The Whole of A.S. Byatt’s Oeuvre, Briefly Stated

I’ve been reading The Children’s Book recently, and came across a passage that struck me as important. If you want to understand A.S. Byatt’s work, not the whole of it, of course (post title notwithstanding), but the catalyst, the detonator, the idea that acts as the prime mover, you’d do well to think very hard about this passage.

All you need to know in advance is that the book takes place in early Edwardian England, and that Patty Dace, Arthur Dobbin, and Rev. Frank Mallett have decide to organize a lecture series, and are meeting to discuss the topic and potential lecturers.

She put on her spectacles, and said to Frank that they should perhaps find a title for a series. Dobbin said he thought they should find exciting speakers first, and then make up a title. Although Dobbin had been shy and ill-at-ease at Todefright he felt in retrospect that he had been privileged and delighted to meet the glittering folk in their fancy dress. He wanted to hear them again — Humphry and Olive, Toby Youlgreave and August Steyning, the anarchists and the London professor who worked with Professor Galton on human statistics and heredity. He said that he had heard some very interesting ideas about folklore and ancient customs whilst in Andreden. Maybe she could think of those.

Miss Dace said she was interested more in change. She wanted lectures on new things, the New Life, the New Woman, new forms of art and democracy. And religion, she said, looking bravely at Frank.

Frank sipped his tea and said thoughtfully that in fact there was only an apparent contradiction. For many of the new things looked back to very old things for their strength. The theosophists looked back to the wisdom of Tibetan masters, for instance. William Morris’s socialism looked back to mediaeval guilds and communities. Edward Carpenter’s ideas about shedding the stultifying respectability of Victorian family life looked back also, to human beings living in harmony with nature, as natural creatures. And the same was true of the vegetarians and anti-vivisectionists, they required a wholesome respect for natural animal life, as it was before technical civilisation. In the arts too, Benedict Fludd, for instance, wanted to return to the ancient craft of the single potter, and to find the lost red glazes, the Turkish Iznik, the Chinese sang-de-boeuf. The Society for Psychical Research had rediscovered an old spirit world, and lost primitive powers of human communication. Old superstitions might furnish new spiritual understanding. Even the New Woman, he said, venturing a half-joke, sought freedom from whalebone and laces in Rational Dress but also in free-flowing mediaeval gowns. Women’s work in the world appeared to be new, but in the old times abbesses had wielded power and governed communities, as principals of colleges now did. Maybe all steps into the future drew strength from a searching gaze into the deep past. He would almost dare to propose himself as a lecturer on this theme.


Writer. Editor. Critic.


  1. “Maybe all steps into the future drew strength from a searching gaze into the deep past.”
    That could be said for today and for all the futures.

  2. Oh indeed. Byatt was trained at university to be a close reader who looked for deep traditions, but she became associated later in her career w/ feminism and other “isms” that launched post-modern theory, and that anxiety between old and new is in all her work, whether she’s writing about art, family, literature, what have you.
    It’s interesting to note, too, that the examples she has Frank give have not all stood the test of time as intellectually viable or respectable. Some, indeed, have proven to be utter nonsense (though some, like the women’s movement, proved to be vital and long-lasting). Byatt’s ambivalence towards later developments in feminist and post-modern theory becomes readily apparent in The Biographer’s Tale (which is in many ways just a tighter, stronger look at the themes in Possession), and in later interviews she starts to distance herself, not from feminism or post-modern theory, but from their radicalized expansion into “big tent” systems of thought, making all questions their question, all problems their problems, etc. I think she sees radical change as vital and necessary, but that it must also be focused to be useful in addressing real problems in people’s lives rather than an exercise in change for its own sake. If you think of society as a house, then I think she loves the old house dearly, but unlike many is able to see that rot and mould have sent in. She thinks you can salvage the foundation and the roof and the fireplace, but should probably tear up the floorboards, knock out some walls and replace the windows. I think she’s also wary of groups who, like her, can see the rot, but think the only way to fix it is to raze the house entirely, which to her is just as foolish as doing nothing at all.
    I may be wrong, but I spent a year and a half researching and writing about this very issue in her work (including reading a ton of her interviews and non-fiction pieces as well), and I think trying to reconcile that impulse for change with the impulse to cherish and preserve those old ideas that continue to have value (even if it’s not always easy to see) is the primary source of tension in her work.

  3. We should do a tandem re-read of the Potter quartet. I keep meaning to re-visit those books, esp. the first two.
    Also, I just read something that said they were influenced by DH (particularly The Rainbow and Women in Love, my favourites), which suddenly makes many things in my head make sense (in terms of my preferences).

  4. I’ve heard that as well, though I can’t see it for myself, since the only Lawrence I’ve read is Sons and Lovers. (I chose a disastrous moment to read it, too; not really knowing much about Lawrence’s work or how pessimistic/depressing it can be, I read it immediately after a failed long-term romance.)

  5. You’re the second person in as many weeks to say they tried starting DH with Sons & Lovers. I loved it, but I also got to it later. Women in Love came first, then The Rainbow. Those two, I think, would certainly be helpful in pining down some Potter stuff. (If one day you decide to give Lawrence another try.)

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