"I shall from time to time write a small Clue--so that you may be the more thoroughly confounded." --Possession (1990) In her best-selling romance-and-literary thriller
Possession (1990), Dame Antonia Susan Byatt--better known as A. S. Byatt--dazzled readers around the world. As two young, contemporary scholars uncover clues to a clandestine love affair between two fictitious Victorian poets, Byatt explored ideas about love, passion, progress, and the relationship between the living and dead. Pondering these concepts, 20th-century scholars Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell become "possessed" by their Victorian subjects. "Literary critics make natural detectives," says Maud. "You know the theory that the classic detective story arose with the classic adultery novel--everyone wanted to know who was the Father, what was the origin, what is the secret?"
Often called the "postmodern Victorian," Byatt is one of Britain's greatest fiction writers alive today. Also described as a novelist of ideas, Byatt has altered our expectations of that label with her entertaining, erudite, and often experimental inquiries into life. Her interests extend from literary scholarship to painting, philosophy, education, politics, biology, history, genetics, religion, physics, law, pornography, counterculture, and the influence of art on life--not to mention Lacan's theory of morcellement (the dismemberment of the imagined body). In short, entering one of Byatt's more than two dozen books "is like going to a party of very smart people. The initial thrill of mingling with such brilliance is tempered by the nagging sense of one's relative stupidity" (Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor, 1/2/2001).
The eldest of four children, Byatt was born in 1936 in Sheffield, England. As a child, she worked her way through Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, and Sir Walter Scott. "To me," she said, "it seemed self-evident and exciting that one would live much more intensely in these complicated worlds of adventure and excitement and passion than one would in one's daily life" (Salon.com, 6/17/96). At age 13, Byatt and her younger sister, British novelist Margaret Drabble, were sent to a Quaker school in York. Byatt then attended Newnham College at the University of Cambridge, where she graduated in 1957. She worked toward her doctorate in 17th-century English literature before marrying British economist Ian Byatt in 1959. They had a daughter and son; sadly, he died in his youth.
Through the 1960s Byatt taught literature part-time in London and wrote. In 1964 she published her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, about a young woman's struggle to define her intellectual self. She followed it with works of criticism about Iris Murdoch (one of her favorite novelists, to whom she is repeatedly compared) and Romantic poets. In 1969, after her first marriage dissolved, Byatt married Peter John Duffy, with whom she had two daughters. In 1972, she began a decade-long teaching career at University College but left in 1983 to focus on her writing.
The Virgin in the Garden (1978), the first volume of The Frederica Quartet, which traces mid-20th-century British life from the conventions of the 1950s through the revolutionary dreams of the 1960s, met with acclaim. Yet not until the publication of Possession in 1990 did Byatt's fame cross the Atlantic. Following its publication, Byatt was made Commander of the British Empire (CBE) and, in 1999, a dame of the British Empire. In later novels, including Angels & Insects (1992), Byatt continued to recreate the Victorian novel of ideas; her short fiction, including the adult fairy tales in The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994), combines fantasy and realism. Considering her entire body of work, Byatt writes "like a novelist who believes that her work really can matter that deeply, and more often than not, she's right" (Laura Miller, Salon.com, 5/24/96).
Debating the highbrow
On July 7, 2003, Byatt asked in a New York Times op-ed, "What is the secret of the explosive and worldwide success of the Harry Potter books? Why do they satisfy children and--a much harder question--why do so many adults read them?" She concluded that J. K. Rowling's series catered to adults "whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons" and who lack "the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing." Some critics dismissed Byatt as a patronizing snob who "shoulder[s] the mantle of high culture" (Charles Taylor, Salon.com, 7/8/03). Others, siding with Byatt, criticized adults who "retreat from the complexities of adulthood in a dangerous world" (Caleb Carr, New York Times, 7/7/03). Byatt's scathing criticism touched off a minor culture war. It also begged a larger question: Is Byatt's own work too highbrow for modern readers?
The jury is still out. Many of Byatt's works, the beloved Possession excepted, simply lack widespread appeal. Many critics consider Byatt a welterweight whose complicated, arcane ideas and references alienate a general readership. Even Possession contains alienating pages of Victorian poetry and correspondence that her American editors advised her to excise (she didn't) and that Hollywood dumbed down in the movie version. When Possession became a best seller, however, Byatt received so many letters "from so many kinds of readers that I decided there are readers...