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AS Byatt often wrote about what she knew. Her characters largely operated in the same literary environs she herself moved in. They were writers, professors, critics: fierce and possessive in their interests, but narrow perhaps in the boundaries of their lives.
Nonetheless, her best known work –1990’s Booker Prize-winning Possession – opened onto wider horizons, marrying the intellectual games of her earlier novels with expansive, dual romantic plots. It was a bestseller, though some critics dismissed it as dabbling in Mills & Boon. The dire 2002 Gwyneth Paltrow adaptation took this thread and ran with it, unspooling disastrously into melodrama.
Yet Byatt deserves to be remembered for more than Possession. To get a full sense of her range, try these five books.
The Virgin in the Garden (1978)
The first in Byatt’s Frederica Potter quartet, it tells the story of Potter, an ambitious 17-year-old who longs for a literary life. Set in the same year as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, its allusions boomerang frequently back to Elizabeth I with a play about the Virgin Queen as the main plot driver. This is one of several of the novel’s densely tangled metaphorical webs, which also includes a riot of floral imagery. Some critics felt these allusions strangled a fine story which was, as the New York Times put it, “as grave, solid and ample as a Yorkshire tea”.
Byatt herself was less kind about her own novel, expressing surprise (apparently genuine) in a 2003 Paris Review interview that anyone had ever read it.
Still Life (1985)
The second instalment in the Potter series finds the heroine up at Cambridge, where the cloistered setting provides the impetus for her sexual and intellectual growth. It is more obviously autobiographical than its predecessor, taking in the hot-house atmosphere of the university in the 1950s at which Byatt mixed with figures including F R Leavis and the poet Cecil Day-Lewis who, after a long lunch at the Athenaeum, agreed to help publish her first novel, The Game.
Still Life ends with the death of Potter’s sister, Stephanie, who is electrocuted by a refrigerator. It was not the first time a disguised version of Drabble appeared in Byatt’s fiction – The Game, too, orbited a fierce sisterly rivalry. Drabble, supposedly, wasn’t amused.
Angels & Insects (1992)
Before Hilary Mantel brought historical fiction to mainstream literary attention, Byatt was a fine practitioner of the form. In these paired novellas – Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugal Angel – she brings the essential strangeness of the 19th Century to life.
The first story concerns an entomologist who finds that the insects he is studying come to resemble the people around him; in the latter, the hopeful eccentricities of the Victorian era are summoned as a group wait for the arrival of a spiritualist in the hope of contacting the dead. It is a world which is at once our own and deceptively alien.
Babel Tower (1996)
During the long gap between the second and third part of the Potter tetralogy, Byatt published Possession – and found herself suddenly in the literary spotlight. Yet in an interview, she confessed she struggled with the dense-knit form of Babel Tower which interwove a fictional obscenity trial (though one which features a real-life Anthony Burgess) with Potter’s further adventures, including escaping an abusive marriage.
“[I knew] it ought to be a periodic novel in several voices, but I felt I wasn’t capable of it,” she said in 2003. Yet for many critics’ money, it is the best of the series. The metaphors are pruned; the youthful ardour cooled. What emerges is a humane portrait of a woman in her early 30s, a little tumbled by life, but with “the world all before [her]”.
The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994)
Aside from Byatt’s novels, there is this playful, potable short-story collection, inspired by One Thousand One Nights.
Yes, the intertextual games of her other work are there, especially in two of the five stories, The Glass Coffin and Gode’s Eye, which originally appeared in Possession. But there’s a fine, dancing storytelling joy in the titular novella which explores fairytale motifs within a modern setting.
Incidentally, it was the source for George Miller’s 2022 film, Three Thousand Years of Longing, starring Edris Elba and Tilda Swinton. But don’t let that put you off.