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A.S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination

Interview with Jane Campbell

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What attracted you to A.S. Byatt’s writing?

I began to read her as part of my interest in fiction, especially fiction by British women. At that time (the 1980s) Byatt was not at all well known in North America. The brilliance and richness of her language delighted me, and I was fascinated also by the way in which, by her exploration of the lives of women, she was working out a feminist position for herself before the feminism of the seventies had articulated a space for women.

Would you explain your title?

It comes from a comment Byatt made in 1990. She described her writing as heliotropic, turning to and sharing in the creative sun. She spoke of her difficulty with the traditional association of women with the moon as passive reflectors of the male sun. From her earliest novel, The Shadow of the Sun, she reaches toward an ungendered sun to which the active minds of women can relate. I interpret the image of the heliotrope in a double way: it describes Byatt’s personal artistic progression and also the imaginative processes of her characters.

Were you surprised by the stunning success, in 1990, of Possession?

Not by its success in winning 2 prestigious prizes and in appealing to such a wide range of readers, both male and female. But my study of her earlier work hadn’t prepared me for her dazzling experiments with form and genre in Possession. She develops historical fiction, moving between two centuries, and blends in elements of the detective story, the fairy story, the epistolary novel, the diary, the novel of academic satire — and, of course, the romance, to which she points in her subtitle. And then there are the wonderful “Victorian” poems which she writes for her nineteenth-century characters! Part of her feminist project was to imagine a Victorian epic written by a woman, and she creates this in Christabel’s long poem. I had been interested, too, in Byatt’s avoidance of closure in her plots, and Possession gives an example of how finality and openness can be combined in an ending. All of these features of Possession — and many others — appear in new ways in the fiction which followed.

What do you hope readers will find interesting in your book?

Many who have enjoyed Possession have not, I suspect, read much else by Byatt. I hope that by discussing her work from its beginnings to 2002, when she completed her quartet about life in England in the 1950s and 1960s, I have shown her as a polyvocal and multigeneric writer who experiments with fantasy and fairy tale as well as exploring the possibilities of realism as a late twentieth-century form, who increasingly uses science, biography and painting as subjects, and who has importance as a critic as well as a novelist. My last 3 chapters analyze three books — Elementals (1998), The Biographer’s Tale (2000), and A Whistling Woman (2002) — which are so recent that they have not received much attention from critics until now. There are several very good studies of Byatt’s work up to the mid-nineties, but most of the journal articles on her have dealt only with Possession. My book looks at her whole achievement to date, and stresses the breadth of her intellectual concerns and her insistence on placing her women in a living, changing context of ideas and experience. Like all critics, I hope that my book will lead my readers back to the texts I discuss — and forward to those which Byatt will publish in the future.