This is Byatt’s first novel, begun in the 1950s while she was an undergraduate, and published in 1964. The edition I read was a later reprint, with an introduction by Byatt written more than a quarter-century later; it gives an interesting look into her thoughts when she was writing the book, and goes some distance toward making up for the fact that this is one of the most horribly-proofread books I’ve ever seen, with major typos coming (it seems) every couple of pages.
Anyway: the novel follows the development of Anna Severell, seventeen when the novel opens, and her attempt to carve out a life and perhaps some sort of artistic identity while maturing in the shadow of her father, novelist Henry Severell. This attempt is complicated slightly by her mother and younger brother, but mainly by Oliver Canning and his wife Margaret. Oliver is an intellectual of a working-class background, an Angry (and somewhat Priggish) Young Man. On a pragmatic level, the book follows the mutual attraction and occasional repulsion between Anna and Oliver, while tracking the effects on her family and his wife.
But on a more profound level, the book is a meditation on art, vision, and the capacity of a talented woman to carve out a space for herself. The means by which the book gets at these themes is through the creation and close examination of character. Other aspects seem relatively undeveloped; plot and story are rudimentary. Long stretches of the book are analysis of character, presenting background and history, pointing out gaps in self-awareness, telling us (not showing us) what the character thinks or feels. This ought not to be compelling, as typically character in motion is more intriguing than character described; but it mostly works, thanks to Byatt’s close thinking about the characters. The depth of them is what is intriguing. There’s still a sense, at least to me, that something is lacking, that the weight given to the characters is not justified by their relative inaction; character is defined by choice, which means that character is not separable from story, and so in the end the novel feels slight.
Still, the character-drawing is excellent. The character of Henry Severell, for example, is one of the novel’s great successes, a well-drawn and credible visionary. We come to know him inside and out, we know the sights he sees, we know where he takes leave of the common earth, and we know also what his creative limits are, the bounds past which he cannot think, the bounds of himself which he cannot even see. He is in one sense the sun of the novel’s title, a Powysian magus, and probably the most intriguing thing about the book. It may a part of the weakness I find in the book that his work is described, but not shown to us; we do not read what he writes, and so he remains, in a sense, less real to us than he might have been.
His daughter is his equal in terms of depth; she’s probably the most thoroughly-built character in the book. Even Henry has elements in him which seem sketched-in, not wholly formed; his war experience, most notably, and a spell in a Burmese prison camp. Anna, though, is credible down to the last bit of her, her every attempt at a creative act, her every attempt to renounce her future. The only perplexing aspect to Anna is her attraction to Oliver, himself difficult to read; he’s unpleasant and shallow, but it’s hard for me at my remove in space and time to assess whether that’s a failure or whether that represents something about the sort of men who were produced in England half a century ago.
I suspect it’s the latter. One of the intriguing things about the book is how much it feels like an artifact of a past era. That’s not to say that it’s dated, as such; just that it has the sense of something produced by a vanished culture. It seems to accurately present people as we know them, but shaped by a society that is now history, and very different from our own experience. Obviously gender issues have transformed society over the past several decades, but I suspect there’s more to it; I wonder whether changes to specifically English society would not make this a very different book if it were written today, even if it were set in the same era. There’s a difference between historical fiction and fiction written at a historical time about its own time. The latter doesn’t have the distance that we do. On the other hand, a workable definition of great literature might be ‘writing that speaks to readers directly across different eras.’
So the book is a product of its time, perhaps. That’s fine. It’s still quite readable, and not without its virtues. Light on story or plot, it succeeds by being intensely inward; by its fierce focus on the internal lives of its characters. Byatt’s style is impersonal in the best sense — objective, almost clinical, while still being sensuous. The novel avoids obvious displays of fine writing, but there’s a sustained strength to its prose which makes it worth reading. Many of the puff quotes in the book note that the book displays promise, which I think is accurate; it’s an intriguing debut, a hint that here is an author worth watching out for.
- Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.