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A.S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination

Jane Campbell

Publication Year: 2010

A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession: A Romance attracted international acclaim in 1990, winning both the Booker Prize and the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize. In her long and eminent career, Byatt has steadily published both fiction and non-fiction, the latest of which has not, until now, been given full critical consideration.

Enter Jane Campbell’s new book, A.S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination, a comprehensive critical reading of Byatt’s fiction from The Shadow of the Sun and The Game, published in the 1960s, to A Whistling Woman (2002).

The book begins with an overview of Byatt’s writing and, drawing on her interviews and essays, sets forth the critical principles that inform the novelist’s work. Following this introduction, a chronologically structured account of the novels and short stories traces Byatt’s literary development.

As well as exploring the ways in which Byatt has successfully negotiated a path between twentieth-century realism and postmodern experiment, Campbell employs a critical perspective appropriate to the author’s individualistic feminist stance, stressing the breadth of Byatt’s intellectual concerns and her insistence on placing her female characters in a living, changing context of ideas and experience, especially in their search for creative voice.

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Contents

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pp. vii-

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Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-x

The Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University provided the context in which this work was undertaken; I deeply appreciate the contribution of its faculty, staff, and students. Among many others who were helpful in countless ways, I wish to thank especially...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-25

“All my books are about the woman artist—in that sense, they’re terribly feminist books—and they’re about what language is.” In this statement, made in 1990 in an interview with Nicolas Tredell (66), A.S. Byatt described her fiction up to the end of the eighties, supplementing her definition...

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2. The Shadow of the Sun

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pp. 27-42

In Byatt’s first novel, most of her main preoccupations are already apparent. Here she develops character types that, with important variations, recur in her fiction: the ambitious young woman, the disappointed older woman, the visionary genius. Here, too, Byatt introduces...

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3. The Game

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pp. 43-59

In a comment published in 1967, the same year as her second novel, The Game, Byatt described the material of her fiction: “habits of mind—the nature of the imagination, the ways in which different people take in the world, the uses they make of what they think or see” (qtd. in Page 214)....

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4. The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life

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pp. 61-79

In the quartet of novels that began to appear in 1978, Byatt embarked on an ambitious project: the fashioning of a shape to accommodate the complexity of her vision of women and language. Conceived as a historical sequence, this “Powerhouse” quartet1 covers the period from 1953,...

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5. Sugar and Other Stories

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pp. 81-106

Byatt’s first collection of short stories, Sugar and Other Stories (1987), extends her exploration of the relationship of art and reality. Byatt says that she turned to this form, relatively late in her career, because of her awareness of the shortness of the time for writing: “I suddenly realised...

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6. Possession: A Romance

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pp. 107-146

With Possession, Byatt moved into a new mode. Always fascinated by the impingement of the past on the present—as well as by the impossibility of reconstructing the past—she set out, she says, “to find a narrative shape which would explore the continuities and discontinuities between...

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7. Angels and Insects

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pp. 147-168

In Angels and Insects, published in 1992, Byatt continues the probing of the Victorian mind and its preoccupations that she began in Possession. The book consists of two novellas, “Morpho Eugenia,” set in the early 1860s, and “The Conjugial Angel,”whose events take place in the mid-...

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8. The Matisse Stories

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pp. 169-177

In conversation with Ignês Sodré in Imagining Characters (1995), Byatt reflects that as she grows older, she requires “different problems, as a reader” than “for instance, choice of partners” (241–42). As a writer, she has moved steadily away from the mating or marriage plot, and her short stories in particular have explored other issues, although most...

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9. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories

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pp. 179-191

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye is subtitled Five Fairy Stories. The tales it contains, however, cleverly subvert the fairy-tale genre, subjecting the form to feminist revision without slipping into the propagandizing Byatt so dislikes. In this volume, published in 1994 but containing two...

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10. Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

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pp. 193-213

The title of Elementals points in several directions. Its subtitle, Stories of Fire and Ice, indicates that the six stories in the volume have to do with basic powers or forces: not only fire and water or ice (most prominent in “Cold” and “Crocodile Tears”) but earth and air and their psychic equivalents...

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11. The Biographer’s Tale

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pp. 215-229

The Biographer’s Tale (2000) both grows naturally out of Byatt’s earlier work and contains new developments. Like Possession and Angels and Insects, this novel asks questions about the accessibility of the past and about our ability to “know” historical characters. These are problems...

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12. Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman

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pp. 231-267

In the seventeen years between the appearance of Still Life in 1985 and the completion of the quartet in 2002 with A Whistling Woman, Byatt published four volumes of short stories, two novels, and two novellas. As we have seen, these intervening texts mark significant extensions of...

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Epilogue

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pp. 269-270

In 1993, Byatt published a poem about clichés, taking her epigraph from Toni Morrison, who cites the longevity of clichés as proof of their value. Byatt’s “Working with Clichés” is about Proteus, who is himself a cliché of the paradox of constancy in flux and the impossibility of grasping...

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Appendix I: The Placing of Possession

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pp. 271-273

In an essay first published in 1996, Jackie Buxton prophesied that critical consensus would eventually place Possession outside “the canon of postmodernist texts” (103): it gives “ideological priority” to the Victorian world (98), advocates “traditional conceptions of readerly and writerly...

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Appendix II: The Fourth Ending of Possession

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pp. 275-276

In 1994, as Maud Michell-Bailey, Byatt sent a letter to the editor of Victorian Poetry. Maud enclosed two newly discovered fragments of poetry by Christabel, with a scholarly note linking them to Christabel’s oeuvre. The first piece begins, “When I come to my last home,” and imagines “two...

Notes

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pp. 277-283

Works Cited

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pp. 285-296

Source Acknowledgments

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pp. 297-298

Index

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pp. 299-310


E-ISBN-13: 9781554580767
Print-ISBN-13: 9780889204393

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2010