A. S. Byatt is one of Britain's most accomplished writers of contemporary fiction, combining postmodern self-consciousness about the ability of language to represent reality with a vivid sense of characterization and narrative engagement. Noted for her allusive and intellectual style, Byatt is nonetheless a bestselling author, her popularity secure since her 1990 novel Possession: A Romance won the Booker Prize. Although she is often cited as a feminist writer owing to her focus on female characters and issues related to women's lives, Byatt is openly ambivalent about feminist theory, which she feels can lead critics to interpret texts too narrowly, without sensitivity to historical context.
Born Antonia Susan Drabble in Sheffield, England in 1936, Byatt became a self-styled “greedy reader” as a child, devouring texts by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Virginia Woolf, and others. She was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1950s where, under the influence of F. R. Leavis, she developed a passionate belief in the moral importance of literature. When she married Ian Byatt in 1959, with whom she would have a son and a daughter, she was no longer eligible to hold a doctoral fellowship and left her studies. After her divorce, she was married in 1969 to Peter Duffy, and had two more daughters. Her son Charles was killed at the age of 11 in an automobile accident.
Until 1983 when she was able to become a professional writer, Byatt made her living by teaching in various universities; her familiarity with academic settings and the debates surrounding contemporary literary theory since the 1960s is evident in many of her works. She herself has written literary criticism, including books on two of her most important influences, Iris Murdoch and George Eliot. Impressively prolific, she continues to publish novels, novellas, books of short fiction, and essays about literature, splitting her time between her London home and a cottage in the south of France.
Byatt's first two novels, The Shadow of a Sun (1964) and The Game (1967), received mixed reviews, and were deemed inferior to the work of her famous sister, novelist Margaret Drabble. Her reputation rose, though, with the publication of The Virgin in the Garden (1978), the first novel in a planned quartet about siblings Stephanie, Marcus, and Frederica Potter, a circle of related characters, and their experiences throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The two sisters serve as models of the choices and barriers facing women of their generation, as Stephanie chooses domestic responsibility and Frederica pursues a life of intellectual and artistic independence. Both Virgin and its successor, Still Life (1985), hearken back to the realist novels of the nineteenth century by incorporating the richness of social life, especially the family, and psychologically rounded characters. Yet each of the texts also has elements of postmodern self-reflexivity: the action in Virgin centers around the production of a pageant, while Still Life abounds with discussions of aesthetic theory in relation to painting. While critics responded positively to both of these novels, they also found it difficult to position them clearly in either the realist tradition or the innovations of contemporary fiction.
Critics also commented on the conflict between realism and postmodernism in the final two novels of the quartet. The third novel, Babel Tower (1996), deepens Byatt's experimentation with self-conscious fiction: it combines a main narrative about Frederica's life, and particularly her divorce trial, following the sudden death of her sister at the end of Virgin, with a second narrative line constructed around a novel-within-the novel, Babbletower, a viciously satiric reflection on the dangers of individual and sexual freedom set during the Reign of Terror, by a charismatic rebel named Jude Mason, who is being prosecuted for obscenity. The final text in the quartet, A Whistling Woman (2002), concludes the series by using the developing medium of television as an internal mirror of the radical changes taking place in the late 1960s; Frederica hosts a series entitled Through the Looking-Glass, designed to challenge establishment thinking. Seemingly stable and unquestionable truths of British society come under siege in scenes about the formation of an “anti-university” and of a reclusive cult led by a psychiatric patient. Both texts were praised for their ambitious subject matter and complex narratives, but some reviewers were critical of Byatt's overly intellectual and allusive style.
Possession, on the other hand, was enthusiastically received by critics, reviewers, and readers, who were enamored with Byatt's skillful interweaving of self-conscious techniques, historical detail, narrative suspense, and steamy romance. The novel is structured around two sets of characters: Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, late twentieth-century academics steeped in the skepticism of postmodern theory, and Christabel Lamotte and Randolph Henry Ash, Victorian poets whose clandestine affair is discovered accidentally by Roland through a series of letters. In the course of reconstructing the poets relationship, Maud and Roland find themselves rethinking concepts that their culture has rejected – coherent selfhood, romantic love, artistic originality, and the power of language to reflect reality – and achieve a compromise vision that recaptures positive elements from the past while allowing them to remain conscious of their contemporary worldview. Critics were impressed – and sometimes even deceived – by the authentic-sounding Victorian poems and narratives written by Byatt and included in the text. The Hollywood film version of Possession, made in 2002, gave the text a more distinctly American flavor, and renewed Byatt's popularity with a wider audience.
Byatt's success with Victorian-based narratives continued with Angels and Insects, which comprised two novellas, Morpho Eugenia, about an upper-crust family with a terrible sexual secret, and The Conjugial Angel, about spiritualism, seances and Tennyson's best friend, Arthur Hallam. The first novella gained a wider popular audience through the visually compelling 1995 film, Angels and Insects.
A more recent novel, The Biographer's Tale (2000a), was not a critical success, however. Readers found the elaborate story of Phineas G., a disgruntled student of literary theory who sets out to rediscover the world through the reading and writing of biographies, too dense and intellectual. Byatt's newest novel, The Children's Book, an overt response to the fantasy literature fad started by the popularity of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, has been praised for its erudition and evocation of a magical world, yet, like much of her work, is considered too challenging for many readers.
Throughout her career, Byatt has turned periodically to the short story genre, producing collections such as Sugar and Other Stories (1987), The Matisse Stories (1993), The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994), Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998), and The Little Black Book of Stories (2003). While Byatt's fame derives primarily from her novels, her short fiction also receives high critical praise, demonstrating her literary versatility and wide-ranging imagination.
SEE ALSO: Critical Theory and the Novel (BIF); Drabble, Margaret (BIF); Feminist Fiction (BIF); Historical Fiction (BIF); Historiographic Metafiction (AF); Postmodernist Fiction (BIF)
- Alfer, A.; Noble, M. J. (eds.) (2001). Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt: Imagining the Real. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- The Shadow of a Sun. London: Chatto and Windus. (Reissued with an introduction as The Shadow of the Sun. London: Vintage, 1991.). , (1964).
- The Game. London: Chatto and Windus. (1967).
- The Virgin in the Garden. London: Chatto and Windus. (1978).
- Still Life. London: Chatto and Windus. (1985).
- Possession: A Romance. London: Chatto and Windus. (1990).
- Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings. London: Chatto and Windus. (1991).
- Angels and Insects. London: Chatto and Windus. (1992).
- The Matisse Stories. London: Chatto and Windus. (1993).
- The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. London: Chatto and Windus. (1994).
- Babel Tower. London: Chatto and Windus. (1996).
- Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice. London: Chatto and Windus. (1998).
- The Biographer's Tale. London: Chatto and Windus. (2000a).
- On Histories and Stories. London: Chatto and Windus. (2000b).
- A Whistling Woman. London: Chatto and Windus. (2002).
- The Little Black Book of Stories. London: Chatto and Windus. (2003).
- The Children's Book. London: Chatto and Windus. (2009).
- A S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. (2004).
- Haas, P. (dir.) (1995). Angels and Insects. Playhouse International Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn.
- A S. Byatt. New York: Twayne. (1996).
- La Bute, N. (dir.) (2002). Possession. USA Films.
- A S. Byatt. Plymouth: Northcote House. (1997).
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