AS Byatt’s life was shaped by literature.
It was always a delightful experience to receive an email from the award-winning author AS Byatt. The content of the email could vary from discussions on Nietzsche to newts to the weather in northern France (where she owned a house) to her severe migraine that had been bothering her since Tuesday, and her opinions on a writer who was mistaken about something. However, she regretfully informed that she was unable to write anything at the moment as she was engrossed in writing her own novel. Lastly, she also mentioned that she had recently read the latest novel from an unknown author named [insert name here] and found it to be exceptionally good.
Her email handle was “arachne” (inspired by her interest in insects and mythology), her signature was ASD (in tribute to her second husband, Peter Duffy), and she was often referred to as the Dame (having been awarded a damehood in 1999). AS Byatt was a quintessential bluestocking and unapologetic intellectual, known as literary royalty for many years. The eldest of four siblings (including her sister, novelist Margaret Drabble), Byatt was born in Sheffield in 1936 and later relocated to York. Her father was a QC and Quaker, while her mother was a Browning scholar, and their household revolved around a love for books and intelligence above all else.
Following two earlier novels based on her personal experiences, the author began her renowned Quartet series with The Virgin in the Garden in 1978, aiming to modernize the classic novel Middlemarch. Her ambitious nature was evident throughout the series, which concluded with A Whistling Woman in 2002. She was often frustrated when critics compared her writing to that of her sister, who was more prolific and efficient at that time. This so-called “feud” between siblings became a popular topic among book enthusiasts for many years. However, her most notable work remains Possession, a literary sensation that earned her the prestigious Booker prize in 1990. The novel follows two scholars as they uncover a love affair between two Victorian poets, including original Victorian poetry. In an interview, the author admitted that she wrote this particular novel with the intention of impressing others and gaining their approval. Years later, she revealed that she turned to writing as a means of coping with the loss of her 11-year-old son, Charles, who was killed by a drunk driver. She had a total of four children.
Her novels were introduced into a literary environment still dominated by the aggressive young men of the 1950s, including Golding and Sillitoe. She then had to compete in a landscape dominated by the loud young men of the 70s and 80s, such as Amis, McEwan, and Barnes. At the time, she boldly stated that there was too much filth and not enough substance among these up-and-coming men who flaunted their bravado and promiscuity. Her own inspirations were Iris Murdoch and Angela Carter, and she was unswayed by literary trends, even going as far as to deem the then Orange Prize, now known as the Women’s Prize, as sexist. In 2003, she openly criticized Harry Potter as being juvenile in the New York Times. However, she was always a staunch supporter of new and inventive writers who she believed deserved more recognition, such as Lawrence Norfolk, Adam Thirlwell, and Ali Smith. As Alan Hollinghurst recalls, “She was a great source of encouragement for me and many other younger writers during the 1980s and 90s.”
She had a strong passion for Europe, tennis, science, art, and languages. During an interview, she expressed that curiosity is the most valuable virtue to her. This insatiable curiosity was reflected in her 10 novels, numerous works of criticism and essays, and played a role in transforming British literature to be more intellectually expansive and globally oriented. Her life was shaped by literature. She once stated, “I am more interested in books than people, although I assume everyone else is as well, but that is not the case.” The loss of the Dame will be deeply felt.