Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Virgin in the Garden by A.S. Byatt

The Virgin in the Garden by Byatt was published in 1978 and is the first in a quartet of novels about the Potter siblings.  Set in the summer of 1953 in Yorkshire, the title is a reference to Queen Elizabeth I.  The backdrop for much of the action of the story is a "verse drama"  put on by local theatrical and academic enthusiasts about Elizabeth I to commemorate the coronation of the new queen, Elizabeth II.

The characters are fabulous and had me hooked from the start.  The Potter family is as eccentric and complex a family, as one could hope for.  Which is just as well as Byatt spends four novels building a drama around their exploits.  The patriarch of this family, is a literary enthusiast and teaches at the local school, but he is also a bully.  The children and their mother have learned to cope with the overbearing Bill in different ways.  The eldest girl Stephanie is kind and introverted and creates an enormous family divide when she chooses to marry the local vicar.  Much of the story is about the middle child Frederica, who is seventeen, alarmingly intelligent, and as headstrong as her father with the same potential for insensitivity.  The youngest, Marcus is sixteen and from the beginning, demonstrates signs of significant emotional disturbance.  Long suffering Winifred has very little to say, but works as best she can to protect her children, though often in vain, from their father's selfishness and lack of understanding.

There are a host of other characters who weave in and out of the drama, as their stories overlap with the Potters.   Alexander who wrote the Elizabeth play, is one of the English masters at the school.  He is terribly debonair and emotionally unavailable.  Frederica Potter has been wildly and constantly infatuated with him for as long as she can remember. 

This is a novel dense in language and in themes.  At times it felt like hard work, getting through the narrative.  Byatt fills her scenes with objects, that completely evoke the 1950s, or what I imagine 1950 England would have been like.  Rooms are stuffed with the odds and ends of the era.  In that sense the whole story is like an Elizabethan pageant, it is vibrant, and packed with texture and energy. 

In some ways the story, not so much the writer's style, reminded me of Brideshead Revisted by Evelyn Waugh, one of my all time favourites.  Both stories centre on an intellectual but dysfunctional English family.  In the case of BR it is an aristocratic Catholic family between the Wars, whereas the Potters are vehement atheists and middle class in post WW2 England.  In both cases the families appear alienated from the society around them and, more particularly, alienated from themselves. 

I loved the characters in this story.  I could never completely make up my mind about any of them, because each of them shows more and more complexity as the drama unfolds.  I feel that therein lies the strength of the novel.  The characters that in the beginning were just too much, are shown to the reader in different circumstances, so that by the end I felt like I didn't want to say goodbye.  The reverse was also true in that characters who appeared to have it all together at the beginning were gradually disrobed.

I think it would be impossible to do justice or try and cover all of the themes canvassed in the novel.  It strikes me that what Byatt captures in The Virgin in the Garden is the "Elizabeth I" quality in all of the  characters.  That is, the frailty that often exists underneath a frosty or pompous exterior.

 As I said this is one you have to commit to.  But it is completely worth it.  Despite my whingeing about difficult language and constant references to classic literature I found myself drawn into the world of the Potters, and needed to know what would happen next.


  1. This one intrigues me. I love family sagas. The last really good one I read was The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which was four volumes; also an English family.
    I'm curious how long it took you to get through this one. I assume I would have to set aside a good block of time...

  2. Hi BG, you know I think it took me longer to get through this than it ought to have (about two weeks). I really enjoyed it and not sure why I didn't really knuckle down and read more of it at a big stretch. It is interesting because some of the chapters just seemed to leap of the page, they were that easy to read, whereas others were more challenging. It is a good choice if you like the family sagas and thanks so much for suggesting The Cazalet Chronicles. I will be sure to look them up :)


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