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Literature’s Exception(s)

Peacock and Vine by A. S. Byatt: An Auctorbiography

Peacock and Vine d’A. S. Byatt : une auctorbiographie
Emilie Walezak


Le dernier texte en date d’A. S. Byatt, publié en 2016 à l’occasion de son 80e anniversaire, est tout à fait singulier et fait figure d’exception dans l’œuvre de l’auteure. Livre illustré retraçant la vie et l’œuvre de William Morris et Mariano Fortuny, il ne s’agit ni d’un roman, ni d’un essai de littérature tels ceux que Byatt a publiés précédemment. C’est un essai informel qui mélange le récit de voyage, la biographie de personnes et d’objets, l’autobiographie, et surtout, l’auctorbiographie, pour reprendre le terme forgé par le traducteur français de Byatt, Jean-Louis Chevalier, à propos du texte ‘Arachne’. Peacock and Vine dessine en effet un autoportrait de l’artiste qui dévoile ses propres obsessions d’écrivaine au travers des figures de Morris et Fortuny. En rendant hommage à la dévotion de ces deux artistes à leur travail, en établissant entre eux une connexion qui lui est toute personnelle, Byatt livre en réalité un texte sur son propre processus créatif.

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1A. S. Byatt’s latest published work from 2016, Peacock and Vine, is an exception on more than one count.

2First in its very form, it is unlike any book the author has published so far. It is neither a fiction nor one of those collected essays on literature for which Byatt is renowned, starting with her 1965 essays on Iris Murdoch, Degrees of Freedom, to her latest Portraits in Fiction from 2001. This book originated in a personal trip to Italy and delivers anecdotes about the author’s private life along with portrait photographs. To borrow from Aldous Huxley’s frame of reference concerning essay writing, Byatt has turned personal essayist in this text ‘[looking] at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description’ (v). She weaves together the lives and works of English designer William Morris and Spanish-born couturier Mariano Fortuny with her own.

3The second exceptional aspect of her work lies precisely with the exceptional character of its two biographic subjects. Byatt defines Morris and Fortuny as ‘polymaths in the arts’ (3), ‘both men of genius and extraordinary energy’ (6). Most renowned as a fashion designer, Fortuny was also a painter, a sculptor, a photographer, an engraver and an inventor. He worked for the theatre as a lighting engineer and set designer and invented for instance the cyclorama dome for which he filed a patent and which was installed at La Scala. Byatt particularly focuses on the dress-maker figure acknowledged in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. With the couturier Byatt emphasizes the literary as well as the textile connection. One of the most prominent representatives of the Arts and Crafts movement in late 19thcentury England, Morris designed and made textiles, wallpaper patterns, furniture, stained glass; he wrote poetry, painted, printed and illuminated books; a socialist activist, he founded a decorative arts company and also an independent press company at Kelmscott manor. Herself renowned as an erudite figure versed in art, science, and literature, Byatt has recently been distinguished for her ‘exceptional contribution to the humanities, the social sciences or the arts, in Europe and beyond’ with the 2016 Erasmus Prize for Life Writing (see Annual Report Erasmus Prize). Peacock and Vine, although a stand-alone work, features as the epitome of this institutional recognition.

4A final and third exception lies with the printed quality of Byatt’s book as Douglas Murray remarked in his unfavourable review, pointing out how ‘what is in these times an unusually lavish volume’ owes to Byatt’s reputation: ‘Peacock and Vine is a publisher’s indulgence of an esteemed and estimable author’ (Murray). In her latest works, namely Peacock and Vine and Ragnarok, Byatt has been afforded the exceptional opportunity of collaborating actively to the book’s design, more particularly to the choice of typeface. As a tribute to Morris’ own font designs for Kelmscott Press, Byatt acknowledges the print type in the book’s note. She opted for Golden Cockerel which was designed by artist Eric Gill for Golden Cockerel Press ‘to create a type that was true to the Arts and Crafts spirit of the private press’ (183). Needless to say, that it takes a writer of Byatt’s stature to celebrate the craft work of private presses in a book printed by a major trade publisher. Byatt figures as one of a few exceptions in the publishing business, taking care to offer a beautiful object to her readers.

5This paper addresses the various exceptional dimensions of Peacock and Vine to draw the portrait of an authoritative writer figure who delivers insights into her artistic imagination in a text which might best be described as a form of ‘auctorbiography’, to use the term coined by her French translator, Jean-Louis Chevalier (19). While autobiography focuses on an individual’s life experiences, auctorbiography, as alluded to by Jean-Louis Chevalier in an interview with Byatt, lays the emphasis on the author’s creative process.

The Exception and the Ordinary: Redefining Domesticity

6The common thread joining these formal, thematic and contextual exceptions is the ordinary. In the acceptance speech she gave at Amsterdam upon receiving the Erasmus Prize, Byatt insisted on the ordinary basis of her writing craft: ‘language we also use to conduct our daily lives’, ‘words retain their doubleness—their dailiness, their utilitarian ordinariness, and their work in poems and other works of art’ (13), ‘words and language are the medium of our ordinary communication’ (14). With this auctorbiographical essay, Byatt offers the reader an insight into the commonplace grounds of her creative mind.

7She precisely admires Morris and Fortuny for the way ‘their lives and arts are indistinguishable from each other’ (3). The socialist defence of the crafts methods against manufactured goods and factory work of the Arts and Crafts movement relied on the joint consideration of common people and common objects to redefine labour. The utopian agrarian ideal, as outlined in News from Nowhere, of finding equal pleasure in nature and work appeals to Byatt. And so the second chapter depicts the houses where the artists lived as the abode of their creativity. Byatt also delivers intimate details about her own home that features a great number of Morris designs: ‘We have Morris in our house. I eat my breakfast sitting on a faded Morris cushion with woodpecker and apple branches. We have a window with heavy Morris curtains . . . . Our living room is papered with Willow Boughs. Our kitchen is tiled with Seaweed’ (163).

8The pronoun ‘we’ that she consistently uses throughout the essay references her husband, Peter Duffy, whose name is quoted in the book’s acknowledgements and has been almost systematically included either in the acknowledgements or the dedication since the publication of The Matisse Stories in 1993. In an interview, to the question ‘what is home to you?’ she has first answered her husband (see Phillips) and Peacock and Vine originates in the couple’s trip to Venice. Interestingly enough, the book starts its biographic notations with a depiction of Morris and Fortuny’s marriages. Byatt contrasts the ‘tormented’ domesticity of Morris with the ‘domestic calm and happiness’ of Fortuny (19). Jane Morris, a ‘stunner’ as she was called at the time by Burne-Jones and Rossetti with whom she had an affair, is depicted by Byatt as an image. She most famously appeared in the pre-Raphaelite paintings for which she modelled, in photographs commissioned by Morris, as well as in caricatures drawn by his friends mocking the ugly husband and the beautiful wife. Of Jane, Byatt says ‘I do not have any idea at all what she was really like’ (13). By contrast, Henriette Fortuny was more of a collaborator than a muse and appears in a photograph in the Venetian studio wearing a working frock.

9Why did Byatt start her text with an investigation of the two men’s marital situations? First, she outlines the importance of domesticity in the creative process. Byatt thanks Peter for his patience with ‘the usual habits of writers’: for her, creativity is anchored in routine habits. Secondly, in this peculiar text, Byatt is reversing the historically determined position of women as wives, socially placed in the background of their husband’s success, only appearing centre-stage when idealized as icons of feminine beauty. In Peacock and Vine, Byatt herself is the creator, as attested by the last photograph in the book focusing on her hands writing in the notebook she always carries and the scotch tape she also invariably has close at hand (182). The text itself also closes on a photographic portrait of Byatt sitting below the group of paintings portraying Henriette at the Museo Fortuny (170–71).

10Byatt is hinting at a form of self-portrait. The materiality of the artists’ domestic environment echoes their interest in ‘objects, solid things’ (9). Similarly, Byatt thinks of writing as a craft and of words as things. The scotch tape that features in her two portraits has been described by an interviewer as a sort of rosary highlighting the way Byatt ‘thinks with her fingers’ (see Burri). In a conversation with ceramist Edmund de Waal about ‘making’, that took place at the Siobhan Davies Dance Studio, Byatt explains ‘I think novels out with my fingers’ (Byatt 2009). Time and again in her fiction she has dramatized the ordinary basis of the creative process. In ‘Art Work’ (1994), the cleaning woman Mrs Brown recycles the discarded cloth and clothes of other people to knit together fantastic creatures. In ‘Raw Material’ (2004), retired Cicely Fox writes beautiful descriptive pieces about the past routine activities of wash day and black-leading stoves for her writing class. In The Children’s Book, which also pays homage to the Arts and Crafts movement, Byatt describes in detail the arduous repetitiveness of the potter’s work to find the right shape. In Peacock and Vine, she reminds her readers from the very first page that her ancestors were potters to explain why she has become increasingly interested in craftsmen figures. She also elaborates on the way Fortuny’s dresses inspired Proust and on the metaphor used by the writer of ‘the artist as couturier’ (99). This connects with Byatt’s own self-portrait as the weaver Arachne. Based on the story she wrote for the collective book Ovid Metamorphosed, her late French translator Jean-Louis Chevalier coined the term ‘auctorbiography’. The stories ‘Arachne’ and ‘Sugar’, he says, ‘tell things about how [her] mind, or [her] sensitivity, or [her] sensibility, . . . works’ (19). Auctorbiography thus highlights the writer’s creative inspiration.

11As the editor of the collection himself underlines, ‘Arachne’ reads as a ‘mixed-genre narrative, weaving together elements of autobiography, essay, art history and sheer storytelling’ (3). The text juxtaposes those elements in a patchwork. In the retelling of Ovid’s tale, Byatt insists on the ordinariness of Arachne that contrasts with her extraordinary skill. In the ekphrastic paragraphs, she underlines the ordinary labour of the female weavers depicted in Velazquez’s painting Las Hilanderas. The autobiographic section narrates her childhood memories of the domestic occupation of embroidery which she turned into a story, ‘Racine and the Tablecloth’ (1987). The essay-like paragraphs evoke the contemporary feminist artistic re-appropriations of needlework and tapestry. The text is also interspersed with scientific information on the parallel presence of real spiders in everyday life. The text engages in the artistic metamorphoses of the mundane. Similarly, her latest novel, Ragnarok, can also be defined as a mixed-genre narrative. It combines the semi-autobiographical thread of the ‘thin child’ reminiscing about her experience of WWII, in particular the emancipation of her mother from domestic confinement in war time and the disastrous return to normal life which led to depression, with a retelling of the end of the world of Asgard, and a final chapter in the form of an essay entitled ‘Thoughts on Myth’.

12Byatt the artist reworks the problematic female relationship to domesticity as constraining ordinariness into a creative crucible of web making. In Possession, she had already reworked the intertextual and visual motif of the Lady of Shalott as representative of the tension between captivity, routineness and creativity (see Andres). This metamorphosis of daily life is echoed in her experiment with the form of the auctorbiography. Indeed, Byatt categorically refuses to write an autobiography or that a biography be written about her, just as she is adamant that the solipsism of modernism and postmodernism should be left behind:

For the Age of Suspicion led to solipsism, to navel-gazing, to a sense that the inside of our own head was all we could know. This complacent mental misery makes no sense in the world of scientific discovery. We need to feel that there is something real out there—of which we are a part and not the whole—and science reveals it to us in its beauty and its terror and its order and its chaos, bit by fascinating bit, cell by cell, gene by gene, galaxy by galaxy. (Byatt 2000)

13Instead, writing about the personal creative connections she makes as an author in such mixed-genre texts as ‘Arachne’, Ragnarok, or Peacock and Vine, she endeavours to figure the world as interrelated, a kind of ‘universal contiguity’ analogous to the one Italo Calvino, whom she quotes in ‘Arachne’, sees in Ovid. This is what she means by capturing the real: turning towards the ekphrasis of what’s out there allows her to escape the confines of ego-bound observation.


14Peacock and Vine mixes personal details from the author’s life with an insight into the workings of her creative mind. It is no wonder, then, that from the onset, Byatt attempts to explain the connection she devised between Fortuny and Morris in neurological terms:

As I grow older, also, I have come to understand that my writing—fiction and thinking—starts with a moment of sudden realisation that two things I have been thinking about separately are parts of the same thought, the same work. I think, fancifully perhaps, that the excitement is the excitement of the neurones in the brain, pushing out synapses connecting the web of dendrites. (3)

15Byatt has long been fascinated with neurosciences because she is curious about the human need to make connections. Observing her own thought processes is her way to marvel at the discoveries of science: that every day, every hour, every minute, every second, our brain makes an exceptionally intricate web of connections. Some critics have been harsh with Peacock and Vine describing ‘a thin book in search of tangential links’ (Murray), with ‘her synaptic linkage between the two men— . . . the only significant connection between them’ (National Post) which, in turn, has been interpreted as condescending (Telegraph). The three critics dismiss the book whose sole quality, to them, is to look good on a coffee table (National Post). Not only does this sort of comment reek with sexist undertones of the beautiful but shallow woman-object while expressing resentment at Byatt’s erudition, but it misses the very point Byatt is trying to make: that the decorative arts have been wrongfully spurned as superficial because they were using common materials to design everyday objects, that they were appropriated by men, and that things have no sex.

16By conceiving writing as crafting everyday language, Byatt bridges the gap between art and craft. She means to consider the labour of the human mind, its exceptional capacity to expand its imagination both within and beyond its own boundaries, what she calls, in reference to Donne, ‘the bodily imagination of the embodied mind’ (Byatt 2006). In her fiction, her use of analogy allows her to morph the female body into new female identities unconstrained by the social and biological compasses of gender and engenderment: from the sphynx-women in ‘Morpho Eugenia’, through the serpent women in Possession, to the troll-woman in ‘A Stone Woman’. Peacock and Vine is interesting to the Byatt reader, who has followed her career, because it is a foray into the working mind of the craft woman who elaborated a connection between two pattern-makers, like herself, whose curiosity drove them to indiscriminately try their hand at a great variety of crafts: lighting, illumination, embroidery, printing, dress-making, engraving, tapestry, wallpaper, furniture design. The analogy here is with Byatt’s own astonishing range of knowledge practices researched for her books: geology, entomology, botany, mathematics, neurosciences, but also of craft work like glass-making, ceramics, and puppetry. Byatt believes in learning. The more accurate her knowledge is, the more solid her descriptions will be: ‘If you don’t know any entomology, you shouldn’t be writing metaphors about butterflies because they will be boring metaphors. The source will be only within’ (Chevalier 26). She amalgamates people and things to devise a writing world where knowledge accumulation fuels creative interrelations:

You collect the things and then you study them. And I collect ideas and then I study them. And I collect people’s lives and then I study them. And because I don’t write autobiographical fiction, I need more than one life, just as I need more than one glass ball, all the different patterns, in order to see what is the same, what is different. I feel that about real people and people in books, and people in biographies. It’s the human desire to know things. (Phillips)

17She insists again and again on the two artists’ relentless research and hard work that led them to invent new forms based on the old:

And when one comes to look at Fortuny’s work, over time and in detail, the idea of ‘originality’ and the idea of ‘derivation’ seem somehow beside the point. Fortuny was making studies, working out themes and ideas, from many cultures and in many colours and forms, new and old, combined in new ways or presented in new contexts. (117)

18Observation of the existing work is the basis of renewal, thus Morris ‘seems to have learned old embroidery techniques by unpicking existing work’ (31). She also describes them as ‘naturalists’ getting their inspiration from the real world, which relates to her own claim to the realist tradition in literature: ‘Reading Fortuny and Morris together made me think very hard, and with great pleasure, about the need to make representations of the outside world, and about the need to hand these on and change them’ (107–8).

19This is precisely what neurosciences offer to Byatt: a change of perspective on the outside world and our interactions with it. In a newspaper piece entitled ‘Soul Searching’, she traces some of what she calls the ‘maps of consciousness’ of different authors and eras, explaining how George Eliot ‘wrote novels informed by her understanding and imagination of the nervous system’, how Virginia Woolf’s ‘myriad of impressions’ ‘suggests that we cannot see clearly, or outside our own perceptual system’, how Freud mapped out the unconscious spatially. For herself, Byatt claims the influence of neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington, who invented the word ‘synapse’, and more particularly ‘his description of the waking brain (the “head-mass”) as “an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one. . . . ”’. The Byatt reader, who is familiar with her poetics, will clearly identify the Arachne connection and the tension between design and dissolution that informs Byatt’s pattern-making.

20She also quotes and reads contemporary neuroscientists and found for instance in Jean-Pierre Changeux’s descriptions an elucidation of her own intuitions:

Changeux’s descriptions of the cells of the brain and the way they combine and recombine give me a sense of understanding the excitement, the drive, the pleasure, I get out of making worlds with words. We have had a lot of the body as desire, and listened to many professors of desire. There is something else—the human capacity to think, and to make feelings into thoughts. (Byatt 2007)

21If reviewers like Murray deplored that the book was but ‘the spark of a novel’ that should have developed into a more substantial fictional work, readers may appreciate it as a gift from the author, not just to decorate their coffee table, but to share her interests and understand her creative process. The use of the first person in her latest works explicitly introduces a personal dimension which might be construed not simply as ‘a publisher’s indulgence’ (Murray) but as a testimony to the authority Byatt has gained as a public intellectual figure. This is consistent with the fact that the mixed-genre narratives of ‘Arachne’ and Ragnarok were both commissioned, meaning that the editors explicitly called on the auctor as authority.

22Byatt has fashioned this authoritative authorial voice over the years with the help of the many non-fictional pieces she was also commissioned to write. It is interesting to note that her latest mixed-genre narratives strongly resemble the newspaper pieces she regularly publishes in the press: they, too, weave together anecdotes from her personal life, art work ekphrases, literary sources of inspiration, scientific readings, the latest scientific or engineering discoveries, social thoughts and behaviours. Thus, she reworked ‘Arachne’ for the Guardian in 2008 in a piece entitled ‘Twisted Yarns’ to review a textile exhibition at Compton Verney. In it she included the additional threads of the fairy tale imaginary, Northern mythology, the lady of Shalott, as well as other artists and literary texts. She is keen to expose her thought process, her novel thinking, as a lace of cultural artefacts, personal readings, material daily life, and scientific knowledge that cemented her hard-won reputation.

23The continuing commentaries about her display of erudition as elitism—‘Byatt struggles to convey these synaptic goings-on without condescension’ (Telegraph)—have not deterred Byatt from pursuing her fictional and non-fictional dialogue with her readers, encouraging curiosity: ‘I once gave a reading in a university where a student said self-righteously “You used a word I didn’t know in that reading. Don’t you think that was elitist of you?” I replied that if I were her I should have rushed to the dictionary in glee and delight’ (Leith). In the same interview by Sam Leith, she has said about her creative process that ‘a book starts when two things you thought were different come together’. The synaptic connection made between Morris and Fortuny corresponds to the author’s attempt to think out her feeling of being ‘drunk on aquamarine light’ (3) in Venice while picturing English green meadows whenever she closed her eyes. This in turn relates to her visual imagination, her colour vision (Byatt 1998, 71), as Byatt ‘see[s] [her] writing as blocks of color before it forms itself’ (Burns).

The Life of Books

24The increasing hybrid nature of Byatt’s text forms is also made apparent in the inclusion of the numerous photographic reproductions within the book. This is yet another characteristic of the author’s creative imagination. Already in 1992, the novellas from Angels and Insects featured entomological drawings of moths while the collection from 1993, The Matisse Stories, included black and white print reproductions of paintings by Matisse. It turned more personal in her latest novel: the chapters in Ragnarok are headed with reproductions of the original engravings from the book Asgard and the Gods adapted from Wagner by M. W. McDowal which belonged to Byatt’s mother and permeated her childhood imagination. The type used was also the author’s choice as a note at the end specifies: it gestures to Ovid as the note explains that Van Dijck’s typeface was revived by Jan van Krimpen ‘basing his design on the first edition, from 1671, of Joost van den Vondel’s famous translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses’ (179).

25Byatt not simply likes to illustrate her texts but lately also calls the reader’s attention to the graphic aspect of the letters on the page. Peacock and Vine follows in the wake of the work that was done on Ragnarok. The Golden Cockerel type hints at the contiguous web of researches carried out by Byatt from one text to the next. In the acknowledgements to Peacock and Vine, Byatt thanks Fiona McCarthy whose famous biography helped with the research on Morris. It is highly probable that McCarthy’s biography of Eric Gill previously inspired the character of Benedict Fludd in The Children’s Book (2009). In her biography, McCarthy was the first to expose the incestuous relationships of Gill with two of his daughters. Benedict Fludd’s incestuous relations and modelling of Imogen and Pomona clearly alludes to Gill, as Fiona McCarthy herself pointed out: ‘her [Byatt’s] alarming central figure, Benedict Fludd, the potter of great talent who hoards his ceramic figures of his daughters in obscene contorted poses on the shelves of the locked pantry, has clear parallels with Gill’. This is yet another version of domesticity that Byatt dramatized in The Children’s Book which questions the private lives of artists. Notes and acknowledgements have been systematically included in Byatt’s work from the publication of Angels and Insects in 1992. This extratextual space is highly relevant as it is Byatt’s way of sharing her readings and initiating a dialogue with her readers whom she hopes will be curious about the references she provides. It echoes her ekphrastic practice in writing: by sharing her perception of a work of art, she challenges the readers to see for themselves. Byatt is an avid reader and an art lover, which Peacock and Vine demonstrates.

26That the illustrations in Peacock and Vine are coloured photographs testifies indeed to the publisher’s willingness to indulge Byatt: the book was published on the year when Byatt turned 80 so that it might be construed as a gift to the author. It also incorporates photographic portraits of the author herself, which is unprecedented, as when there are any, they usually appear in the extratextual space of the jacket. There are photographic portraits of A. S. Byatt at the National Portrait Gallery along with an abstract portrait by Patrick Heron, again testifying to the author’s reputation as a major British figure. Considering that Byatt dislikes photographs of herself, as she strongly emphasized when telling of the sitting sessions with Heron—‘I have come to hate being photographed, and to hate the existing photographs that reappear in my life from time to time’ (Byatt 1998)—it is relevant that she chose to have a photographic portrait of herself included in the book.

27The portrait in Peacock and Vine is consistent with the idea of the book as auctorbiography: Byatt is photographed sitting in a museum, ‘thinking with her fingers’ on the scotch tape, below the portraits of another female creator, Henriette. It dialogues with the other many portraits reproduced in the book of Morris, Fortuny, Jane and Henriette. The other pictures in the book can be categorized along the lines of the hybrid text: weaving, travelling, printing, living. The larger bulk of them are drawings or photographs of textile or wallpaper motifs echoing Byatt’s Arachnean fascination and her web writing. A double page features Morris’ specimen prints of Froissart’s chronicles which he never completed, giving a vivid example of the complex works of Kelmscott Press. A few photos are travel photos recalling the initial inception of the book occasioned by Byatt’s personal trip to Italy. Finally, there are drawings, paintings and photographs of the houses, studios and furniture of the two artists which exemplify Morris’ golden rule quoted in the text: ‘have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’ (23).

28Byatt’s fine book is thus not just meant to decorate your coffee table as if beauty were useless or shallow, but can be viewed as a credit to the Arts and Crafts’ creed that ‘art is the expression of man’s pleasure in labour’ (23). The utopian socialist society imagined by Morris in News from Nowhere defines the productivity of labour according to the individual criterion of the artist’s pleasure in creating an object and the collective criterion of the object’s use for society. News from Nowhere was first published in the Commonweal, the newspaper of the secessionist Socialist League among whom Morris was at first a leading figure. Again, Byatt’s research from one book to the next is apparent. The Children’s Book was also an investigation into the socialist movements during the Edwardian period, ranging from the Fabian Wellwood family living in Kent to the anarchist son Charles/Karl from the London branch of the Wellwoods, not to mention the suffragette movement represented by Hedda Wellwood. Additionally, she had already tackled the theme of utopian writing in The Virgin in the Garden (1978), which made a parallel between the 1950s and the Elizabethan Golden Age, and in Babel Tower (1997), pitting Sade against Fourier in the embedded fable ‘Babbeltower’.

29Both the author’s dedication to her work and her conception of fiction materialize through the figure of Morris. Byatt’s art is the expression of her pleasure in labour: ‘I think of writing simply in terms of pleasure. It’s the most important thing in my life, making things. Much as I love my husband and my children, I love them only because I am the person who makes these things’ (Leith). Her realist fiction aims to accommodate a great variety of world views and political perspectives: ‘I grew up with the idea that fiction went in the places where political belief can’t go and looked at both sides of the issues which straight political beliefs take sides upon’ (Miller). Just as she produces ekphrases of art works, so she paints people as ‘incarnate’ ‘consciousnesses, embedded in the stuff of things’ taking her cue from George Eliot and Iris Murdoch: ‘they shared a preoccupation with the tensions between the formal complexity and design of the work of art and the need to give the characters space, freedom, to be people’ (Byatt 2019). Consequently, it only makes sense that she would be attracted to polymathic figures like Morris and Fortuny whose indiscriminate interest in a great variety of stuff echoes her own omnivorous curiosity: ‘I’m not taking sides either for or against [Sèvres porcelain]. I think I’m an omnivore—almost anything interests me. The people I don’t like are the people who would restrict your interest’ (Harrod and Adamson 77).

30Peacock and Vine, in its very quality of print, is a homage to craft in line with her latest novels, The Children’s Book, that depicted the potter’s craft, and Ragnarok, that initiated a reflexion on typeface and connected with the childhood imprint of engraved pictures. The creative life of A. S. Byatt, as displayed in this text, is permeated with the ‘thinginess’ (Byatt 2019) of the world that she describes in words. Byatt says she believes in making things (Harrod and Adamson, 81). It is her contention that this new materialism is an answer to both the solipsism inherited from modernism and the ideological inconsistency of postmodern times: ‘I think the popularity of craft has to do with my attempt to explain a sort of society that needs craft the more because we have no belief systems. I think we need craft because we need something outside ourselves as people’ (Harrod and Adamson 76). Her latest work accords indeed with the material feminist creed that aims to reconcile matter and discourse to surpass the binaries of male/female, nature/culture, thought/feeling.

31Thus, the elements in the book that may seem paradoxical at first glance in fact testify to the thinking the author developed over the span of her 5year-long writing career. Byatt claims that she does not write autobiographical fiction because she is averse to the narcissism of considering oneself as if cut off from the world. By focusing on the ‘embodied mind’ of the creative artist, not on the individual, she displays instead the way the artist’s body and mind engage with making things in the world, investigating ‘the relations between design and real things’ (109). Representing the real is both an act of cerebral imagination and of physical shaping. In her fiction, Byatt has been experimenting with how to describe the world faithfully, realistically, in detail, how to shape the world in words. In Peacock and Vine, she gives the reader an almost didactic clue to her ekphrastic practice by contrasting the image with the many threads of her thoughts born of the motif. The pomegranate motif in Fortuny’s gown for instance, reproduced on page 133, gives rise to considerations on the history of church vestments, fabric engineering, chaos theory, religious symbolism, Renaissance style clothes, the female sex, an essay on textile by Doretta Davanzo Poli, colours, structure. The readers look at the picture and begin to understand how Byatt’s exceptional mind works.

32Similarly, the inclusion of portraits of herself, which she usually hates, works as a related statement about her actual physical presence in the world. The close up on her hands and the presence of the scotch tape are designed to display writing as a craft, like the potter’s, done with the fingers: ‘And I think I invent people, increasingly, with the whole of my body. I sit there and I think their fingers with my fingers’ (Harrod and Adamson 78). Her dogged perseverance in writing as she does and her reputation talk back to the critics: not only does Byatt welcome criticism as yet another dialogue with her readers in the extra-textual world, but the very mixed-genre form of Peacock and Vine also mirrors her fear of being categorized, which would indeed stop the dialogue: ‘What I don’t like is people with very strong beliefs that cause them not to look’ (Miller).

33Thus, while critics have attacked her on her affinity with male sources of inspiration and the opinions that she has voiced about feminist readings of texts, Peacock and Vine is a feminist self-portrait as she addresses her female identity in relation to domesticity as does so much of her fiction. But she does complexify the issue by calling on the male Arts and Crafts tradition which appropriated domestic furniture or women’s clothes. Byatt’s creed is that of looking at things, and describing them: ‘I suppose my own utopianism is valuing things’ (Harrod and Adamson 75). Likewise, she wears her erudition, about which she is regularly attacked, as a feminist badge of honour. In a speech delivered at the Edinburgh international book festival, she said that ‘if you are trying to think, there are always reviewers who take the attitude that it’s like a dog standing on its hind legs, as Samuel Johnson put it: it would be better if you didn’t do it’ (Higgins and Davies). Just as she insists, in her fiction, on presenting all sides of political or religious debates, she insists on not splitting the issue between men and women, as evidenced in the criticism she voiced about the Orange Prize. Byatt is looking to display complex interrelations in the world between art, science, craft, social behaviours and identities, materiality, religion, history, and myths. Thus, what may look like paradoxes in Byatt’s choices really testifies to an experimentation with ways of approaching reality as a complex mesh of interconnections. Much more precious than an autobiography, this auctorbiography, that may also well be of interest to neuroscientists, provides an exceptional insight into her creative mind.

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Emilie Walezak, « Peacock and Vine by A. S. Byatt: An Auctorbiography »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 08 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Emilie Walezak

Emilie Walezak is a senior lecturer (MCF) at Université Lumière Lyon 2. A specialist of contemporary British women writing, she has devoted several articles to the works of Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt, Sarah Hall, Rose Tremain and Jeanette Winterson. She is the author of Rose Tremain. A Critical Introduction, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017 and is currently working on a monograph focusing on the place of ecofeminism in contemporary English fiction to be published with Bloomsbury.

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