Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • A Whistling Woman by A.S. Byatt
    Chatto, 422 pp, £16.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 7011 7380 7

Towards the end of A.S. Byatt’s first novel about the Potter family, The Virgin in the Garden (1978), the heroine and a clever friend debate the question of whether modern life has rendered some literary forms obsolete. The year is 1953, and the immediate occasion is the staging of a verse drama in the manner of Eliot and Fry; but the debate quickly turns to Frederica Potter’s own hypothetical future as a writer. Though the 17-year-old Frederica insists that ‘a form is as good as the writer who chooses it,’ the slightly older and more sophisticated Edmund Wilkie is sceptical. You will think differently, he tells her, ‘when you decide to be a lady novelist, and get set to write a long novel by Proust out of George Eliot, and it won’t get up and walk.’ The author of The Virgin in the Garden was also 17 in 1953, but Frederica Potter is not A.S. Byatt – even if subsequent novels have shown her giving up the same dissertation (on 17th-century religious metaphor) that her creator abandoned, or spending some time, as Byatt herself did, teaching literature to art students in London. Indeed, to judge by this final instalment in the series, Frederica was not just quibbling over the adjective when she defiantly responded: ‘I won’t be a lady novelist.’ (When we last see her, she has hesitantly embarked on a career in television.) But while Frederica may have no intention of writing that ‘long novel by Proust out of George Eliot’, the long novels in which she figures are clearly marked by the genetic traces of that improbable couple – although their bloodlines have been hopelessly complicated by an array of literary ancestors, from 17th-century and Romantic poetry to the fiction of near contemporaries such as Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch. And even on occasions when the Potter novels don’t ‘get up and walk’ – which they mostly do, with considerable energy – they are always acutely intelligent about their lineage.

Byatt has implied that she did not at first think of these novels as clearly centred on Frederica; and it is true that when the series began, narrative attention seemed to be more evenly dispersed over the heroine and her two siblings – especially the oldest Potter child, Stephanie, who disappoints her intellectually ambitious father in The Virgin in the Garden by returning from Cambridge to make an unexpected but erotically satisfying marriage to a sceptical cleric named Daniel Orton. But with Stephanie’s abrupt death at the conclusion of Still Life (1985) – she is electrocuted while attempting to rescue a bird that has taken refuge beneath her refrigerator – the series has increasingly taken on the shape of an extended Bildungsroman. The Virgin in the Garden closes as Frederica sets off for university herself, having triumphed in her A-levels and ritually dispensed with her virginity, while Still Life takes up her erotic and intellectual history in 1950s Cambridge. Babel Tower (1996) begins with her escape from the abusive (if sexually compelling) landowner whom she married in the wake of her sister’s death and ends with her victory in a bitter custody suit over their child – a legal struggle that coincides with the obscenity trial of a Sadean fable called ‘Babbletower’, excerpts from which are juxtaposed with her narrative.

A Whistling Woman is the fourth and avowedly last in the series, but fictional time has not kept pace with history. Although readers might have expected Byatt to bring her semi-autobiographical narrative closer to the present, she has chosen to conclude it in 1970, when Frederica is not yet 34 and ‘the world was all before them, it seemed.’ (Together with The Winter’s Tale, Paradise Lost has been hovering over the series from the beginning – the dissertation on 17th-century metaphor having been not so much abandoned as imaginatively reconceived.) In a recent collection of critical essays, Byatt has defended the contemporary novel’s return to history;[*] and if A Whistling Woman is not quite a historical fiction like Possession (1990) or Angels and Insects (1992), it nonetheless deliberately keeps its distance from the events it narrates. Resembling the George Eliot of Middlemarch as she looked back from the sober perspective of 1872 on the political ferment of the early 1830s (‘those times when reforms were begun with a young hopefulness of immediate good which has been much checked in our days’), Byatt exploits the temporal gap to vindicate a scepticism she presumably felt from the start. The innocence mourned in this series is not that of the 1960s, but of the decade that preceded it.

Later – much later – when Frederica who had felt old at thirty was surprised at how she did not feel old at sixty – she looked back on this time of youthful turmoil, of overturning and jettisoning, as something very far away and finished, as the mild, indefinite, tentatively hopeful 1950s were not finished.

The significant phrase in this context is ‘felt old at thirty’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays by A.S. Byatt (Vintage, 208 pp., £7.99, 1 November 2001, 0 099 28383 2).