Wednesday, April 15, 2009

ByattBlogging 13: A Whistling Woman

Fittingly, the book begins with an ending. Agatha Mond reaches the end of the fantasy story she’s telling to her daughter Saskia and Frederica Potter’s son Leo; the children are outraged, demanding to know more. It’s a clever way to open the final book in the Potter quartet, and foreshadows a book structured around an artful series of anti-climaxes. In turn, this is an odd structural reflection of a major theme: otherness, the reflection. The thing, and the anti-thing.

On a story level, A Whistling Woman nominally follows Frederica Potter through her developing career as a television personality — she is the anchor of a show called, appropriately, Through the Looking-Glass — while she also deals with ongoing love affairs and the mothering of Leo. Practically, though, Frederica is on the periphery for much of the book. Instead, much of the book is filled with the story of Josh Lamb, née Joshua Ramsden; he is a Manichean visionary who sees sheets of blood overrunning the world. He’s also an intensely interesting figure, a true charismatic; he brings together Gideon Farrar’s Children of Joy and Paul Ottokar’s mystic Quaker group the Spirit’s Tigers. But one theme of the book is the absence of easy faith in the modern world, the need to doubt, the impossibility of returning to old ways of thinking; we know he and his flock will come to no good end.

A major sub-plot in the book is the interplay between a university in Yorkshire and an anti-university which springs up in the town nearby — in fact, on the land where Lamb and his group will ultimately find a home. Lamb’s Manichean thought provides a structure by which to understand the anti-university, an angry, stinking lot which produces no good and only threatens the destruction of the Body-Mind conference the main university is hosting. For Lamb, creation is divided into realms of light and darkness, one (despite the apparent mixed metaphor) a mirror image of the other. So the anti-university is an uncreative parody of the real thing, whose liberal Vice Chancellor underestimates their radicalism; he is himself too good a moderate liberal to understand the dangers of extremism.

If this sounds like a very conservative imagining, well, it is. None of the students, in either the university or the anti-university, are shown as minds worth reckoning with (unless you except some of the graduate students, who we know as characters from earlier books and who are essentially apolitical). The university is shown as caring and humane to a fault in its dealing with the anti-university, which itself is irrational and violent. The deck is stacked, and convenient as it may be for the story, I found it a major flaw in the novel’s construction; it falls flat as satire because it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration of reality, so much as the writer deforming reality in a convenient way.

The title of the book comes from a saying quoted as an epigraph (along with a passage from Alice in Wonderland about Alice’s identity as a girl or a serpent, and a passage from Marvell’s The Garden comparing the soul, freed of the body, to a silver-winged bird) claiming that “A Whistling Woman and a Crowing Hen / Is neither good for God nor Men.” If part of the book has to do with the various problems with God in the modern world, much of the rest of it — along with the other Potter books — has to do with issues of female identity and expectations of proper behaviour foisted on women. At the same time, the novel links women and hens through a series of images and verbal play (Men, by extension, are, well, cocks. Which itself plays into a subtheme of the book in which a romantically-rejected scientist examines the utility, or lack thereof, of males and sexual reproduction); Frederica holds a “hen party” on one of her TV shows which is actually a parody of real hen party; the farm on which Lamb’s group eventually settles frees the hens formerly kept there, with mixed results. Oh, and there are also semi-monstrous Whistlers, whistling harpy-like figures, in Agatha’s fantasy, who end up as helpful figures when properly approached; winged, they are halfway between earth and air, belonging to neither, choosing to forego mates either human or fowl, but, perhaps, partaking of the nature of those other winged humanoids, the angels.

So, as with most of Byatt’s books, this is a novel dense with images and significance; symbols cluster, and link each to each in unexpected ways. And sometimes take on multiple levels. Lucy, the woman who owns the farm where Lamb and his group end up, joins them after a tragedy mirroring Lamb’s own past; she becomes his follower, and she herself owns a lamb which believes it’s a dog, so: Lamb has a Lucy who has a little lamb.

Certainly the book gains a lot by playing with perspectives. We see Frederica finding her way on her TV show; we see her broadcast with the other two women, then we see another broadcast with two males, a superficially more intellectual program (but we are encouraged to wonder how much of this is actually display by the men for Frederica’s benefit). In the next chapters, the book then moves back to show us what’s happening with another group of characters; we end up seeing Frederica’s broadcasts through their eyes. Then Byatt does the same, following yet another set of characters, and showing us their reaction to the broadcasts. In each case significant correspondences are found; intentionally or not, the characters react to the broadcasts as though they had something to say about their own lives, as though the TV was somehow oracular. 

This is literalised by Josh Lamb, who looks for visions in the snow of dead channels. He finds one, a terrifying hallucination in which he is brought down among the dead, a Blakean experience out of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; but where real-world experience is something shared among different characters, albeit seen from individual perspectives, the visionary experience is by definition singular. Reality, then, emerges from multiplicity, not from individual charisma; while two scientific observers are present in Lamb’s group, they see events differently — one is clear-eyed and reserved, but one has bought into the hope of vision, and loses his sense of events as a result.

Similarly, one of the actual climaxes of the book comes at the Body-Mind conference sponsored by the university, an image of multiple voices uniting. It is also a chance for Byatt to allow her characters to expound on symbolically-resonant ideas for several pages. This works because, in this book as in the previous Potter books, much of the movement in the novel is a function of the ideas it contains. So even though the story may come to a halt for pages in order to enunciate ideas, it works. The story is there, in part, to get the ideas out. The important contrast in this particular case is with the anti-university, which essentially opposes all ideas, and all enunciation.

Byatt stands foursquare behind the university, traditional education, rote learning. Frederica’s son cannot learn to read until he is weaned off the easy-going educational approach which encourages him to go at his own speed; he must be taught phonics. The appreciation of rote learning, of the power that comes with mastering something in the mind, is linked with memory; as a contrast, Josh Lamb thinks he remembers his past, but his recollections are filled with lacunae.

There’s an elegaic yet hopeful tone to the book; a sense of change. Not the revolution desired by the various utopian groups — which is in a sense the end of all changes — but the evolution (a key word, given the book’s zoological preoccupations) of ideas and of science. The development of new ways of looking at the world; new ways to diagnose what is around us. The movement from the first book to the fourth is a movement of ideas, a movement of metaphors; Frederica thinks about metaphors, about the way they changed in history — and that in itself is a metaphor for the change of ideas and images from the 50s through the 70s: metaphor a metaphor for metaphor.

How does it fit with its predecessors in the quartet? The four books strike me as remarkably unified, in tone and conception. The balance of character, story, and ideas are the same in each book, and in all these things each book builds on the one preceding. The use of overlapping temporal perspectives means they fit together with some intricacy, gaining power from the understated sense of a whole life, its shape an inevitability and yet somehow an accident.

Taken all in all, the Frederica Potter books are a success. They’re not particularly dramatic in any traditional sense, but the interplay of ideas and perspectives is made to have its own quiet fascination. Byatt’s sense of intellectual history, both of the eras she writes about and of the eras which gave birth to them, gives a sense of moment to the progression of time, and the development of character and language and science. 

Ironically, these books are in some ways about the ascendance of television, from the tiny black-and-white presentation of Elizabeth II’s coronation to the colourful, monstrous glass box which came to dominate society. Ironic, not only because the nature of TV is inherently opposed to the structural form of the novel in general and these novels in particular, but because in the years immediately following the publication of the last of the books, we are seeing the end of TV’s reign. The internet has replaced television as the most ubiquitous of media. Who will miss it? In a way, the nature of these books makes them an intriguing project for the internet age; their density of symbol seems to cry out for annotation. The images act as non-technological hyperlinks, associating ideas and characters, and await only some future indexer to identify them all.

Still, when all’s said and done, these books are about Frederica Potter, oddly contradicting Byatt’s own statements about the nature of the novel; she has spoken about preferring multi-centred novels, but while individual books may have other characters who can stand as contrasting centres, overall there’s no doubt Frederica’s is the dominant personality. An interesting personality, too, driven by intelligence. There’s almost a sense in which the books perhaps don’t give her a chance to really demonstrate all that she is, or could have been; but then that’s the nature of life for many people. The fact that Frederica has enough in her life for four books is a sign of her vitality — vitality which animates the books, and which gives us reason enough to keep turning pages when the smoothness of the prose and the fascination of the ideas aren’t enough. For all that character, in certain ideological circles, is suspect, it is Frederica who makes these novels a success; or, more precisely, it is in the creation of her that they are most memorable.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

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