Byatt’s third novel is as far beyond her second novel as that book was beyond her first. Character is more varied, more comprehensive, and the sense of a society — the society within which the characters move, and which they in part make up — is much stronger. Description is much more powerful, more varied; the book is filled with colour and with flowers, with milk and with blood. Curiously, though, it also seems more imperfect than her previous novel. The first book in a series of four, it consciously finishes without an ending. Sub-plots connect to each other, but not strongly. And as the book juggles narrative strands, it can be hard to make out a dominant shape to the story — just as the sheer fecundity of its description makes it hard to pick out major images. Still, these end up as quibbles. Comic, parodic, yet also tragic, The Virgin in the Garden is a profound book.
Set in 1953, the book revolves around the three children of Bill Potter, a fiercely humanistic school-teacher: Stephanie, Frederica, and Marcus. Frederica, the eldest, is the book’s main and perhaps most memorable character: brilliant and strong-willed, her egotism is monstrous yet charming — she is emphatically seventeen, thoroughly alive. Stephanie, her elder sister, recedes somewhat by comparison; caring, sweet, thoughtful, she enters into a relationship with Daniel, an ironically-named stolid clergyman, thus setting up considerable family tension. Marcus, meanwhile, sees visions of geometry and light, and strikes up an odd relationship with another teacher, becoming as it were the Edward Kelley to the older man’s Doctor Dee.
And if the latter seems like an odd comparison, in the context of this book it makes a bit more sense. The main motor of the plot is a pageant written by Alexander Wedderburn, a local playwright beloved of both Potter girls, to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II by way of presenting the life of Elizabeth I. The idea calls to mind John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance — a novel following the production of a pageant in a provincial English town, in this case in Yorkshire — but feels very different. The play recedes for long stretches of the novel, especially the middle third, which follows Stephanie and Daniel. Structurally, the pageant is less present than you might expect — its images and themes lend themselves to the story of the novel, yes, but not in any obtrusive way. It’s a subtle motif, art which lends significant touches to life, but which does not dominate or determine events.
Similarly, the coronation of Elizabeth II, the ostensible motivator for the pageant and thus the book, is described closely in one chapter, but is otherwise mostly absent from the lives of the characters. In a book deeply concerned with English culture — with English traditions, with English literature — this seems an implicit statement about the place of the monarchy in English lives. It’s as though the coronation is itself a pageant, a distant and isolated event. On the other hand, it’s an event fixed in time: the characters stop the progress of their own plots to watch it on television (and the state of the medium itself, and their reaction to it, helps define that historical moment), and the book allows itself to slip forward in time to view reactions to the coronation decades later. This double temporal perspective is something Byatt uses to good effect in the book; much as the pageant is a view of the original Elizabethan Age, Byatt reminds us that this book is a 1970s view of the 1950s. Every age is parodied by those which come after it, even as a web of culture and references binds each to each.
If the book is dense with references — mostly to English art, but also to Racine and Proust — it is nevertheless the parodic aspect which comes to dominate. Wedderburn’s play is dismissed as ultimately a period piece because it lacks parodic bite (mirroring Wedderburn’s role in the prologue, where he considered the nature of parody in 1968). Stephanie’s relationship with Daniel could perhaps be seen to be parodied by Frederica’s seriocomic attempts to lose her virginity and her pursuit of Alexander (these two things related, but not one and the same). It’s a novel, then, which consciously undercuts itself as a way to further its themes; a devious and complex strategy.
Another way to look at it is by saying that the novel investigates the uses of parody, what parody means. Where does recurrence form a pattern, and where does it undercut that pattern by mocking it or showing its inadequacies? Where are patterns of representation inherently inadequate, parodic by nature, or by their inability to reach nature? What things can be said, and what must remain unsaid? What points of similarity and divergence are there between the coronation of Elizabeth II, seen on television, and the life of Elizabeth I, seen on stage?
This concern with the nature of artistic representation (occasionally contrasted here with Daniel’s ruthless concern for good works to others) represents a thematic continuity with Byatt’s earlier books. Also like both her previous novels, there’s the dramatisation of the situation of an intellectual woman in a male-dominated society. Stephanie’s choice for a domestic life contrasts with Frederica’s lust for the life of the mind. So there is a concern with gender issues, and with the representation of women — Elizabeth I is embodied on stage by Frederica, but also by another actress who plays her in her later life, highlighting difficulties of representation, of depicting a life in art. With the pageant’s inclusion of the figure of the goddess Astraea, the personification of justice and a frequent image for Elizabeth, the play presents an Elizabethan, female, trinity; elder Elizabeth, young Elizabeth, and Astraea as counterparts to the Christian Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Alexander, the artist, is quietly a significant character: in crafting the play that drives the story, he writes the language which Frederica must speak, just as he dresses Stephanie at one crucial point in the story and so sets her into a certain role. But in the climactic chapter (perhaps more accurately, a chapter which refuses the expected climax) things do not come out as he had expected. The virgin leaves the garden. Still, it is through Alexander’s eyes that we are introduced to the novel, in the prologue set in the National Gallery of a later date — introducing at once issues of representation, issues of Englishness and national culture. Alexander introduces us to Frederica, the most powerful personality of the book; they are there, the first sentence tells us, to see Flora Robson (so the flower imagery, in the novel’s first words) perform as Queen Elizabeth in a brief theatrical interlude. And: watching the crowd, Alexander observes a number of notable figures of the day, including Renaissance scholars Helen Gardner and Frances Yates, as well as “a dumpy woman in a raincoat”, who it’s tempting to read as Byatt herself — the representer thus become the represented.
This is a dense and challenging book. These are good things. There’s a tension here between the form of a novel — the shape of a story — and the stuff of life. It’s a creative tension, which is what makes the book work. It’s rigorous and complex, and consistently does what is not expected. It’s a strong work in itself, and also a strong beginning to a quartet.
- Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.