In the 1970s the British novelist A.S. Byatt (b. 1936) embarked on an ambitious project: a sequence of novels that would trace the growth of a woman of her own class and generation and education, from the drab early 1950s through the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Byatt planned four novels. In The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985) she followed her heroine, Frederica Potter, the daughter of two middle-class literary intellectuals, through the last of her Yorkshire schooling and her three years at Cambridge; Still Life ended with Frederica in the arms of Nigel Reiver, the first man to awaken her sexually.
Since then six years have passed. Babel Tower, the third novel of the series, opens in 1964. The marriage with Nigel is not going well. Cooped up with his horsy sisters and odious housekeeper in a house in the Home Counties, Frederica feels stifled. She would like to see her old college friends, now making names for themselves on the buzzing London cultural scene, but Nigel doesn’t like them. When they write, he intercepts their letters. An ex-commando, he has no scruples about roughing her up in ways that leave no telltale marks. She becomes a virtual prisoner. In a terrifying episode he hunts her around the outbuildings in the dark, flinging an axe that wounds her in the leg. Frederica flees with her four-year-old son, to find shelter with friends in London. Nigel pursues her, leaving a trail of violence in his wake, demanding her back, or, if not her, then the child.
Marital cruelty is not the central concern of Babel Tower. Nevertheless, the Reiver marriage stands out only in the egregiousness of its violence. At the ever-so-polite cocktail parties that Frederica begins to frequent, the talk is dominated by men; the women huddle in corners exchanging notes on anti-depressants. At one such party the wife of an eminent academic makes a scandalous outburst. With the discreet efficiency for which the British are renowned, she is spirited from the scene and order returns. It is this kind of future, as much as Nigel Reiver, that Frederica knows she must escape.
Frederica has been brought up in “that tolerant, non-conformist, cautiously skeptical tradition that requires you…to look for the good and the bad in everything.” On the one hand she fears and hates Nigel, on the other she is unnerved by her hatred; her urge to cut all ties with him is balanced by a puritanical determination to be fair to him. In sexual relations Nigel may be a practiced cynic (he operates by rules like “If you say ‘I love you’ to a woman, it makes her wet”). Nevertheless, Frederica continues to be fascinated by him. Even at the divorce trial she feels a hot rush of desire.
It is the Lawrentian flavor of her response (“the dark, dark look, the intentness that always stirs her”: the very language is Lawrence’s) that, to Frederica, identifies it as a symptom not of a merely individual masochistic dependence, but of a sexual pathology belonging to her entire generation, the generation of girls who came to maturity in the 1950s taking as gospel Lawrence’s fictions of women who abnegated the intellect in order to find salvation in the service of the phallus. “That was our myth,” thinks Frederica—“that the body is truth. Lady Chatterley hated words…[whereas] I cannot do without them.”
Just as, during adolescence, Frederica and her sister had felt Lawrence’s Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, thrust upon them as models (“I don’t want the immemorial magnificence of mystic palpable real otherness,” protested Frederica, ridiculing Lawrence’s purple prose), so in Babel Tower she finds herself resisting the model of Connie Chatterley. The trial scene that ends the book parodies the famous obscenity trial of 1961; but this is not the only way in which Lady Chatterley’s Lover looms over Babel Tower. In making a new life for herself as a woman and a sexual being in the 1960s, Frederica has to question and in many respects repudiate her earlier moral education, an education imbibed from teachers who had sat at the feet of F.R. Leavis, Lawrence’s enormously influential champion at Cambridge.
The conflict between Frederica and Nigel comes to a head in a divorce trial, an extended scene into which Byatt throws all her considerable resources as a writer. The trial is a chastening experience for Frederica, who, under the remorseless interrogation of her husband’s lawyer, backed by a private detective hired to spy on her and a Reiver family prepared to lie through its teeth, is portrayed for the benefit of the court as a selfish, promiscuous woman, unfit to care for her son.
Yet there is a surprise to come. The court may seem dominated by men with public-school backgrounds, men who might be expected to gang up against a woman who has not only bucked the system but, coming from the north of England, from a different class and a different political tradition, has never really been part of that system. Nevertheless, the court, in its patriarchal wisdom, and to the rage of the Reiver family, decides that a young child belongs with its mother, and awards care of Leo to Frederica.
Much of Byatt’s long novel is given to the relationship between Frederica and her son. Leo comes across as anything but cute. Sensitive to the crackle of conflicting emotions around him, angry with the adults for disturbing an entirely satisfactory life replete with pony rides and jam scones and adoring aunts, he resorts to all means, fair and foul, to keep his parents together, doing his best to annex his mother to the family home and prevent her old friends from taking her away from him. Fiercely he demands that she subordinate her happiness to his.
For her part, Frederica—who to her secret shame had planned to abscond without Leo, and when he clung to her had felt a flush of anger—slowly discovers the centrality of motherhood to her life: “This person [Leo] is the centre. It is not what she would have chosen but it is a fact, it is a truth stronger than other truths. It is a love so violent that it is almost its opposite.”
Frederica spends a lot of time reading stories to Leo, stories that pay him the compliment of taking him seriously as a moral intelligence, a being trying to find his own way in a world full of passion and violence. What Byatt has to say, via Leo and the stories he listens to (often given in extenso in the text), is interesting and challenging in times when the orthodoxy among teachers and librarians is that young children should not be exposed to disturbing material, to say nothing of difficult words. Just as Byatt is in favor of Racine for high-school students, she is in favor of tales of magic and terror, of heroism and resourcefulness, for preschoolers. The education of the imagination comes first: it is because the creative imagination is still alive among the writers and painters and scientists with whom Frederica chooses to cast her lot that they are better people than Nigel, his family, and his business friends.
In this respect Byatt belongs squarely in a liberal-humanist Arnoldian tradition. In time of crisis, her people do not go into therapy. For them, salvation is a matter of private wrestling with their consciences; the best aids in doing this are hard work, native intelligence, and a good knowledge of the classics, preferably in several languages. In the struggle of life, happiness is not the goal, but self-improvement; childhood is not an island of joy but a time of testing.
Yet the lives of Byatt’s characters are not so simple or so puritanically grim as that. At the very moment when Frederica and her closest woman friend agree that their own childhood was not paradise but a hell of inauthenticity, the key poem on childhood, for people of English culture, comes unbidden to the minds of both: Wordsworth’s ode “Intimations of Immortality,” with its evocation of
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing.
This is a telling moment, as the voice of their culture speaks through the two women. Byatt returns to such moments elsewhere, through Frederica’s poet-friend Hugh Pink, who, tramping through the countryside, experiences what he calls “the English feeling,” a feeling of belonging to a soil that his ancestors have been rooted in and buried in for thousands of years, yet nuanced and colored by lines of verse so well known that “like turf and stones, [they] are part of the matter of the mind.”
Though a brilliant student at Cambridge, Frederica has resisted becoming a teacher, mainly to escape the overpowering example of her father. But the need to make a living in London forces her to take on evening teaching. These classes allow her to extend her horizons. She reads Nietzsche and Freud, and begins to see how insular her education has been. She expands her teaching to include Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Sartre, while putting behind her some of the writers who have formed her outlook. She can no longer believe in Lawrence’s dark gods or follow E.M. Forster’s commandment to “only connect.” Lawrence and Forster seem to her latter-day religious writers, trying to elevate the novel to where the Bible used to be. From the perspective of 1964, “Oneness, Love, the Novel” seem “so far away, so finished.”
If she does not want oneness, then what does she want? Her answer: that the various identities, linguistic, intellectual, sexual, that make her up be left “juxtaposed but divided, not yearning for fusion.” She has a presentiment of the kind of art work in which such a self as hers might express itself: “an art-form of fragments, juxtaposed, not interwoven, not ‘organically’ spiralling up like a tree or a shell, but constructed brick by brick, layer by layer.”
In her restless intelligence and scrupulousness of mind, and her steadily growing sense of herself as a being formed not only by books but by the larger narratives of family history and national history, Frederica begins to emerge here as one of the more interesting characters-in-progress in contemporary fiction, both as a woman and as a social type, even if one sometimes wonders whether her author has not made her self-aware beyond her years.
Taking a lead from William Burroughs, Frederica experiments idly with cutting up her husband’s divorce lawyer’s letters and rearranging the fragments. She enjoys the effect so much that she does cutups of Lawrence and Forster too. Her notebooks become a mosaic of diary entries and quotations from writers in fashion at the time (Allen Ginsberg, Samuel Beckett, R.D. Laing, William Blake, Nietzsche, Norman O. Brown) as well as from the newspapers.
Frederica calls these layers of text “laminations”; she has already set out a theory justifying them in The Virgin in the Garden. An ambition grows in her to turn her notebooks into “a coherently incoherent work,” a “plait of voices” from the “many women in one” of whom she is made. The implicit promise is that Frederica will grow into a writer: we wait for the fourth volume to see whether this indeed happens. (The heroine of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, also wrote in a layered set of notebooks corresponding to her various identities: dissatisfaction with the organic novel as much as with the organic, integrated self was clearly in the air.)
Frederica’s diary begins to take on an avant-garde and even Parisian tone:
The real “I” is the first I of “I hate I”—the watcher—though only until I write that, once I have noticed that, that I who hates “I” is a real I, it becomes in its turn an artificial I, and the one who notices that that “I” was artificial too becomes “real” (what is real) and so ad infinitum.
Yet her attitude toward the new fashions of thought remains cautious. “In a world where most intellectuals are proclaiming the death of coherence,” comments Frederica’s author in one of her more magisterial interventions, “Frederica is an intellectual at large…driven by curiosity, by a pleasure in coherence, by making connections.”
The Bildung of Frederica continues on all fronts. She learns how to look at paintings; she has an affair with a painter, and later with one of her students, from whom she learns about computers. There is in fact no shortage of men in Frederica’s life. But having spent the first novel of the series trying to lose her virginity (Byatt is good on sex: Frederica’s adventures are amusing, sympathetically rendered, and wholly convincing), and the second having friendly sex with fellow students, she is now learning to enjoy the companionship of men without sleeping with them. In 1953 she had acted Elizabeth I in a play celebrating the coronation of Elizabeth II (this production forms the centerpiece of The Virgin in the Garden). Now she begins to appreciate the power of separateness, the power of the Virgin Queen.
In his more somber moments, Hugh Pink wonders how many of the English would any longer recognize “the English feeling.” Nevertheless, he holds to it as a touchstone. One of the tensions in Byatt’s work since the 1980s is that, formed though she has been, as writer and as Englishwoman, by the interplay of natural landscape and literary tradition that Pink describes, she has had to confront the exhaustion of that tradition as a resource for the practicing novelist.
Her more recent fiction shows a great deal of textual variety (embedded stories and documents and so forth) and plays with some of the devices of postmodernism; nevertheless, at base it continues to rely on the close social observation and moral attentiveness of the great English realists. Though Babel Tower shows Frederica (whom it is impossible not to read, in this respect at least, as a stand-in for Byatt) reflecting (rather tentatively) on the poststructuralist criticism of realism, it is hard to see that this critique has had any effect on Byatt’s own language. In Still Life she quoted William Carlos Williams with approval: “No ideas but in things.” In her respect for the truth of accurate observation, Byatt has been formed by Pound (what are Pound’s Cantos but “laminations”?) and Williams: her practice is modernist rather than postmodernist.
In an interview given more than a decade ago, Byatt listed some of the features she admired in George Eliot’s novels: their “large number of characters, wide cultural relevance, complex language.” “It’s important for a writer to have a large canvas and plenty of characters,” she emphasized. While Babel Tower is a recognizably late-twentieth-century novel, here as in the earlier two books, Byatt aspires to a large canvas, wide cultural relevance (cultural, note, not social: Byatt’s social range is rather limited), and, by no means least, plenitude of characters. As an exercise I began counting the named characters in Babel Tower, leaving out the real-life people with walk-on roles, leaving out also the stories within the story. I stopped at one hundred: one hundred names to remember, most of them from what in England are called the chattering classes; one hundred roles, most of them minor. I doubt that even Dickens wrote as many names into a novel; and Dickens’s minor names are thumbnail sketches in their own right, whereas Byatt’s could come straight out of the telephone directory.
This complaint may seem tetchy, but it points to one of the weaknesses of Babel Tower: a multiplication of data, a failure to push narrative situations to their limits. Mark Twain remarked that when an American writer does not know how to end a story, he shoots everyone in sight. When Byatt does not know what to do next, she trots a set of new characters onto the stage.
Although Babel Tower may be read as a free-standing work, readers will be puzzled by certain characters who are presences in the novel rather than participants in its action. Frederica’s brother-in-law Daniel, for instance, promises to be a major figure but in the end does little except cast gloom wherever he goes, as he broods on his dead wife. Only a reader who has read the account of her death in Still Life, and the powerfully extended Tolstoyan exploration of Daniel’s grief, will see the point of his substantial but static presence in the new book. Similarly, Frederica’s concern for her brother Marcus will remain mysterious without the background of his fragile mental health and frightening mystical-mathematical experiences as a child.
One substantial subplot involves a government-appointed commission that goes from school to school investigating the state of English teaching. Its activities afford Byatt rich opportunities for satire on academic pretensions. They also allow her to comment upon fashions in education. Thus she opposes free expression in the classroom because (in a revealing turn of thought) she fears it will deny children a space in which to live their private lives.
Babel Tower is a novel of ideas, and many of its situations—the activities of the commission, for instance—are contrived as occasions for the discussion of ideas. Not only does the new Parisian structuralism come up but also advances in the sciences: in genetics, biochemistry, animal psychology, linguistics, computer science. To an extent these conversations bring to life the intellectual excitement of the mid-1960s. Nevertheless, in the end one is left puzzled. Much of the science is now outdated: What can Byatt’s motive be for devoting so many pages to it?
At her college, Frederica crosses paths with Jude Mason, a Diogenes-like cynic who scrapes together a living modeling for drawing classes. Mason is busy writing an anti-utopian fiction about a Frenchman named Culvert who leads a band of friends out of the Paris of the revolutionary Terror to an impregnable castle in the countryside, where he founds a community based on the principle that whatever is human is good, and therefore that there should be no bar on the acting out of one’s desires.
The debt to Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom is obvious; but as a political allegory Mason’s book is aimed at all utopian projects spawned by the Enlightenment, from Fourier’s to Mao’s. Culvert’s cultural revolution begins with an attack on family ties and proceeds to the reconstruction of language. Predictably, the community degenerates into a savage tyranny, with the children revealing themselves to be no less proficient in evil than the adults.
Mason brushes Frederica’s life only incidentally. Byatt has evidently brought his book (entitled Babbletower: A Tale for the Children of Our Time) into her own so as to allow reflection on the naive utopianism and irrationalism of the 1960s. (At the college where Frederica teaches, William Blake is pressed into service as bard of the age, and Proverbs of Hell like “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction” and “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” are quoted like mantras.) Later, when Babbletower has become a cult book, and its author and publisher face prosecution for obscenity, Byatt is able to use the occasion of the trial for some rather tepid satire on the vanity and muddleheadedness of the intellectuals who appear as expert witnesses for the defense.
Apart from allowing these rather jaundiced glances at the 1960s, however, the incorporation of so much of Babbletower into her book seems a sorry miscalculation on Byatt’s part. Whole chapters of this fictive book are given, written in a mannered, pseudo-archaic, soft-porn prose so stickily rich as to be almost unreadable (“His brain was in a turmoil, protested Culvert, transferring his delicate fingering to the left nipple and leaving the right one straining upright. The Lady Roseace stared dreamily out of the window, and shuddered agreeably….”); while no fewer than seventy pages are expended on the obscenity trial itself.
What is Byatt up to? She is a gifted literary ventriloquist, as she proved in Possession (1990), where she created the lovers Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte by the herculean means of forging a body of poems and letters for each. But Possession was a highbrow detective story and satire of academic manners, a considerably less ambitious project than the tetralogy. Because the realism of Possession was purely textual, a matter of imitating surfaces, such real-world questions as why an academic industry should be devoted to such mediocre and (necessarily) derivative creative spirits as Ash and LaMotte could be finessed.
The researches of the (fictional) naturalist William Adamson into the social life of ants, in the 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia—recently filmed under the title Angels and Insects—allow Byatt to do more high-Victorian ventriloquizing. Maintained in a dronelike existence on the country estate of Sir Harald Alabaster, apparently with the purpose of fathering children on his daughter Eugenia, Adamson is shocked to discover that the Alabasters in fact reproduce endogamously, by incest; furthermore, that the Alabaster household, from top to bottom, runs itself on much the same lines as an ant nest, the good of the collective rendering individual conscience irrelevant. Inbred, blue-blooded country families will never look the same again after this witty but chilling fantasy, a minor work but one that shows Byatt at her satiric best in a world that is textual (Darwin, Tennyson, Lewis Carroll) rather than real, a world she is at home in and reproduces expertly.
Is Babbletower just another a piece of literary ventriloquism, carried this time to tedious lengths? If so, why are the defense witnesses at the trial so warm in their praise of it? One, a playwright we are meant to take seriously, attests that it is “good writing.” Anthony Burgess, making a cameo appearance, calls it a “very prom-ising, serious piece of writing.” (One of Byatt’s modest postmodernist moves is to mix in real people with her fictional characters; another is to refer to her heroine loftily as “poor Frederica.”)
How are we to understand these witnesses? Is it possible that they are lying under oath, perhaps as a form of protest against the machinery of the law being trundled out against any book at all, no matter how badly written? Byatt makes the question even harder to answer by failing to reproduce (or, more accurately, to produce) the key passage for the prosecution, a passage in which—we are to understand—a woman is put to death with particularly repulsive sadistic salaciousness. But why then recount at length, in a work of fiction, the trial of another work of fiction whose substantial offense is not only fictive but a matter of hearsay?
Byatt’s own Babel Tower winds down in 1967 with the smoke of catastrophe in the air. The newspapers are full of the Moors Murders and Vietnam. Frederica’s lover turns out to have an identical twin, a pop musician (Frederica hates loud music) who stages “happenings” at which blood-orgies take place and “skoob” towers (“books” back to front) are set on fire. The good brother seems incapable of taming the bad; there are moments when Frederica wonders which of them she has held in her arms. The prophecy of Babbletower (the bad twin of Babel Tower?) seems on the point of coming true: that energy without restraint leads ineluctably to apocalypse. Even the law that had restrained Babbletower itself yields: on appeal the book is declared good.
Frederica had thought of herself as a child of the 1930s and 1940s, the gray era that had ended, symbolically, with the accession of Elizabeth II in 1953. Her generation had grown up “politically placid.” Now, in 1967, she must face up to the reality of the new age, an age not only of turbulence in the arts and exciting advances in the sciences but of nuclear power plants on the Yorkshire moors and “lifeless lakes where no birds sing,” of a blighted countryside in which “the English feeling” as she has known it will have a hard time surviving.
On the brink of the fourth decade of her life, Frederica in Babel Tower looks in two directions: toward a past of which she must take stock; and toward a present with which, after her Rip van Winkle years in the countryside, she has to catch up. The equipment with which Byatt has endowed Frederica to perform these tasks is essentially critical: a critical spirit informs the assessment Frederica makes both of her life hitherto (namely, that its plot has been dictated by the books under whose influence she has fallen) and of the London around her. If Frederica wrestling with the past is more arresting than Frederica engaging with the present, this is because Byatt does not yet, in this third of the projected four volumes, seem to have decided whether Frederica has it in her to be creative—in her own terms, to write her book of “laminations”—or whether her response to the world outside her will continue to be—and to be only—to subject it to the operations of a sophisticated but rather passive critical intelligence.
June 6, 1996