A.S. Byatt

(* 1936)

Biographical Sketch

Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, DBE, known as A.S. Byatt (born Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, August 24, 1936), is an English novelist, poet and Booker Prize winner. In an article published on January 5, 2008, The Times newspaper named her on its list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

Byatt was born in Sheffield as Antonia Susan Drabble, the daughter of John Drabble, QC, and Kathleen Bloor, a scholar of Browning. Her upbringing was fairly unhappy as she struggled against her domineering mother. Byatt was educated at two independent boarding schools, Sheffield High School and the Quaker Mount School in York. She noted in Guardian interview in 2009 “I am not a Quaker, of course, because I’m anti-Christian and the Quakers are a form of Christianity but their religion is wonderful – you simply sat in silence and listened to the nature of things.” The family had moved to York as a result of the bombing of Sheffield during the Second World War. She did not enjoy boarding school, citing her need to be alone and her difficulty in making friends. She went on to Newnham College, Cambridge, Bryn Mawr in the United States, and Somerville College, Oxford. Sister to novelist Margaret Drabble, with whom she is engaged in an ongoing feud, and to art historian Helen Langdon, Byatt lectured in the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of London University (1962 – 71), the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and from 1972 to 1983 at University College London.

The story of a young girl growing up in the shadow of a dominant father, Byatt’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, was published in 1964. Her novel The Game (1967) charts the dynamics between two sisters, and the family theme is continued in her quartet The Virgin in the Garden (1978), Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996), and A Whistling Woman (2002), Still Life winning the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award in 1989. Her quartet of novels is inspired by D.H. Lawrence, particularly The Rainbow and Women in Love. Describing mid-20th-century Britain, the books follow the life of Frederica Potter, a young female intellectual studying at Cambridge at a time when women were heavily outnumbered by men at that university, and then tracing her journey as a divorcée with a young son making a new life in London. Byatt says some of the characters in her fiction represent her greatest terror, which is simple domesticity – the notion of coming out from under and seeing the light for a bit and then being shut in a kitchen, which all too frequently happened to women of her generation.

She has written critical studies of Iris Murdoch, who was a friend, mentor and a significant influence on her own writing. In those books and other works, Byatt alludes to, and builds upon, themes from Romantic and Victorian literature. She conceives of fantasy as an alternative to, rather than an escape from, everyday life, and it is often difficult to tell when the fantastic in her work actually represents the eruption of psychosis. “In my work”, she notes in the Guardian, “writing is always so dangerous. It’s very destructive. People who write books are destroyers.” Possession (1990) parallels the emerging relationship of two contemporary academics with the past of two (fictional) nineteenth century poets whom they are researching. It won the Man Booker Prize in 1990 and was made into a film in 2002. Byatt’s Angels & Insects likewise became a successful film, nominated for an Academy Award (1995). Also known for her short stories, Byatt has been influenced by Henry James and George Eliot as well as Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Browning, in merging realism and naturalism with fantasy. On the role of writing in her life, she is quoted in the Guardian quotes her as saying: “I think of writing simply in terms of pleasure. It’s the most important thing in my life, making things.”

Read more about A.S. Byatt on Wikipedia.

 

Major Awards and Honors

Order of the British Empire
  • 1990: Commander
  • 1999: Dame Commander
Royal Society of Literature
  • 1983: Fellow
Man Booker Prize (Great Britain)
  • 1990: “Possession”
PEN/Macmillan Awards (Great Britain)
  • 1986: Silver Pen Award – “Still Life”
Irish Times Literature Prizes
  • 1990: International Fiction Prize – “Possession”
Commonwealth Writers Prize
  • 1991: Best Book, Eurasia Region – “Possession”
James Black Tait Memorial Prize (Scotland)
  • 2010: Fiction – “The Children’s Book”
O. Henry Award for Short Fiction (USA)
  • 2003: First Prize – “The Thing in The Forest” (pblished in The New Yorker)

 

Bibliography

Novels
  • The Game (1967)
  • The Shadow of the Sun (1974)
  • Possession (1990)
  • The Biographer’s Tale (2000)
  • The Children’s Book (2009)
  • Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (2011)
  • The Frederica Quartet (Box Set 2004)
    • The Virgin in the Garden (1978)
    • Still Life (1985)
    • Babel Tower (1997)
    • A Whistling Woman (2002)
Novellas and Short Stories
  • Sugar and Other Stories (1987)
  • The Matisse Stories (1991)
  • Angels and Insects: Two Novellas (1992)
  • The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994)
  • Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998)
  • The Little Black Book of Stories (2003)
Nonfiction, Collections and Anthologies
  • Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965)
  • Iris Murdoch: A Critical Study (1976)
  • Passions of the Mind (1991)
  • Imagining Characters: Six Conversations About Women Writers (1995)
  • New Writing Volume 4 (1995)
    – Editor, with Alan Hollinghurst.
  • New Writing Volume 6 (1997)
    – Editor, with Peter Porter.
  • Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time (1997)
  • Oxford Book of English Short Stories (1998)
    – Editor.
  • Jack Milroy: Portals – Graphite Traces of a House in the Cevennes (1999)
  • On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays (2000)
  • Bird Hand Book (2001)
    – With Victor Schrager (photographer).
  • Portraits in Fiction (2001)
  • The Phantom Museum: Henry Wellcome’s Medical Mysteries (2003)
    – Contributor.

 

A Selection of Quotes

Possession

“No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.”

“That is human nature, that people come after you, willingly enough, provided only that you no longer love or want them.”

“Independent women must expect more of themselves, since neither men nor other more conventionally domesticated women will hope for anything, or expect any result other than utter failure.”

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye

“All English stories get bogged down in whether or not the furniture is socially and aesthetically acceptable.”

Find more quotes by A.S. Byatt on Wikiquote and Goodreads.

 

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