Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories 
by A.S. Byatt.
Vintage, 444 pp., £9.99, November 2023, 978 1 5291 1299 3
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An eldest sister​ was born in the North, daughter of a judge who never lied and a scholar who always did. That was A.S. Byatt. Christened Susan, what on earth, she was later known as Dame Antonia. Byatt wrote about sugar and snails and sex cults and the dead children of children’s book authors. She wrote about William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. She wrote about Cambridge, where she and her sister Margaret Drabble were educated in the 1950s, and about the landscape of Yorkshire, where they were raised. She wrote about the educational revolution of the 1960s and the purple goose-pimpled legs of English women in miniskirts. She wrote about air raids and Ragnarök; by the end of the Frederica quartet – The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman, written and published across a quarter of a century – it is clear she has entered into erotic conjugation with a Norseman. She won the Booker Prize for Possession (1990) and tried for it again with The Children’s Book (2009). Her last work of fiction was Medusa’s Ankles (2021), a selection of stories that stands for the whole.

I have read it all, beginning with Babel Tower (1996), back when I was the age of Frederica Potter graduating from school at Blesford Ride, sinking her uniform into the canal as her older sister, Stephanie, looks on. I have gone to the bookstore on publication day in my pyjamas and asked them to unbox the new one; it’s back there, I know it. I have twice fumbled through The Biographer’s Tale (2000), a book which seems to take place entirely in a filing cabinet (don’t worry, there are also sadistic pictures). If you told me she had a lost novel about paperweights, I would believe you. And I would read that too.

Byatt died last November, at the age of 87. That is a mellow span and a proper hour. I am not sure if she has had a worthy encomium; nor am I sure that I am the one to give it to her. I do know that she is too little read, not quite respected. Some of this is due to the widely broadcast facts of her life. A feud between sisters? Isn’t that … female? We know about the tragic loss of her son, Charles, at the age of eleven, which means that she exists for us in grief, as a permanent mother. There is nothing so diminishing, to the canonical view, though anyone who has witnessed this sort of loss first-hand knows that it puts you among the Greeks, into Shakespeare. ‘I have spent most of my life writing against The Winter’s Tale,’ Byatt said. To have in your life a problem play, to have it be a problem play because of your life.

As David Mitchell notes in his introduction to this reissue of Medusa’s Ankles, the selected stories are as deep and broad as the three decades they cover, though the ones from Sugar and Other Stories (1987) are the most indispensable. Each is different from the last: there are fairy tales, ghost stories, autobiographies, meditations on Ruskin; the settings are boarding schools, narratology conventions, fantasy villages. Any of Byatt’s formidable novellas might have been chosen, but we are given ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’, in which a genie, over the course of a hundred pages, holds the whole book swirling in microcosm around him. Mitchell calls her a magpie but Byatt’s own metaphor is a bowerbird; she is a lover, offering us little heaps of things. Her era was the reign of microfilm. You can tell that she went through a suede boots and big hat phase. The cover of the original edition of Medusa’s Ankles – hell, the title, let’s be honest illustrates the aesthetic problem. An ivory ribbon, a speckled lobster, blown poppies, a lascivious oyster. A hand mirror reflecting a whitish lake, a heavy key. These are seen to be her concerns, lacquerish, decorative, romantic. But the hand mirror fills with blood, the cabinet of wonders displays a skull. On the other side of the pomegranate, maggots like instinct pearls.

Desire, seemly and unseemly: of the icewoman in ‘Cold’ to slosh and melt, the corner of a painting to come alive in ‘Christ in the House of Mary and Martha’, the woman at the salon to smash up her reflection in ‘Medusa’s Ankles’ – of history to happen differently. The first story in the book, ‘The July Ghost’, broaches the loss of Byatt’s son – though shyly, sideways, at a strange angle. In a ‘precise conversational tone’, a bereaved landlady tells us: ‘The only thing I want, the only thing I want at all in this world, is to see that boy.’ The body keeps waiting, she explains, for him to come home, listens for his sounds, awaits his imprint on the air in Chelsea colours. Hopeless desire, then, and what it would look like for it not to be hopeless. Byatt would not go so far in fiction as to have the ghost appear to the mother, who is insensible, frozen, incurably sane. But she can invent someone – a lodger – to whom the boy, blond and smiling, does appear. The boy can even have his own purposes, as he did in life. He isn’t going after a ball this time, he wants to be born again.

To Mitchell’s mind Byatt belongs to that category of writers ‘who achieve virtuosity in both short and long-form fiction’. She began with the novel – the too-traditional novel – in her undergraduate days at Cambridge, eking it out ‘very obsessively and very slowly, knowing it was no good’, yet knowing she couldn’t write anything else. This was The Shadow of the Sun (1964). Next came The Game (1967), a tale of two sisters and the ‘skittish, snake-obsessed’ man who comes between them. From there she proliferated: eight more novels, two novellas and five collections of stories, as well as nine collections of essays and criticism, ranging in subject from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Iris Murdoch.

In her best novel, Still Life (1985), Byatt presides as a triple goddess: she is eighteen, in the early stages of motherhood, and menopausal – simultaneously. She shows us frizzed, electric Frederica and rounded, trapped Stephanie and the dry burning slopes of their mother, Winifred, author of these foreign and sometimes hated daughters. And she conjures too their solid husbands and husbands-to-be: the Bluebeardish Nigel, the curate Daniel, the Northern patriarch Bill. She can imagine sadism, both male and female. She writes both temper and quickness and the prison of placidity, which cannot move at the crucial moment. Pepper and ginger and golden milk. A burst of energy and song. ‘I should never, in a way, have killed Stephanie,’ Byatt said twenty years later. But Stephanie had her own will, a ‘life-wish’. A bird flew into the house and it beat where it was trapped. She reached under the refrigerator, far, too far.

To their brother, Marcus Potter (there are the fiery Potters, and the pale ones), Byatt gives her best bad-fairy gifts: her repelled fascination, her asthma and her helplessness. Without these the story, like any fairy tale, would not happen at all. Marcus looking on, the lenses of his spectacles like moons. After any death, someone is doomed to live it over and over; the fact that, coming into the kitchen, he had not thrown the switch that might have saved his sister from electrocution. He is the one who finds her as she now is, as she will be. The curled lip over wet teeth. Still lifes are violent, the apparent calm is only the shock of our first encounter with the scene. The slowing of the heart, the eye – a cry returning from earlier in the book: ‘Oh Marcus … Oh Marcus.’

Byatt’s live adjectives creep over her immovable nouns. One moment everything is in proportion; the next, sights brighten, outlines sharpen, the scent of a rose becomes monstrous. Frederica, who by the time of Babel Tower has fled the shock of Stephanie’s death into an isolating and brutal marriage with Nigel, eventually breaks free and makes a new life for herself in London. She reads manuscripts and appears on television and teaches. She never thought she wanted to be a teacher: her father was one; Stephanie had taught too, for a time. What she wanted, she says fiercely, was to live.

One day she is teaching Scott Fitzgerald, the scene where the murderer finds Gatsby in the pool. Raw sunlight and scarcely created grass, the old warm world. She admired the passage and made dutiful notes on it.

But as she read it out, she caught the full force of the achieved simplicity of every word in that perfectly created paragraph about destruction, that perfectly, easily coherent paragraph about disintegration. She felt something she had always supposed was mythical, the fine hairs on the back of her neck rising and pricking in a primitive response to a civilised perfection, body recognising mind.

She stopped in mid-sentence, and began again, urgently. Look, she told them, I’ve just really seen how good this paragraph is. Think about the adjectives, how simple they look, how right every single one is, out of all the adjectives that could have been chosen. Look at ‘unfamiliar’ and think about a man who had made up his own heaven and earth, who was his own family. Look at ‘frightening leaves’ which are flatly bald and menacing, but lightly so. ‘What a grotesque thing a rose is.’ The idea of intricate natural perfection undone in one atmospheric and one psychological adjective – which is also an ancient aesthetic adjective …

Frederica stared almost wildly at the class, which stared back at her, and then smiled, a common smile of pleasure and understanding. For the rest of her life, she came back and back to this moment, the change in the air, the pricking of the hairs, of really reading every word of something she had believed she ‘knew’. And at that moment, she knew what she should do was teach, for what she understood – the thing she was both by accident and by inheritance constructed to understand – was the setting of words in order, to make worlds, to make ideas.

Byatt herself was an illuminator, she carried things to us. She was a teacher for exactly eleven years, the length of her son’s life.

My affinity​ is perhaps unexpected. I know the books so well that looking at them on the shelf is like reading them. What she created for me, in the Frederica quartet, was a kind of internal geography. Over on the left, in the darkness, is the wood where the smooth-between-the-legs Alexander is not quite managing to make it happen with the frustrated housewife Jenny, released into the ache of the unattainable by her part in the play being put on at Long Royston. Up in the tower is the evasive poet Raphael Faber, ever withdrawing his tapered fingertips, dry as his own spice cakes. Out on the moors is Jacqueline, with thick sandwiches, observing her population of Cepea nemoralis. Carrying dishes to the communal kitchen is ill-fated Ruth, with her plait down her back. In the car the mystic madman Lucas Simmonds is eternally interfering with Marcus. And Stephanie, suffering from ‘an excess of exact imagination’, exerting her whole will to bring her family together, is wrestling with the slithering Christmas turkey in its dish.

It is in part a response to Middlemarch (a question you must eventually ask yourself, as a novelist, is can I do a Middlemarch?), and Byatt’s quartet resembles Eliot’s novel in the way it inhabits each of the characters equally. You hover with her above a sort of map. Is this the North? Is this where mothers-in-law put the flowers out at night so they don’t kill you with carbon dioxide and invariably pronounce it babby? What begins as a stiff frieze, a mannered pageant, becomes a fluid portrait of the way our jobs, vocations, avocations locate us in the teeming moment. Daniel answering the phone in the crypt of St Simeon’s while the nascent cults of the 1960s form around him. Twisting his dog collar. Byatt’s ability to describe his jumpers and my ability to picture them – some genius meets between us. She lived among these people. They were people. I live among her and hers.

In an early story called ‘On the Day E.M. Forster Died’, the middle-aged Mrs Smith is released from the great man’s influence. Sitting in the London Library, as is her habit when her three small children are at school, she has the idea for something like the quartet. It is the book that will contain all of it: Suez, the naming of nouns, Angry Young Men, parodies of Tolkien. And it will prove that she lived a segment of history. The tone is manic, time-lapsed, exalted:

Why does condensation of thought have such authority? Like warning, or imperative, dreams. Mrs Smith could have said at any time that of course all her ideas were part of a whole, they were all hers, limited by her history, sex, language, class, education, body and energy. But to experience this so sharply, and to experience it as intense pleasure, to know limitation as release and power, was outside Mrs Smith’s pattern. She had probably been solicited by such aesthetic longings before. And rejected them. Why else be so afraid of the bright books?

This is the moment when the needle’s eye opens wider than a gate, and writing – the kind of writing Byatt did – becomes possible. Now that Forster is dead, Mrs Smith thinks: ‘I have room to move, now I can do as I please, now he can’t overlook or reject me.’ She says to herself, savouring the words, as Byatt so often tastes words through her characters: ‘On the day that E.M. Forster died I decided to write a long novel. And heard in the churchyard a biblical echo. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw also the Lord …”’ If her lines are unusually memorable, it is because they scan: first the sea, then the Bible, then the whole of English literature.

It was the weight of influence that sat so heavily on the Leavis generation. A teacher, for those symbolic eleven years, Byatt then became a commentator and critic – even in her fiction, a critic of the arguing, roving, appreciative sort. Quote liberally, she may have taught me, and there will be a synthesis of your thought and its object, the beam of the eye taking an active part in creating what it sees. I felt it vividly from the beginning: I am reading her reading. I am watching F.R. Leavis – who taught Byatt’s mother, Kathleen – drop books into the rubbish bin. I have to think a lot about D.H. Lawrence for some reason; I have to rebut the idea that there are no accidents in novels. It is pertinent, then, that I had no education. Byatt was freed into hers and also enclosed by it. You are inside its sensual pleasures. Yes, you will sometimes feel smothered by it, as was she.

Frederica’s revelation that real life is communication between minds occurs in the last instalment of the quartet, A Whistling Woman (2002), but there is an earlier parallel in Still Life. Stephanie’s concern is Wordsworth, the weight of custom, life. She clutches Wordsworth to herself in hospital, before the great splitting scene of her childbirth, darkened plastered hair, and names her son William – a gesture that her hot-tempered father, Bill, takes kindly. She did not think, she says. She wanted him to be himself. It is Wordsworth she thinks of now, on this morning, free, biking to the library. The earth turning over and over, the substantiation of his nouns as heavy and real as her husband. Rocks, and stones, and trees:

Stephanie remembered other libraries, still woolgathering. Principally the Cambridge University Library in the summer of her finals. She remembered the sensation of knowledge, of grasping an argument, seizing an illustration, seeing a link, a connection, between this ancient Greek idea here and this 17th-century English one, in other words. Knowledge had its own sensuous pleasure, its own fierce well-being, like good sex, like a day in bright sun on a hot empty beach. She thought of these various lights, Plato’s sun, Daniel’s body, that first moment of Will’s separate life, herself in sunlight, and thought, as she had not thought clearly for some long time, of ‘my life’, of the desired shape of ‘my life’ as it had seemed so clear and so bright in that earlier library. She thought: this will not do, I must think about the ‘Immortality Ode’, I have no time, any more. And saw that she was thinking about the ‘Immortality Ode’, that the poem was about all these things, the splendour in the grass, the need for thought, the shape of a life, the light.

She was about to be able to think. And, as always at that moment, all her perceptions sharpened too. She saw the grey frosted windows of the library on Beastfair, the battleship-grey metal shelves, the pebbly polished concrete floor that jarred with the crazy formica of the table that she sat at. One of the old men was secretively tearing up a piece of bread and a lump of perhaps cheese under the library table, popping little gobbets into his mouth when the librarian seemed to be looking away. He pleased her; it all pleased her. She turned to the poem.

Stephanie has fought for this morning, has left William in the care of Daniel’s mother and Marcus. While she is having her blazing insight, Marcus attempts to change a nappy, a task which proves quite beyond his powers. She returns to find the baby on the ground, purple, grazed and howling. What is real, what is ordinary life, we must ask ourselves. Is it the scene in the library? Is it the beloved figure on the floor? ‘Oh, Marcus,’ she cries, ‘Oh, Marcus.

Icame​ to Margaret Drabble late. An outrageous waste, a missed connection, to have had The Millstone (1965) so long in my house without opening it. If you have only read one sister, now read the other. You will become, as I did, obsessed. The use of one another’s images and lives, the snipping of locks of hair for fictional nests. It’s like stumbling on an extended universe, or experiencing the same events from different sides of the brain.

To call what was between them a feud, as the press liked to do, is not quite right. They both referred to it as normal sibling rivalry, but perhaps there isn’t a name for what it really was, or else it is part of that invented language that siblings develop – close commingling in youth, rupture and coldness when you are divided. ‘My sister was not very nice to me – my big sister,’ Drabble said, with uncharacteristic hesitation, in her Paris Review interview, conducted in 1978, a walloping 23 years before Byatt’s. ‘I used to tag along after her and she was always … well, she used to play with me a lot when we were little … I think this is what went wrong. I used to expect her to go on playing with me and of course she got bigger and didn’t want me around.’ They did go on playing, though, a strategic and enthralling game. Byatt spoke of being ‘absolutely appalled by the Brontës’ joint imagination’, but what she and her sister did between them was at least as strange as Gondal. If Gondal were in Yorkshire, which of course it was.

Drabble’s heroines seem like they wouldn’t notice if they burned themselves on a hot stove. Towering in their intellect and self-esteem, blunt bangs on a perfect brain, long legs in tarty skirts, don’t care, don’t care. Marvellous, funny, in a way that Byatt purported to be afraid to be. Delivered straight out of the voice, disarming. ‘Literary people are death, I should think. They’re always much nastier about each other than any other people I know are about their colleagues,’ Sarah observes in A Summer Bird-Cage (1963), Drabble’s first novel. ‘I hate anyone to be didactic except me.’ ‘Sometimes it seems the only accomplishment my education ever bestowed on me, the ability to think in quotations.’

In comparison with lines like these, Byatt sometimes seems to be doing a dance of the seven veils, which is always in danger of lapsing into cartoon goldfish territory. She knew that too, and simply vacated the field; she was not there to be brief, distillate or funny. ‘And in my view,’ she says in her own Paris Review interview, ‘all sartorial decisions are comic.’ A character who appears in A Whistling Woman writes books with titles that are ‘witty variations on confinement. The Bright Prison. The Toy Box. I Cannot Get Out, Said the Bird.’ That was the sort of satire she allowed herself, literary and academic, though titles are nothing more than a kind of hat or glove too.

A younger sister may write about an older one, to exorcise the undue power she exerts over her. An older one may see herself and do the same in turn. The events, as they remember them, will chafe against one another. The white satin and little gold pins of Stephanie in The Virgin in the Garden (1978), frightened, unhappy, knowing she is leaving the life of the mind behind, yet compelled by the dense matter of Daniel’s body; the chilling image of the bride in A Summer Bird-Cage, devouring, immoral, greedy as golden syrup, drunk on the morning of her wedding, in a wild silk dress and a dirty bra, telling her sister she would love her forever if she made her some Nescafé.

To read Byatt and Drabble side by side was one of the more absorbing experiences of my reading life. I had such an older sister. Oh, I thought, so that’s how it was. There is something inhibiting about the family home; people cannot be people in it. And there must, where two people who live in books are concerned, be a simple, petty, and perfect resentment at work: knowing the way things actually happened, they are robbed of the pleasure of reading one another.

An older sister may feel a sense of filial duty, a heavier burden of inheritance, that the younger one is free of. It was Byatt who would assume, in Possession, the mantle of her own mother’s subject: loops of hair in mourning lockets, the high Victorians. And if Frederica Potter is the one who can’t stop moving, can’t stop talking, is intellectually greedy, can’t act, whose skin peels off in tigerish strips in the South of France, whose scene of deflowerment is as colourful as Esther Greenwood’s – she is the one who goes on, too, in her hot scissoring limbs, her ambition, her speech. She is, by the author at least, seen from every angle, envied. Every warm freckle is indexed. She is not the stone woman, or the statue in The Winter’s Tale. Neither would she ask, if the djinn appeared to her as he appeared to Dr Gillian Perholt in ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’, to be in the body of a 32-year-old again. Knife-like, slicing the paper of her costume with every step, she goes on the same. She gets to live.

‘I start work in the morning at about ten,’ Byatt once said, ‘having put the washing in the washing machine, and gone to the greengrocer.’ She goes on:

I will read something easy to stop me thinking about the house, and then I read something difficult to make my mind be really moving – you know like running a car in. And then after a bit if I read something difficult that’s really interesting I get this itch to start writing. So what I like to do is to write from about half past twelve, one, through to about four. And then I start reading again. That would be a perfect day’s work.

Some people always say no to the interviewer. Byatt very often says yes. She says yes to the Paris Review interviewer (her friend Philip Hensher) when he asks whether it isn’t Beatrice Nest who is the ‘avenging angel’ of Possession. She takes this up eagerly. She extends herself at once into the figure of Beatrice, an academic trapped in middle age and unaccustomed softness, holding the whole romance smothering in the front of her jumper, in the archive that has somehow been subsumed in her body – to be freed, at the end, in an ecstatic scene of lightning and rain. Beatrice is custodian of the neutral Ellen Ash, married to the eminent Victorian poet and polymath Randolph Henry Ash, whose love affair with the poet Christabel LaMotte is being investigated by other scholars. Ellen Ash’s journal, Beatrice tentatively advances, was written to protect the great man, to baffle. She sees it as a sort of panelling, beyond which there is sometimes a flicker. Randolph telling Ellen you are my dear, dear wife. Ellen saying that one passage about a Mundane Egg, sent to Randolph’s lover and nearly lost, is superior to another. We cannot know the particulars. But we know that behind the panelling, the real scene goes on.

Sometimes it does happen, that a scene of history opens to us. A skirt rustles on the stairs. That is all it takes. We have had a private audience. The two novellas included in Angels and Insects (1992) attend Possession, with their compound glitterings and their low-burning censers, and ‘Precipice-Encurled’, first published in 1987, is a preliminary sketch of it that is almost as rewarding. Libraries and old country houses. Deep in the letters and the rediscovered poems as in a featherbed. You could spend a whole life in it. People do. The whole world waits for Beatrice to release her edition, but she goes carefully, plods stubbornly, she knows that there is more. The plea from one woman to another becomes a plea from the subject to her scholar: I am in your hands.

Robert Browning – one of the models for Randolph Henry Ash, along with Tennyson and Coleridge – appears in person in ‘Precipice-Encurled’, deciding to write a poem about Descartes. ‘The best part of my life, he told himself, the life I have lived most intensely, has been the fitting, the infiltrating, the inventing the self of another man or woman, explored and sleekly filled out, as fingers swell a glove.’ There is everything to go in. There is even Lazarus, ‘who had briefly been in the presence of God and inhabited eternity, and to whose resuscitated life he had been able to give no other characteristics than these, the lively, indifferent interest in everything, a mule with gourds, a child’s death, the flowers of the field, some trifling fact at which he will gaze “rapt with stupor at its very littleness”’.

This is the closest thing we have to a statement of Byatt’s art. We will attend a séance at some point. We will return to a period of proper mourning, reinvest the glove with its proper significance. We will make a design of our profusion, like a William Morris wallpaper. Yes, we will raise the dead in our way. Browning would, he told himself a little wildly, ‘investigate Flemish stoves’.

Little pebbles in the path derail history. The bowerbird, the collector, might pick those up too, and have a little say in things that way. Joshua, the young painter in ‘Precipice-Encurled’, whose story first parallels Browning’s and then throws it off course, thinks Ruskin’s thoughts. This is the astonishment of recognition Frederica felt, body recognising mind, you can think someone else’s thoughts. Better ones. See how they arrived at some peak, follow the sublime trail on your grey, stumbling, modest mule. As Joshua rides up the mountain he considers how to paint his subject, Juliana, with whom he has fallen in love: ‘It was to do with the flesh and the muslin, the tones in common, the tones that were not shared, a blue in the pink cloth … you could pick up in the vein or the eyelid, the wrist, a shimmer, a thread … The hot saddle shifted beneath him: the mule sighed: the man sighed.’ We have seen it, yes, he is going to fall. Another of Byatt’s rapturous colour words: donkey-brown.

Abrief guide​ . You do have to read the fairy tales the first time. After that you can skip them. (Byatt herself advocated skipping, and often read novels at great speed, to see whether they were possible to read.) No, the poems are not actually good, but they serve well enough to be interesting. If her male characters are slim, they do not have a penis for some reason. If they are stocky and bullish, then they do. Yes, she said that she wrote Possession to be popular. It is a puzzle box, ingenious, plotted to the hair; it is good. Yes, she wrote The Children’s Book to win the Booker again, which she did not, for the same reason your head is swimming here: the more you put in, the more there is.

There is sometimes a prancing thing. Just deal with it. In each book she has a new esoteric fixation and there’s nothing to do but go along. Bless her equal interests: a dress will be Courrèges, a haircut Vidal Sassoon, and you will care about these taxonomies along with Linnaeus. Her fairy tales are too enclosed, but you can hardly begrudge her because she is so happy when she puts one in. She goes into them like the çeșm-i bülbül bottle and looks out at you through a peacock’s eye. She is one of the people who like to be enclosed, as a matter of sensual pleasure – and then, too, there are the air raids, always going on overhead.

Her ear is excellent – somehow washing over us, like the fine shuffling of index cards – but not impeccable. Her Americans are very, very hilarious (an American called Mortimer Cropper would be like an Englishman called Cowboy Bunky) but I did not realise this when I first read her because it didn’t occur to me that she could get something wrong. Leonora the predatory pansexual is even funnier, but I think she is a metaphor for Americans generally: thundering into a room with huge perfume and attempting to suffocate you with their cleavage, which is as deep as all they do not know.

The Children’s Book, good as it is in parts, is a bit like watching a slow-moving snuff film about the Fabians. She originally wanted to call it ‘The Hedgehog, the White Goose and the Mad March Hare’, if that tells you anything. Its conclusion – that Christopher Robin WILL kill himself and erotic potters WILL make obscene vases of their daughters, and everyone else will be swept away by the Great War – is stated so plainly by history that it is not particularly rewarding to work towards in fiction. (‘It was 1918,’ John Crace wrote in his ‘Digested Read’ for the Guardian. ‘Everyone had been killed. Except the ones that hadn’t.’) If I were to read it again, I would read it in conjunction with Peacock & Vine (2016), her superb miniature study of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. I do think what she wanted was to take on William Morris himself, but he was too big, too known. Possession is so good because Randolph Henry Ash is not really Browning, Christabel LaMotte not the disliked Christina Rossetti (thanks to a healthy [–] of Emily Dickinson). They are entwined like her parents’ confabulations and facts, and thus somehow closer to real people. She wrote the poems herself.

Contemporary reviewers pointed out that The Children’s Book contained a mathematically impossible number of glazes. But colour was one of Byatt’s strongest points, such that you can feel different schemes in every book. The greens of Possession – vegetable, mineral and moss when we are in Brittany – and the burnishing panther of the fairy tales, gold-purple-black, stalking through. The buttery sunlight and gouache of Still Life. Reading her at seventeen I had an idea that perhaps the English had a better sense of colour because they spent so much time looking at teacups; I must be highly disadvantaged in this regard. Coffee cups have Garfield on them – or, if you’re unlucky, Odie. They do not fill your mind with the soft dreaming tints that made up Byatt’s encyclopedia. She has to mention it every time; it is more than an attribute, it is an achievement, a soul. The eggs of things are being lifted up out of their Easter dye, and don’t you exclaim every time? What a surprise! Look at that one!

‘What is my subject?’ Frederica asks herself in Babel Tower, after buying herself a notebook. Should she write about shitting, as it is practised in the modern day? Some writers fill the garden with new animals and name them; she is not one of these. The primary imagination has been educated out of her, or she never had it. Agatha Mond, Frederica’s reticent civil-servant roommate, produces the grand and unexpected Tolkien-type work. Grey-skinned Jude Mason, who poses for an art class, gets to do his sadistic little rosy pinching version of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Even the prancing Mickey Impey is a real poet – but Frederica, unfitted, educated beyond her own nerve endings, must write Laminations, a cut-up. Her mind is crowded with other works, other words: ‘only connect’, ‘these fragments I have shored’, ‘the novel is the one bright book of life.’

But there is sometimes the spectre of another kind of writer – a writer whom you think might be realer than me. It is not a Blake or a Browning. It is someone like Phyllis K. Pratt, a woman whose manuscript Frederica picks out from a publisher’s slush pile. It is domestic, dry, burning, underestimated – Quakerish, I think now, like her father. Perhaps it is what she might have been without her education, without the fine surf of quotation always in her inner ear. In ‘Raw Material’, one of the stories in Medusa’s Ankles, Jack Smollett has had charge, for the past fifteen years, of an ever-renewed list of student writers whose projects are as various as ‘clever murder by a cruel surgeon during an operation’; ‘nervous breakdown of a menopausal woman with a beautiful and patient daughter’; and ‘cycle of very explicit lesbian love poems involving motorbikes’. When I die I am going to ask Byatt some questions about the lesbian thing.

Smollett instructs the students not to invent melodrama for its own sake. It’s no use. ‘Every year they wrote melodrama. They clearly needed to write melodrama.’ It is this surfeit that makes him so enchanted with the contributions of Cicely Fox, who writes about lead-blacking stoves and wash day, quotidia remembered from her youth. If she were allowed a wider range, she might have written one of Byatt’s own stories: ‘Sugar’, a tour through her grandfather’s candy factory, sweets being lifted out of their vats, one source of those clear boiled colours. She might have written ‘Racine and the Tablecloth’, a boarding-school tale, an experiment in omniscience, with a narrator so vivid she threatens to pop into the room. But melodrama is what comes for Cicely Fox. Toppled, splayed, discovered by the teacher: she too becomes material, raw in every sense. That very English line: ‘It was not nice.’

Melodrama is within Byatt’s scope. She is not predictable exactly, though her preoccupations are of a piece: a selkie WILL show up in Filey and she’ll be wearing an aquamarine brooch at her throat. But just as easily, on the next page, she may put in a moors murder, and this is within her range as well. The black and white headlines are also hers, that rip across the tasteful, that disturb the drawing rooms, customs and proprieties of fiction, yet are more true. She never needed to confront the question that the rest of us must: is fiction big enough to hold the fact that anything may happen? The epigraph to ‘Precipice-Encurled’ is from Browning:

What’s this then, which proves good yet seems untrue?
Is fiction, which makes fact alive, fact too?
The somehow may be thishow.

This becomes Byatt’s weapon, as her childhood reading was her weapon. If anything can happen – if the world teems to that extent, with angels above, insects below – then why not this? Tell fairy tales, bring people back to life, grant wishes. The djinn is the opposite of a frozen statue; he is pure colour, a parcel of smoke in the arms. ‘Tell me anything,’ he says to the narratologist Gillian Perholt. He is the unlikely thing, and yet we are the ones who are conjured up, created out of desire, with a long lazy ear to hear her history. Having worked on this essay so much from memory, realising I had come to the end of it without revisiting so many hundreds of pages, I wondered: could I read it all in a day, hold the scope of it in my hand somehow, tell the whole story in an instant?

Byatt’s Browning, in ‘Precipice-Encurled’,

felt for his idea of what was behind all this diversity, all this interest. At the back was an intricate and extravagantly prolific maker. Sometimes, listening to silence, alone with himself, he heard the irregular but endlessly repeated crash of waves on a pebbled shore. His body was a porcelain-fine arched shell, sculpted who knew how, containing this roar and plash.

A woolgathering rhythm, beginning slow and gathering intensity, climbing open-handed from one idea to another. I am not sure if these seem so close to the rhythms of my thought because I read Byatt so much and so early, or if it is because this is the way people – a certain kind of people – really do think. ‘At the back, is something simple, undifferentiated, indifferently intelligent, live,’ Browning goes on. ‘My best times are those when I approximate most closely to that state.’ A plea from the past to the present, from the living to the dead, from the writer to the reader: I am in your hands.

As for the resurrection. There was once a morning free. You rode to the library with a book in your basket, and you waited to be able to think. Rising anxiety: the minutes are passing, will you be able to do it? A window opens, a bird flies in, the flash of insight is there and then gone – tomorrow it will seem ordinary, no more blazing than the bacon and eggs, but you had it. You gently close the book. And rise.

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