Byatt, A(ntonia) S(usan)

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BYATT, A(ntonia) S(usan)

Nationality: British. Born: Antonia Susan Drabble, in Sheffield, Yorkshire, 24 August 1936; sister of Margaret Drabble, q.v.Education: Sheffield High School; The Mount School, York; Newnham College, Cambridge (open scholarship), B.A. (honors) in English 1957; Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania (English-Speaking Union fellow), 1957-58; Somerville College, Oxford, 1958-59, B.A. Family: Married 1) I. C. R. Byatt in 1959 (divorced 1969), one daughter and one son (deceased); 2) Peter J. Duffy in 1969, two daughters. Career: Teacher, Westminster Tutors, London, 1962-65; lecturer, Central School of Art and Design, London, 1965-69; extra-mural lecturer, 1962-71, lecturer, 1972-81, and senior lecturer in English, 1981-83, University College, London (assistant tutor, 1977-80, and tutor for admissions, 1980-82, Department of English); associate, Newnham College, 1977-88; British Council Lecturer in Spain, 1978, India, 1981, and Korea, 1985. Deputy chair, 1986, and chair, 1986-88, Society of Authors Committee of Management; member, Kingman Committee, on the teaching of English, 1988-89. Awards: Arts Council grant, 1968; PEN Silver Pen, 1986; Booker prize, 1990, and Irish Times -Aer Lingus prize, 1990, both for Possession. D.Litt.: University of Bradford, 1987; University of York, 1991; University of Durham, 1991. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1983. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1990.


Short Stories

Sugar and Other Stories. 1987.

Angels and Insects: Two Novellas. 1992.

The Matisse Stories. 1993.

The Djinn in the Nightingales Eye: Five Fairy Stories . 1994.

Uncollected Short Story

"Art Work," in The New Yorker, 20 May 1991.


Shadow of a Sun. 1964.

The Game. 1967.

The Virgin in the Garden. 1978.

Still Life. 1985.

Possession: A Romance. 1990.

Babel Tower. 1996.


Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch. 1965.

Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time. 1970; as Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time, 1989.

Iris Murdoch. 1976.

Passions of the Mind (essays). 1991.

Imagining Characters: Six Conversations about Women Writers. 1995.

Editor, The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot. 1979.

Editor, with Nicholas Warren, Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings, by George Eliot. 1990.


Critical Studies:

A. S. Byatt by Kathleen Coyne Kelly, 1996; A. S. Byatt by Richard Todd, 1997.

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In addition to being a prizewinning novelist, having won the Booker Prize for her novel Possession in 1990, A. S. Byatt is a literary critic whose interests range from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Iris Murdoch. She is a prolific short story writer, and her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Encounter, Firebird I, and The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. "The July Ghost" and "Rose-Coloured Teacups" were originally broadcast on the BBC's Radio 3. Sugar and Other Stories is a collection of 11 stories that range from fantasy tales to experimental examinations of the nature of truth and its relation to fiction. In several of her short stories, including "Sugar," "On the Day That E. M. Forster Died," and "Precipice-Encurled," Byatt seems to focus on the impact of death and its effect on memory and creativity.

Byatt claims Balzac, Dickens, and Proust as influences on her writing, but in her sense of humor and irony, particularly in her portrayal of ideology and characterization, she shares close affini-ties with Fielding and Thackeray as well as Dickens. For example, in "Loss of Face" the protagonist Celia, who is attending a conference on nineteenth-century literature, is informed by a colleague, Professor Sun, that Western literature is the product of ideology and superstition. He substantiates his point of view by citing the absurdity of skyscrapers erected in Africa without a 13th floor "in order to propitiate foreign ghosts, witches, and spirits." Dr. Wharfedale ascertains that their lecture tower lacks a fourth floor "in deference to antagonistic local powers." Celia concludes that perhaps after all we are ruled by Milton's God, who has replaced our native languages with "a jangling noise of words unknown." Clearly this story examines the significance of language and the profession of literary studies in a manner reminiscent of Dickens's treatment of truth and the profession of law in Bleak House. Byatt also shares with Dickens an ability to satirize the values of their respective cultures. Although the title of the story is "Loss of Face," which refers to Celia's inept and rather ethnocentric dealings with cultural manners and customs, perhaps the true loss of face is due to the postmodernist replacement of native language and customs with "the plate glass tower, the machine gun, the deconstructive hubris of grammatologists and the binary reasoning of machines."

Byatt is perhaps most interesting in her examination of fiction and the nature of truth. It is in this regard that she shares a close affinity thematically with her contemporary Murdoch. Stylistically, Byatt at her best echoes the prose style of Virginia Woolf and the humorous relation with her reader of Fielding or Thackeray. In what is perhaps her best story, "Precipice-Encurled," in the collection Sugar and Other Stories, she begins with a quote from Robert Browning, who appears as a character in the story: "What's this then, which proves good yet seems untrue?/Is fiction, which makes fact alive too?/The somehow may be this how." She begins her narrative with a decidedly antiromantic description of a woman overlooking a stinking canal and an "unswallowed setting sun." After this description she includes the first of many comments regarding the nature of reality and its fictional counterpart. For example, she writes, "These things are known, are highly probable." After describing the central character, who is referred to only as "she," Byatt writes, "She is the central character in no story, but peripheral in many, where she may appear reduced to two or three bold identifying marks."

Here Byatt's technique is much like Thackeray's, as well as Fielding's, with their technique of entering into a conversation with the reader that is both a part of and yet separate from the actual story. Although Fielding and Thackeray use this method for humorous as well as critical commentary regarding events taking place in the novel or to provide relevant details for the reader, Byatt seems to modify the technique. She uses it as a means for exploring the ideological and aesthetic relationships among fictional characters either appearing in or having the potential for appearing in various texts and for examining the context or intertextuality from which these characters may be drawn. Although the method is intriguing in terms of experimentation, in the beginning of the story it is unclear as to what exactly is Byatt's point of view. It seems that she is playing with the notion of creating a minor fictional character with the potential for fuller treatment by a major author, in this case Henry James.

On a positive note one might conclude that both authors, Byatt and James, share a common perception of or at least an interest in the "she." But at this point in the story the she is trivialized by Byatt and exists only as a character in a "projected novel" by James. Byatt next offers a degree of clarity by informing the reader that James wrote her into The Aspern Papers "in a purely subordinate and structural role, the type of well-to-do American friend of the narrator, an authorial device, what James called a ficelle, economically connecting us, the readers, to the necessary people and the developing drama." In essence, then, the she is a trivial character serving as a connector to more important people and events. In this case she is waiting for, and has been waiting several years for, Browning.

For Byatt, James's ficelle seems to be more than a literary device. It serves as a metaphor for the role of the author, whose purpose is to economically link the reader to characters and events of importance, especially, as this story suggests, those of more importance than the authors themselves. Byatt's purpose is suggested by the fact that she frequently includes the names of famous authors in her stories and often gives humorous, playful, and sometimes critical portrayals of fictional authors and academics. Not only has she included in this story Browning, who attempts to understand life according to the philosophical dictates of René Descartes, but she also includes James and John Ruskin. She also humorously describes scholarship as the result of peering into the traces on a microfilm reader.

Byatt's treatment of writing and authorship is not limited to "Precipice-Encurled." As noted above, she has also titled one story "On the Day That E. M. Forster Died," and another story is titled "Racine and the Tablecloth." "On the Day That E. M. Forester Died" is a story about a woman named Mrs. Smith who has aspirations to be a novelist. She sees art as salvation, but yet she is afraid of the novels and viewpoints of Joyce, Proust, and D. H. Lawrence. She does not believe that art can save the world, nor does she believe that life aspires to the condition of art. She has written three short black comedies about misunderstandings and sexual relations, and she is only mildly interested in novels. We are informed that for Mrs. Smith her own life makes no sense without art.

In short, Mrs. Smith is a bundle of contradictions who spends her time, while her children are in school, writing in a London library because she "preferred to divide life and art." It appears early on that Mrs. Smith's rather conflicted viewpoints are intellectual in nature and perhaps the result of superficial thinking and that her desire to separate life and art is a means for suggesting her hostility to literary realism. The story turns on her buying a paper and reading that E. M. Forster has died at the age of 91. The reader is informed that Forster had said, "Only connect, the prose and the passion." For Mrs. Smith, Forster's work represents the ideal of the English novel because, among other things, he recognized the value of the individual and his responsibilities and recognized the energies of the world in which art does not matter. After these memories of her admiration for Forster she describes an "automatic survivors' pleasure" at seeing the news of Forster's death.

As much as Mrs. Smith seems to admire Forster, we are told that she has a friend whose window overlooked Forster's writing desk so that she could watch him at work. Because of this Mrs. Smith concludes that Forster can no longer "overlook or reject me," and she feels that as a result of Forster's death she is free to write her own books. Byatt is careful to point out the absurdity of Mrs. Smith's fears, since it was not even Mrs. Smith herself who lived near Forster but only her friend. Forster did not even know that she existed. The irony here is obvious. Forster did not know anything more of, or take any notice of, her literary prescience, so to speak, than he did of her physical presence. For Forster, Mrs. Smith did not even exist. From a more serious critical perspective Byatt points to what might be called a kind of paralysis of influence.

Later in the day Mrs. Smith runs into a friend of a friend from their school days named Conrad. Rather than describing their earlier acquaintanceship as "when they were younger" or in "earlier years," Byatt describes the past as having been in Mrs. Smith's "child-bearing years." Conrad had majored in psychology and after college had led an active and adventurous life, sleeping with many different women, traveling the world, and surviving a sanatorium. Mrs. Smith had majored in English, married, and had children. The contrast between their experiences is evident. Conrad attempts to interest Mrs. Smith in a relationship, which she, of course, rejects out of initial shock and later out of fear of Conrad himself, who attempts to persuade Mrs. Smith that he works for British intelligence and is in possession of a package that will prevent a nuclear war. The story ends two weeks after this incident when Mrs. Smith goes to a doctor, who finds a benign growth requiring surgery. Her surgery is scheduled in three weeks' time, which is spent by Mrs. Smith writing every day in the London library. Mrs. Smith concludes that she must develop short tales and rapid writing "in case there was not much time." Clearly, there are many issues involved in the story, but perhaps the most pertinent is the difference between living life and writing about life and the value of having a life to write about.

Although Byatt's attention has come to be focused on the writing of novels, her short stories suggest a wide-ranging subject matter and affinities with such major writers as Fielding, Thackeray, and Dickens. Stylistically, she often echoes the fluid prose of Woolf, and her story "Precipice-Encurled" shares structural similarities as well with Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Byatt shares with her contemporary Murdoch, as well as with these other writers, a seriousness of purpose, a willingness to experiment, and, perhaps most important, the ability to tell an interesting and entertaining story.

—Jeffrey D. Parker

See the essay on "Medusa's Ankles."