Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros76Woman WriterMaterial Things in the Struggle o...

Woman Writer

Material Things in the Struggle of the Female Writer/Artist in the Stories of A. S. Byatt

Celia Wallhead
p. 25-40


Tout au long de sa fiction, A. S. Byatt crée des personnages féminins qui luttent pour devenir écrivaines ou artistes, dans une société qui reste encore bien souvent patriarcale. À ce jour, elle est l’auteure de cinq recueils de nouvelles et elle a souvent utilisé la forme brève pour condenser et mettre l’accent sur des combats particuliers. Cette étude examine la manière dont Byatt présente dans ses histoires des femmes qui exploitent leurs compétences et font preuve de détermination, pour surmonter les obstacles à leur objectif de création verbale ou visuelle. Étudiées dans l’ordre chronologique de parution des recueils, les stratégies de Byatt sont analysées quand elle explore les possibilités et les problèmes des femmes anglaises dans la société, de l’enfance à la vieillesse en passant par la maturité. Souvent, les efforts d’un personnage se concentrent sur des choses spécifiques, car Byatt admet être une admiratrice de la « solidité de la spécification » d’Henry James et de sa capacité à créer de la fascination, de la magie ou de la peur à partir de « l’aspect matériel des choses ». En appliquant cette stratégie, elle choisit des choses matérielles, souvent liées à la sphère féminine, et se plaît également à décrire des processus de création artistique, tant verbale que visuelle, attirant délibérément l’attention sur les compétences impliquées, afin de remettre en question la vieille dichotomie sexiste entre l’esprit et le corps.

Haut de page

Entrées d’index

Auteurs étudiés :

Antonia Susan Byatt
Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 “the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel” (J (...)

1A. S. Byatt is interested in the process of writing and exerts herself particularly on behalf of the struggling woman writer, whom she embodies in her creative texts, demonstrating how a female can become an author. In her short fiction, she has condensed traits of such characters and their challenges into the dramatic crisis often found in a short story, at the same time suggesting the larger life, leaving that extended part of the process to the reader’s imagination. Byatt’s prowess in the shorter genre was recognised and her powers as critic were also taken into account when she was invited by Oxford University Press to edit The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (1998). Fellow writer Philip Hensher interviewed her in the summer of 1998 and when the piece was published in The Paris Review in 2001, he wrote: “she is surely one of the most accomplished practitioners of the shorter form now living.” As Byatt explains in her introduction to the aforementioned collection, she particularly admires women writers like Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter who, against the odds, take on serious issues in their stories. She especially appreciates their curiosity about life and their refusal to be ensconced in the domestic sphere (xxviii). Further, she was struck by their ability to trace a line from an object, quite often a domestic object, through a menacing atmosphere to a dramatic crisis—she includes a story by Woolf entitled “Solid Objects.” Over half a century earlier, in her introduction to The Faber Book of Short Stories, Elizabeth Bowen had fixed upon the importance of a specific object in a story, maintaining that short stories are characterised by “oblique narration, cutting (as in the cinema), the unlikely placing of emphasis, and use of symbolism (the telling use of the object both for its own sake and as an image)” (Bowen 7-8). The reasoning behind this in the modernist short story is set out by Adam Piette: “Its emphasis on symbols, reflexes and telling objects is clearly influenced by the new psychology, and the combination of intense attention to detail with oblique narration is designed to create a dense texture faithful to the political and psychological complexity of the slice of mental space-time under observation” (68). Thus, in her 1998 introduction, Byatt maintains that as the descriptions need to be distilled into a few lines, this method of naming certain relevant objects is particularly fitted to the shorter genre. She refers to Henry James’s “solidity of specification”1 (Introduction, xviii), or what she calls “the thinginess of things” (xix), as a device whereby a specific thing will bring characters to life (xviii), though sometimes, ironically, extravagance or an excess of information is used to do this. She herself has developed this ability to create an atmosphere of quandary, sometimes fear, in the life of an oppressed or vulnerable female, from a few items.

Gender Issues Emanating From the Focus Upon Things

2Focusing upon women’s problems, however, does not mean that Byatt is a fervent feminist. She prefers to assume that today in the West, women, if they so desire, are already equal to men and do not need special treatment in the form of being patronised by the male sex. Perhaps that is why she agreed to take on the Oxford project, which was to include stories by both men and women, just when “a collective of women” was engaged in bringing out anthologies of exclusively women’s writing. The expression is used by Emma Young and James Bailey in their introduction to British Women Short Story Writers: The New Woman to Now (2015), where they list the anthologies covering a period from 1978 to 1997, edited by such writers as Sara Maitland, Michèle Roberts, Hermione Lee, Elaine Showalter and Susan Hill (9).

3On the question of emphasis in this gender issue, Byatt can be ambivalent. On the one hand, she once said in an interview: “Now is the only time to be a woman” (qtd. in Kellaway 45), and elsewhere: “Of course I am a feminist. But I don’t want to be required to write to a feminist programme, and I feel uneasy when this seems to be asked of me” (qtd. in McTighe 71). She will not be pigeon-holed: there is a well-known line from her book of critical essays, Passions of the Mind, where she asserts that she is “a non-belonger of schools of thought” (2). Yet her own struggles to write well and get published, in addition to the substantial research and life-writing, mostly on female writers, have inevitably fed into her fiction and she shows what obstacles a woman has to overcome today and, in her historical fiction, what they faced in the nineteenth century.

4Throughout history, men have been associated with the mind and women with the body, thus the male domain is the intellect and abstraction while the female domain is more physical, due in part to the onus of child-bearing. Hence by focusing upon physical things, Byatt has to beware of falling into the trap of sustaining the traditional dichotomy. She avoids this by opening up the symbolic or metaphysical possibilities or ambiguities of the things; she chooses to represent characters and their interests or skills.

5In her short fiction, Byatt portrays challenges which tend to focus upon a single barrier or type of problem, often gender-oriented, that culminates in a dramatic crisis. As with the long fiction, her important protagonists get older and the obstacles often have to do with ageing also. In the stories, the age-related problem can bring things to a head and the suffering character has to face the ravages of time upon her life, in the form not only of her body but also her mind, her relationships and sometimes her profession or interests.

6The trajectory of the present study is chronological, in that it sets out to examine Byatt’s treatment of creative females of all ages in her short story collections, beginning with her first volume, Sugar and Other Stories (1987), through The Matisse Stories (1993), The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories (1994) to Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998) and her last, Little Black Book of Stories (2003).

Strategies of Unity

7Usually, Byatt unites the stories she brings together in her collections by a single theme, and often, the linking theme is apparent from the title or subtitle: this is the case of the stories about the painter Henri Matisse and the response to the genre of fairy tale in The Djinn, the metaphorical use of the four elements in Elementals and the gothic darkness of Little Black Book. Sugar and Other Stories, however, is a more complex case, thus critics, for example, the author of the Twayne monograph on Byatt, Katheen Coyne Kelly, had difficulty in finding one single thematic link that might unite the eleven stories, although she did find that they were linked by “a repetition of emphasis and theme” (36); Carmen Lara Rallo names some outstanding characteristics—“parent-child relationships, the experience of women writers and the relationship of the imagination and the real, among others” (53)—that did not seem entirely satisfactory, as not all the stories fitted into the groups. Still, Rallo found a solution: her contention is that female ageing is the theme that links the phases of women’s lives portrayed from beginning to end in the collection. Thus the present contribution will take into account such uniting themes as Byatt presents varying perspectives on a creative female’s struggles with both her body and her mind at key moments of her life.

8As regards the form, Byatt usually respects the features of the short story generally accepted as hallmarks of the genre: the single impression and the moment of crisis, quite often a crisis evolving ironically and unexpectedly. As build-up to these dénouements, Byatt uses an excess of information, sometimes in the form of lists of specific physical things, and at the end, the reader can be left with the memory of the description through a piling up of words as an expression of the problem. In this study, the use of accumulations of words, mostly lists of words related to the female sphere, will be examined to see both how Byatt gives them different functions and how she makes her stories full of impact and memorable through the enjoyment of the words themselves in their strangeness, the bright colours they evoke or their sound effects, her work being always multi-sensual, corporeal and especially, visual. An example of strangeness to a present-day reader, in addition to the multi-sensual perspectives, would be the “tools of nineteenth-century obstetricians, midwives and abortionists” featured in “Body Art” (Little Black Book of Stories 104).

9Another formal characteristic of the short story that is particularly relevant to Byatt and which unites her work is self-consciousness in writing. Charles May discusses the implications for the short story of this tendency to be more aware of the wordiness, not only of fiction, but of our perceptions of “real life” and how these perceptions are verbalised: “Rather than presenting itself ‘as if’ it were real—a mimetic mirroring of external reality—post-modernist short fiction often makes its own artistic conventions and devices the subject of the story as well as its theme” (83-84). Byatt has a story about a writing group in Little Black Book of Stories called “Raw Material,” and indeed, much of her subject matter, as well as its form, concerns the transformation of the raw material of ideas into words and into visual art. Thus fictional characters are depicted in the process of creating more fiction.

Characters, Elements and Things: From Childhood to Old Age

Childhood: Sugar and Other Stories

10Although Byatt placed the eponymous story “Sugar” at the end of the collection, it is relevant to begin the discussion with it as it reaches out to the other stories and sums up the suggestions in them through themes and metaphors. The nameless female narrator-protagonist gives an autobiographical account which resembles Byatt’s own: born in Yorkshire to a mother who went to university but whose later life did not take advantage of this, which she resents, and a father who was in the war. She is a writer and she lays bare the tricks of her trade: “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?” (Sugar 241). Because of the selection, a dividing line is drawn between recording and documenting, in what is more like an essay, and the creation of fiction. Byatt wrote of this story that it was one of the very few in which she had employed a first-person narrator: “It is perhaps no accident that my exemplary ‘modern’ texts are all written in the first person—a first person preoccupied with the desirability and impossibility of objectivity and truthfulness” (“True Stories” 102). She calls it “a family history cast as an autobiography” (102), as the narrator remembers her childhood and ponders her relationship with her parents, particularly her mother. In the story, she describes her memories of the factory for making sweets that her grandfather ran, and she goes into great detail over the processes involved, describing with relish the vessels that held the molten sugar, seen as the element of glass:

One was full of sulphurous yellow boiling sugar, one of a dark, cherry-red, one of bright green and one, which amazed me because it was an unusual colour for sugar, of a kind of pale inky colour, a molten sea of heaving, viscous blue glass. The colours and the surfaces were brilliant and enchanted. They undulated, they burst in thick, plopping bubbles, they swirled with curving streamers of trapped air like slivers of glass. (Sugar 243)

11The narrator says that she actually wrote something like this as a child: “I wrote about this, at East Hardwick School. It is the first piece of writing I remember clearly as mine, the first time I remember choosing words, fixing something” (245). Byatt lives by the pen, and began her publishing career with novels, juggling the writing with being a lecturer’s wife and bringing up children, but her apprenticeship was no doubt put in by applying her pen to the shorter genres of essay and story. As a critic has it: “[T]he short story has offered itself to loners, exiles, women, blacks—writers who for one reason or another have not been part of the ruling ‘narrative’” (Hanson 2). Their collections of short stories may sell once they have made a name for themselves through the longer genre. The reason for this has more to do with the publishers who do not want to take risks with what some consider “small fry.” Louisa Hadley has studied the reviews and criticism of Byatt’s publications and concerning the impact of her first book of short stories concludes: “Byatt’s reputation as a novelist ensured that Sugar received attention in the American as well as the British press” (118). Byatt’s transition to shorter fiction—in terms of what reached the stage of publication, not how she began writing—seems to have been a slow process, a steady choice which she looks back upon and describes in her collection of essays On Histories and Stories, which is dated 2000, a point by which she had already published all her collections of short stories except the latest, Little Black Book: “I have myself become increasingly interested in quickness and lightness of narrative—in small discrete stories rather than pervasive and metamorphic metaphors as ways of patterning and thinking out a text” (130).

12To return to “Sugar,” but still on the question of metaphor, the narrator compares the skeins of molten sugar to her mother’s knitting-wool (244), thus suggesting a female pursuit, and uses the sugar-making process and confection of sweets as a metaphor for writing: “I select and confect,” the narrator has noted in explaining how she wrote (241). This ties in with the motif of embroidery in “Racine and the Tablecloth,” where eighteen-year-old Emily is told to stop using her mind to study Racine and to use her hands to embroider, and the female skill of sewing (and making the tea) in three generations of women in “Rose Coloured Teacups.” The process of sweet-making is laborious and involves traditional knowledge and skill. In Byatt’s work, all sorts of processes are described, including the production of sweets in “Sugar,” or domestic skills only familiar to the older generations, such as the black-leading of stoves in “Raw Material.” Although the grandfather runs the factory, sweets belong to the domain of children and their mothers, who usually buy the sweets on the way home from school. In addition to the information on how physical things like sweets were made in the past, which is interesting in itself, the processes can refer to mental activity: to confect in the sense of making things up.

13“Sugar” also concerns a female whose judgement is questioned. Byatt takes advantage of the attribute of the short genre to focus on a single moment, a moment of crisis, in this case, the death of the protagonist’s father in hospital. The whole story is aimed at trying to remember him and trying to separate her mother’s apparently false version from the “real” one. The story ends with things, a list of things that help her memory to reconstruct a picture of her father, starting from his return home after the war, and although the list is necessarily selective, the solidity of each thing seems to contribute a truth factor to the memory:

More things come back as I write; the gold-winged buttons on his jacket, forgotten between then and now. . . . Fast, fast these things took and take their place beside other markers, the tea-pot, the horse trough, real apples and plums, a white ankle, the coalscuttle, two dolls in cellophane, a gas oven, a black and white dog, gold-winged buttons, the melded and twisting hanks of brown and white sugar. (248)

14Although it is a description of a man, many of the items belong to the female domain: buttons, tea-pots, dolls. They are used to discuss memory and the deliberate choice to put down in writing what to remember and what to forget, and through this, the identity of a person as moulded by the parents, especially the mother. It seems to be suggested that a man can be pinned down by his buttons, especially patriotic buttons like those on his military uniform, while a disappointed female, restricted to the role of house-wife and mother—those tea-pots are metonymical shorthand for domesticity—becomes highly unreliable. Finally, Byatt is justified in using a list here because she is focusing on memory, thus her narrator can list the physical things that bring back the person to her conscious mind.

Middle Age: The Matisse Stories

15Byatt is interested in how a life, and everyday life, is inspired by great art which in turn can feed further art. The art may be visual as well as verbal. The painter Matisse figures in some way in each of the stories of the eponymous collection, thus linking them thematically. In spite of the male intertext here, the stories are really about women. Within the frame of visual art as opposed to verbal, through her ekphrasis, Byatt discusses in all three stories the relation between women and powerlessness. It may have to do with female image, as in the story of middle-aged Susannah at the hairdresser’s in “Medusa’s Ankles,” where she creates havoc with women’s items such as a can of hairspray which is described in terms of war, and in that of the disgruntled art student peggi nollett (she refuses capitals in her name) of “The Chinese Lobster,” or it may have to do with race and class–whether a working-class black woman, Sheba Brown from Guyana, can be as creative as a white middle-class male, in “Art Work.”

16Most of Byatt’s characters are solidly middle-class or lower upper-class but as the paradigm of social strata that Byatt covers is wide, she takes in the working class. Thus stories such as this are evidence of Byatt’s attempt, in her short fiction as well as the long, to portray the new multi-cultural Britain that has developed since the days of the post-war period, in which her first novels are set. Although the case of Mrs Brown in “Art Work” is positive in feminist terms, that of the wife and mother of the house, Debbie Dennison, is not. She works for a magazine, having given up her artistic career in wood engraving to help her husband Robin to concentrate on his painting. Subtly, though, Debbie’s gift is made clear: she is able to express the visual verbally much better than her husband. No doubt being articulate about colour is part of her job, and Byatt uses Debbie to connect colour and sight with other senses, such as taste: “a peculiarly luscious new purple, like bilberry juice with a little cream swirled in it” (Matisse 38). Sheba Brown, however, is iconoclastic about colour, flouting the rules set by tradition.

17The reader is left with the memory of the installation, ironically made from household items taken from the house of the supposedly artistic couple; in it, Byatt creates a verbal tour-de-force that stretches over five pages (77-81). She thus suggests that a male artist and his problems are worthy of a story: Robin has his artistic fetishes, summed up in a couple of lines, that his cleaning lady, Mrs Brown, has to dust but not remove from their position. Yet, the narrative then presents us with a woman, a secondary character, against whom society discriminates on the grounds of sex, race and class, and perhaps even age, who nonetheless, in the white man’s story, turns out to be more artistic than him. The installation, entitled “work in various materials 1975–1990”—which reveals how long Sheba Brown has been purloining articles—sounds static, as it is compared to the pile of treasure accumulated by Aladdin with the help of the genie in the story of the Enchanted Lamp in The Arabian Nights. However, it is also compared to St George and the Dragon, as in fact it embodies a dynamic symbolic personal story, the centrepiece being a confrontation between a dragon and a hoover (a machine invented by a man but mostly used by women).

18Kathleen Coyne Kelly invites us to consider the larger global view that Byatt is suggesting: “If we see her against a larger canvas than that of the Dennison family, Sheba Brown can be imagined as a recycler of culture, reversing the flow of Western appropriation of the Third World” (58). Byatt thus uses Sheba Brown for a discussion of race, climate change, class and gender. She avoids falling into the traditional trap of associating women with “mere” things by the extension to the story of St George and the Dragon. The action referred to is war, generally a masculine, negative activity, but when undertaken by a saint, it becomes positive. In the reference to Aladdin, rubbing or polishing a lamp is an activity Mrs Brown would have carried out as part of her profession, a humble profession which has, nonetheless, led her to a treasure trove. Her success, however, is not due to her thieving, her purloining seemingly cast-off clothes and articles from the Dennison home, but to her artistic talent, perseverance and faith in herself.

Adult Fairy Tales: The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories

19Most of Byatt’s stories up to The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye had been set sturdily in everyday life, with its dramas and crises and the odd ghost (“The July Ghost” in Sugar and Other Stories). Yet, after the publication of The Matisse Stories, Byatt stated that amongst the reasons for writing within the genre of the short story was the desire or the need to “accommodate the strange” (“Entretien” 13). Perhaps the feminist revision of the fairy tale in the last two decades of the century and the success enjoyed by Angela Carter in her wonder tales spurred Byatt on to widen her scope. Still, she had already been influenced before Carter’s tales by those of Italo Calvino and Karen Blixen, an impact which she called in her interview with Philip Hensher “a liberation into the invented.” So from then on, her collections of stories were to incorporate fairy tale or fantastic events with strange creatures. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye continues the theme of women and power, or the lack of it, but in the form of adult fairy tales or wonder-tales.

20“The Story of the Eldest Princess” is Byatt’s own fairy tale—being the oldest of three sisters (and a brother)—but the protagonist of the title story, Gillian Perholt, a middle-aged woman narratologist, also has things in common with its creator. Gillian travels on account of her work, which has to do with stories, and is fascinated with glass (Djinn 182). Through the glass flask, the nightingale’s eye, that attracts her attention in Haghia Sophia, she becomes the recipient of three wishes granted by the genie contained within. She does not wish for material things, and only one wish concerns the body. She asks to be granted the possibility of continuing to live in her body as it was when she last liked it, that is, aged thirty-five. Then an unarticulated wish is granted: to be asked to give a paper at an important conference in Toronto (“‘It is 1991’” [227], and the main speakers are male: Todorov and Genette [256]). Her final wish is altruistic—that the genie’s desires may be granted, and he may be freed.

21In “The Glass Coffin” (interpolated in Possession), a little tailor is fated to overcome obstacles and is granted three gifts. One is a key that opens a glass coffin and releases an enchanted maiden. He offers to marry her as he believes that is what a rescuing prince would do. Yet he then questions the convention of marriage to the rescuer, saying that she is not obliged to marry him, thus interrogating the role of both the male and the female (20-21). As Alfer and Edwards de Campos comment: “This sort of self-questioning analysis rarely, if ever, happens in a conventional fairytale: it is a moment at which the realist novel invades the fairytale and disorders its narrative codes” (111). In this revision, the male protagonist is released from the convention of marriage, but it is the freedom of the female (“‘I trust you will feel free’” [Djinn 21]) that is the more disruptive and empowering. The little tailor’s unexpected action is the sort of deviation contemplated by Jack Zipes in Don’t Bet on the Prince (1986). Jane Campbell takes this deviation further and relates it to the idea of creativity, with glass acting as a metaphor for the creation of art: “Byatt re-visions the traditional female story and questions its ideology. Beginning with the old image of the woman unconscious, enclosed in glass, the collection ends with the woman free, active, and an interpreter of glass” (144). Byatt is fascinated with glass in its aesthetic versatility. It is related to the four elements in that it is transparent like air and water and is formed materially and instrumentally through earth and fire. She has the narrator (or is it the genie?) explain to Gillian: “Glass is made of dust, of silica, of the sand of the desert, melted in a fiery furnace and blown into its solid form by human breath. It is fire and ice, it is liquid and solid, it is there and not there” (Djinn 271).

Working Women, Young and Old: Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice

22Reviewing Elementals, Jane Gardam traced a connection back to The Djinn, in that all the stories, in addition to being connected within each book—in this case through the concept of the four elements—contribute to a common idea, that of “the necessity of finding our natural element” (49). There is word-play here, for as Michael J. Noble pointed out, “Elementals seeks to discover the element in the elemental—the thing itself derived from its metaphor” (79). Fire is the element in “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,” based on the eponymous painting by Velázquez in which we see in the foreground a young girl cooking eggs, guided by an old woman, with Christ talking with Mary in the background. Velázquez seems to suggest that ordinary life must go on (Martha’s role in the story), and in her tale, Byatt has Velázquez play the role of a mentor, encouraging a young girl to do what she is good at—in this case, the then mostly female work of cooking—and to be proud of her efforts. The focus is upon the eggs, thus the element involved here, fire, is associated with women through the domestic sphere. In her review of Elementals, Katie Grant suggests that Byatt’s approach in her stories is to take a “workaday object” and transform it into “something magical” (54), but here it is transformed into an object for discussion. It is hard to tell whether Velázquez chose to associate Martha with the servant frying eggs as symbolic of the female and maternity, but in Byatt’s version, he does perpetuate the questioning of gender roles, suggesting there is nothing wrong with domesticity, just as Christ himself had defended the opposite: a female’s rejection of domesticity, when He rebuked Mary for criticising her sister for not helping more in the kitchen, where she would use her body more than her mind.

23The eggs connect this story to another, one that is particularly dependent upon thingy things and upon a build-up to a climax: “Baglady.” The attention of the protagonist, Daphne Gulver-Robinson (a travelling Gulliver who is gullible or a Robinson Crusoe?), is caught by some “embroidered silk cushion-covers” (Elementals 189) as someone steals her camera from her bag. She buys “a jade egg” (190) just as the heel of “one of her smart shoes” (191) breaks off and her purse and credit cards mysteriously disappear, along with her fountain pen, “Rollo’s present for their twentieth wedding anniversary” (191), then her watch and her passport, which would confirm her identity. Thus various things accumulate until the crisis is reached. Daphne is interested in women’s things but those she loses are essential things, common to both men and women. In under ten pages, Byatt turns a holiday souvenir shopping trip at the ironically-named Good Fortune Shopping Mall somewhere in the Far East into a complete nightmare of loss of everything, even identity.

Old Age: Little Black Book of Stories

24As its title suggests, the tales included in Little Black Book of Stories approach Gothic horror in their various forms of darkness, though it remains a “little” black book of small-scale examples of horror. The victims are female, and the horror may be small-scale on account of the secondary role of old women in a youth-centred patriarchal society. The female protagonists age as the collection progresses, from children to old women, and the “bookends,” “The Thing in the Forest” and “The Pink Ribbon” are connected by the subject of war. This is a theme that Elizabeth Bowen had deemed appropriate to the short story, as Adam Piette observes: “For Bowen, perhaps the short story could best capture the psychological intensities and broken temporalities of the war” (66). In Byatt’s stories, the war is peripheral, yet it is responsible for psychological damage in the minds of its female victims either at the time or later. Many of her figures are lonely, like the elderly women protagonists; it is as if England had changed so much that they could no longer recognise it or find their place.

25“Raw Material” is symptomatic of these situations and is complex in multiple ways. The main theme is writing. First there is self-consciousness about writing, as the appropriately-named protagonist, Jack Smollett, is a writer who makes his poor living as a Creative Writing teacher and has to decide what constitutes good writing. Then there is the question of whether writing should ever be used as therapy. This is related to the gender issue and domestic violence, albeit between women and involving madness rather than any other motive; also, the carer, Cicely Fox, ironically becomes the victim. As Jorge Sacido-Romero appropriately points out: “A thread that runs through much of the criticism produced in the wake of [Ellen] Moers’s work is the idea that Female Gothic, since Ann Radcliffe laid its generic bases at the turn of the eighteenth century, has been a privileged site of women’s struggle for a literature of their own” (85). Finally, there is the presence of specific things and processes, the description of which contributes to the good writing.

26The only good writer in the group, the elderly Mrs Fox, like Mrs Smith of “On the Day that E. M. Forster Died” from Sugar, is doomed to die. She wrote about concrete things and processes: black-lead stoves and how they were cleaned. Another essay of hers that Smollett admires is about how our grandmothers did the washing, taking all week to do it. These are female processes and they depend upon the things employed: the copper, the pincers, the ponch, the mangle-handle (Black Book 214-16). Cicely Fox even uses the word “quiddity,” meaning what makes things what they are, in her story about black-leading (197). Of course, it is Byatt who is suggesting all these stories-within-stories and it demands versatility. In this case, she has to write the two stories in such a way that Jack Smollett will admire Cicely’s verbal specificity and dexterity while the rest of the students—in their envy perhaps—can find fault with them: “Nostalgic” (208) is one criticism, “just mindless heritage-journalism” (209) or, as another puts it less formally: “Why should I care about a daft toxic cleaning method that’s thankfully obsolete?” (209). Byatt has to make all of these comments valid.

27The word “raw” has a double meaning: that of raw material, the original substance before it is converted into a work of art, or raw as in uncooked; indeed, Byatt uses “raw oysters” and “raw bleeding chunks” as metaphors for writing (188-89). Then there is raw in the sense of raw flesh, as in the wounds inflicted upon Cicely Fox’s body in the climax: “The whole naked body was covered with scars, scabs, stripes, little round burn marks, fresh wounds” (227). The irony in the climax (similar to that of Mrs Smith) is that Jack Smollett finds her dead just when he had gone to inform her that he had put her stories in for a competition and she had won.

28This study hopes to have given conclusive proof that Byatt achieves her objectives through strategies that bring together women’s issues, verbal creativity and choice of specific objects, and that these are applied through her skill in creating a tour-de-force of verbal accumulation that unites her curiosity and scholarliness with her limitless imagination. In the chronological analysis, each collection of short stories has been scrutinised to see which aspects it illustrates best. However, these strategies also run throughout her writing, so a certain focus is not unique to one collection or genre.

Haut de page


Primary Sources

Byatt, A. S. “A. S. Byatt, The Art of Fiction No. 168.” Interview by Philip Hensher. The Paris Review 159 (Fall 2001). Web. 21 June 2018.

---. “True Stories and the Facts in Fiction.” On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000. 91-122. Print.

---. Angels and Insects. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992. Print.

---. Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998. Print.

---. “Entretien avec A. S. Byatt.” By Jean-Louis Chevalier. Journal of the Short Story in English 22 (1994): 11-27. Print.

---. Introduction. The Oxford Book of English Short Stories. Ed. A. S. Byatt. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. xv-xxx. Print.

---. Little Black Book of Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 2003. Print.

---. On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000. Print.

---. Possession: A Romance. London: Chatto & Windus, 1990. Print.

---. Sugar and Other Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1987. Print.

---. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994. Print.

---. The Matisse Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993. Print.

---. Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings. 1991. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993. Print.

Secondary Sources

Alfer, Alexa and Amy Edwards de Campos. A. S. Byatt: Critical Storytelling. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2010. Print.

Alfer, Alexa and Michael J. Noble. Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt: Imagining the Real. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 2001. Print.

Bowen, Elizabeth. “The Short Story.” The Faber Book of Short Stories. 1936. Stockholm: A/B Ljus Förlag, 1944. 7-19. Print.

Campbell, Jane. “‘Forever possibilities. And impossibilities, of course’: Women and Narrative in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.” Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt: Imagining the Real. Eds. Alexa Alfer and Michael J. Noble. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 2001. 135–46. Print.

Gardam, Jane. “Women Breaking Out.” Literary Review Nov. 1998: 49. Print.

Grant, Katie. “Tricks of the Light.” The Spectator 14 Nov. 1998: 54. Print.

Hadley, Louisa. The Fiction of A. S. Byatt: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Hanson, Clare. Introduction. Rereading the Short Story. Ed. Clare Hanson. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1989. 1-19. Print.

James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” Longman’s Magazine 4 (Sept. 1884). Web. 21 June 2018.

Kellaway, Kate. “Self-Portrait of a Victorian Polymath.” London Observer 16 Sept. 1990: 45. Print.

Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. A. S. Byatt. New York: Twayne, 1996. Print.

Lara Rallo, Carmen. “Female Ageing as a Thematic Link: Fictionalising Women’s Phases of Life in A. S. Byatt’s Sugar and Other Stories.Women Ageing, Literature and Experience. Ed. Brian J. Worsfold. Lérida: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad of Lérida, 2005. 51-61. Print.

May, Charles. The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. New York: Twayne, 1995. Print.

McTighe Musil, Caryn. “A. S. Byatt.” Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 33. Ed. James G. Lesniak. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1991. 70-71. Print.

Noble, Michael J. “Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Fiction: A. S. Byatt’s Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice.” Anglistik 10.2 (1999): 79-87. Print.

Piette, Adam. “War and the Short Story: Elizabeth Bowen.” British Women Short Story Writers: The New Woman to Now. 2015. Eds. Emma Young and James Bailey. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2017. 66-80. Print.

Sacido-Romero, Jorge. “Ghostly Visitations in Contemporary Short Fiction by Women: Fay Weldon, Janice Galloway and Ali Smith.” Atlantis 38.2 (2016): 83-102. Print.

Zipes, Jack, ed. Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairytales in North America and England. Aldershot: Gower, 1986. Print.

Haut de page


1 “the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel” (James).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Celia Wallhead, « Material Things in the Struggle of the Female Writer/Artist in the Stories of A. S. Byatt »Journal of the Short Story in English, 76 | 2021, 25-40.

Référence électronique

Celia Wallhead, « Material Things in the Struggle of the Female Writer/Artist in the Stories of A. S. Byatt »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 76 | Spring 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 03 mars 2024. URL :

Haut de page


Celia Wallhead

Celia Wallhead retired in 2018 having taught English at the University of Granada for twenty-eight years. Author of books and articles on contemporary writers, A. S. Byatt, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon, among others, she also penned a book on Washington Irving. One of her books studies the novels of Byatt and another focuses on her short fiction. With her research group, Wallhead edited two books on foreign writers of the Spanish Civil War. Prior to that, she worked for seven years at the British Institute in Granada, after ten years teaching Spanish at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search