Still Life by A S Byatt
This is a story about brothers and sisters: Stephanie and Frederica Potter who are very alike and very different and, on another level, Vincent and Theo van Gogh who are the subject of Frederica's friend Alexander's latest verse drama. I'm fascinated, like most Byatt fanciers, by the uncomfortable relationship between Byatt and her sister (Margaret Drabble) in real life and certainly note that sisters occur again and again in her novels, even as twins recur in the novels of John Barth, himself a twin.
I just read it a second time. After rereading The Virgin in the Garden for a book group, I vowed to read the whole quartet again. This one I think I liked more than the first reading.
It continues the story centered on the Potter family in the 1950ies. Stephanie has married the clergyman, Daniel, and is soon pregnant. She's acutely aware as she goes through her pregnancy of how much what is expected of her has shifted. She was a brilliant student, got a good Cambridge degree even though she'd chosen to go home to Yorkshire to teach at her old school, but now she's called "Mother" by all the nurses in the clinic and subjected to the physical and emotional indignities all women recognize as going along with institutions that oversee reproduction. For her first delivery she yearns for her Wordsworth which is in her bag and the nurses are too busy to get it for her; for her second delivery, she's smart enough to ensure she gets her books into the labor room.
Her marriage is complicated by her brother Marcus--after his breakdown in the previous novel and need to get away from his father, he comes to live with Stephanie, as does her husband's selfish, lazy and critical mother.
In the meantime Frederica has gone to Cambridge (having successfully managed to lose her virginity beforehand) where she's anxious to be taken seriously as a scholar in an atmosphere where women are in a distinct minority--and assumed to be less than serious scholars. All of her friends are men, and sometimes her emotional or sexual needs take her in silly directions, but by and large she has a very successful university career without really understanding where she will go from there. She assumes, nonetheless, that it's about time for her to get married, without understanding how marriage and a career will work, even without understanding what kind of a husband she wants. It's not Frederica only who's confused; in the 1950ies, the way forward for an academically inclined woman is anything but clear. Women scholars in the university don't seem much like women to Frederica--living restricted and isolated lives. But Stephanie's choices scare Frederica. Her mother's life, as the ineffective peacemaker to her volatile father, is also to be avoided.
As Byatt focuses on the contradictions plaguing academic women in the Fifties, there's a parallel drama focused on the artist van Gogh. Interestingly, the novel begins in a museum where Andrew Wedderburn (with whom the schoolgirl Frederica was in love) is celebrating his latest play, "The Yellow Room", the story of van Gogh (named for a brother who died) and his brother Theo who strives to keep him sane. The Virgin in the Garden, began in the National Portrait Gallery many years after the action in the book, where Wedderburn attends an event focused on a portrait of the first Queen Elizabeth about whom he wrote a successful verse drama at the time of the coronation of the second Elizabeth. The failure of the second Elizabethan age is an theme in that novel.
Then Stephanie dies in a freak accident at home, which companions more canny that her odious mother-in-law and disturbed brother might have been able to save her from. (I can't get out of my head, a comment Byatt has made in more than one interview, that belatedly she recognizes that the characters she's killed off in her fiction are those who represent herself.) Frederica reacts badly and surrenders to a suitor outside of the academic world, one with money and a country house and considerable sex appeal. She seems, like Stephanie, to have opened a door to sexual involvement and at the same time closed the door on the life of the mind without thinking much about it.
It's the portrait of a woman for whom education is everything, but who still expects (and is expected to expect) marriage and family that attracts me to this series of novels. Less than a decade younger than Byatt's characters, I too lived with those contradictions.
PS I can't find a book cover like the one on my copy. It's a UK early Penguin paperback with a picture of Frederica as she's described going to a party and Stephanie and Daniel.... I don't approve of those with fruits and vegetables.... Maybe I'll scan mine.