The Virgin in the Garden by AS Byatt
If the test of a great novel is that you want to read it again, or pick up the next one (this is the first of a quartet) then this is a good novel. If Still Life—the next title in the quartet—had been right here on the shelf I'd have started it right after I reread the Prologue.
The present time of the novel is 1953, the year of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and, in the world of the novel, of a verse drama about the first Queen Elizabeth enacted on the grounds of an old and elegant estate in Yorkshire. The story is that of a Yorkshire family: father Bill Potter who’s reputed to be a magnetic teacher at Blesford Ride, a public school, but we see him primarily as a dogmatic liberal who terrorizes his family while promoting his ideas on education (he’s for it) and religion (he’s against it). Winifred, his wife, caters and defers, of necessity becoming exactly the kind of woman he deplores and whose life her daughters (Stephanie and Frederica) seek to escape. Marcus, the youngest and his mother’s favorite, is inner-directed, even spiritual, awkward with just about everyone, observant of phenomena of his world--and becomes prey for a disturbed science teacher.
The novel, which in general is slow moving and highly allusive has a surprisingly dramatic closing sequence for a writer who says she didn’t think she could tell stories. I had to laugh, though, at the very end: the scene is between Daniel, the fat, unkempt priest who marries the elder Potter daughter against the wishes of her parents, and Frederica in the small flat where the pregnant Stephanie is comforting the very disturbed Marcus.
Here's the last paragraph: "Waiting and patience, of this inactive kind, did not come easily to him. Or to Frederica, he decided, without much sympathy for her. He gave her a cup of tea and the two of them sat together in uncommunicative silence, considering the still and passive pair on the sofa. That was not the end, but since it went on for a considerable time, is as good a place to stop as any."
I loved that ending and asked myself why:
1. It caused me to consider the title of the second book in the quartet, Still Life. Stephanie and Marcus were "still" in their way but that was not true of Frederica and Daniel about whom "stillness" is almost the last word that would occur in any description of their characters.
2. It sent me immediately back to reread the prologue where I rediscovered that Daniel was one of the guests at the celebration in the Portrait Gallery in 1968---long after the New Elizabethan Age furor is over. Alexander Wedderburn, who wrote the 1953 verse play as a budding writer teaching at Blesford Ride, is also there, signaling perhaps that these two, and Frederica who invited them are of most interest in the novel.
3. The implication that there's more to the history of these characters made me want to continue immediately with the next book. And that reminds me that I absolutely loved the way Byatt handled time in the novel, the constant references to what different characters would do or think in the future, often with a date attached, usually in the 1970s. So you know the story goes on beyond the 1968 prologue. That's not an end to the story. AND that Byatt must have had the sequence fairly well planned out.
4. It reminded me that I liked the third person omniscient narrator which since Henry James has been used less frequently in serious fiction. I think Byatt uses it brilliantly and this ending paragraph is an example. SHE knows what happens to them all and will tell you if you're patient. The ostensible third person narrative showcases the author’s extraordinary insight into so many different characters. Before the novel is over, we know all the Potters well, and even have some insights into the extraordinarily bad father. And 4 or 5 additional characters as well.
There is a narrator, though, in this novel and one who gradually makes us realize that Frederica is the main character. Some readers see Frederica as the narrator, and that is possible if one assumes a Frederica observing at some point in the future and if one assumes, as I do, that Frederica is capable of considerable detachment. But I prefer to think it's Byatt's re-incarnation of the 19th century 3rd person omniscient narrator who, as the novel goes on, focuses on the awkward, studious 17-year old ready to catapult herself into "real life". In addition, it's this narrator--definitely female--who provides the considerable humor in the novel.
My argument that the narrative is essentially (if not strictly) third person centers around the intimate (and convincing) inside view of so many different characters. What makes this a strong novel it seems to me is that Frederica is NOT Byatt thinly disguised, even though the family does seem quite similar (but then it also seems similar to the Bröntes, a point of view some in the novel espouse). In the "real" family she was the eldest and she even says that killing off Stephanie (which happens in another novel) seems, in retrospect, killing off herself. But she also says that she was shy and uncommunicative as a child, with interests in science—and that Marcus is in many ways a portrait of herself.