Thirty Years Ago

Patrick Parrinder

  • Still Life by A.S. Byatt
    Chatto, 358 pp, £9.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2667 1
  • Wales’ Work by Robert Walshe
    Secker, 279 pp, £8.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 436 56145 X

Like The Virgin in the Garden (1978) to which it is a deeper and darker-toned successor, A.S. Byatt’s Still Life has the classical English narrative setting of a generation ago. Apart from the prologue, which evokes the Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1980, the events here take place in 1954-7. Further sequels are promised, though it seems likely that this chronicle of middle-class English life has reached the half-way stage. Already its scale and substance begin to rival the sequences of C.P. Snow and Anthony Powell. Byatt’s view of the middle class centres on the Potter family: Northern, Nonconformist, and professionally preoccupied with teaching, writing, and caring for others. The poor, in this view of England, are unthinkable except as marginal presences, the objects of teaching and pastoral care. The rich come on stage from time to time to make casual, scarcely articulate raids on the Potter girls’ friendship and sexual favours. Both the narrator and the main characters testify to the centrality of what remains, in our society, of the old Puritan conscience: a continuing activity of mental exploration, a commitment to active relationship with others, the positive and forceful employment of one’s gift for words.

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