This is my favourite work of A.S. Byatt to date, probably due to the subject matter and the period in which it is set, respectively, human relations and the post-war period into which I was born. However, wherever you chose to start, A.S. Byatt will astound with her mastery of English, her scholarship and her skill as a teller of tales.
With a combination like this, there is always a tension. Do you whip through to find out what happens? Or do you control yourself and give the book, as art, as philosophy, as psychology, the attention it deserves? A friend, who normally has no time for Eng Lit, solved this by skipping all the poetry in "Possession" and promising herself a revisit - not a bad compromise. I've read "The Virgin" twice, slowly, listened to at least two radio adaptations and will be going back for more later.
"The Virgin" is the first of the "Frederica Quartet", the rest being "Still Life", "Babel Tower" and "A Whistling Woman". I wouldn't term Frederica a heroine, indeed, the characters are all so true to life, such a mixture of good and bad, that the notion of heroism is inappropriate, but at seventeen she is certainly purposeful. She is desperate to loose her virginity, play a leading role in a verse drama written by the man she's besotted with and do well in her A-levels. She is also tough, able to withstand her mercurial father and her unpopularity at school, fierce and full of energy.
As a somewhat androgynous redhead, she is partner to that other virgin, Elizabeth 1, who is the subject of the verse drama, which is to be performed in the gardens of a local country house as part of the celebration of the coronation of the second Elizabeth.
In a brilliant evocation of the time, neighbours without television sets are invited in to watch this national event by one of the circle with one. A measure of the post-war austerity is apparent in the glimpses we get of Frederica's brick box of a family home, it being cluttered downstairs and spare upstairs with a small untidy garden. When she marries, Frederica's elder sister, Stephanie, moves into a much meaner sounding council flat with walls so thin there is a constant cacophony of neighbours' canned stuff. Outside, wire fences enclose rutted mud, with one surviving thorn tree. There are also excellent reminders of the coffee bar, the departmental store and the cinema, complete with indoor fountain and plush dining room.
The characters in this book abound with contradictions. Stephanie, brought up as an atheist, is full of a Christian kindness and marries an unlikely curate, Daniel. At the end of the book we are left wondering how she'll manage with a new baby as well as her brother, who's had a breakdown, and her infirm mother-in-law, all in a small cottage. Daniel has heroic qualities. Huge and energetic, he's the one in an emergency. He's also up to a spat with the Bishop and seethes with rage on many other occasions, just like his father-in-law, Bill, whose explosions have crushed his wife and youngest child, Marcus.
Where most novels have bad bits, a Byatt novel has challenging ones. In "The Virgin" my difficult bits comprised Marcus's way of seeing. Although in the book Marcus is subject to circumstances which cause a nervous breakdown, it's obvious that he has other difficulties. Like Frederica he's friendless, unlike her he's limp. His ability and affliction is to see geometry in the landscape and to physically see light as waves, also to be obsessed with and fearful of staircases and water going down the plughole. Perhaps we'll get a diagnosis for him in one of the sequels. Does he suffer from something in the autistic spectrum, or obsessive compulsive disorder? Anyway, I found parts of the Marcus chapters heavy-going.
Each of the main characters has chapters in which his or her thoughts, actions and outlook predominate and, although this is a novel written in the third person, there is certainly a sense of multiple narration. This is great in that the characters are themselves, and even when their circumstances are described, as it were, from the outside, there is no judgement. In other words, there is ample room for you, the reader.
Unfortunately, people tend to be scared of A.S. Byatt. My argument is that they shouldn't be, you shouldn't be. My main credential for this assertion is that I find reading difficult. Unless I work hard, words come out in the wrong order. I also failed Eng Lit at O-level and tend to prefer well-written popular science to fiction. For me reading is hard and writing has, therefore, to be good to make it worth the effort. Antonia Byatt's intelligent and acutely observed writing is excellent, a treat. I am now halfway through "Still Life", the second Frederica novel and thoroughly enjoying that too.