Louisa Hadley

Chapter Three. Verbal and Visual Art: Still Life (1985)

Abstract
Published in 1985, Still Life continued the quartet that Byatt had begun with The Virgin in the Garden in 1978. As the second instalment in the quartet, most reviewers discussed Still Life in relation to the first novel in the sequence and the projected future volumes. Indeed, some reviewers sought to make claims about the quartet’s project as a whole based on the approach of the first two novels.
Louisa Hadley

Chapter Four. Postmodernism vs. Realism: Possession: A Romance (1990)

Abstract
1990 was Byatt’s year: the publication of Possession: A Romance brought her both critical and popular success and she was awarded a CBE in recognition of her contribution to British literature. Indeed, Richard Todd goes so far as to call it her ‘annus mirabilis’, wonderful year.1 Given the reception of Possession and its impact on Byatt’s subsequent career, such a claim seems entirely legitimate. Byatt, however, appears to resent the prominence given to Possession and the suggestion that it brought her success. In an interview with Mervyn Rothstein, Byatt counters this claim, defending her earlier works as ‘perfectly good novels that were written about quite a lot.’2 Despite such assertions, however, Possession still occupies a central place in Byatt’s oeuvre, which is mirrored by its position in this Guide.
Louisa Hadley

Chapter Five. The Presence of the Past: Possession: A Romance (1990)

Abstract
As we saw in the previous chapter, critical responses to Possession are preoccupied with locating Byatt’s novel within the traditions of realist and postmodernist fiction. This concern resurfaces in accounts of Byatt’s engagement with the past. The question of Possession’s position as a historical novel implicitly connects it to The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life but Byatt’s postmodern concerns in this novel distinguish it from her previous historical project. As we observed in Chapter 2, Taylor considers Byatt as a ‘social novelist’ and thus aligns her quartet with the historical fictions of the Victorian era.1 In contrast, most critics position Possession within the postmodern category of ‘historiographic metafiction’ which we encountered in the previous chapter. In Hutcheon’s definition, ‘historiographic metafiction’ combines a realist commitment to presenting the past accurately with a postmodern scepticism about the possibility of such a project.
Louisa Hadley

Chapter Six. Neo-Victorian Fiction: Angels and Insects (1992) and The Biographer’s Tale (2000)

Abstract
After the success of Possession, it is unsurprising that Byatt kept her winning formula in her next fictional work, Angels and Insects. After taking a short break to write Babel Tower she returned to the Victorian era with the publication of The Biographer’s Tale in 2000. Along with Possession, these novels comprise a significant contribution to the genre of neo-Victorian fiction. Indeed, as we shall see in the reviews sections that follow, most reviewers judged these novels in relation to Possession.
Louisa Hadley

Chapter Seven. Language and Memory: Babel Tower (1996)

Abstract
By the time her sixth novel appeared in 1996, Byatt’s reputation as an important British novelist was well and truly established. As the first novel that Byatt published after the Booker success of Possession, Babel Tower was often judged in relation to its immediate predecessor and so had to live up to the high standards it set. Yet Babel Tower was never intended as a follow-up to Possession but rather marked Byatt’s return to the quartet she had begun with The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985). Although Babel Tower belonged to the quartet, it was, as we shall see, felt to indicate a new direction in the quartet.
Louisa Hadley

Chapter Eight. The Conclusion of the Quartet: A Whistling Woman (2002)

Abstract
With the publication of A Whistling Woman in 2002, Byatt completed the quartet that she had begun over 20 years earlier with The Virgin in the Garden. While then she was a little-known novelist, standing in the shadow of her more famous sister Margaret Drabble, by the time the final volume appeared she had become an established novelist, both in critical and popular circles. Its position at the end of the quartet means that considerations of A Whistling Woman often deal as much with its relationship to the preceding texts as with the novel in its own right. This problem is inherent in the novel itself: as the last in a successful quartet, A Whistling Woman is constantly aware of its relationship to the previous three novels. Indeed, many of the issues we have encountered in relation to the earlier novels in the quartet recur in responses to A Whistling Woman, in particular: its position as historical fiction, its engagement with feminism, the intellectual elements of Byatt’s style and the opposition between postmodernism and realism.
Louisa Hadley

Chapter Nine. Fiction-Making, Fairy-Tales and Feminism: Short Stories

Abstract
In an interview with Jean-Louis Chevalier shortly after the publication of The Matisse Stories Byatt explained that one of the reasons she turned to the short-story form was to ‘accommodate the strange’.1 As we shall see, many of her short-story collections deal with fantastic events, such as the appearance of ghosts or a woman who turns to stone, and many adopt a fairytale structure. Thus, Byatt seems explicitly to distance her short stories from the realism that, for all the postmodern gesturing, remains fundamental to her novelistic style.
Louisa Hadley

Conclusion

Abstract
As we saw in the preceding chapter, Byatt’s short-story collections have received less critical attention than her novels and are often judged to have a style that is distinct from the intellectualism found there. Despite this, the short stories share many of the interests and preoccupations that were identified in the novels. All the collections demonstrate Byatt’s concern with art and the role of the artist. This is most obvious in The Matisse Stories but the other collections are also interested in the possibilities provided by art, both visual and verbal. The focus on the nature of story-telling has been identified as a primary concern in both Sugar and Djinn and is, for some critics, evidence of Byatt’s postmodern leanings. Others, such as Maack, however, are keen to distance Byatt from postmodernism and implicitly identify her with the realist tradition of literature. As with the novels, then, Byatt’s stories equally occupy an uneasy position in relation to postmodernism and realism. Byatt’s work occupies a similarly uneasy position in relation to feminism; the short stories show a concern with feminist issues but, as with the novels, they never quite form a coherent feminist approach.
Louisa Hadley
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