Authors: A. S. Byatt

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist, short-story writer, and critic

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Shadow of a Sun, 1964 (also known as The Shadow of the Sun, 1993)

The Game, 1967

The Virgin in the Garden, 1978

Still Life, 1985

Possession, 1990

Angels and Insects: Two Novellas, 1992

Babel Tower, 1996

The Biographer’s Tale, 2000

A Whistling Woman, 2002

Short Fiction:

Sugar, and Other Stories, 1987

The Matisse Stories, 1993

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories, 1997

Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, 1998

Nonfiction:

Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch, 1965

Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time, 1970 (republished as Unruly Times, 1989)

Iris Murdoch, 1976

Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings, 1991

Imagining Characters: Conversations About Women Writers–Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Iris Murdoch, and Toni Morrison, 1997 (with Ignes Sodre)

On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays, 2000

Portraits in Fiction, 2001

Biography

Antonia Susan Byatt (BI-uht) began her career as a novelist in the shadow of her younger sister Margaret Drabble’s reputation as a novelist of quality and considerable popularity. Drabble, who used the family surname, began writing novels in the 1960’s, and it was assumed that Byatt, who took her first husband’s surname, would become an academic. Byatt’s first book was a study of the novelist Iris Murdoch, and she became a part-time lecturer at the University of London in the 1960’s, after studies at Cambridge, Bryn Mawr, and Oxford.{$I[AN]9810002065}{$I[A]Byatt, A. S.}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Byatt, A. S.}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Byatt, A. S.}{$I[tim]1936;Byatt, A. S.}

Byatt published her first novel, Shadow of a Sun, in 1964 and a second, The Game, in 1967. These were received with quiet approval but had only modest sales, and in 1972, she became a full-time lecturer at the University of London. Drabble, who continued to publish novels throughout this period, became a popular book reviewer and a minor media celebrity, while Byatt quietly pursued her academic career. In 1978 Byatt produced a substantial novel, The Virgin in the Garden, a formidable study of two intelligent, charming sisters starting out on their adult life. It was offered as the first of a quartet. The second volume, Still Life, appeared in 1985, the third, Babel Tower, was published in 1996, and the fourth, A Whistling Woman, in 2002. The latter book brought the story of the two sisters up to the 1960’s. Byatt’s fifth novel, Possession, which won the prestigious Booker Prize, has overshadowed the trilogy in both popularity and critical acclaim, although it may not be, in fact, quite as fine artistically as The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life.

Possession is an unusual example of a novel of literary merit and technical weight transcending the public’s usual lack of interest in serious novels. This is partly because the book is, at heart, a love story, but part of its appeal lies in its technical complexity and in its incorporation of formidable amounts of poetry, supposedly written by the lovers. Two time frames are used in the plot, in which late twentieth century scholars are on the trail of two famous English writers of the nineteenth century. Byatt draws on her scholastic background to create successful imitations of nineteenth century poetry, using the style of Robert Browning for the male lover and a combination of Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson for the female writer. The novelty of this, combined with a kind of scholastic, twentieth century mystery tour, caught the fancy of both the critics and the public. (The book was turned into a movie directed by Neil LaBute in 2002.)

The novel is, in fact, not so much a surprise as it might seem, as there is in Byatt’s fiction a strong dependence on literary themes. Shadow of a Sun is a study of a young girl coming into maturity under the influence of her father’s celebrity as a popular novelist. The Game is even more autobiographical in its investigation of the rivalry between two sisters, one a novelist and the other an academic. The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life also use the relationship between two sisters with strong literary interests. In Possession Byatt went even further, including long stretches of poetry, supposed diary entries, letters, and complicated literary clues. The Biographer’s Tale, in which a young literary scholar begins researching not a nineteenth century writer but his biographer, includes the biographer’s index cards full of notes; one reviewer called the book a “detective story for the MLA set.” Byatt’s novels have their romantic attractions, but they are also witty explorations of the mean-spirited chicanery of the academic world and the emotional problems of late twentieth century women who are intent upon their careers. Byatt’s interest in how women make lives for themselves connects her, if modestly and undoctrinally, to the feminist movement in literature.

Byatt’s writing, like Drabble’s, is intelligent, witty, and unpedantic and her works are accessible to a wide range of readers. Possession made Byatt a literary celebrity, and she subsequently succeeded to the role of intellectual commentator that her sister had filled previously.

After Possession, Byatt busied herself with considerable work as a book reviewer and with producing shorter fiction. The resort to the narrower form does not cramp her zest for the odd idea. In “Morpho Eugenia,” one of the two tales in Angels and Insects (made into a movie in 1995), she presents a young Victorian naturalist and his problems as a lover, husband, and scholar in a grand country house; the tale is furnished with long disquisitions on the exotic world of insects, which, like the literary intrusions of Possession, have a perverse charm. Byatt seems intent on reminding the reader of the pleasure of reading for reading’s sake, which was a commonplace in the Victorian age. Thus it seems reasonable that stories about Victorians should be similarly indulgent and expansive. The Matisse Stories are less eccentric but have a refreshing oddity of their own in using three works by the French painter Henri Matisse as the basis for short tales of contemporary urban living–a version of one kind of art imitating another.

Byatt’s short story collections The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and Elementals mark a turn to writing folk and fairy tales and about the study of folk and fairy tales. The title story of The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, for instance, concerns a folklore scholar attending an academic conference in Istanbul who encounters a djinn. Offered the traditional three wishes, she uses her knowledge of folk tale conventions to make three decidedly unusual requests.

BibliographyAdil, Alev. “Obeying the Genie.” Times Literary Supplement (January 6, 1995): 20. Discussion of the language in Byatt’s short stories, with particular emphasis on the fairy stories.Alfer, Alexa, and Michael J. Noble, eds. Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. For the advanced student of Byatt. This volume includes at least one essay on each of her major works (two on Possession). Includes an index and a select bibliography.Bawer, Bruce. “What We Do for Art.” New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1995, p 9. It is often suggested that Byatt’s world lacks realistic credibility. The Matisse Stories are discussed with that charge in mind.Brookner, Anita, et al. “A. S. Byatt: Possession: A Romance.” Contemporary Literary Critics Yearbook 65 (1990): 121-133. Anita Brookner, the prominent British novelist and book reviewer, is joined by six other reviewers in commenting on the novel, but it is put in a context with her other works, including the short stories.Burgess, Catherine. A. S. Byatt’s “Possession”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2002. A clear and comprehensive introduction to the novel, including sections on Byatt, background reading, and critical commentary.Campbell, Jane. A. S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2004. A comprehensive reading of Byatt’s fiction, including A Whistling Woman. Campbell focuses on Byatt’s feminism and literary development.Franken, Christien. A. S. Byatt: Art, Authorship, Creativity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. An especially useful commentary for students of Byatt’s sophisticated commentary on modern art and the role of the author or creator in the context of contemporary literary and art criticism.Hulbert, Ann. “The Great Ventriloquist: A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance.” In Contemporary British Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Robert E. Hosmer, Jr. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A serious investigation of Byatt’s work with feminist overtones.Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. A. S. Byatt. New York: Twayne, 1996. Part of a well-established series of introductions to literary figures, this volume includes a chronology, annotated bibliography, biographical sketch, and commentary on Byatt’s individual works.Reynolds, Margaret, and Jonathan Noakes. A. S. Byatt: The Essential Guide. New York: Random House, 2004. Provides a close reading of Byatt’s novels, a well-developed interview with Byatt, and a thorough discussion of themes and techniques.Spufford, Francis. “The Mantle of Jehovah.” London Review of Books (June 25, 1987): 22-23. A review of Sugar and Other Stories put into the context of her other work, with special emphasis on the relation of her fiction to the genre of the British middle class novel.Todd, Robert. A. S. Byatt. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1997. A short critical introduction to Byatt and her works.Wood, James. “England.” In The Oxford Guide to Contemporary Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Byatt expects her readers to be well educated, and with that presumption in mind, she adds artistic and general intellectual allusions to enrich her themes. Wood suggests that much of the time such additions are unsuccessful and intrusive.
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