Friday, February 19, 2010

The Virgin in the Garden

When I read Byatt's Possession, I was bored by the endless poetry, but enchanted by the exquisite prose. I was determined to give Byatt another go, and I thought that the first book in a quartet would be a decent place to start. I finished The Virgin in the Garden, and I'm ready to take a look at it.

Set during the summer of the new Queen's coronation in 1953, this novel is the story of the Potter children: eldest Stephanie, falling in love with a clergyman, middle child Frederica, falling in love with a teacher, a colleague of her professor father, and finally, youngest Marcus, a mathematical prodigy who has entered into a strange and phantasmagorical relationship with another teacher.
This is a character-oriented novel about the developing relationships between the large-ish cast. At its center is Frederica, strong-willed, proud, fiercely intelligent and not altogether beautiful. The narrator never really explicitly tells us whether or not Frederica is gorgeous; mostly it's Alexander, the professor she loves, who lets us know this.

Alexander has written a play about the first Elizabeth's coronation, and it is to be staged around the time of the new Elizabeth's coronation. As well, it is to be staged in the beautiful garden at the school where Alexander and the Potter paterfamilias teach. 

Just like in Possession, Byatt plays with the title of the novel in a myriad of ways. The Virgin of the title can refer to almost all of the major characters, even if the virginity is figurative rather than literal. The Garden also refers to plenty of things. The main garden in the school is the scene of a wedding reception, of confrontation, of sexual dalliances, and of course, of the play at the novel's heart.

The play in this novel is used as a fabrication like the play within Hamlet or the beginning scene of Yates' Revolutionary Road. The narrator uses the play to obliquely comment on the characters who are acting. It's a clever method to get important information across about the characters.

For most of this book, I was again plagued by questions of "why". I wasn't sure what Byatt was trying to tell me. It's a very long and slow moving novel, and filled with excellent examples of Byatt's ultra-specific prose, in which she zeroes in on something, a room, an outfit, a painting, and details it for paragraphs. But to me, the novel's true meaning is hidden in throwaway lines and small references.

The Virgin in the Garden is a novel about the English at a specific time in a specific place. Evidently, the entire quartet traces the intellectual and emotional development of the English from the coronation to the present day. This is no more apparent than in this first novel of the series. 

Often, the narrator will refer to a character's forced politeness, a compulsion to look away from something potentially embarrassing. They are repressed: sexually, emotionally, intellectually, living in an Elizabethan or Victorian past, obsessed with the literature and poetry of another era.

D. H. Lawrence figures into this novel in a big way. While numerous characters live in their head, reciting lines of Spenser or Tennyson, only a couple characters have read Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover or more importantly, Women in Love. (There's a reason why I'm always harping on Lawrence to be included in "best-of" lists.) Lawrence is an important figure in literature for introducing the modern reader to modern thoughts of sexuality, of awakening. 

This novel is set during the coronation for a couple reasons, including historical as the new era was supposed to be one of prosperity. But it's also the Fifties: the final breath before the sexual and intellectual revolution of the Sixties were to begin. 

I've gone on and on about what the novel is about rather than what the novel is about. Even if one was to not gather any hidden subtext or meaning, one could enjoy this novel on the surface as a great soap opera. The rise and fall of this family is interesting unto itself. Byatt's prose and characters are vivid as always. 

A word of negativity, however. Of the three main story threads snaking through the novel, the least interesting of all is the one featuring Marcus, the youngest Potter. His descent into madness is well-schematized, but unfortunately, reading pages upon pages of incoherent prose becomes tiresome. I thought it was clever how Byatt shows (rather than tells) his developing madness, but I never found it entertaining or engaging.

The Virgin in the Garden is a fantastic novel, and I'm glad to have given Byatt another chance. I really look forward to the next novel in the sequence, Still Life, which is said to be the best in the series. Check back here for more reviews and thanks for reading.

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