Friday, August 24, 2007

Happy Birthday, Frederica Potter

Skinny, red-haired Frederica is said to resemble the young Queen Elizabeth. Or perhaps Cate Blanchett as the young Elizabeth? Photos from and

If Frederica Potter were a real person and not a fictional character, she'd turn 72 years old today--August 24, St. Bartholomew's Day. (Here in the real world, her creator A.S. Byatt turned 71.) Earlier I threatened a big post about Frederica, and what better day to write it? She's my new favorite heroine, and as you see, I've been thinking a lot about the quartet of books in which she appears. Here I'll focus mostly on the first two books, The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, because in them Frederica plays a bigger part and is closest to my age, so I can relate to her better.

Frederica feels so real and recognizable to me, yet she is very different from the typical coming-of-age-story heroine. When Jane Austen created Emma, she called her "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," and I imagine Byatt saying the same about Frederica. If anything, Frederica is even less sympathetic than Emma: at least Emma thinks she's helping people by meddling in their lives, but Frederica is only out for herself. I don't mean she's immoral--but others often describe her as "prickly" or "grim" or even "awful." She is competitive and arrogant, she doesn't have a true female friend until she is in her thirties, and despite all that, I love her.

If there's one quote that sums up Frederica, it's this, which could be my motto, too:
ALEXANDER: Can't you just be in a place, Frederica?
FREDERICA: No. I think. I have to think. (Still Life 84)
My post below about laminations gives you some idea of Frederica's overactive mind. She reads incessantly and loves to opine about her reading to others. (Sound familiar?) And a scene in Babel Tower proves that the worst thing you can do to a woman like Frederica (short of hurting her or someone she loves) is to burn up her book collection. In high school, Frederica is the top student and feels she obviously deserves it: "She knew the teachers did not like her, but justice required that she come first on any academic list, and it was the duty of those who made the lists to represent whilst they made them, abstract justice" (Virgin 70). In fact, at 17 she is a raging egotist: "[She] clearly believed herself to be a genius, and expressed this belief [...] grossly and stridently” (134).

Still, Frederica gains a measure of sympathy when it becomes clear that her unpleasant, arrogant behavior masks a deep insecurity. She is ashamed to be a virgin from "provincial" Yorkshire, lacking female friends. The conventionally pretty and sweet-natured high school girls reject her, so to avoid feeling hurt, she convinces herself she's superior to them. She is probably jealous of her older sister Stephanie, who is just as smart but much more pleasant, and feels superior to Stephanie's housewifely ambitions too. Frederica's fullest expression of her insecurities and defense mechanisms comes toward the end of The Virgin in the Garden: "I’m sorry. I only grate on people’s nerves because I don’t know what to do, I don’t fit in anywhere, I’m not seen, for all I flaunt myself so" (409). Frederica believes she is very special and valuable, but since no one else thinks of her that way, her self-confidence becomes shaky. Because how can a girl destined for such greatness be so awkward and unpopular in the here-and-now?


nossi said...

Wow - Frederica and A.S.Byatt have the same birthday as me! I'd no idea before (or may I? If so, you've reminded me). Frederica Potter's also my favourite character - I adore her, want to be her, but imagine we wouldn't get on if we were to meet (actually, I might have already met a Frederica Potter, except with a genious in science, not the Arts. As with Frederica, I couldn't figure out why everyone wasn't in love with her). Possibly I'm more of a Marcus at heart.

The Elizabeth I portrait you've got there does look rather Fredericery (I don't think I've actually seen it before, although I'm sure I've read descriptions), the Cate Blanchett less so (she's far too pretty, and somehow not gaunt enough).

Do you adher to what Alexander says after the exchange you've written down ('"No I don't. To my shame, in many ways, I don't"'(I know it's said it's not true after, never mind)), or Frederica? I think I've the shame of not always thinking. I also kinda got the impression that she was just [I]saying[I/] that (because it sounded good, sounded right), on first reading, although perhaps I misread that then.

I wish people talked like they do in a Byatt (well, I wish I could). And that people were more interested in abstract things, geeky things. I thought, you know in Babel Tower, in between the court cases (I can't find them, at the moment), the women Frederica sees gossiping - they're more what real life offers.
(and then I do meet brilliant people, and feel insubstantial to be compared).

I think I like her less when she loses her fierceness (in fact, when she's the Frederica Daniel finds more likeable), as she does in a way after Still Life. But maybe it's just that she's grown older (and so further from me - I'm just pre-chapter 8 (A L'Eclat des Jeunes Gens en Fleurs, I), in life stage at least).

And I've just registered, just so I can warble about Frederica P. One day, I shall meet Real Life people that love A.S. Byatt. One day.

Ah, I've noticed you've answered the just being vs. have to be thinking question, never mind that.

Marissa said...

You have the same birthday as Frederica? Wow, it's meant to be! My zodiac sign is Cancer, which is not very Frederica-ish...

Thanks so much for your comment. I love these books and probably have even more to say about Frederica--I wanted to expand my post, but got too busy, and now all my Byatt books are 3000 miles away! Perhaps later?

I agree the Cate Blanchett photo isn't ideal--but I wanted a photo of a real person as well as the old portrait. Who would you cast as Frederica in a movie? I really can't think of anyone!

Interesting about your real-life encounter with a Frederica type. When I was reading "The Virgin in the Garden" I met a girl who also reminded me very much of Frederica. At first I didn't like her much--I felt like we constantly butted heads, that she was contentious and arrogant. But eventually I realized how smart and interesting she was, and that our arguments made me a smarter person too (we'd discuss Shakespeare!). Knowing this girl and reading these books encouraged me not to be ashamed of my own Frederica qualities--I truly believe this series came to me at the right time in my life.

Since you're "pre-Chapter 8 of Still Life," am I to take it that you're just starting college? Things will get better for you soon enough (more geeky people the older you get). I'm a senior in college right now, and though I haven't met quite as many interesting young men as Frederica did, at least I've successfully avoided the Nigel Reivers of this world. I too wonder if I'm less fond of the 30-something Frederica because she's toned down, or because I just have a harder time relating to people that age.

Welcome to Blogger, by the way!