by AS Byatt
This was a re-read that I sadly ended up rushing through because it was for book club and I didn’t give myself enough time. It’s a wonderful book, as literary as they come yet immensely readable.
The story begins with Roland, a postgrad scholar of the eminent (and fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, discovering long-hidden drafts of a love letter from Ash to a mystery woman. This is a potentially huge discovery, Ash having been assumed to be a dull, happily married type.
Thus begins the unravelling of great secrets, but Roland is jealous of his discovery and does not tell his university supervisor or his girlfriend Val. Instead he turns to a complete stranger, fellow academic Maud, because he suspects that the subject of her studies, minor Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, was also the subject of Ash’s letter.
Between letters, diaries, academic texts, poems and good old-fashioned third-person narrative, there are a lot of switches in style and voice in this book, yet it never feels as though that is the case. Similarly, like the poems being studied for clues, this text is packed full of allusions and references, but it doesn’t feel overly clever or difficult.
In some ways this book is very much a product of its time. It was written in the 1980s and Byatt gently satirises the times. Roland is emasculated by Val’s stronger earning power and neither of them ever says what they mean. Maud is surrounded by feminists who seem obsessed with lesbianism and anti-men sentiments. The shadow of AIDS looms large over thoughts of sex. But this is all subtly kept in the background.
At book club we discussed how you can read this book at many different levels. There is the surface level where it’s a romance/mystery/drama and is fun and enjoyable without requiring any background knowledge. There’s the satire on academia, particularly 1980s academia. And there’s the literary novel, referencing mainly Victorian poetry but also older texts such as Shakespeare and Ovid and I’m sure plenty more that I didn’t spot. The character names are carefully chosen for the literary allusions that they have. And at all these levels it works, works very well, without ever seeming to show off.
I’m told that The Children’s Book is another excellent Byatt read, and that just happens to be on my TBR (a kind Christmas present), so I expect to be breaking that out soon.
First published 1990 by Chatto & Windus.
Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize.