Writers

Add to researchDame A. S. Byatt

Dame A. S. Byatt

Michael Trevillion

Born
Sheffield, Yorkshire, England
Genre
Short Stories, Non-Fiction, Fiction
 
 
Biography
Dame A(ntonia) S(usan) Byatt was born on 24 August 1936 in Yorkshire.

She was educated at a Quaker school in York and at Newnham College, Cambridge, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, and Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied as a postgraduate. She taught in the Extra-Mural Department of London University and the Central School of Art and Design, and in 1972 became full-time Lecturer in English and American Literature at University College, London (Senior Lecturer, 1981). She left in 1983 to concentrate on writing full-time. She has travelled widely overseas to lecture and talk about her work, often with the British Council, and was Chairman of the Society of Authors between 1986 and 1988. She was a member of the Literature Advisory Panel for the British Council between 1990 and 1998. She has served on the judging panels for a number of literary prizes, including the Booker Prize for Fiction, and is recognised as a distinguished critic, contributing regularly to journals and newspapers including the Times Literary Supplement, The Independent and the Sunday Times, as well as to BBC radio and television programmes. She was also a member of the Kingman Commitee on the Teaching of English Language (1987-8).

A. S. Byatt's first novel, Shadow of a Sun, the story of a young girl growing up in the shadow of a dominant father, was published in 1964 and was followed by The Game (1967), a study of the relationship between two sisters. The Virgin in the Garden (1978) is the first book in a quartet about the members of a Yorkshire family. The story continues in Still Life (1985), which won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, and Babel Tower (1996). The fourth (and final) novel in the quartet is A Whistling Woman (2002).

Her most successful book, Possession: A Romance (1990), won the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and continues to enjoy enormous critical and popular success. Part romance, part literary thriller, the story involves two contemporary academics, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, whose research into the lives of two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, reveal inextricably linked destinies, like those of their researchers. Angels & Insects (1992) consists of two novellas, The Conjugal Angel, an exploration of Victorian attitudes toward death and mourning, and Morpho Eugenia, the story of a young Victorian explorer and naturalist, William Adamson, and his relationship with the daughter of his employer, adapted as a film in 1996. Her novel The Biographer's Tale was published in 2000.

A. S. Byatt's collections of short stories and fictions include Sugar and Other Stories (1987); The Matisse Stories (1993), three stories each with a connection to a particular Matisse painting; The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994), a collection of fairy tales; Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998); and Little Black Book of Stories (2003).

Her published criticism includes two books about Iris Murdoch: Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965) and Iris Murdoch: A Critical Study (1976), as well as Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time (1970). In A. S. Byatt's last book, Portraits in Fiction (2001), she writes about instances of painting in novels, with examples from work by Zola, Proust and Iris Murdoch, a subject she first explored in a lecture given at London's National Portrait Gallery in 2000. She was awarded a CBE in 1990 and a DBE in 1999, and in 2002 was awarded the Shakespeare Prize by the Alfred Toepfer Foundation, Hamburg, in recognition of her contribution to British culture.

Her latest book, The Children's Book (2009), was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and won the 2010 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction).


A. S. Byatt lives in London.

Critical Perspective

For many years A.S. Byatt was known primarily as an academic. It is not surprising, therefore, that her complex and ambitious fictional works are intellectual and very literary, in both style and content.

Many of Byatt's characters are writers or academics undertaking various projects - which are often a central part of the story - and the self-conscious narratives frequently draw attention to the process of literary and artistic creation, particularly the gap between experience and the language and images that are used to represent experience.

The novels and stories are rife with intertextuality and literary allusions and references: to the discourse of fairytales and fantasy literature, to literary and linguistic theories, and to literary history, most notably the Victorian era, of which Byatt has extensive knowledge. Her fascination for the nineteenth century also extends to its scientific and religious debates, and some of her fiction explores her interest in Darwinism. Along with all this, Byatt is also a masterful storyteller, creating fascinating, complex characters and compelling plots that combine social realism with literariness and symbolism.

Byatt's first two novels, Shadow of a Sun (1964) and The Game (1967), did not make a significant impact but they did introduce the theme of complex family relationships that pervades her later fiction: the first novel centres on a daughter's attempts to escape the dominating influence of her father, while the second features the fraught relationship between two sisters. These novels also 'reveal a development towards the fusion of realism and symbolism in her ... [subsequent] work. Shadow of a Sun ... is essentially a straightforward piece of orthodox realism, whereas The Game makes extensive use of mythical and symbolic elements within a realist framework' (Peter Lewis, Contemporary Novelists, ed. Henderson, 1991). 

Byatt first began to attain recognition as a novelist with The Virgin in the Garden (1978), the first in a quartet which includes Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002). The quartet is vast in scope, utilising the story of a Yorkshire family to explore issues of art, literature, religion, science and social change during the second Elizabethan era, beginning with the accession of Elizabeth II in the early 1950s and going on to explore the social revolution of the 1960s. The focus is on the three children of public schoolmaster Bill Potter: Stephanie, an English teacher who shocks her agnostic father by marrying a curate; Frederica, a brilliant intellectual who falls in love with Alexander, a writer and teacher; and Marcus, an emotionally troubled boy who is led astray by his mentally unstable science teacher.

Byatt's fiction often explores changing female experience throughout the twentieth century, and she has commented that her 'greatest terror' is 'simple domesticity' (Sam Leith, The Guardian, 25 April 2009). In the quartet, Stephanie and Frederica both attend Cambridge University at a time when female students were rare. Stephanie goes on to become a traditional housewife who, though relatively happy, misses her former intellectual life (later dying in a tragic accident), while Frederica's marriage ends in divorce and a new life as a strong and self-sufficient single mother. These elements of social realism are intertwined with literary and artistic allusions and references:  The Virgin in the Garden centres on Alexander's play about Elizabeth I (the performance of which coincides with the coronation of Elizabeth II), and Still Life explores representations of reality in art and literature, with a particular focus on the work of Vincent Van Gogh. There is also a wealth of intellectual and philosophical thought: Babel Tower examines linguistic theories through Alexander's study of different teaching methods, while A Whistling Woman incorporates complex debates about the nature of the mind, body and spirit.

In the middle of writing her quartet, Byatt wrote another novel, Possession (1990), which turned out to be her most successful. It not only won the Booker Prize for Fiction and high critical acclaim, but was also a great commercial success, marking the beginning of Byatt's wider appeal to the general reading public as well as the literary world. Possession is another ambitious novel, a spectacular intertextual literary web which combines explorations of Victorian literature and culture with a gripping detective story and love story. The ingenious plot enables Byatt to intertwine two stories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively: contemporary academics Roland Michell and Maud Bailey are researching two fictional Victorian poets, Ralph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. As Michell and Bailey begin to uncover evidence of a previously unknown love affair between Ash and LaMotte, the historical story parallels their own developing relationship. This seemingly traditional love story is combined with fascinating layers of information about Victorian culture, including Darwinism and spiritualism, as well as many different narrative forms: Byatt includes the letters, diaries and other documents that form part of the research, as well as Ash's and LaMotte's poems and fairytales.

Byatt continues to write about the nineteenth century in Angels and Insects (1992), which features two novellas, and The Biographer's Tale (2000), a complex and labyrinthine novel which, through the story of another young academic, compares and contrasts the abstract nature of intellectual theories with the supposedly real and factual process of writing biographies, suggesting that 'factual reality' is not as straightforward as one might think, for perhaps everything is merely a complex interplay of subjective stories and ideas. 

Byatt's next novel, The Children's Book (2009), has almost equalled the success of Possession. The novel spans from the 1890s until the end of World War I, and again the literary and intellectual themes are strong: Olive Wellwood, a children's writer who is inspired partly by Edith Nesbit, and her husband Humphrey are liberal-minded Fabians who live with their children in a large, sprawling country house, an unconventional home which opens its doors to a multitude of people. While the Wellwood children appear to have an idyllic life, their existence is revealed to be far from happy as the hypocrisy of the adults is exposed: beneath the facade of liberalism, utopian politics and Olive's much-loved children's stories lies a dark side - an unhappy family with layers of sinister and scandalous secrets. The compelling story of the Wellwood family is intertwined with the social and political context of the world in which they live: Edwardian Britain is entering a new era in which the established social order is changing, the suffragette movement is gaining full force and World War I is approaching. And, as always in Byatt's fiction, embedded within the realist elements are layers of literary allusion, hinting at the dark side of both fairytales and utopian visions: 'The Children's Book is on one level a work of careful social and psychological realism ... On another level, it is stuffed with the motifs of fairy stories: doubles, changelings, locked rooms, underground journeys, boys who refuse to grow up' (Sam Leith, The Guardian, 25 April 2009).


Elizabeth O'Reilly 2012.

Bibliography

2011
Ragnarok:The End of the Gods, Canongate Myths series, Canongate
2009
The Children's Book, Chatto & Windus
2008
The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease, contributor, Comma Press
2003
Little Black Book of Stories, Chatto & Windus
2002
A Whistling Woman, Chatto & Windus
2001
The Bird Hand Book, with photographs by Victor Schrager, Graphis (New York)
2001
Portraits in Fiction, Chatto & Windus
2000
The Biographer's Tale, Chatto & Windus
2000
On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays, Chatto & Windus
1998
Oxford Book of English Short Stories, editor, Oxford University Press
1998
Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, Chatto & Windus
1997
New Writing Volume 6, editor with Peter Porter, Vintage
1996
Babel Tower, Chatto & Windus
1995
New Writing Volume 4, editor with Alan Hollinghurst, Vintage
1995
Imagining Characters: Six Conversations about Women Writers, with Ignes Sodre, Chatto & Windus
1994
The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, Chatto & Windus
1993
The Matisse Stories, Chatto & Windus
1992
Angels & Insects, Chatto & Windus
1991
Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings, Chatto & Windus
1990
Possession: A Romance, Chatto & Windus
1990
George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, editor with Nicholas Warren, Penguin
1989
Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Poetry and Life, Hogarth Press
1987
Sugar and Other Stories, Chatto & Windus
1985
Still Life, Chatto & Windus
1978
The Virgin in the Garden, Chatto & Windus
1976
Iris Murdoch: A Critical Study, Longman
1970
Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time, Nelson
1967
The Game, Chatto & Windus
1965
Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch, Chatto & Windus
1964
Shadow of a Sun, Chatto & Windus

Awards

2010
James Tait Black Memorial Prize, The Children's Book
2009
Man Booker Prize for Fiction, The Children's Book, shortlist
2002
Shakespeare Prize (Germany)
1999
DBE
1998
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye
1995
Premio Malaparte (Italy)
1991
Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book), Possession: A Romance
1990
Irish Times International Fiction Prize, Possession: A Romance
1990
CBE
1990
Booker Prize for Fiction, Possession: A Romance
1986
PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, Still Life

Author Statement

'I write novels because I am passionately interested in language. Novels are works of art which are made out of language, and are made in solitude by one person and read in solitude by one person - by many different, single people, it is to be hoped. So I am also interested in what goes on in the minds of readers, and writers, and characters and narrators in books. I like to write about people who think, to whom thinking is as important and exciting (and painful) as sex or eating. This doesn't mean I want my books to be cerebral or simply battles of ideas. I love formal patterning in novels - I like to discover and make connections between all sorts of different people, things, ways of looking, points in time and space. But I also like the idea that novels can be, as James said, 'loose baggy monsters', a generous form that can take account of almost anything. Temperamentally, and morally, I like novels with large numbers of people and centres of consciousness, not novels that adopt a narrow single point-of-view, author's or character's. I don't like novels that preach or proselytise. (I fear people with very violent beliefs, though I admire people with thought-out principles.) The novel is an agnostic form - it explores and describes; the novelist and the reader learn more about the world along the length of the book.'