AS Byatt: The dame who dared to criticise the world of Harry Potter

Author: By Hermione Eyre

AS Byatt composed her most recent book review with the calm, searching exactitude that characterises her essays. But, because the subject of her criticism was none other than the sacred Harry Potter series, Byatt provoked a torrent of aggressively pro-Potter outrage, some of it phrased as a personal attack.

“We’re dealing here with an acolyte at the temple of high culture barring the doors,” spluttered Charles Taylor, the leading critic of the San Francisco-based literary website Salon. “Success on the scale of JK Rowling clearly gets under her skin.”

Does any of this muck stick to the stately, eminent figure of Dame Antonia Susan Byatt? Surely it’s outrageous to suggest that the 66-year-old Booker-winning polymath could be riled by the wildfire success of Harry Potter? Would the literary website also like to surmise that Byatt is fuming because Rowling has appropriated the family name of the star of her tetralogy, heroine, Frederica Potter?

Instead, it seems far more likely that AS Byatt has come up against critics who can’t quite rise to meet her. They respond hysterically to her careful, dextrously-made point that Hogwarts is not “an anthropologically coherent world… it is small and on the school grounds and only dangerous because she says it is.”

True to form, Byatt proves herself passionate yet cerebral in her Potter review in The New York Times. Her style recalls William Hazlitt’s ideal of the “disinterested” critic – one who is full of feeling, yet removed from partisan proclivities. And now that this review has lead to her being reported as having dropped “a gobbet of bile” on JK Rowling, it seems like she has been flagrantly misread. But this would not be the first time.

It has been mooted by Byatt loyalists that her work is often misunderstood critically. “She is so innovative that early reviews of her novel often wildly miss the point,” says fellow novelist and critic Philip Hensher. It is as if it takes a good 15 years for Byatt’s work to “sink into” the public consciousness, he says. The dense quality to her work, and its steady, unhurried metabolism, is mirrored by the long, slow arc of Byatt’s career.

Born in 1936, in Sheffield, she spent much of her childhood in bed due to asthma, where she read voraciously – “kept alive by fictions” as she later said. Her father, a judge, was often absent; her mother, Kathleen, who had studied under FR Leavis at Cambridge, provided a model of an intellectual woman – although one perhaps frustrated by domesticity and often difficult. As Margaret Drabble, Byatt’s younger sister, has said “She displaced a competitiveness on to us.”

Their mother, seems to continue to be a source of altercation between the sisters. When Margaret Drabble published A Peppered Moth in 2000, AS Byatt’s usually measured tones segued into the weirdly proprietorial: “I would rather people didn’t read someone else’s version of my mother”. This recalls the idea that she has described as the kernel for Possession – the idea being to do with “being taken over, or taking somebody over, depending on whether you’re a sympathiser or a hunter.”

The sisters’ relationship has been the source of reams of writing – much of it penned by the sisters themselves. It seems that the conflict began early. Byatt’s 1967 novel The Game describes childishly vicious sisters fighting with “nails, teeth, shoes, silently intent on real damage”. They both went to Cambridge; Byatt went to Newnham, won a first, and went on to plough through academic research at Bryn Mawr and Somerville, while also coping with a young family.

Drabble gained a starred first and became, at 21, a best-selling novelist, lightly leaping into the Sixties literary scene. The critic Jan Dalley has acutely noted that a moment in the BBC Bookmark programme “said it all. Shot one, Byatt at work in the British Library, in shapeless clothing and bottle-glass specs; shot two: Margaret Drabble sleek and glowing, prancing in miniskirt for the cameras in some hip Sixties room.” The disparity between them is perhaps also present in the line in Drabble’s first novel, A Summer Bird Cage: “As tags go, she is grand dame while I am jeune fille.”

This contrast translates into their careers. Drabble’s “taut lightly-spun style” has been contrasted with Byatt’s thick, ambitious tomes, crammed with many voices, times and genres. Antonia took a ponderous path to literary greatness, accruing five novels and several critical studies (including Degrees of Freedom: the Novels of Iris Murdoch and a historicist reading of Wordsworth and Coleridge) before she achieved anything like her sister’s popular success.

It took 10 years of teaching Victorian literature and long work in the Coleridge archives before she was ready to write the Victorian post-modern romance, Possession. But when she did, it won her the 1990 Booker prize and its attendant rewards, including a ninefold increase in sales. Her magnum opus, although far less popular than Possession, is the tetralogy of novels known as the Frederica Quartet: The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and, most recently, A Whistling Woman. The work took over 40 years from conception to completion.

The sustained power of this work is extraordinary, and contributes to the impression that Byatt is something of an anachronism. She herself has said: “I was baffled by the Sixties. It was very exciting and very pointless.” She retains instead, the seriousness of her war-time generation. “I think there is a huge gulf between people for whom the war was the formative experience, and those who came after.

She’s the eldest of four, and there’s something of the serious big sister about her: Byatt often seems like a lone adult writer among squabbling brats. She finds the “sugar-coating of Beano infantile humour” of Lucky Jim distasteful. Alienated from the post-war Movement authors (such as Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn), she has complained of “puerile jokes about funny foreigners”. Famously, she once accused Martin Amis of “male turkeycocking”.

Her great good sense, and deep learning often conspire to put her in the “ultra-serious, forbidding, donnish” category (Polly Toynbee). Perhaps it was this reputation that resulted in the venomous accusations of High Art élitism from the Potter-supporting Charles Taylor. But erudition seems to come as simply and naturally to Byatt as breathing. For example, she just can’t help “finding [herself] reciting over and over in her head a line from Wallace Stevens” while sitting for Patrick Heron.

There is nothing snobbish or pretentious about her in a literary sense – she is an ardent and vocal supporter of Terry Pratchett and Georgette Heyer. Her lengthy analysis of Prachett’s work leaves us convinced she believes in it as echt magic as opposed to Rowling’s ersatz. Byatt also wears her learning lightly. Her popular mythology embraces the fact that she spent her Booker bounty on swimming pools for her homes in the South of France and Putney. And it enjoys the thought of her painstaking research into the sex life of snails.

At a talk at Tate Britain after the publication of Byatt’s book The Matisse Stories, Jan Dalley noted that the author responded to a “fairly solemn art-historical question about the artist’s influence by talking about the colours of the cushion covers she’d just bought for her house in France. No one with lesser academic credentials would have dared such a cosy answer.”

However, Byatt is not afraid of being élitist, in its most positive sense. Unlike fashionable post-structuralists, she isn’t reluctant to say staunchly that some things are of more value than others, or to support the idea of a list of masterworks. Most recently, in her Potter review, she openly rejected the drab “levelling” of cultural studies.

Byatt also has to contend with allegations of personal severity and harshness. Michèle Roberts, author and critic and a friend of Byatt, defends her, describing her personal warmth: “She is an amazing conversationalist.” Her short stories, Roberts adds, are also full of joie de vivre “There’s a lot of humour and sensual relish in them.”

Brought up as a Quaker, and often described as “earnest… with high moral seriousness”, Byatt is sometimes taken for a hair-shirt kind of Puritan. Only yesterday Fay Weldon called her “a bit of a party pooper” for her critique of Harry Potter. But Byatt actually forms part of a non-conformist tradition that is hard-working and meticulous, but also full of sensuality and pleasure. It’s a tradition that includes George Eliot, capable of combining sentences like “I am in love with pleasure” with full moral discipline.

“I’m constantly being castigated for saying that I know George Eliot much better than I know my own daughters,” says Byatt. Another small line of self-analysis is very telling – referring to Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette, Byatt says, “She is what I am afraid of becoming. Solitary, clever, and trapped.”

It is easy to imagine Byatt saying this in her grave, gentle voice, her eyes watchful and unwavering. For anyone who has seen her video diaries in Scribbling, the intimate television portrait filmed over a period of three years by Leanne Klein, it is hard to forget her serious, charismatic personal style. The programme showed someone totally committed to her craft. Byatt needs total solitude to write; in the middle of writing A Whistling Woman, she persuaded her husband to cancel his planned visit so that she could live more fully in the novel.

When the novel came to its crux, and Byatt was writing with total intensity, she was dramatically hospitalised with a twisted gut. She was diagnosed as four hours from death. Her main reaction to this was the worry that she had “so little time left, and so many books to write”.

Life story

Born

Antonia Susan Drabble, 24 August 1936, in Sheffield. Daughter of John Drabble, QC and Kathleen Marie Bloor

Family

Sister of novelist Margaret Drabble. First husband, Ian Charles Rayner Byatt, one daughter, one son (dec’d; second husband, Peter John Duffy, two daughters

Education

Sheffield High School; Mount School, York; Newnham College, Cambridge

Career

Lecturer in literature at Oxford, London and Cambridge universities 1962-83; member of Kingman Committee on English Language, 1987-88; Management Committee, Society of Authors, 1984-88; Board of British Council, 1993-1998.

Non-fiction

Wordsworth and Coleridge in their Time (1970); Iris Murdoch (1976)

Fiction

The Frederica Quartet: The Virgin in the Garden (1978), Still Life (1985, Pen/Macmillan Silver Pen), Babel Tower (1996), and A Whistling Woman (2002). Other novels: Possession: a Romance (1990, Booker prize), Angels & Insects (1993), The Biographer’s Tale (2000)

Honours

Honorary Fellow, Newnham College, Cambridge; Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; Honorary Doctor of Literature, Bradford, Durham, Nottingham, Liverpool Portsmouth London and Cambridge universities

She says

“Given the choice, I prefer silence to music.”

They say

“Fans of AS Byatt’s fiction can be divided into two groups: those who cannot understand her novels and those who lie.” – Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

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