A.S. Byatt’s Art of Memory

by Mara Cambiaghi (Author)
©2020 Thesis 218 Pages


This book provides a comprehensive reading of some of A.S. Byatt’s major novels. Focusing on memory, Renaissance forms of theatrical reinvention in post-war culture, ekphrasis, visuality, the cognitive processes of the mind, gender and science, the book retraces a network of theoretical questions illuminating the author’s fictional world from within. This study devotes special attention to the craft with which Byatt translates complex issues into imaginative fiction, engaging with Byatt’s texts. It presents a lucid and coherent account of a wide range of arguments underpinning the work of one of the most prolific and acclaimed contemporary writers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Acknowledgements
  • Copyright Acknowledgements
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This ebook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • i. Critical Responses
  • ii. A.S. Byatt and Cultural Memory Studies
  • iii. Visual Culture
  • iv. Intertextuality
  • v. Blending Theory
  • vi. Chapter Outline
  • 1. A Memory Theatre of Words: The Virgin in the Garden
  • 1.1 Ars memoriae, Renaissance Memory Systems and Frances Yates
  • 1.2 A Memory Theatre, a Literary Pageant and Elizabethan England
  • 1.3 The Play of Images and Gardens: The Visual Process
  • 1.4 New Elizabethans
  • 2. Painted in Memory: Still Life
  • 2.1 Strolling the Gallery of Memory
  • 2.2. The ‘Bright’ Fifties: Birthing, Vision, Art and Ekphrasis
  • 3. The Swinging Sixties: Babel Tower
  • 3.1 The Sphere of Knowledge: Two Cultures
  • 3.2 The Spiral Stairway of Narrative
  • 3.3 The Limits of Verbal Representation and the Realm of Dystopia
  • 3.4 The Impact of Oppositional Culture
  • 4. A Question of Body and Mind: A Whistling Woman
  • 4.1 A Fictional Microcosm Informed by Science
  • 4.2 Of Birds, Snakes, Mirrors and Gardens
  • 4.3 Of Groups, TV, Culture and Communities
  • 4.4. The Feeling Brain
  • 5. (Dis)Possessing Possession: A Romance
  • 5.1 The Title
  • 5.2 The Plot
  • 5.3 The Structure of the Novel
  • 5.4 The Victorian World
  • 5.5 The Contemporary Setting
  • 5.6 The Timeless Dimension: Fairy Tale and Myth
  • 5.7 Unlocking the Text: Romance and pastiche
  • 5.8 Self-Reflexivity in Possession
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • I. Primary sources
  • II. Other literary works cited
  • III. Secondary sources
  • List of Artworks
  • Series index


The primary purpose of my study is to offer a comprehensive reading of the major novels of A.S. Byatt. Byatt is a prolific and acclaimed writer whose creative activity has evolved over a long time, encompassing a wide spectrum of interests and styles and reflecting in her work several social and generational changes that occurred from the early 1950s to the 1990s and beyond. The present book aims at building on the existing analyses of Byatt’s major novels, retaining some of the critical terms which constitute a useful set of tools in investigating her texts: cultural memory, gender, visual culture, intermediality, intertextuality, mimesis and metafiction. The all-inclusive, encyclopaedic nature of Byatt’s writing is in fact ideally suited to a combination of these approaches which can fruitfully interact with each other. However, because of the ever-shifting emphasis in her fiction on different forms of knowledge, which surface in the plot of her novels, one may subsume these primary terms into a larger framework. My own contribution to the study of Byatt’s œuvre, therefore, will lie in connecting previous approaches to produce a more encompassing account of Byatt’s work and in adding, where possible, the perspective of blending theory as a potentially fruitful area of enquiry. This proceeding reflects my own cross-cultural path with its exposure to Italian, British and German theoretical frameworks.

To many critics Byatt has seemed a curiously traditional writer. The fluid sense of identity characterizing contemporary culture and the literary production of postcolonial writers used to be pitted against the outlook of this quintessentially English author, whose scope appeared initially to be anchored solely within the tradition of English realism and Victorian culture. An overall glance at her entire œuvre to date indicates, however, the full range of her creative output and the extent of her commitment as an artist and literary critic. Through her characteristic self-reflexive mode, Byatt has continued to investigate and subvert this very tradition, engaging with different schools of thought and intellectual trends. Grappling with literary theory, science and the visual arts, the fairy tale, the fantastic, myth and ancient sagas, she has opened up the space of the novel to infinite possibilities of transmutation in the intersections of past and present.

Her creative writing has also been underpinned by an impressive critical output throughout the years, so much so that her work as a literary critic, commentator and art journalist has further broadened her role as a public intellectual in the media and in open debates. Moreover, her collection of essays On Histories and Stories (2000) demonstrate her interest in maintaining a dialogue ←13 | 14→with European writers, in an attempt to counter the once widespread view that English culture all too easily neglects authors not writing in English.1 In the past three decades, A.S. Byatt has increasingly become a public figure and one closely linked to academia. For a considerable length of time, she lived the life of a London university lecturer, first as a full-time lecturer in English literature at the Central School of Art and Design, then as an extra-mural lecturer at the University of London and, finally, as a senior lecturer at University College London, a position she left in 1983 in order to devote herself to full-time writing.

Byatt’s imaginative world is partly rooted in a specific cultural and geographical location, often evoked in her work through echoes of and allusions to her early years of childhood, which were spent in Southern Yorkshire. Born in 1936 in Sheffield, she attended the Mount, a Quaker school in York, before reading English at Newnham College, Cambridge. Although in those years F.R. Leavis’s influence on literary studies and the English novel was dominant, Byatt put on record that at Cambridge she tried to resist his powerful influence and moralizing criticism by concentrating almost exclusively on the study of poetry (cf. Byatt 1993: 72). As a result, her fiction often invokes lyric parameters and absorbs topoi current in poetry with her narrative concerns. Language and landscape may emerge as focal points in her novels, offering us a glimpse of the apparently idyllic scenery that much contemporary criticism has taught us to read as the product of nostalgia or as a symbol of national retrenchment in the aftermath of the loss of empire. Yet, it is often the legacy of D.H. Lawrence that shimmers through these intermittent lyrical scenes, and on the subject of her ambivalent attachment to D. H. Lawrence and the Northern provinces, Byatt has this to say:

I understand so deeply his feelings, both coming from the industrial North of England and nevertheless having both grown up in those pockets of it which were still countryside, which gives you the English feeling. This is where I come from. I write a lot romantically about the far North of Yorkshire, but it isn’t my country. But the people in Lawrence, I mean my family and Lawrence’s mother, they would have known each other and understood each other. They were the same people.

(Byatt. Personal interview 4 November 1997).

This remark is significant in tracing one strand in the legacy of the author’s literary ancestry; yet, as we shall see, Byatt will take issue with other aspects of Lawrence’s fiction and, most especially, with the celebrated myth of the perfect ←14 | 15→unity between lovers. In Babel Tower, for example, this myth will become the terrain for a polemical attack on a once powerful literary tradition validated by a society which, in the early sixties, was about to change beyond recognition. Significantly, the legacy of F.R. Leavis and his role among the expert witnesses in the notorious trial against Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover looms behind the parodic portrayal of this eventful literary and legal case in Byatt’s novel.

In general surveys of post-war English literature, Byatt’s fiction has frequently been discussed in connection with the historical novel and the postmodern turn, largely focusing on Possession as a pivotal example of a late twentieth-century trend (Waugh 1995: 182, 185; Connor 1996: 147–151; Murphet 2004: 722; Keen 2006: 171, 176; Childs 2007: 212–213; Waugh 2007: 80; Wells 2007: 538–549; de Groot 2010: 100, 116). A sense of nostalgia may be endemic to revisiting the cultural past and is, therefore, part and parcel of the above critical surveys. Lynn Wells, for example, acknowledges Possession as the ‘quintessential contemporary novel’ tinged by a ‘deep nostalgia for the vibrant world of Ash and LaMotte’ (ibid.: 538), while Anne Humpherys addresses this very aspect when discussing the author’s use of intertextuality in her contribution to A Companion to the Victorian Novel (2007).

At a time when Byatt’s published fiction only included her early novels, the New Pelican Guide to English Literature, edited by Boris Ford in 1983 and reprinted in 1990, classified the author among a group of women novelists, including Doris Lessing, Penelope Mortimer, Brigid Brophy and Edna O’Brien, who ‘have dealt with various aspects of the modern woman’s dilemma with insight, honesty, and an unsentimental realism’ (Phelps 1990: 441). Representing a substantial strand in Byatt’s range of themes, the problematic of the woman writer was taken up again by Patricia Waugh in her survey of feminist fiction in A Concise Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, edited by James F. English (2006).

Possession (1990) shifted the debate into a new focus and in his account of The English Novel (1996), Steven Connor highlighted its central place in the transition from historical to historicized fiction, i.e. from ‘fiction about history’ to ‘fiction about its own historically relative construction of history’ (143). As we know, dramatising the tension between historical events and their representation, i.e. between the alleged authority the past may assume and the more self-conscious and problematized rendering of it, is part of a general movement characterizing the post-war novel, which Linda Hutcheon has famously labelled historiographic metafiction.

In her volume on historical fiction, Mariadele Boccardi continued to muse on the general shift towards self-questioning forms of national narratives and the ensuing retrenchment into ‘the literary myth of the garden of England’ (Boccardi ←15 | 16→2009: 171). A number of contemporary novels, including Possession, are seen by her as romanticising the loss of the past, while articulating a desire for national narratives, generally labelled as ‘Fictions of the Garden’ (169). In this context, Byatt’s novel has not escaped Boccardi’s criticism that such a mode of national self-imagining ‘is dependent on existing ideological and economic conditions’ (ibid.: 87). The argument is not new. Indeed, it resonates with general views expressed by Terry Eagleton in his Postscript to The English Novel (2005) where he claimed for ‘the novel of liberal humanism’, a governing influence stemming from ‘the official ethical and political doctrine of literary London’ (337).

In what follows, I shall first provide a brief summary of Byatt’s critical reception through the monographs currently available, discuss a series of theoretical approaches that have been significant in the analysis of her work, as well as introducing and adopting my own theoretical viewpoint (Section i). The following sections will sketch out an overview of the key critical terms informing the present study: Section ii will deal with cultural memory, Section iii with visual culture, Section iv with intertextuality and Section v with blending theory. Finally, Section vi will provide a general outline of the chapters structuring the present study.

i. Critical Responses


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
memory theatre visual culture intermediality intertextuality gender neuroscience and literature
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 218 pp., 5 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Mara Cambiaghi (Author)

Mara Cambiaghi holds degrees in English and German literature from the University of London, Milan and Freiburg. She taught and pursued postgraduate studies in English and comparative literature at the University of Konstanz and completed her PhD at the University of Freiburg.


Title: A.S. Byatt’s Art of Memory