If A. S. Byatt is to become a novelist of major accomplishments, themes and stature, she will have to step out of the shadow of her literary masters, all of whom paralyze her own writing. This novel, like the earlier "Shadow of a Sun" (1964) and "The Game " (1967), fairly reeks with Lawrentian passion and emotion, seethes across Hardyesque landscapes and wallows in characters who are too frequently pale imitations of Iris Murdoch's creations or D. H. Lawrence's inventions.
The hero is a schoolmaster, Alexander Wedderburn, who has written a verse drama in 1952 on the subject of Queen Elizabeth I. (Fortunately, he had to abandon his initial topic, the life of Shakespeare.) Alexander is enamored of a bored and trapped housewife, Jennifer Parry, who is married to a German master in the boys' school in Yorkshire where Alexander is teaching. Alexander is also beloved by a schoolgirl, Frederica Potter, and her schoolmistress sister, Stephanie, themselves modeled on Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen in Lawrence's "Rainbow " and "Women in Love ." The fourth major character is the tiresome school-master, Bill Potter, derived from Lawrence's Will Brangwen and Murdoch's Austin Grey in "An Accidental Man ." Byatt's inability to develop these characters in rational, lively ways is regrettable.
Her narration leaps about alarmingly, now the mind of one person, then the omniscient narrator. And she cannot control her language properly. Overly fond of literary devices, she is especially enamored of elegant alliteration. Here, as previously, she uses, or rather overuses, one theme or character to mirror another. The plot isn't any fresher than the mad and maddening characters. Actually, there are several plots. Will rising young playwright Alexander Wedderburn find his destiny by escaping from boring Yorkshire to the bright lights of London? Will Frederica Potter escape girlhood and not become pregnant while losing her virtue? Will Stephanie Potter find true happiness married to Daniel Orton, the fat curate in town? Will Bill Potter continue to drive his family mad? Will the placid and benign Winifred Potter remain a serene, all-forgiving mother figure? Will son Marcus Potter go truly mad? The answers are: a qualified yes, oh indeed, a qualified no, absolutely, doubtless, and not at this time dear reader.
Yorkshire in 1952 and 1953 apparently burned with unconsummated passions on all sides. (The short prologue, set in 1968 in London's National Portrait Gallery, suggests that emotions and passions have abated some what for Alexander but not for Frederica or Daniel.) While Alexander's play on QEOne is being rehearsed and produced, coincidentally with the coronation of QETwo, a lot Frederica or Daniel.) While Alexander's play on QEOne is being rehearsed and produced, coincidentally with the coronation of QETwo, a lot of sex flashes around in various cars, woods, sets and bedrooms. An astonishing number of backsides and breasts bob everywhere. Byatt's obsession with coincidence comes to a comic and unbelievable climax when Alexander and Jennifer finally manage to make their correct fleshy parts meet in his long longed-for car. Busily engaged, Alexander looks up only to view the ghostly face of Frederica (on a walking tour of the moor) as she inspects their activity. Needless to say, Frederica, who has burned with a hard, gemlike flame for Alexander, now determines that she must rid herself of her virginity and does so with another young actor in the play, after arranging an elaborate assignation with Alexander.
This novel, so intricately wrought, so carefully constructed, collapses under the weight of its own decorations, layers of meanings, allusions to previous masterpieces of Brit Lit. Because Byatt tries to make this novel contain everything, in the end it illuminates nothing. Byatt works by dichotomies and contrasts, by dividing into twos. The mind-body split is particularly prominent.