How do I begin with: AS Byatt
AS Byatt had a writing career that spanned six decades and featured award-winning novels, short stories and literary criticism. Whether you’re new to the author’s work or wanting to revisit it, John Mullan suggests some good ways in.
The entry point
Some may find Byatt’s writing to be heavy, so a good place to start is with her novellas Angels and Insects. These two stories touch on the themes that fascinated her the most. Both take place in the 19th century, a time period where Byatt seemed to fit in naturally. Morpho Eugenia follows William Adamson, an amateur bug expert who returns from the Amazon rainforest to woo a beautiful heiress and study English ants. The two pursuits become intertwined in unexpected ways. In The Conjugal Angel, two Victorian women hold seances, often for the benefit of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s sister. Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam brings comfort to the characters as they communicate with the dead. But it’s not all intellectual and literary topics – sensuality is also woven into both stories, as is common in Byatt’s novels. She was never one to shy away from writing about sex.
The (possibly) self-revealing one
Frederica Potter, a character who embodies aspects of author Byatt, makes appearances in four novels. The first in the series, The Virgin in the Garden, is a demanding read (did you catch the reference to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene?) but also a captivating coming-of-age tale set in the early 1950s, mirroring Byatt’s own teenage years. At 17, Federica is clever and well-read but inexperienced in matters of love. She struggles to understand men and becomes entangled with Alexander, who has written a play about Queen Elizabeth I to be performed in a garden for her coronation. The novel is full of symbolism and allusions, but at its core, it is about Frederica’s journey towards sexual awakening.
The one to savor in bite-sized portions.
Byatt was known for both her lengthy novels and her short stories, demonstrating her expertise in the latter. She even curated The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, where she noted the often provocative and difficult-to-define nature of the best English examples. Byatt’s own short stories often have a experimental quality, which only adds to their appeal. For a taste of her work in this form, consider reading The Matisse Stories – a collection of three interconnected tales inspired by Matisse paintings. These stories showcase Byatt’s deep appreciation and understanding of visual art.
This person is often brought up in conversation during dinner parties.
Byatt, deep down, always remained a literary critic. When she wrote Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time in her early thirties, it served as an excellent introduction to these authors and their relationship. However, the real gem is Imagining Characters from the 1990s, which features conversations with psychoanalyst Ignês Sodré about the heroines in six notable novels by female authors such as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. While Sodré delves into the psychological aspects, Byatt focuses on narrative structure and the use of metaphor. Byatt has a talent for discussing literature and some of that shines through in this book, where she is delightfully sidetracked by Sodré.
The bumper compendium
Byatt’s previous major work was quite lengthy. The Children’s Book, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2009, begins in the 1890s and chronicles the lives of the members of the artistic and idealistic Wellwood family over the next thirty years. The matriarch and central character is Olive Wellwood, a children’s book author who shares similarities with E Nesbit. As with other Byatt novels, fictional characters interact with real historical figures such as JM Barrie, Oscar Wilde, and Emmeline Pankhurst. We witness the fates of the numerous Wellwood children as Europe is engulfed in World War I. The book is extensive due to the meticulous depiction of historical events. It also offers a keen examination of how those who champion art or progress can sacrifice others in pursuit of their ideals.
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In Babel Tower, Byatt experiments with a simple writing style in her second book of the Frederica Potter series, Still Life. However, after realizing that it was not successful, she unleashes her creativity in this third installment. The novel begins with four possible starting points and continues with a constant use of metafiction. The reader is warned of a challenging read when one of the characters presents their poorly written novel, Babbeltower, which is heavily featured throughout the book. Byatt’s work suffers from an excess of literary references, including lengthy excerpts from Forster and DH Lawrence. Despite the potential for an interesting plot about a woman in an unhappy marriage, it is overshadowed by the overwhelming literary elements.
If you can only read one, make it
The concept of ownership is central in Byatt’s work. Her novel, which won the Booker prize in 1990, is a literary masterpiece that seamlessly weaves together erudition and romance. It is brimming with references to other literary works, yet at its core, it is a compelling love story. Byatt’s admiration for Georgette Heyer’s historical romances is evident in the way she brings to life the Victorian poets Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, as two academics delve into their secrets in the present day. By using time shifts, Byatt creates a gripping narrative with a purposeful use of formal techniques. The novel also includes clever imitations of Victorian poetry, with Byatt showcasing her talent for creating new Browning poems. While some readers may skip over these poems, they actually hold important clues to a hidden sexual passion within the story.