The Year of Reading Women: A.S. Byatt

The year is almost over, and how many books written by women did we all read?

The Booker shortlist leaned towards the male author this year, and David Mitchell’s new tome needed to be read, but apart from that, I did my bit for feminism: 23 of the 33 novels I have read so far were written by women. I suspect I would have had a pretty good result even without making a conscious effort, but it was a good reminder of the excellence of some female writers. I kept A.S. Byatt for last because she’s both a good writer and a real heavyweight. I am not one to fear intellectualism, but occasionally moving through one of Byatt’s novels feels like being rugby-tackled by cleverness. Antonia Byatt is a very intelligent woman, and she’s not afraid to show off.

I have reviewed The Children’s Book elsewhere, and it remains one of my favourite novels. I got distracted halfway through Possession, which I’ll finish next, but The Virgin in the Garden and Ragnarok were worth the time and effort. The Virgin in the Garden features all the subjects Byatt likes to discuss: History, families, spirituality and the inner life, with a good dose of religion, sex and humour added to the mix. Set in 1952, it uses the story of a play being staged in a Yorkshire village shortly after the coronation of the new Queen to dissect the lives of the playwright and his colleagues and acquaintances at a public school.

The Virgin in the Garden by A.S. Byatt, book cover

Alexander Wedderburn, a young English teacher, has spent years writing a historical play about Elizabeth I, complete in verse, and full of echoes of other writers. Reluctantly, he agrees to have it staged at the inauguration of a new university being set up nearby. Under his doubting gaze, the entirety of the local community contributes to the planned opening festival. Out of politeness and fear of his faculty head, Alexander gets involved in his superior’s family affairs and casts clever, bristly Frederica, the younger daughter, as the young Elizabeth. She is in love with Alexander, and he slowly realises that he is too weak and polite to resist her for long. Meanwhile, her siblings have troubles of their own: Stephanie, the oldest, upsets her staunchly atheist father by marrying the local priest, while Marcus, the youngest, suffers from visions. There are a multitude of characters; all of them are minutely dissected under their author’s gaze, and their thoughts and motivations described in detail. Alexander, it becomes clear, is a cowardly, insecure man looking for a way out of the small-town school setting, preferably on the back of his play’s fame. There’s a mix of rich, famous and carefree people and locals struggling with their lives; of young people on the verge of adulthood and adults resigned to their fate. Frederica and her siblings are incredibly well thought-out characters, and it is to A.S. Byatt’s great credit that, while being scarily clever, she manages to deal with a lot of different subjects without losing sight of the characters. It is also a humorous novel, full of self-referential mockery: In one scene, Frederica tries to describe her intellectual love affair with Alexander with the help of literature.

‘People in novels don’t love each other because they can both see that Racine is — is what he is. […] if we were in a novel it would be most suspect and doomed to sit here drily discussing metre.’

‘If we were in a novel they’d cut this dialogue because of artifice.’

Byatt occasionally chips in with universal truths about life and love, but sparingly and gently. The stage of the novel belongs to her characters, and the small world of a rural festival is an ideal set-up for the coming-of-age of a young, clever girl. Yes, it is a long and occasionally difficult novel, but it’s worth the effort.

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt, book cover

Ragnarok is altogether different. Commissioned as the rewriting of a myth, it tells the story of Ragnarök, the twilight and end of the old Norse gods, as seen through the eyes of a young girl growing up in WW2. It’s a short book, and pretty straightforward, but an incredibly beautiful and lyrical retelling of a story we all know at least in parts. In her afterword, Byatt discusses the functions of myths, and manages to put fear in our hearts by equating the end of the Norse gods with the end of our world, all in a few concise lines. There is no hope, she argues, because the gods of the myth are based on us humans: they’re shortsighted, greedy and not clever enough to save their own world. I’ll leave you with that and urge you to give A.S. Byatt a chance. She really is all that.

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Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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