Born: August 24th, 1936
Died: November 16th, 2023
AS Byatt, one of the most ambitious writers of her generation, whose dazzling 1990 novel, Possession, won the Booker Prize and brought her international fame as a novelist and unapologetic intellectual, has died aged 87.
Byatt was a brilliant critic and scholar who broke the academic mould by publishing 11 novels and six collections of short stories. “I am not an academic who happens to have written a novel,” she bristled in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 1991. “I am a novelist who happens to be quite good academically.”
Byatt’s intellectual passion was evident in Possession. Subtitled “A Romance”, it is a scholarly detective story nesting one tale of illicit love inside another.
Possession became an unexpected bestseller and was made into a feature film in 2002, directed by Neil LaBute and starring Gwyneth Paltrow. A novella from her book Angels and Insects (1992) had already been made into an Oscar-nominated film in 1995 by Philip Haas.
Byatt built her literary reputation slowly and steadily with two early novels, The Shadow of the Sun (1964) and The Game (1967), followed by a four-volume series known as the Frederica Potter quartet.
Byatt’s early career was overshadowed by her younger sister, writer Margaret Drabble, whose debut novel, A Summer Bird Cage (1963), became an immediate bestseller. When she was first published, Byatt told The Paris Review, she was more afraid of the constant comparison to her better-known sister than of bad reviews. While her early fiction was generally received respectfully, she said some dismissed it as “another novel by somebody rather like Margaret Drabble”.
Byatt was born Antonia Susan Drabble in Sheffield, England. Her father, John F Drabble, a barrister and judge, published two novels himself. Her mother, Kathleen (Bloor) Drabble, was a teacher and homemaker. Antonia was the oldest child; Margaret was born three years later, and two more siblings followed. Both parents had gone to the University of Cambridge and expected all four of their children to do the same, which they did.
But their mother overtly favoured Margaret, which contributed to the competition between the two older girls.
Byatt described herself as having been an unhappy child who had suffered from severe asthma and spent a great deal of time in bed, where reading became her escape from a tense and angry household.
Why the hell not have happy endings? Everybody knows they’re artificial. Why not have this pleasure, as one has the pleasure of rhyme, as one has the pleasure of colour?
Byatt and Drabble were both sent to Mount School, a Quaker boarding school in York where their mother taught, and both went on to Newnham College, the women’s college at Cambridge that their mother had attended. Byatt earned a first in her degree in English in 1957, and continued her doctoral studies at Somerville College, Oxford, where she was discouraged from writing fiction by her doctoral supervisor, who told her, Byatt recalled: “My dear, every young girl with a first-class degree expects to be able to write a good novel. None of them can.”
When she left Oxford to marry Ian Byatt, an economist, in 1959, her scholarly grant was terminated. To her horror, Byatt found herself relegated to the role of faculty wife at the age of 25. But she persevered, writing with what she described as fierce desperation while caring for two young children.
The marriage ended in 1969. She went on to marry Peter John Duffy, an investment analyst, and had two more children.
Byatt continued to publish novels and critical studies, but then tragedy struck, in the early 1970s, when her only son, Charles, who had just turned 11, was killed by a drunken driver. Byatt had just accepted her first teaching position, at University College London. “I think what saved me was the students,” she said of her grief in an interview with The New York Times. “They were in another world; I had to change gear.”
Byatt addressed the loss of her child in a short story, The July Ghost, about a grieving mother, and in a poem, Dead Boys, which ends with the lines: “My cheek was damp with his warmth / And five days later cold.”
She said the experience changed her writing. “I suddenly thought, why the hell not have happy endings?” she recalled to The Paris Review. “Everybody knows they’re artificial. Why not have this pleasure, as one has the pleasure of rhyme, as one has the pleasure of colour?”
Byatt wrote and edited many works of literary criticism, including two books on British writer Iris Murdoch and one about the relationship of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She also edited, with Nicholas Warren, a book of essays about George Eliot. She was a senior lecturer in English at University College from 1972 to 1983.
While some of her writing, particularly her academic writing, was criticised as so dense as to be impenetrable, she was included on The Times of London’s 2008 list of the “50 Greatest British Authors Since 1945.” Byatt was made a dame of the British Empire in 1999.
Her novel The Children’s Book (2009), based on the life of the popular children’s book author E Nesbit, incorporates fairy tales into social commentary on British utopian movements of the early 20th century. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009 and received the James Tait Black Prize in 2010. A Stone Woman, a widely anthologised story that was included in Byatt’s collection Little Black Book of Stories (2003), explores themes of grief and ageing.
Her most recent book was the career-spanning collection Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories, published in 2021.
In addition to Drabble, Byatt’s survivors include her husband; three daughters, Antonia Byatt, Isabel Pinner and Miranda Duffy; a younger sister, Helen Langdon, an art historian and author; and a brother, Richard Drabble, a barrister.
This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in The New York Times.