Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros54Textual/Cultural (Re)constructionsThe Art of Recording Li(v)es in A...

Textual/Cultural (Re)constructions

The Art of Recording Li(v)es in A.S. Byatt’s Fiction

L’art(ifice) de la reconstruction de vies passées dans la fiction d’A. S. Byatt
Armelle Parey


Les questions sur la représentation du passé qui sont au centre de la « métafiction historiographique » et du « roman néo-historique » figurent également au cœur de la fiction d’A.S. Byatt. Nombre de ses textes insistent sur la façon dont le passé collectif, culturel ou personnel est difficile à connaître et soulignent qu’il est le produit d’un art, le résultat d’une fabrication. Cet article étudie en particulier ‘Precipice-Encurled’ (1987), Possession (1990) et The Biographer’s Tale (2000) qui évoquent le processus d’excavation du passé puis le fait d’en assembler les éléments pour les agencer en un récit, notamment via des personnages d’universitaires et de biographes qui racontent des vies, et ce faisant, les inventent en partie. Ces personnages constitueront une entrée dans le processus de reconstruction à l’œuvre dans la fiction de Byatt avant que l’article ne s’intéresse à ‘Sugar’, texte autobiographique qui met en scène la reconfiguration ou la fictionnalisation des souvenirs personnels du passé familial.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1The unearthing of the past has been gathering momentum since the 1980s and is still undeniably at the heart of contemporary British fiction in the early 21st century as attested, for instance, by the Booker Prize twice awarded to Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), and the creation of a Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction in 2009. As Leigh Wilson notes, ‘it has been argued that this historical turn has spread […] to colonize the mainstream novel’ (Wilson 145). History took on a new role in fiction in the 1980s in what Linda Hutcheon labelled ‘historiographic metafiction’, novels which are both historical and self-reflexive, showing that ‘[T]he past really did exist, but we can only know it through its textual traces’ (Hutcheon 75). The Victorian era was the predominant backdrop for a large number of novels that displayed a high degree of self-consciousness in their reconstruction of the past. This approach to the past spread beyond the confines of the Victorian era, Elodie Rousselot describing in similar terms what she calls ‘neo-historical fiction’ (Rousselot 4). While representing the past, all these novels directly or indirectly ask: what do we choose to remember? What is left behind or forgotten? How do we evoke the past? Do we just commemorate it or do we challenge it? Whose memory is kept alive? Last but not least, how much of it is fabricated?

2These questions also feature at the heart of the fiction of Antonia Susan Byatt’s œuvre who claims to be aware of a ‘complex self-consciousness about the writing of history’ (Byatt 2000, 9) and has embedded this concern—‘the problem of the relations between truth, lies and fiction’ (Byatt 1991b, 21)—in her own writing. A number of her texts stress first how the past, whether it be personal, collective or cultural, is difficult to know, and second, how it is the product of art, a fabrication. This paper looks in particular, but not exclusively, at some of her texts that are close to what John Thiem calls ‘novel[s] of biographical quests’ or, for short, ‘Bioquest novel[s]’ which features biographers as protagonists and exposes the personal bias at work. Indeed, a number of Byatt’s texts evoke the process of unearthing the past, piecing it together and arranging it into a tale notably, but not only, via scholarly characters or biographers who record lives, and in doing so may be telling lies. According to Chambers, ‘to record’ now means ‘to set down in writing or other permanent form’ but also ‘to narrate, set forth (archaic)’, thus comprising the idea of arranging facts into a tale. In attempting to capture past lives and record them, biographers or scholars exert an art the outcome of which is a (re-)construction. Byatt has made unflattering portraits of novelists and writers, for instance Julia Corbett in The Game or more recently, Olive Wellwood in The Children’s Book possibly because, as she wrote, ‘I saw novelists as consumers. […] I have known, personally, human beings whose lives have been wrecked or mutilated by being made the object of other people’s fictive attentions’ (Byatt 1991b, 22). In several texts—‘Precipice-Encurled’ (1987), Possession (1990) and The Biographer’s Tale (2000)she has drawn negative or ambiguous portraits of biographers or scholars, professions whose business it is to unearth and study not contemporary lives but past ones. These characters will provide an entry into the process of (re-)construction at work in Byatt’s fiction before we move on to ‘Sugar’ (1987), an autobiographical text that features the unofficial reconfiguring or fictionalising at work in personal memories of a family past.

  • 1 It has been noted that ‘Possession marks the end of postmodernism, or, at least, the threshold betw (...)

3This paper explores how the novelist’s emphasis on the difficulty of representing the past and the inevitable reconstruction it entails are inseparable from Byatt’s impossible yet relentless quest for the truth which she displays as the nearest thing possible to the truth, showing how her work anticipates the ‘move away from the “postmodern” celebration of story over history’ observable in the first decade of the twenty-first century (Wilson 146).1 Indeed, while displaying the postmodern aporia of the (re)construction of the past, Byatt’s writing is nevertheless driven by ‘a strong humanist impulse’ (Sanders 2) as ‘Like Ash [in Possession], Byatt thinks carefully and believes that knowledge matters (401)’ (Sanders 2).

Biographers: ‘Fiction is barred’ (Byatt 1987, 188) or is it?

4‘Precipice-Encurled’ (1987) was published in Byatt’s first collection of short stories and can be said to prefigure the neo-Victorian genre that was developed in Possession insofar as it problematises the representation of the Victorian era. In the main section of the four-part-story, Byatt introduces non-fictional people about whom hardly anything is known as she imagines what happened to a young man whose death modified Browning’s journey in Italy in 1882. In the first part of the story, a narrator describes an unnamed non-fictional woman who appears in other people’s records. This portrait is achieved in what Byatt herself describes as ‘hypothetical style’ (Byatt 2000, 103), which foregrounds the underlying process of construction; for instance with the insertion of a contradictory clause in ‘There she sits, or might be supposed to sit, any autumn day […]’ (185, emphasis added). In the second part, an unnamed ‘scholar’ is at work. This scholar is portrayed as quite thorough with the list of places he has been to, texts he has read, and people he has encountered in relation to his object of study. He also appears as patronising, with the condescending opening to the second part, ‘Dear, dead women, the scholar thinks’ (187). Furthermore, his account includes a theory he has about the lady being in love with Browning: ‘He records the physical vigour […] He records the probable feelings of his heroine’ (188). With the choice of the word ‘heroine’, the narrator emphasises the transformation at work in the recording of these li(v)es, anticipating that ‘The scholar’s story combs the facts this way’ (188). The stress laid on what is invented supports the postmodern idea of the relativity of the past. A question, originally featuring in a poem by Browning, is placed as epigraph and therefore bears on the whole text: ‘Is fiction, which makes fact alive, fact too?’ (185). Jane Campbell notes that Byatt added a comma that partially changes Browning’s meaning and now clearly says that ‘fiction making is inevitable when the imagination is at work on facts’ (Campbell 97). This fiction making is applicable to every level of the story: the narrator’s but also the diegetic one with both Browning and the scholar. Byatt’s narrative itself is a blend of actual fact and fiction, when she uses Browning at the end of his life as protagonist and focaliser in the main part of the story. The text features a skewed ‘mise en abyme’ with the characters of the scholar and of Browning, a recorder of li(v)es too in his dramatic monologues: ‘The best part of my life, he told himself, the life I have lived most intensely, has been the fitting, the infiltrating, the inventing the self of another man or woman, explored and sleekly filled out, as fingers swell a glove.’ (191). A capital difference is that one is a scholar for whom, supposedly, ‘fiction is barred’ (188) while the other, a writer, is justified in exerting his imagination.

5Robert Browning indirectly reappears in Possession as Randolph Henry Ash, the Victorian poet invented by Byatt, who lends his voice to dead figures like Lazarus and Swammerdam. In the novel, Ash and LaMotte are the focus of attention of a range of scholars, including the author of a biography, Mortimer Cropper, a rich American professor in charge of the largest collection of Randolph Ash’s books and letters, to whom the whole of chapter 6 is devoted. The biographer’s possessiveness is prefigured in the epigraph, a poem by Ash entitled ‘The Great Collector’. While this obsession with the past translates into Cropper’s own ‘insubstantial’ (99) character—a leitmotiv in Possession—, it also leads Cropper to construct a portrait of Ash that suits his idea of him. One of the characteristics of Foucault’s ‘Author function’ is the very process of construction:

6these aspects of an individual which we designate as making him an author are only a projection, in more or less psychologising terms, of the operations that we force texts to undergo, the connections that we make, the traits that we establish as pertinent, the continuities that we recognize, or the exclusions that we practice. (Foucault 110)

  • 2 This is also true of Leonora Stern and her vision of Christabel LaMotte’s life and works.
  • 3 This is a significant echo to what the 1968 narrator says in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s (...)

7Already present with the scholar in ‘Precipice Encurled’, Foucault’s reflection on the ‘Author function’ is given a vivid illustration with Cropper who creates the Ash he wants in his biography.2 The very name of the character, based on the verb ‘crop’, suggests the act of cutting and selecting that may transform a picture, or here, figuratively, Ash’s portrait. Cropper’s biography of Ash, entitled The Great Ventriloquist, is quoted in the novel and the extract is a pastiche of late twentieth-century biographies. The biographer includes his own persona (‘the literary pilgrim’ [108]) and relates his visit and impressions of the place in his reconstruction of Ash’s visit there. Published in 1969, Cropper’s biography displays the contemporary interest in the sexuality of the Victorians and uses Freud’s theory of sublimation to account for Ash’s sexual abstinence and extensive production before his wedding (110).3

8While the scholar in ‘Precipice-Encurled’ remains undetailed, the character of Cropper is fully developed in Possession. Portrayed as a ruthless hunter for Ash’s belongings, unhesitant to steal, pressure people or even open up a grave, he is the embodiment of Ash’s wife’s anticipated ‘ghouls and vultures’ (462). His desire to own the past is clearly pointed as misguided but Cropper’s idea of the study of the past is counterbalanced by that of other characters: Beatrice Nest, who works on editing Ellen Ash’s journal, is aware of trends and fashions in literary studies that refigure the past and now throw a negative light on her object of study; the scholar-heroes Maud and Roland who also launch into a work of reconstruction of Ash and LaMotte’s relationship but guided by the texts, rather than biographical information and facts.

9Byatt returns to the character of the biographer, now giving him the main role, in The Biographer’s Tale. The very title implies a distance from truth and the real with its reference to the genre of the tale. It also brings together contradictory terms and proves ambiguous when the reader discovers two biographers instead of one. Phineas Nanson, the homodiegetic narrator, is at first a PhD student who gives up on literary theory because he needs a closer connection to the real: ‘“I need a life full of things”, I said. ‘Full of facts’ (4). He thus sets about becoming the biographer of a biographer, named Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose biography of Victorian Elmer Bole he admires but whom nobody seems to remember (see 21) and who left very few material traces. In other words, Nanson takes it upon himself to construct a memory that does not exist… In fact, as Cambiaghi aptly sums up, The Biographer’s Tale is ‘a parody of the art of biography in the shape of a novel’ (Cambiaghi 81).

10Phineas sets out to find out about Scholes Destry-Scholes whom he identifies as a first-class biographer because of his ‘ressourceful marshalling and arranging of facts’ (15). The reader however cannot share Phineas’s excitement as too many dubious facts are listed in his summary of Destry-Scholes’s biography of Elmer Bole. Moreover, what significantly compels Phineas Nanson to read the three ‘uninspiring’ (6) volumes, apart from his thirst for facts, is Destry-Scholes’s ‘primitive virtue of telling a rattling good yarn’ (8), in other words, his qualities as writer and story-teller. This asserts the power of storytelling and ironically suggests that, to a certain extent, and as will be eventually confirmed in his other writings, Destry-Scholes is really spinning a yarn. Here again, Byatt enacts the postmodern credo that biographical writing is akin to fiction.

11Like Possession, The Biographer’s Tale is a bioquest novel of the type described by Thiem, with its three strands of narrative:

the biographer’s quest for the historical subject’s life (the search for documents, informants, former dwelling places, etc.)’; the life of the historical subject, in whole or part; and, finally, an account of how the biographical quest affects the biographer’s life. Unlike biographical novels or most biographies, bioquest novels expose the role of imagination and personal bias in historical research. (Thiem)

  • 4 Significantly, his last query regarding Destry-Scholes (249) returns to the beginning of the novel (...)

12The Biographer’s Tale indeed tells the story of Phineas’s search for facts about Destry-Scholes, with the inclusion of the documents he comes across and interprets, thus stressing the textuality of the past. It also recounts how this quest eventually affects Phineas’s own life. The novel thus displays the construction or reconstruction of the past doubled with the construction or reconstruction of the self. What is mostly missing however is the actual object of the reconstruction: Destry-Scholes’s life proves elusive4as Phineas cannot organise into a tale the few elements he finds about him. Phineas hardly discovers anything about Destry-Scholes. What he does discover is that ‘Destry-Scholes’s impartiality is simply a myth’ (Cambiaghi 84). The excerpts from biographies prepared by Destry-Scholes, as Boccardi points out, show that the biographer invades and dominates his subject: ‘the voice and interests of the biographer become more prominent, while the figures he is studying recede in the background’ (Boccardi 86). Phineas notices his own growing personal encroachment in his recording of his quest for Destry-Scholes (214). Moreover, Destry-Scholes’s supposed strict adherence to the depiction of the real is negated by the discovery of an elaborate lie regarding Linnaeus (see Boccardi 87). Phineas’s ideal of a biographer is eventually shattered along with his own project.

  • 5 Celia Wallhead points out how this is indicated in their names: ‘Sir Elmer is self-sufficient profe (...)

13Phineas’s quest is a failure but, as noted by Jon Thiem, ‘An unsuccesful bioquest may result in self-discovery’ (Thiem). Celia Wallhead reminds us that ‘in Byatt’s writing, a biographer is habitually seen metaphorically as parasitical upon his or her subject or host’ (304). Indeed, as said above, Cropper’s own identity may lack substance as the character seems to live only to possess Ash’s belongings, and the scholar in ‘Precipice Encurled’ is reduced to his profession. Matters are more complicated in The Biographer’s Tale, because in Wallhead’s words, ‘the hero is a parasite upon another parasite’ (304).5 Yet, in The Biographer’s Tale, the biographer hero is somewhat redeemed, unlike Cropper, as he eventually gives up on his project of writing a biography in order to turn to the study and observation of the natural world and actually focus on things: ‘As long as we don’t destroy and diminish it irrevocably, the too-much-loved earth will always exceed our power to describe, or imagine, or understand it’ (259). Byatt’s hero operates a complete turnaround from the post-structuralist stand of his earlier days. The Biographer’s Tale is classified by Louisa Hadley as one of Byatt’s neo-Victorian novels along with Possession and Angels and Insects while Jane Campbell considers it Byatt’s ‘most traditional and most postmodernist text’ (219). Yet, with her hero turning from the postmodern view of the world and history that suggests that language determines the real, Byatt in The Biographer’s Tale actually seems to exemplify post-postmodernist reengagement with the real or what David Shields defines as our contemporary ‘reality hunger’ (Boxall 10).

‘All the other little trivial myths that turn into memories’ (Byatt 1997, 241)

14A similar concern regarding the construction of the past as fiction is central to ‘Sugar’ (published in 1987 in the same volume as ‘Precipice-Encurled’) even though it differs from the other texts mentioned here insofar as the lies and lives recorded in ‘Sugar’ belong to the factual world, qualifying the text as autobiographical. In the context of her father dying, the narrator realises that what she knows of the family’s past derives from her mother’s ‘tales’. ‘Sugar’ foregrounds the role of the narrativisation of events in the transmission of memory as the narrator looks into the fabrication of her family past, including her own construction which conveys a metafictional dimension to the text. The opening lines emphasize the importance of truth with the use of polyptoton while positing a contradiction: ‘My mother had a respect for truth, but she was not a truthful woman’ (215), a contradiction that may also apply to the narrator who tries to reconcile both truth and lies in her narrative.

15The distortion of fact into fiction appears, for instance, in:

The events of my grandfather’s passing […] were one my mother’s best tales. They had become part of my own shaky sense of my origins, a kind of Dickensian melodrama […] I had a vision of this scene derived largely from Victorian novels and a little from my infant memories of my grandfather’s house, huge, bleak, dark, polished and gauntly uncomfortable (218–19).

16Facts, ‘events’ are replaced by narrative: ‘best tales’. This narrative that constitutes the memory of this family event is presented as a web, made up of several threads. Her mother’s tale is interwoven with the narrator’s own perception at the time, perception itself influenced by reading—‘Dickensian melodrama’, ‘vision of this scene derived largely from Victorian novels’—that also makes its way into the writing with the juxtaposition of adjectives that evoke gothic literature.

17‘Sugar’ is a reflection on the fact that personal or family memory is necessarily made up of external elements, that it is a construction. The narrator becomes aware that what she knows of the family’s past is based on her mother’s records that bear ‘no very clear relation to truth or reality’ (219) and these tales constitute the narrator’s memory: ‘Have you ever thought,’ I said, ‘how much of what we think we know is made out of her stories. One challenges the large errors, like that one. But there are all the other little trivial myths that turn into memories’ (240-1). The narrator perceives the telling of one’s own life as a construction. When her so far rather silent father tries to open up to her before dying, the narrator observes the same construction or narrativisation process: ‘he did try to construct a tale, a myth, a satisfactory narrative of his life’ (231).

18While the narrator’s mother is first pointed out as the source of falsified memory, the narrator then acknowledges her own part in the construction of her own memory. When evoking her image of her grandfather, the narrator displays her desire for truth and exactness conflicting with her awareness of the inevitable distortion of fact into fiction: ‘I thought—or if I did not think, I have since regularly thought, so that the ideas are bonded to this memory—both of Mr Brocklehurst, the tall black pillar of Jane Eyre, and of Mr Murdstone in David Copperfield’ (242). Here again, the importance of fictional texts that feed and flesh out memory is highlighted by the reference to Victorian characters. Moreover, the break in the sentence marked by the interpolated clause ‘or if I did not think’, that qualifies the first statement ‘I thought’, attests to the narrator’s desire for exactness.

19The yearning for truth extends to contradicting her own memory of a visit to her grandfather’s factory: ‘The floor I remember as mere earth, though it cannot have been’ (243). She remembers the visit and attending the making of sweets, observing how sugar changes colour when mixed with air (244), a metaphor for the transformation of the real into fiction when recorded, when turned into a memory. Moreover, the sweet she describes is two-coloured, made up of two strands of sugar, which is again a metaphor for the composition of memory, a blend of fact and fiction. This idea is enhanced by the name of the sweet ‘humbug’ which not only refers to a boiled sweet but also to a made up story, deceptive talk. This duality is also to be observed in the narrator because of her double filiation with a truthful father and a fanciful mother. In fact, the narrator is critical of her mother but she also realises the similarities in their treatment of the real:

20I have inherited much from her. I do make a profession out of fiction. I select and confect. What is all this, all this story so far, but a careful selection of things that can be told, things that can be arranged in the light of day? Alongside this fabrication are the long black shadows of the things left unsaid, because I don’t want to say them, or dare not, or do not remember, or misunderstood or forgot or never knew .(241, emphasis added)

21The verb ‘confect’ has a dual meaning which also ties in different threads: it evokes her mother’s tales, the narrator’s own artful arrangement of facts as well as the paternal grand-father’s activity as a confectioner. This short sentence ‘I select and confect’ thus bonds the two sides of her family and evokes the art of blending fact and fiction. This paragraph evokes the narrator’s own art of recording li(v)es derived from her mother yet is concluded with ‘What is the truth? I do have a respect for truth’ (241), a direct echo to what she says about her father: ‘I think of him as a man with an unwavering instilled respect for evidence, for truth, for justice’ (217). One of the functions of the text seems indeed to be to reconcile two threads in herself.

22‘Sugar’ is a text about the impossible exactness of memory, about the inevitable ‘fabrication’ or (re-)construction implied in the recording of the past. Yet the narrator does not give up trying to convey memory as exactly as possible, as is visible in the polysyndeton above, when the succession of clauses introduced by ‘or’ suggests multiple reasons for leaving things unsaid. Another significant example of this mixture of wariness and relentless quest for exactness in the telling of the past is the excerpt in which the narrator remembers how she jumped into her father’s arms upon his return from the war:

23I don’t remember the trajectory of this leap. I remember its beginning but not its end, not my safe arrival. I do remember – this is surely memory, and no accretion – a terror of happiness. I was afraid to feel. This event was a storied event, already lived over and over, in imagination and hope, in the invented future. The real thing, the true moment is as inaccessible as any point along that frantic leap. More things come back as I write; the gold-winged buttons on his jacket, forgotten between then and now. None of these words, none of these things recall him. The gold-winged, fire-haired figure in the doorway is and was myth, though he did come back, he was there, at that time, and I did make that leap. After things have happened, when we have taken a breath and a look, we begin to know what they are and were, we begin to tell them to ourselves. (248, emphasis added)

24In the excerpt above, the emphatic auxiliary in ‘I do remember’ is reinforced by the inserted clause that express the narrator’s caution regarding her own memory. The movement back and forth between present and past tense indicates the interlocking relationship between the act of remembering and the act of narrating. Similarly, her father’s return is described as ‘a storied event’, using an adjective that significantly evokes the blending of fiction and narration. If writing comes between the event and its recording, it also invites memory: ‘More things come back as I write; the gold-winged buttons on his jacket, forgotten between then and now’. The gap between fact and narration cannot be filled—‘None of these words, none of these things recall him’—but the text does not stop there and then: the narrator does not renounce recording her memory but keeps on trying to capture the real.

25The title of this paper uses the same pun on lies and lives as Alison Lee employed in Realism and Power (1990) for her chapter on historiographic metafictions and their questioning of truth and lies in relation to the past that is presented as textual. The overall effect is slightly different when looking at Byatt’s writing. With negative representations of biographers and scholars, Byatt passes judgement on a certain way of looking at the past, which is supported by the narration. In Byatt’s ‘Precipice Encurled’ and Possession, biographical knowledge and writing are dismissed in favour of faith in the imagination to apprehend the past displayed in the omniscient segments. In The Biographer’s Tale, the absence of an omniscient voice to fill in the blanks left in Phineas’s reconstruction emphasises the lack of interest or pertinence of the biographical quest. Highlighting the mixture of fact and fiction in the recording of the past does not however indicate a disregard or denial of truth but seems to be the closest one can get to truth. Byatt writes her awareness of the inevitable fabrication of memory/the past, even personal, into her narrative in ‘Sugar’ but the result is to celebrate the past, not to reduce it to a text or to erase it.

26As a result, and keeping in mind that Byatt often tends to depict imaginary pasts rather than actual events, she can be seen to anticipate Peter Boxall’s early 21st-century ‘keen awareness of history as event, history as a material force which is not simply produced by narrative, but also shapes and determines it’ (Boxall 41). As she wrote in ‘Le sucre/Sugar’, ‘[w]e may be, as Browning said, born liars. But that idea itself is only wholly meaningful if we glimpse a possibility of truth and truthfulness for which we must strive, however, inevitably, partial, our success must be’ (24).

Haut de page


Adams, Anne-Marie, ‘The American Reception of British fiction of the 2000s’, The 2000s, A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction, eds. Nick Bentley, Nick Hubble and Leigh Wilson, London: Bloomsbury, 2015. 199–221.

Becker, Suzanne, ‘Postmodernism’s Happy Ending: Possession!’ Engendering Realism and Postmodernism: Contemporary Women Writers in Britain, ed. Beate Neumaier, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001. 17–30.

Boccardi, Mariadele, A.S. Byatt, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Boxall, Peter, Twenty-First Century Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

Byatt, A.S., Sugar and Other Stories (1987), London: Penguin books, 1988.

Byatt, A.S., Possession, a Romance (1990), London: Vintage, 1991a.

Byatt, A.S., ‘Le Sucre/Sugar’, Passions of the Mind, London: Vintage, 1991b. 21–25.

Byatt, A.S., The Biographer’s Tale (2000), London: Vintage, 2001.

Cambiaghi, Mara. ‘The Invention of Truth and The Paradoxes of Memory In A. S. Byatt’s ‘Sugar’ And The Biographer’s Tale.’ Travelling Concepts III: Memory, Narrative, Image, Amsterdam, Netherlands: ASCA, 2003. 73–86.

Campbell, Jane, A.S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination (2004), Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2010.

Foucault, Michel, ‘What is an author?’, The Foucault Reader (1984), ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: Vintage books, 2010. 101–120.

Hadley, Louisa, The Fiction of A. S. Byatt, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Hutcheon, Linda, The Politics of Postmodernisn (2nd ed.), London: Routledge, 2002.

Lee, Alison, Realism and Power, Postmodern British Fiction, London: Routledge, 1990.

Rousselot, Elodie, ‘Introduction’, Exoticizing the Past in Contemporary Neo-Historical Fiction, London: Palgrave, 2014. 1–16.

Sanders, Katrina, ‘Polemical plot-coils: thematising the postmodern in Possession’, Sidney Studies (2008): 1–22, last accessed at on 27 January 2018.

Thiem, Jon, ‘Intertextual Lives: The Novel of Biographical Quest as a Postmodern Genre’, Sincronie III.5 (Milano: Jan.-June, 1999): 137–50, last accessed at on 27 January 2018.

Wallhead, Celia, ‘Metaphors For The Self In A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale’, Language And Literature: Journal Of The Poetics And Linguistics Association 12.4 (2003): 291–308.

Wilson, Leigh, ‘Historical Representations, Reality Effects: The Historical Novel and the Crisis of Fictionality in the first Decade of the Twenty-First Century’, The 2000s, A Decade of Contemporary British Fiction, ed. Nick Bentley, Nick Hubble and Leigh Wilson, London: Bloomsbury, 2015. 145–76.

Haut de page


1 It has been noted that ‘Possession marks the end of postmodernism, or, at least, the threshold between postmodern thought and new forms of more realist representation” (Becker 17) but overall, as Ann-Marie Adams regrets, Byatt’s post-postmodern dimension (because of engagement with modernism) has not yet been (Adams 210)

2 This is also true of Leonora Stern and her vision of Christabel LaMotte’s life and works.

3 This is a significant echo to what the 1968 narrator says in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a novel Byatt has criticized for its version of the Victorians.

4 Significantly, his last query regarding Destry-Scholes (249) returns to the beginning of the novel (22): to the biographer’s supposed death in the maelstrom.

5 Celia Wallhead points out how this is indicated in their names: ‘Sir Elmer is self-sufficient professionally […] he is the lofty elm tree, upon whose bole or trunk the ‘medium-sized’(p.21). Destry-Scholes is a parasite. The name comes from Scolytus Destructor, the beetle which carries Dutch Elm Disease, as Byatt tells us in the Acknowledgements (p.263). Phineas, who is tiny (p.3), is the mite that preys on the beetle, Phaeogenes nanus (263), and he says he likes the idea of being ‘the third in line’ (p.24)’ (305).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Armelle Parey, « The Art of Recording Li(v)es in A.S. Byatt’s Fiction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 11 avril 2018, consulté le 14 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Armelle Parey

Armelle Parey is a senior lecturer at the Université de Caen-Normandie, France. Her research embraces narrative endings, memory and rewritings of the past in contemporary English-speaking fiction, with a special emphasis on the neo-Victorian novel. She has co-directed five collections of essays (Happy Endings and Films, Michel Houdiard 2010; Literary Happy Endings, Closure for Sunny Imaginations, Shaker Verlag, 2012; L’Inachevé ou l’ère des possibles dans la littérature anglophone, Récits ouverts et incomplets, PU de Caen 2014; Character migration in Anglophone Literature, E-Réa, revue électronique d’études sur le monde anglophone 2015. Her most recent co-edition, with Isabelle Roblin, is: A.S. Byatt, Before and After Possession: Recent Critical Approaches, PUN-Editions Universitaires de Lorraine, 2017.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search