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The Whistling Woman
A. S. Byatt
London: Chatto & Windus, 2001.
£16.99, 436 pages, ISBN 0701173807.

James Friel
Liverpool John Moores University

If I began by observing that The Whistling Woman does not fully satisfy either as a novel in its own right or as the culminating volume of a quartet, it would suggest my opinion of it is low. The opposite is true. It is just that, completing it and returning to the beginning, the novel—indeed, the entire quartet—now reminds me of the bird in Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ from which Byatt quotes in one of her opening epigraphs.

[…] it sits and sings
Then whets, and counts its silver Wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various Light.

The novel shimmers with various light. There are moments that dazzle, lines that glitter and whole stretches where Byatt’s luminous imagination is on full beam but there are also times when the lamp is lowered, the writing is underpowered and the novel flickers and fades somewhat. Despite these moments, it is a wondrous achievement—and, oddly, because of them, too.

There is no more essential novelist working in Britain, no one else doing quite what Byatt does. Reading her is a necessity. Reading her, for me, has been a necessity since I read The Virgin in the Garden as a paperback in 1981. The memory of it is almost sensuous; two days of high summer, warm and yellow outside, when I did not leave the house or the curtained dark, curled up on a bed, amazed and enthralled.

I did not know of a British novelist who was so unafraid of thought, who offered all the traditional consolations of English fiction—engaging characters, well-wrought prose, an involving story, a time and a place precisely known and diligently evoked—but who did this with a density of perception, a fearlessly deep and organic notion of how a novel was made and how it worked within and upon a reader’s mind.

Practically any sentence and certainly most paragraphs in The Virgin in the Garden either contains a deep echo from within the novel or calls out to other texts, other forms of knowledge, and yet the novel’s surface appearance is of a sensible, even old-fashioned realism tinged by an almost Platonic conception of the world. It is as if Iris Murdoch had rewritten J. B. Priestley. It is odd, magical, enviable, and absolutely distinct.

Set in Yorkshire during the Coronation year of 1952, The Virgin in the Garden centres on the Potter family, in particular its bright daughters, Stephanie and Frederica and the strange halfling that is their brother, Marcus. The family and others become involved in the production of Astrea, a verse play by the poet Alexander Wedderburn about the early womanhood of Elizabeth I and, through the play, the New Elizabethan age honours and reflects upon the old. It is a richly alchemical novel, as alive to the poetic truths of antiquated science as Byatt is alive, in the later novels, to the metaphorical richness of the new sciences. The young Marcus, prone to visions which seem to annihilate his own body, is scared almost to the brink of insanity by his ability to see another world caged within this one—a world of abstract ideas imprisoned within matter. The play, Astrea, is also imprisoned within the novel just as the Old Elizabethan world is caught up inside the New Elizabethan age—an age which is itself confined in the past for its present day readers, for The Virgin in the Garden is as fully aware of itself as a historical novel, one in which we witness characters constrained by roles and worked upon by values soon to be rapidly outmoded. The novel is also about how ideas are enclosed within the body of a work of art, and how the original inspiration for art becomes confined and then released in the same way Alexander’s play is made vivid by the performers and takes on new life in its audience’s minds.

There was, it felt, the longest wait between this novel and Still Life, its sequel, in 1985. Still Life follows the widening lives of the Potter girls as Stephanie becomes a wife and mother, trapped by biology (but even prisons have their comforts) and Frederica travels to France and then to university, and Britain, waking from austerity, also looks towards Europe and to the coming social revolution of the 1960s. A looser but more ambitious novel, it is still highly wrought and concentrated, and is even more arresting in its subtleties, beauty, range and depth. If The Virgin in the Garden considered what lay at the heart of things, Still Life reflected upon the difficulties of ever expressing what might be found there. As Alexander discovers, working on a play about Vincent Van Gogh, language is against us in this enquiry. It is the key to all mysteries but is also the door that holds us back. Byatt calls it a novel about naming. One of Frederica’s tutors, Raphael Faber, a chilly-eyed creation, tells her that Mallarmé believed language sufficed only to allude but not name—to name is to numb our responses to the physical world—but the whole heft of Byatt’s weight as a writer is against this—even as she admits its truth and power.

Against Mallarmé, she pits Wordsworth who ‘uses ordinary words in an extraordinary arrangement’ and the novel makes great and moving use of the ‘Lucy’ poems and makes evident Byatt’s faith in Wordsworth’s ability to describe what is immaterial—the dead girl—with diction that is convincingly, movingly specific.

Unlike many British novelists, Byatt is alive to what is still considered continental thought. She accepts its challenges, is invigorated by them but she returns, sceptical yet finally faithful, to the particular power of the English language to specify, to name, to be, in essence, serious as opposed to playful in its functions.

Still Life, for me, is one of those novels most writers can only envy, for Byatt, at its climax, does the most unexpected thing and does it so fearlessly one is in awe of her. Those who have read it will understand. There is a scene whose impact is akin to the effect of reading for the first time the opening sentence of the fifth chapter of E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey but it is deeper, bolder and more dreadful than that. Its nearest—far quieter—equivalent might be James’s decision in The Wings of the Dove to deny us that last meeting between Milly Theale and Merton Densher. It has that same terrible rightness, a rare moment when the greedy readers a writer spends so much effort pleasing are denied what is thought essential and then are made to acknowledge they are right to be denied. What Byatt does at the climax of the novel is both arbitrary and inarguable—as death often is outside the engineered world of the novel.

The coup with which Still Life ends made one more eager to read the next in the sequence but there came an even longer wait of eleven years. Shortly after I read Still Life I was in a room of the great and the good of Literary London. I saw A. S. Byatt at the evening’s end, quite solitary, not sad in any way, merely, at that moment, alone, pensive, observing, sipping a glass of white wine. There wasn’t a figure in the room to match her. Unbearably shy, all of me wanted to speak to her and say how much I thought of her and what her novels meant to me. I wish I had. I’m sure she would have been quite patient with me.

Shortly after this she published Possession and since then I cannot think Dame Antonia is short of gushing admirers but there are, you see, pre-Possession admirers and post-Possession admirers. The Post-Possessors believe that novel to be Byatt’s central achievement while the former, pleased that the writer has been given something like the recognition she deserved, feel Possession to be, for all its buoyant virtues, an interruption. Possession seemed to release Byatt as a writer and since then has come a rush of novellas, fables, stories, essays—some of them sublime—and one novel, The Biographer’s Tale, the only Byatt book that has failed to please or enrapture me in any way.

When the third novel in the quartet, Babel Tower finally arrived, it did not please me either. In Babel Tower Frederica is unhappily married until she escapes to London and her work as a teacher and journalist places her at the centre of the cultural and political upheavals of the early 1960s. Babel Tower is a hefty tome; it resembles Possession in its array of fonts, snippets and gobbets of texts and its flatter (in the Forsterian sense) take on characterization. The range and the depth of Byatt’s interests are, if anything, greater but the novel feels nowhere near as sustained and intensely concentrated. Her grip on the material is looser. It is—deliberately—less wrought. A clue—it seems more like a direction—as to why this might be comes in the middle of the novel when a retrospective Frederica recalls:

[…] a day long ago, on the Goathland moors, when a word hit her as a description of a possible way of survival. Laminations. She had been young and greedy, and acting Princess Elizabeth, the virgin in Alexander’s play, who had the wit to stay separate, to declare, ‘I will not bleed’, to hang on to her autonomy. And she, Frederica, had had a vision of being able to be all the things she was: language, sex, friendship, thought, just as long as these were kept scrupulously separate, laminated, like geological strata, not seeping and flowing into each other like organic cells boiling to join and divide and join in a seething Oneness. Things were best cool, and clear, and fragmented, if fragmented is what they were… And if one accepts fragments, layers, tesserae of mosaic, particles. There is an art form in that, too. Things juxtaposed but divided, not yearning for a fusion.

Quoting that, one sees how integrated Byatt’s conception of the quartet has been; a moment in the first novel becomes something like a determining principle in the third, an acknowledgement that one cannot write without accepting contingency; and that moment takes place on the moors which will feature in the very final pages of the quartet, which further suggests that, while Frederica is attracted by ‘things juxtaposed but divided’, Byatt, as novelist, yearns for fusion.

Babel Tower had me yearning for fusion. Ideas, images, quotations that in the first half of the quartet are so deeply embedded in the novel they seem as inextricable from it as the veins of the body here seem more like tattoos stamped upon the surface of the text.

Finally, the last volume is with us. Whereas Babel Tower opens pondering quite where to begin, The Whistling Woman opens pondering how to end. It opens as badly as any contemporary novel I have ever read, with a tedious piece of sub-Tolkien storytelling. Byatt—famously in Possession—is brilliant at pastiche but there is something tired and dutiful about this beginning. It is almost wilfully dull. We have to take on trust its supposed excellence (it is later published by one of the characters to Harry Potter-like success) but I was glad when it, mercifully, stopped after seven pages.

Not so the two children it appears were listening to it being read. Enthralled, they claim it ends too abruptly and does not feel like a conclusion. Its author tells the children, ‘This is where I always meant it to end.’

This a knowing but also a nervous nod from Byatt to her reader—‘her voice was not completely steady.’

Only after some reflection have I come to terms with this bizarre opening and I will return to it. The novel continues the quartet’s focus on Frederica but not in any sharp, determined or consistent manner. Byatt’s interest in Frederica seems fitful at first, half-hearted. Only at the conclusion, and in some of the novel’s middle parts when Frederica is given a TV career, does Byatt’s interest in her seem to ignite and, again, in a wonderful scene towards the end of the novel when Frederica teaches The Great Gatsby to a class—a wonderful piece of old-fashioned literary criticism, a remarkable epiphanous moment of the kind that occurs when a teacher suddenly finds she, too, is learning something. The novel eventually shifts back to the Yorkshire setting of The Virgin in the Garden. The Hall that hosted the play Astrea in I952 is now the heart of a new University and is holding a conference on the mind and the body.

I did fear, because of this, that the climax of the novel would be a series of lectures in which Byatt discoursed variously and at length on the ideas that thread the quartet rather than animate and dramatize them more imaginatively. She does not do this—quite—but again there is a significant contrast in the way ideas are communicated, developed and dramatized in the first two volumes and the more overt, expository manner with which they are conveyed in the second half. In The Virgin in the Garden we are never given the play at its centre. We witness it as it occurs in the mind of its author, in its performers and audience. The later Byatt, one feels, would have written whole scenes of the play—and in verse—a little as Woolf does in Between the Acts.

In fact more than the lectures and talks at conference, the main arguments of The Whistling Woman, its primary themes of science, language, religion, gender, are represented via descriptions of the arts programmes Frederica presents on television. These descriptions are often dizzying displays of ideas and images—not quite convincing as accounts of the fairly low-tech quality of actual 1960s arts programmes but exhilarating nonetheless. Byatt comes closer to her manner in the first novel here. The programmes work, although in a less organic way, as Astrea works in the first novel, introducing, highlighting, and refracting issues and notions as they affect Frederica, her guests and her audience. The Elizabethan theatre, open-air, communal, language-based, is replaced by the New Elizabethan theatre, the television, watched singly or in small numbers, at home, a tiny box, a dim screen, words superseded by images. The novel’s range is wide but, at times, it joints creak even as it reaches outwards. Byatt seems even less than temperate on the subject of education—here, as in Babel Tower, a dominant theme.

The second half of the quartet features Blake as much—if not more—as the first half referenced Wordsworth. Blake is traduced and misunderstood by many of the characters and Byatt signals her distrust whenever they refer to him. Pedagogically, Byatt is very much more on the side of the Horses of Instructions than that of the Tigers of Wrath. Counterculture notions of de-schooling are given short shrift, its proponents often caricatured as windy, shifty, muddled, and even dangerous. Unlike her dealings with other themes—particularly gender—she does little to imagine and vivify intelligent opposition. The characters that set up an anti-university in the novel are shown to be irredeemably petty, indulgent and low-minded but their free-associative and multi-disciplinary approach to learning, when considered without Byatt’s satirical broad strokes, do not seem very different from the educational agenda Frederica sets for herself at the novel’s conclusion.

The novel's greatest strength is the introduction of Joshua Ramsden, a messianic preacher, a visionary and psychotic who, as the plot gathers pace, also gathers about him a devout and disturbing sect. In Ramsden the themes of God and madness, so fruitfully explored in the first half of the quartet through the character of Frederica’s brother, Marcus, reach a new height. In this thread of the narrative, Byatt comes close to excelling herself. She seems in her delineation of Ramsden’s early life to be near to touching pitch. These scenes have an almost Marlovian intensity and power. There is something—a great deal—of the same incalculable genius Golding discovered in writing Darkness Visible. A darkly attractive and yet upsetting mysticism is evident in her telling of how Ramsden rises up from murderous childhood, tormented adolescence and tortured adulthood that recalls Lawrence or a Yorkshire-bred Flannery O’Connor. Byatt has dealt with blood and God and fire before but never with such intensity. Ramsden is the severest casualty of a novel that rushes too quickly to complete itself. Byatt withdraws from Ramsden’s point of view and too much of the final part of this strand of the novel is seen at a distance, through other characters too indirectly involved. Ramsden is a hot and dangerous character but stepping back from him, the novel loses much of its dangerous heat. The terrible climax, when it comes, is muted. The conference, too, dwindles into miserable comedy. As a reader I was befuddled by this, disappointed, even cheated—although much that is given to us is compelling and rich, the ending seems almost dilatory. We feel like those children at the beginning of the novel:

‘But it wasn’t an end, it wasn’t a real end—’
‘What’s a real end?’ said Frederica. ‘The end is always the most unreal bit…’
‘No, no, no,’ said Leo above Saskia’s sobs. ‘There are good ends and this isn’t one, this isn’t an end…’

Nor is it. One only slowly begins to see Byatt’s design. The novel actually concludes with the future, a series of codas featuring Frederica. Over breakfast with her new lover, Luk, the father of her unborn child, she tells him what she most wants to do next is to think.

‘I had the idea—it wasn’t mine, it was very common in the 50s—that the seventeenth century was when people really stopped believing as they once had. When all the words—like creation, like real—became riddles. I thought, if you looked at the metaphors you could trace the thinking processes, you could see how the mind works…I wanted to find a place to start understanding everything. Including why certain forms of language appear to be so perfect and beautiful…I shan’t think up a new problem, or a new language. But it may not matter, because language is something we all have, with a history, it’s in common.’

For Frederica:

The laminations were slipping. Fire was re-arranging them in new patterns.
In the second coda, she is in The Hague, staring at Vermeer’s View of Delft:
She saw it as though she were in it, and saw, simultaneously, the perfect art with which each element had been considered, and understood. Analyzed geometrically, chemically, so that the colours could be reconstructed, and harmonized…What Frederica remembered was the momentary illusion of reality… and beyond that, the intelligence of the Master. Who had set himself problems only he could solve, and had solved them, and made a mystery. The final coda takes place with a visibly pregnant Frederica on Yorkshire moors aflame with yellow, honey- scented gorse…
She thought that somewhere—in the science that had made Vermeer’s painted spherical raindrops, in the humming blooms of neurons which connected to make all metaphors, all this was one. And (inside her) another creature, another person, contained in a balloon of fluid, turned on the end of its cord, and adjusted to the movement.

These passages do not sound like conclusions or even attempts at them. They challenge more than they soothe, inspire more than they resolve. They seem less an artist sealing the envelope that contains her prose than openings out, messages, promises and hints of future works. They are like the bird in Marvell’s poem which:

[…] till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various Light.

Free of the exhausting and decades-long commitment to the composition of a quartet, Byatt must feel like her heroine and her family as they stand looking over the moors

‘We haven’t the slightest idea what to do.’ Everyone laughed. The world was all before them, it seemed. They could go anywhere. ‘We shall think of something…’



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