The Virgin in the Garden, by A.S. Byatt

In this blog, I often give the circumstances under which I read the book, because they so influence my reactions. This book is a good example. When I first read Byatt’s Still Life almost twenty years ago, it shocked me out of my long stupor. For many years, working two and sometimes three jobs, my reading was confined to a half-hour or so before bed, when I gulped down undemanding novels. When I finished Byatt’s book, I realised that, although I’d enjoyed it on a superficial level, there were many other levels that I was ignoring. I read it again, more carefully, and then a third time. My poor old brain finally began to creak into action, and I could no longer be content with the “easy” novels that had been shepherding me into sleep.

I then picked up this prequel to Still Life which presents the Potter family during the summer of Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Alexander Wedderburn, who teaches at the progressive public school where the domineering Bill Potter is also on staff, has written a verse play about Elizabeth I which a local patron of the arts has decided to stage on the grounds of his manor house as part of a huge festival. Bill’s wife, Winifred, is a housewife with a Yorkshire accent and a plastic cloth on her table; no one would suspect she had an English degree from Leeds University. Frederica Potter, a fierce and gawky schoolgirl, wants to be best at everything, which at the moment means getting a part in Alexander’s play, if not Alexander himself. Her quiet sister, Stephanie, who by coming home to teach in the local grammar school has ducked her father’s insistence that she use her double First at Cambridge to do great things, prefers to help with the costumes. Their younger brother, Marcus, a student at the public school where his father teaches, lives in a world of his own, besieged by mysterious forces that consume nearly all of his attention.

On my first read, I was thoroughly confused by the book. The prose is much denser and has far more allusions than the other novel. Also, the Potter’s family dynamic is not one that appeals to me: an overbearing father, a withdrawn mother, an equally withdrawn brother who is the mother’s favorite, one sister focused on others, the other focused only on herself.

On this second read, I not only enjoyed the book more, I appreciated it more. The structure of the book is simply amazing, not just the most obvious parallels between the two Elizabeths, but—oh, I can’t begin to do it justice! So many layers of stories, myths, allusions around the image of the virgin in the garden, enclosed, protected, but (perhaps) plucking what she wants all the same. How do you balance the life of the mind and the life of the body? The lure of solitude and the thrill of society? Scholar or wife? Queen or consort?

Frederica, caught up in the overheated passions and furtive couplings of the players, is desperate to lose her inconvenient virginity. Stephanie tries to ignore the attentions of the ruthless curate, Daniel Orton, who wants to marry her—men are always wanting to marry her, even chance-met waiters in hotels, which she finds humiliating, believing that it has nothing to do with her; she must just have “an archetypal wife-face”. Marcus is befriended by Lucas, another master at the school, who believes that Marcus’s mysterious forces are connected to the extra-sensory energies he himself has been investigating. Lucas’s experiments, intended to tap into these force-fields, take him and Marcus into dangerous territory.

This is one of the most rewarding books I’ve ever read. Now I think I’ll have to read it again.

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