Overindulgence

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’.

Somewhat contradictorily, this prematurely aged Frederica is also a wide-eyed Alice in Wonderland, as the looking-glass world of Dodgson’s Alice books offers recurring analogies for the perceptual distortions and topsy-turvy politics of England in the 1960s. The experimental television programme Frederica hosts is called Through the Looking-Glass, and its pilot episode features Jonathan Miller and Richard Gregory talking animatedly about mirrors and doubles, both of which figure prominently in A Whistling Woman’s own symbolic repertoire. (As she did in Babel Tower, where she brought on Anthony Burgess as a witness for the defence in her fictional obscenity trial, Byatt enjoys mixing real people with her imaginary ones, even as she accords some of the latter the extended life of characters in Balzac: another episode of Through the Looking-Glass features the novelist Julia Corbett, one of the two heroines of Byatt’s 1967 novel, The Game.) Though A Whistling Woman seems uneasy about some of the more volatile energies released in the 1960s, it also draws on the protean impulses of the time to intimate new possibilities for its heroine. In one episode of Through the Looking-Glass, the guests discuss a Picasso pot whose polymorphic combination of cock, hen and woman recalls the ‘crowing hen’ of the novel’s first epigraph – a saying attributed to the author’s maternal grandmother that also provides the book with its title: ‘A Whistling Woman and a Crowing Hen/Is neither good for God nor Men.’ The epigraph relies on the hen’s crowing to drive home the androgynous implications of a woman’s whistle, but the novel succeeds in making this an eerily effective figure for women’s yearning to escape the limits of their sex.

A Whistling Woman opens with an excerpt from one of Byatt’s characteristically embedded tales, a children’s story called ‘Flight North’ that was introduced in Babel Tower. As the tale nears its conclusion, a small band of travellers must cross a dangerous landscape ‘infested’ by the Whistlers – mysterious female creatures, half-bird, half-human, whose terrible cry usually proves fatal to those who hear it. They turn out to be refugees from a kingdom called Veralden, and they are enraged because no one can understand what they are saying. ‘In Veralden, only men were shape-shifters. Women stayed in the valley, spinning and teaching, tending fruit-trees and flowers. They never left the valley. We wanted to go out, we wanted the speed and the danger of the wind and the snow and the dark.’ Significantly, the Whistlers deliver this speech to the hero of the tale, whose magical capacity to hear and interpret their usually deadly calls frees them from their anger. A Whistling Woman is not itself a fairytale, though it incorporates more than one magical narrative; but there is enough wish-fulfilment in its design to leave Frederica with a lover who seems capable of understanding her own angry yearning – a man who responds to her lament that ‘it’s harder for a woman’ by telling her that she ‘must just whistle harder. Louder.’

‘Flight North’ is in part a feminist fairytale, but it is also a fable about education – a narrative that deliberately reverses the conventional pattern of most children’s stories by making the educated prince, rather than the humble page, the hero who leads the group to safety. ‘I wrote it for bookish children,’ its fictional author, Agatha Mond, says in Babel Tower. ‘For children despised because they read. To say, you can learn to live from books.’ What might be called the primacy of recorded knowledge is clearly a theme close to Byatt’s heart as well. A Whistling Woman concludes a debate begun in Babel Tower about the relation between rules and freedom in education by coming out firmly on the side of rules – not as oppressive structures but as the ‘forms of thought’ without which any real learning is impossible. ‘Rote learning is not a form of torture or inhibition,’ a sensible teacher says at one point. ‘You don’t learn the alphabet in order to know it, but in order to use it. But knowing is a human pleasure. Like perspective drawing, or staying afloat in water.’ This is a character speaking, not the author; but even if Byatt herself had not expressed similar sentiments elsewhere, the design of her plot would make her sympathies clear. Frederica resigns her position at the Samuel Palmer Art School precisely because her students are less interested in knowing than in marching, holding meetings and issuing manifestos. ‘Frederica gave up teaching because she wanted to teach,’ the narrator remarks.

Not all the satire of student culture in the 1960s is equally pointed, possibly because the idiom of the time came too close to satirising itself. (‘We Demand that courses in Literature and Philosophy be made conceptually relevant to Jewellery Design’ sounds like a cheap shot, for example; but perhaps it isn’t.) Most of the academic business of the novel takes place at a fictitious institution called North Yorkshire University, where planning is underway for a major conference on Body and Mind. But in a work that abounds in mirrors and doubles, even the university has its ‘anti-university’ – a miscellaneous group of locals and itinerants who set up a shadow institution on the fringes of the campus, and whose parodic version of conference planning culminates in a riot. The day before the riot, Frederica listens to a conference paper on D.H. Lawrence and finds herself deeply disturbed by its approving account of the novelist’s ‘dangerous nonsense’ abstracted from the ‘lively drama’ of the novels themselves. ‘What is important,’ she thinks, ‘is to defend reason against unreason.’

Byatt has said that she began the Potter novels with the aim of including at least six principal characters – another respect in which their form recalls that of Middlemarch – and like the others in the series, A Whistling Woman brings multiple perspectives to bear on the action. But with one major exception, its chief figures are not the student radicals and religious cultists who precipitate the violent crises of the plot. Most of her sympathetic characters dislike groups – and groups of one sort or another dominate the novel’s vision of the 1960s. In a climactic scene, a Konrad Lorenz-like lecture on herd behaviour intended to conclude the conference on Body and Mind is ironically disrupted by the ‘howling and baying’ of rioters. Though the devastation of the student rebellion proves less deadly than the fiery implosion of the religious cult that follows a few months later, the two events are linked by a number of characters, including the restive wife of the university’s vice-chancellor – a madwoman who sets fire to her own house and dies in the flames that engulf the cult. A Bertha Mason-like figure and an angry double for Frederica herself, she acts out the rage that Byatt’s heroine barely escapes as she negotiates her way through the social landscape of a world before feminism.

Body and Mind signify more here, of course, than the plausible rubric of an academic conference. The conflict between them bedevils all Byatt’s characters, but especially her women, who struggle to reconcile the demands of sex and reproduction with their intellectual hunger. In Still Life, one of her most moving representations of the conflict, Stephanie escapes for a few hours in the library after the birth of her first child in order to read her beloved Wordsworth, even as a bodily inertia akin to Freud’s death instinct inexorably pulls her towards the nature morte of the novel’s title. ‘Rocks and stones and trees; I like the earth,’ Stephanie says in a later episode – her allusion to Wordsworth’s Lucy anticipating her own premature death. Partly in response to that death, Frederica marries, as her sister did, for sex, only to discover that she has nearly committed mental suicide in the process. (The oppressive marriage from which she eventually flees in Babel Tower owes something to Isabel Archer’s union with Gilbert Osmond in Portrait of a Lady, as well as the Grandcourt marriage in Daniel Deronda.) ‘The body,’ Frederica says at one point in A Whistling Woman, ‘wants to be pregnant. The woman often doesn’t.’ Before the novel’s end, she will be forced to contend with this difference, as panic at missed periods yields to more subtle negotiations between ‘body’ and ‘woman’. Though Byatt is too modern a novelist to resolve such tensions in a happy marriage, the author of Possession once again indulges in a deliberately updated version of 19th-century romancing when she leaves her heroine pregnant by a man who endorses her passion for knowledge. ‘You’ll know more,’ he says of the uncertain career Frederica has chosen; and when she responds, ‘That’s what matters,’ he replies: ‘Of course.’ For Byatt’s ambitious heroine, few words of lovemaking could be more gratifying.

Virtually all the principal figures in A Whistling Woman exhibit something of this intellectual appetite. ‘Perhaps the most vital discovery I made about George Eliot at that time was that her people think,’ Byatt has written of teaching Middlemarch in her late twenties; and if her own characters are no longer searching for the Key to All Mythologies, they are perfectly capable of aspiring instead to ‘a biological-cognitive Theory of Everything’. (This is the vice-chancellor of the university, a mathematician and grammarian whose dreams of total knowledge produce the climactic conference on Body and Mind.) Jacqueline Winwar, who first appeared as a young girl in Still Life, now joins Frederica as the novel’s other ‘ambitious woman’: a scientist who works on the physiology of memory, she is looking for ‘the place where mind and matter were one thing’. The biologist who is in love with Jacqueline for most of the narrative, the improbably named Luk Lysgaard-Peacock, seeks to explain the nature of altruism and the problem of sexual reproduction; while the mathematically gifted Marcus Potter, Frederica’s younger brother, meditates on infinite numbers, the Fibonacci spiral, and ‘the mystery of phyllotaxis’. Even the charismatic madman who becomes the leader of the cult is an intellectual and a systematiser, who studies Kierkegaard and St Augustine before turning to Manichaeanism in a desperate attempt to make sense of the horrific suffering he has experienced. ‘I wanted to find a place to start understanding everything,’ Frederica says of the dissertation on metaphor, and it is characteristic of both heroine and novelist that no irony apparently attends the remark. They have abandoned the project but not the cognitive desire that inspired it – a desire that is as powerful a motor of Byatt’s plots as the more familiar erotic variety.

While Frederica rejects an academic career because she wants to know more than literary studies alone can provide, her creator evidently delights in a novelist’s licence to work up the various fields of inquiry in which she engages her characters. The acknowledgments page for A Whistling Woman typically credits informants in a range of subjects from snails and genetics to vision, memory and cognition, dyslexia, charisma, and religious culture in the 1960s. It is hard to quarrel with a wish to know more, but it’s possible to feel that the Potter novels occasionally suffer from an overindulgence of their author’s cognitive appetites. In a recent interview, Byatt credited Proust with having taught her that one could ‘put everything into’ a novel, but A la recherche du temps perdu may not be the safest model in this respect; and of course much depends on how ‘everything’ is reimagined and articulated. The problem is not that Babel Tower or A Whistling Woman ‘smells of the lamp’, as Henry James famously complained of Eliot’s historical scholarship in Romola, but that the proliferation of vocabularies and allusions – not to mention the sheer number of characters, many of them introduced in previous volumes – sometimes threatens to bury the narrative rather than illuminate it. Between the various authorities, fictional and historical, who hold forth on Through the Looking-Glass, the psychiatrists and ethnomethodologists through whose correspondence we primarily witness the activities of the cult, and the assortment of academics who prepare for the conference on Body and Mind, A Whistling Woman sets up more analogies and cross-references than most readers can possibly assimilate. It is instructive to look back at the comparatively spare design of Still Life, which Byatt has said began as a quixotic attempt to write a novel without metaphor. (She had intended it to be governed by William Carlos Williams’s celebrated dictum: ‘no ideas but in things.’) The plan was evidently impossible, as the narrator of the novel repeatedly reflects: ‘even in the act of naming,’ she says at one point, ‘we make metaphors.’ It may well be that ‘we cannot resist the connecting and comparing habit of the mind,’ as the same narrator says elsewhere, but the attempt to do so seems to have been chastening; and the outcome remains to my mind the finest novel of the series.

In A Whistling Woman itself, the most strenuous metaphor-maker is also a madman: Joshua Ramsden, alias Josh Lamb, the leader of the cult that goes up in flames. The only major character to appear for the first time in this volume, Ramsden/Lamb is both one of Byatt’s more affecting creations and one of her most baffling. Between the psychiatrists who observe him and his own fragmented memories, we gradually piece together his terrible history: at the age of 11, he returned from a rare overnight visit to a friend to discover that his father, a Methodist lay preacher, had murdered his mother and only sister – an angel having ordered their death, according to their killer, ‘that they might not see the coming holocaust’. (The year was 1939.) Joshua has been spared, presumably, only because he was absent when the deed was done, though the father makes no attempt to complete the ritual when the son returns home to confront him. Comparing himself to Abraham with Isaac and to Jephthah sacrificing his daughter, the murderer, who refuses to plead insanity, is executed for the crime. When the collective agonies of wartime swiftly follow, the sole survivor of this private holocaust is evacuated to the home of an aunt with the overdetermined name of Agnes Lamb – a woman who can only cope with his history by refusing to acknowledge it. From these origins, as Byatt imagines them, there emerges something like a Manichaean version of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin: Josh Lamb is an epileptic and a visionary. He alternates periods as a theological student with institutionalisation for insanity, and grows up obsessed with the problem of evil, convinced that only a demonic God could have ordered Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. Intermittently overwhelmed by hallucinations of blood and visited by a phantasmal Other who takes the form of a Manichaean syzygos, or heavenly twin, the adult Lamb is at once a gentle charismatic with an uncanny sensitivity to others’ suffering and a violent avenger, doomed to complete his father’s sacrifice in the flames that consume the cult.

Byatt has attributed her early interest in 17th-century metaphor to the appeal of a time when word and thing were one – the last moment, according to the academic orthodoxy of her youth, before the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ permanently severed them – and in Josh Lamb she seems to have imagined how some forms of trauma might produce a paranoid variant on the old ways of reading. A lesson on the Latin roots of words beginning in ex- inspires the schoolboy with a vision of ‘his own eximious lot’:

For something that wove languages on two looms, the visible commonplace and commonsense, and the inordinate, the extravagant (outward-wandering) invisible underside of the tapestry, was letting him glimpse messages. Agnes and Lamb were no accident, and his proper nature and name were Ramsden, the lair of the horned egregious beast. Not for nothing was the ram caught in the thicket, the egregious, extrapolated, ejected, eliminated, evacuated Ram.

Agnes and Lamb are no accident, of course, and neither is Ramsden; but the novelist’s complicity with the divine message-giver makes it difficult to decide whether the meanings Ramsden/Lamb glimpses are to be understood as mere paranoia or as genuine insights, however ‘mad’, into the nature of the universe. The rather tedious Manichaean lore that he both reads and hallucinates keeps hinting at significances that the plot confirms, while sensible figures within the text diagnose the ‘circles of self-reference’ and ‘echo chambers’ in which his mind wanders. Like the novel’s witchy madwoman, who is also a reader of occult signs, Lamb apparently possesses real powers of divination – powers that the novel never chooses to explain away. The insistent patterning of Lamb’s story encourages us to see its ironic fulfilment in the burned offering he leaves behind; but in the aftermath of the fire we are clearly meant to dismiss the ‘sage observer’ in the newspapers who sees the holocaust as inevitable and to sympathise instead with Daniel Orton, ‘who knew very well that there were such things as accidents’. For readers of the earlier Potter novels, Daniel’s verdict carries a particular moral weight, since it necessarily recalls the accidental death of his wife, Stephanie. Novelists, needless to say, have long been permitted to have it both ways; even Still Life equivocates between representing death as an absurd accident and acknowledging it as inevitable. But there is something unsettling about a narrative that so relentlessly determines a character’s destiny in accordance with his spiritual beliefs while appearing to identify primarily with the sceptics – as if the author fiercely wanted to believe what she all too clearly does not.

Byatt is happier, in more than one sense, when she frankly suspends disbelief by conjuring with the artifice of fiction itself. For all the violence and death of its penultimate episodes, A Whistling Woman ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. There are no weddings, but the spirit of romantic comedy hovers over the tentative unions of several couples at the close; while even Stephanie is momentarily resurrected in the person of her daughter, Mary, who unconsciously recalls the dead to life when she plays Perdita in a production of The Winter’s Tale staged to raise funds for the restoration of the riot-damaged campus. The echo of the pseudo-Elizabethan play that opened the series is deliberate, and so is the self-conscious use of Shakespeare’s play about a woman restored to life through the magic of art. But The Winter’s Tale is also resonant because Bill Potter, the aggressively disbelieving father of the clan, has long disliked it – his resistance prompted both by the Christian overtones of the text and by the spectacular improbability of its resolution. There is evidence that Byatt partly shares his discomfort with what she once called ‘the sentimental reconciliation scene’ at the end of the play, a fact that makes the epiphany she now grants her sceptical character the more moving. ‘I’ve just understood,’ the ever didactic Bill tells Frederica excitedly:

Never too old. Never too old to understand something. The thing about the late comedies – the thing is – that what they do, the effect they have, isn’t anything to do with fobbing you off with a happy ending when you know you have witnessed a tragedy. It’s about art, it’s about the necessity of art. The human need to be mocked with art – you can have a happy ending, precisely because you know in life they don’t happen, when you are old, you have a right to the irony of a happy ending – because you don’t believe it.

Byatt wisely does not end on these lines: indeed it is not even clear that Frederica is listening. But their fine balance makes a fitting commentary on the happy ironies with which she brings more than two decades of Potter novels to a close.

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