In this expository and intellectually demanding novel, A S Byatt has created something of a monster, theory-rich and deeply involved with the life of the mind. There are two stories alternating with one another. One is the story of Frederica, a clever Cambridge graduate who has succumbed to marriage with a businessman, Nigel, who caters for her sexually but otherwise expects her to become a shire wife in his sumptuous mansion, living with their small child Leo and his two much older sisters, plus live-in nanny. As the novel opens Frederica is beginning to realise she has made a terrible mistake. She always meant to do more with her restless and highly evolved intellect, but husband Nigel is determined to control her life. There is a large cast of characters, including lecturers, clergymen, educationalists and artists in these sections of the book.
The second story is a medieval tale of Culvert and the Lady Roseace who have gathered together a band of motley adherents and travelled deep into the countryside to found a new society which will be free from all inhibitions and the demands of the old order. It gradually emerges that this story is actually sections from a novel written by one of the characters of Frederica's story and when it is declared obscene we get chapter and verse of the trial.
We are at the beginning of the 60s, pre-feminism, but at a time when the old order was breaking down. The shock of the Christine Keeler affair has just rocked the political foundations of the country and England is about to swing towards the freedoms from class and privilege which seem to be available.
This is a highly enjoyable novel which is so securely sited in its time and place that, for people who lived through those years, the pleasure in recognition is one of its chief virtues. The echoes of the Lady Chatterley trial in the prosecution of the book is black humour incarnate - the trial is given a central place, while, at the same time, the divorce case of Frederica and Nigel occupies a similarly detailed exposition. Byatt leaves nothing out. Acrimony and anxiety as well as dark, almost bitter wit, flavour these pages to delicious effect. I particularly enjoyed the sections dealing with the investigative committee looking into different kinds of education. Byatt's sharp ear for the theoretically outlandish is put to wickedly enjoyable use.
This is not for the faint-hearted, being 622 pages and sometimes (in the novel within the novel) delving into sado-masochism. Chiefly, though, this book is about us and is deeply English in its outlook and sensibility. What we have become, what we might have done with our lives, what we want, which is not necessarily what we think we want, and how we got to where we are now. It is absolutely marvellous.