Byatt, from the Guardian

I’m embarrassed to say that I read about two non-Victorian novels a year, and that even those novels are often related to the Victorian novel stylistically or thematically.  A perennial favourite of mine is the contemporary realist novelist Margaret Drabble, especially The Peppered Moth (whose Darwinian themes are related to The Mill on the Floss).

This year it’s even worse–one of my favourite reads was A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which slipped by me when it was first published in the fall of 2009 but which I was happy to pick up in paperback when I needed a break in November.  Byatt’s neo-Victorian novel stretches from the 1880s to WW1, and centers around several sprawling families involved with the Arts and Crafts movement and the Fabian society, and is certainly engrossing as well as rather disturbing.

The experience of reading the novel is even richer for Victorianists given the critical context.   I love to read the acknowledgments at the back of any book, and was excited to see Byatt thank Linda Hughes for her biography of Rosmund Marriott Watson.  I had already been thinking of  Hughes’s biography, which has an especially poignant description of Watson’s being forced to give up contact with her children after her two divorces, when I came to Byatt’s character Phoebe Methley, who has a similar backstory.  I also looked up some of the reviews, and was especially interested to read Isobel Armstrong’s riposte to James Wood’s review in the London Review of Books.  Wood essentially accuses Byatt of being too much of a realist writer whose narrator is too obtrusive in calling attention to herself as she describes the character’s thoughts.  Wood prefers unobtrusive narrator of a Woolf novel.  But as Armstrong points out in her letter to the editor, this seemingly untrammeled access to a character’s interiority is “always an authorial sleight of hand.” Score one for Armstrong.

I worry a little about what it says about me that I enjoyed the critical context almost as much as the novel itself!  Next up for me is The Marriage Plot–which I imagine many Victorianists will be reading this winter break!

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