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A. S. Byatt

[bahy-uht]

Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, DBE (born Antonia Susan Drabble 24 August 1936, Sheffield, England) is a postmodern novelist and poet. She is usually known as A. S. Byatt.

Life and career

Byatt was educated at The Mount School, York, Newnham College Cambridge, Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, USA and Somerville College, Oxford, though her research grant to the latter institution (dependent on single status) ended with her marriage to Ian Byatt (now Sir Ian Byatt).

She 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.

Byatt's first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, the story of a young girl growing up in the shadow of a dominant father, was published in 1964 and was followed by The Game (1967), a study of the relationship between two sisters. The Virgin in the Garden (1978) is the first book in a quartet about the members of a Yorkshire family. The story continues in Still Life (1985), which won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, and Babel Tower (1996). The fourth (and final) novel in the quartet is A Whistling Woman (2002). The quartet describes mid-20th-century Britain and Frederica's life as the quintessential bluestocking -- a woman undergraduate at Cambridge at a time when women were heavily outnumbered by men at that University, and later, a divorcée with a young son making a new life in London. Like Babel Tower, A Whistling Woman covers the '60s and dips into the utopian and revolutionary dreams of the time. The Matisse Stories, (1993) featured three stories, each describing a painting by Henri Matisse that inspired Byatt, each the tale of an initially smaller crisis that shows the long-present unravelling in the protagonists' lives.

Possession, her best known novel, which parallels the emerging relationship of two contemporary academics with the past of two (fictional) nineteenth century poets in to whom they are researching, won the Booker Prize in 1990.

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. In her quartet of novels about mid-century England, she is clearly indebted to D. H. Lawrence, particularly by The Rainbow and Women in Love. There and in other works, Byatt alludes to, and builds upon, themes from Romantic and Victorian literature. Byatt conceives of fantasy as an alternative to--rather than an escape from--everyday life, and often it is difficult to tell if what is fantastic in her work is actually the irruption of psychosis. More recent books by Byatt have brought to fore her interest in science, particularly cognitive science and zoology.

Two of her works have been adapted into motion pictures: Possession and Angels & Insects.

Byatt's younger sister, Margaret Drabble, is also a successful novelist, and the rivalry between the two is legendary, although of uncertain origin. It has been suggested by some that, before becoming successful in her own right, Byatt resented her sister because Drabble gained a rare starred (indicating distinction) double-first over her own (still impressive) double-first at Cambridge. Drabble herself suggests that part of the rift is due, after Byatt's young son had been struck by a car crossing the road in Battersea, London, to the guilt Drabble felt that her own children were untouched by such tragedy (this reported by Suzie Mackenzie of the UK's Guardian Unlimited.) Byatt has stated publicly that Drabble's depiction of their mother in Drabble's book The Peppered Moth angered her. During this period of her life, her thirties, Byatt found it all but impossible to write fiction and to fulfill her early promise as a novelist.

She has also written several times for the British intellectual journal Prospect. She was awarded a CBE in 1990, then a DBE in 1999.

The Harry Potter controversy

More recently, A. S. Byatt caused controversy by suggesting that the popularity of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of books is because they are "written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip." In her editorial column in the New York Times newspaper, she scathingly attacked adult readers of the series as uncultured, claiming that "they don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had."

After the column appeared in the newspaper, her editorial was described by Salon.com contributing writer Charles Taylor as "upfront in its snobbishness." He also suggested that Byatt's claims may be due to jealousy towards Rowling's commercial success.

In an article in The Guardian, the author Fay Weldon defended Byatt in this controversy over Harry Potter, and praised her courage for speaking out. "She is absolutely right that it is not what the poets hoped for, but this is not poetry, it is readable, saleable, everyday, useful prose," Weldon said. She said she found the sight of adults reading the Potter series troubling, adding: "Byatt does have a point in everything she says but at the same time she sounds like a bit of a spoilsport. She is being a party pooper but then the party pooper is often right."

References

Bibliography

Prizes and awards

She has been granted the title of "Duchess of Morpho Eugenia" by the Spanish writer Javier Marías, claimant to the micronational title of king of Redonda.

External links

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