Saturday, August 18, 2007
Summer Reading: The Frederica Potter Quartet
Two nights ago I finished my other summer reading goal (mentioned here): A.S. Byatt's Frederica Potter Quartet. Actually, I read the first book, The Virgin in the Garden, last March, and the others, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman, this summer. I'll probably get several blog postings out of the series: because I enjoyed it so much; because it's so dense with character, incident, allusion, and commentary (and nearly 2000 pages total); and because in my opinion people don't talk enough about it! Earlier this summer The Sheila Variations did a big series of posts about Byatt, including reviews and excerpts of the first three Frederica novels... this is a great resource and made me excited to read more Byatt!
I'll begin by simply describing and discussing the series and its books. Basically, the Quartet looks at England from 1953 to 1970, centering on Frederica Potter (aged 17 when the story begins), her family and friends. I have no idea how autobiographical the series is supposed to be, but there are certainly similarities between Frederica and her creator, A.S. Byatt--they share a birthday (though Frederica is a year older), they are both from Yorkshire, they went to Cambridge when it was rare for a woman to do so, etc. Frederica is not the most likable character--others often perceive her as pushy or irritating or superficial--but I am actually quite fond of her. I feel like I often have "Frederica moments."
In the first book, The Virgin in the Garden, it's 1953, and Elizabeth II is about to be crowned, and up in Yorkshire they are producing a big outdoor play about the life of the first Queen Elizabeth, written by a man named Alexander Wedderburn. Frederica fancies herself madly in love with Alexander (who is probably twice her age) and is thrilled when she gets cast as the young Elizabeth. Much of the novel takes place backstage, and I have to say, Byatt completely gets what theater people are like. Though the characters are British people from a half-century ago, they are totally recognizable to anyone who's hung around actors. For this reason alone--a character like Frederica in a setting like the theater--I loved the book. Meanwhile, Frederica's siblings are also learning about sex and love. Stephanie (calm, pleasant, a few years out of college) falls in love with Daniel Orton, an intense, big-boned clergyman. Marcus (about 15 years old and very awkward--he seems to have Asperger's, though this is never stated) gets into a dangerous relationship with a mentally disturbed teacher named Lucas Simmonds. Their stories did not resonate with me as much as Frederica's did, and I thought Byatt sometimes strained for metaphorical or other significance. Still, even though The Virgin in the Garden seems plotless at first, it's actually based around some compelling narrative questions. Will Stephanie actually marry Daniel? What is Lucas Simmonds doing with Marcus? And, to whom will Frederica lose her virginity?
Maybe the second book's title, Still Life, should have tipped me off that it would have less of a plot. It's the shortest of the four books, but for me, it felt the loosest and least compelling. The other books in the Quartet follow disparate plotlines with increasing urgency, until they all draw closer together and come to a head. Still Life doesn't do that--instead, Byatt-as-narrator breaks in to discuss the philosophy and representation of color, metaphor and language, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, her own goals in writing this novel, etc. I find this irritating and pretentious--or at least, poorly dramatized. Still, I love all the characters, and the individual steps of their journeys are often well done. Frederica goes to Cambridge and is in her element, surrounded by books, learning, and young men. But life is harder for Stephanie, who struggles with the old work vs. family conundrum. *SPOILERS* In lieu of a really well-built climax, Byatt kills Stephanie off in a freak accident (she's electrocuted by an un-grounded refrigerator--the perfect death for a reluctant housewife). I resented feeling like this sympathetic character was killed to make a point about the status of women, as well as to make Frederica distraught enough to marry her current boyfriend, the wealthy "man's man" Nigel Reiver. Also, Still Life introduces a lot of characters who become important in the next two books, but don't have much of a function in this one (e.g. charismatic minister Gideon Farrar). In the scheme of the Quartet, this novel feels like a placeholder.
The next book, Babel Tower, though, comes roaring out of the gate and doesn't let up. It has the strongest plot, the most at stake, and the fiercest questions animating it. We jump forward in time to the mid-sixties: Frederica now has a 4-year-old son, Leo, and is chafing under her husband's control. In the longest chapter of the Quartet, Nigel becomes physically abusive and Frederica and Leo run off to "Swinging" London. There, Frederica seeks a job, a divorce, and custody of her son--not easy, because this is before the days of no-fault divorce. Meanwhile, a derelict man named Jude Mason has published a book called Babbletower, which gets put on trial for obscenity. Excerpts from Jude's story weave in and out of Byatt's--it's about a utopian community that degenerates into a Sadeian nightmare, and the question is whether its literary merit outweighs its gruesomeness. Personally, I think it's great, and gutsy: a fable about the dangers of unlimited freedom, a kind of warning to the 1960s idealists. It also brings in the big theme of "group behavior," which continues to the end of the series. (It's even present in the earlier novels, though not as obviously. The backstage scenes of Virgin are all about group behavior!)
Anyway, Frederica's divorce trial and Jude's obscenity trial coincide, along with the hippie/mod mid-sixties, resulting in a really big, explosive novel about freedom, censorship, individuality, and society. Another major theme of Babel Tower, and the Quartet, is interconnectedness. Not only does Byatt love symbolic patterns and interdisciplinary allusions, the characters' relationships are also tangled. For instance, Frederica's brother-in-law, Daniel, answers phones for a crisis hotline, which Jude Mason keeps calling, and Daniel's boss and Jude are both published by Frederica's boss...
Frederica takes a lesser role in A Whistling Woman, the complex interrelationships of her friends and acquaintances coming to the fore. In terms of intellectual concerns, this novel pays new attention to the social and natural sciences. Much of it takes place at the University of North Yorkshire, which is touting a multidisciplinary approach and planning a conference on Body and Mind (another theme that runs through the Quartet). Byatt, too, takes a multidisciplinary approach to the late '60s: the university conference and Frederica's pop-intellectual talk show allow her to analyze things from a variety of perspectives. Meanwhile, the themes of group behavior and individual freedom continue from Babel Tower. A group of hippie students is agitating for an "anti-university," and a religious cult is forming nearby. One of my favorite parts of A Whistling Woman involves Brenda Pincher, a sociologist who pretends to be a cult member but is actually there to observe how cults form. Brenda's letters to a colleague get increasingly paranoid and desperate; this, and other events, build up the tension in the same way that Babel Tower did.
As you can see, the books get more complex and harder to summarize as the Quartet goes on, and by the end of it, your head can really spin with all that Byatt has crammed in there. Still, I think my two favorite books--The Virgin in the Garden and Babel Tower--can stand on their own; Virgin because it's the first entry and Babel Tower because it is so different from, and so much better than, the book that preceded it. A Whistling Woman is a good and satisfying conclusion, but I wouldn't recommend it if you haven't at least read Babel Tower first. Still Life is a must if you want to get the most out of the series, and there are some great scenes in it, some good observations, but ultimately it wasn't compelling enough for me. (Byatt has much more to say about the '60s than the '50s.) Still, at least one person thinks it's the best of Byatt's novels, and if it's not explosive like the other three, it--as its title suggests--is quiet and contemplative, and perhaps I'll like it better when I reread it. As I surely will, sometime. It will take much more than one reading to wrestle with all the ideas that Byatt has put into her Quartet.