A Whistling Woman

By A. S. Byatt

1. Knopf, 2002, ISBN 0375415343; 427 Pages, Hardcover $26.00. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Vintage, 2003, ISBN 0679776907; 448 Pages, Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by C. J. Sullivan Reynolds

Dissatisfied and annoying to almost everyone, complaining “I’m in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” Frederica Potter seems an unlikely and unsatisfactory central character for a novel, particularly one about the 1960s. But as protagonist of the quartet which concludes with A.S. Byatt’s latest, A Whistling Woman, she proves a surprisingly animated off-centerpiece for a long view of the making and mien of 1960s Britain.
Byatt has said that she resisted the publishers and readers calling these the “Frederica” novels; she intended there to be several central characters. But here Frederica is, in the last in the series, A Whistling Woman (2002), just as she is, in the first, The Virgin in the Garden (1976) – the first of many dualities to be noted. Frederica’s evolution through the four books (Still Life, 1985 and Babel Tower, 1996) from lively English schoolgirl with literary ambitions to struggling single mother is the prosaic backbone for Byatt’s ambitious intentions which are made flesh in the intersecting plots and numerous metafictions. These embody themes “which run through all of the novels,” as Byatt has written, “the shifting relation between language and reality – language and social life, language and ideas.”
That’s Byatt. Her aims are always reaching and always out in front. Not for her the reticence of a DeLillo – to whom she has been compared, as she has to George Eliot and Iris Murdoch. A portentous trio? Or not?
Byatt was already an influential novelist and critic in Britain when her best-selling, Booker Prize-winning novel, Possession (1990) (from which a disappointing movie was made), gained her notice in the U.S. More recently she has achieved notoriety on both sides of the Atlantic for a critique published in The New York Times charging the Harry Potter series with appealing to imaginations bred on TV and pop culture, and contending that its success with adults reflects their infantile desire to regress to a safer world where good and evil are readily identifiable and controlled by magic. Her essay provoked its own debate in the media about whether the piece was a boorish insult or a polemical account of what drives reassuring pop culture in opposition to the demanding complexities of art. In any case, she has been charged by Harry Potter fandom with “shouldering the mantle of high culture” (shudder!) and, worse, labeled a snob.
A.S. Byatt is more than a snob. She is a certain kind of English intellectual, of polymath breadth, often Oxbridge educated (Aldous Huxley comes to mind, but so does Virginia Woolf, who had no university education at all), among whom have been some of the most thinking novelists of the last century. Alongside fiction, each has produced a substantial body of criticism, essays, and other writings reflecting a wide range of interests, among Byatt’s more recent, Emma Bovary and “How We Lost Our Sense of Smell.” In all, Byatt has published over a dozen works of fiction, six books of criticism, and innumerable articles. Her published output makes her a demanding subject in any case, but her outspoken habit is trying.
In peeved remarks made at a reading I attended during her Babel Tower publicity tour, Byatt complained that fiction deserves criticism not review, emphasizing the critic’s responsibility to follow a writer in order to develop a full grasp of their opus and intent. (Having since read many reviews of her work, I gather her peevishness was provoked by those American writers who reviewed Babel Tower having previously read only Possession.) For Byatt, just as writing a novel is an act of criticism (her own novels rejoin Wordsworth, Lawrence, Forster, Woolf, and others), an act of criticism is an extension of writing the novel. Byatt agrees with Virginia Woolf: “It is true that we get nothing whatsoever except pleasure from reading.” Criticism, according to Byatt, engages the writer in order to give readers an approach to enjoying a book, not to its politics, nor any -ism, nor any value other than the underlying value of pleasure.
As Woolf continues, “…it is true that the wisest of us is unable to say what that pleasure may be.” But Byatt’s own criticism may set an example: her essays on Madame Bovary (“Scenes from a Provincial Life”) moved me to reread the novel. And set me on a track of reading works inspired by Flaubert.
But be wary, Byatt’s are not the simple pleasures: “Unless the novel gives pleasure of a complicated kind,” she has said, “it’s better to be like the Quakers, where silence is the highest form of contemplation.”

With the publication of A Whistling Woman, Byatt completes a 40 year project. The first two volumes in the series were well-received in Britain and largely ignored in the United States. Not until after the successes of Possession and Angels & Insects (1992) (from which Philip Haas has made a movie) did the third volume, Babel Tower, appear simultaneously on both sides of the pond to widespread praise.
The series was conceived from the start as a quartet, making A Whistling Woman, as Byatt has described Babel Tower, “a novel about the 1960s which was planned, more or less, in the 1960s, and not written until the 1990s . . . both a novel about my own time and a historical novel.”
Are you wondering where this is going, or when we’ll be getting down to the review? Have you noticed that this essay has a string of beginnings, probably foreshadowing multiple endings; or, alternately, could be viewed as a series of digressions?
That’s Byatt. Never more so than in A Whistling Woman.
Byatt’s publisher claims that A Whistling Woman, although the conclusion to the quartet, stands on its own. On the contrary, I found its full appreciation to be dependent on having read its predecessors. Prior to reading A Whistling Woman, I had read Babel Tower, with which it shares a populous cast and an embedded narrative which begins in the one and ends in the other. I then read all four novels successively, and having read the first two, found the final pair to be quite different books the second time around. All four share a complex mega-structure, multifaceted symbolism, repeated scenes, sub-rosa dialogues with innumerable literary voices, and uncountable self-referential allusions. From the long view, there are other central characters and many minor characters developed over the four novels. Mysteries about Frederica’s brother-in-law, Daniel, and her brother, Marcus, which are spelled out in previous volumes, are an important subtext to A Whistling Woman. Minor characters, canon Gideon Farrar for one, are raised from mere parody to crazed comedy when enriched by their early history. The impact of the concluding scene is altered by the prologue to Still Life.
The publisher calls the series a quartet, but it would be better served by the more rigorous term “tetralogy,” which puts demands on both reviewer and reader to treat the series as a unified work. The word derives from the Greek for four, the number of plays required of each playwright for the City Dionysia competition. Originally consisting of three tragedies and a satyr play, the tetralogy was expected to reflect both narrative and thematic unity. Modern examples include Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels and John Updike’s Rabbit novels.
Is this telling you more than you think you need to know? That’s Byatt. Her quartet is a grandiose portrait of the cultural evolution of modern-day Britain: the blossoming after the deprivations of World War II; the undoing of class-bound tradition; the gap between people for whom the war was the formative experience and those who came after; the changes in the family and in the lives of women.
The broad sweep begins with the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and culminates in the summer of 1968, when A Whistling Woman begins. But Byatt’s summer of ‘68 is a burlesque – an oh so British one, blinkered and bookish, disassociated from the crises of the outside world; where the Aquarian Conspiracy is running amok among gentry, academics, clergy, psychologists, media, students, and hippies alike; where Frederica, the former literature teacher who owns no television, is hired as hostess of “the first television show about television;” and where the study of snails is a highpoint of scientific sophistication.
This world is framed and reframed with postmodern enthusiasm: in a university conference on Body and Mind; in fragments of two books embedded within the novel; in psychologists’ correspondence about their patients; in meetings of the university’s “Non-Maths” Group, which “met every fortnight to study maths;” and in Frederica’s television program, which focuses on a different person, idea, and thing in each episode.

The quartet begins simply enough in The Virgin in the Garden as a family drama – that of an academic family in Yorkshire, not unlike the one in which Byatt was raised. Meet the Potters: Bill, a histrionic, erudite schoolmaster; Winifred, his well-educated wife; their intellectual daughters, blond, brilliant Stephanie, 21; redheaded, clever Frederica, 17; and their strange, mathematically gifted son, Marcus. They are a family of readers for whom Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot, and Lawrence are subjects of daily interest. Their internal drama is drawn into the production of a theatrical drama: Astrea, by Alexander Wedderburn. Written to honor the coronation of Elizabeth II, the play is about Queen Elizabeth I, who is portrayed by young Frederica.
Frederica’s tale is a female coming of age story: young girl bent on dispensing with virginity – target of her pursuit, an older man, Alexander Wedderburn. Stephanie’s story is more complex. Over her atheistic father’s disapproval, she marries Daniel Orton, a plump clergyman. It may be the triumph of love or it may be promising young woman gives it all up for wrong man. Marcus’s dark story of abuse by a mentor is a clearer portent of the descent to come.
One chapter in The Virgin in the Garden is called “Women in Love,” other chapters refer to Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Freud. Byatt’s complex references to other writers, their works, and ideas, are just beginning to entwine.
Both the first and second novel open with a prologue, a leap forward in time, placing the story to follow in the memory of a particular present. The Virgin in the Garden begins in London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1968, a visit which appears again in A Whistling Woman, but there stops at the door to the museum. The first volume narrates a meeting of Frederica Potter, Alexander Wedderburn, and Daniel Orton. Alexander is “brooding on the irreversibility of art and time.” Frederica is nostalgic for “All the beginning there was” in the 1950s.
Still Life begins with an even greater leap forward to 1980, the latest date to appear in the four novels. Again Frederica, Alexander and Daniel gather, this time at the Royal Academy of Arts. Frederica makes a late entrance. Daniel is hoping she has news from his alienated son, Will. Alexander muses over The Yellow Chair, his play about Van Gogh and Gauguin which features in the novel, another parallel to the first book.
If The Virgin in the Garden portrays youth, Still Life painstakingly dissects what follows: marriage, birth, and death. When their children empty the nest, Winifred and Bill are embittered by Marcus’ alienation. Frederica’s misadventures at Cambridge and in France figure prominently, but this book’s heart is the family of Stephanie and Daniel, who have Daniel’s mother and Marcus living with them. Marcus is afraid of their first born, Will, and afraid for him as well; their second born has a large hematoma on her face. In the end, in a plot twist narrated with stomach-turning intensity, the extended family is undone and everyone’s life utterly transformed. Having completed her education, Frederica, in imprudent haste, marries a disturbingly unsuitable man.
Seemingly the most realistic, this novel has been called experimental by Byatt – an experiment elucidated by Alexander Wedderburn, a character who as author embodies much of Byatt. In the prologue, he describes his play The Yellow Chair as a failed experiment:

At first he had thought he could write a plain, exact verse with no figurative language, in which a yellow chair was the thing itself, a yellow chair, as a round gold apple was an apple or a sunflower a sunflower . . . But it couldn’t be done. Language was against him, for a start. Metaphor lay coiled in the name sunflower, which not only turned towards but resembled the sun, the source of light.

Byatt has said that when she began these novels she “was very much defending realism against the rather trivial kind of experimental novels that were then going on in England.” The presumption that James Joyce’s achievement meant, in the words of B.S. Johnson, “It will never again be possible to give people names, or to write narrative that goes forward, or to describe things,” “just made me very angry,” Byatt said:

because it seemed to me that life was so varied and complex that it took up all your energy, and yours would never be the same as anybody else’s description unless you were a bad writer. The only definition I give [of a bad novel] is: one, if it’s derivative, totally derivative; and two, if the sentences are limp. I can’t think of any other.
The nice thing about a novel is that everything can go into it, because if you’ve got the skill between sentence and sentence, you can change genre, you can change focus, you can change the way the reader reads. And yet you can keep up this sort of quiet momentum of narration. It is a wonderful form... You can do anything.

Indeed, she’s been accused of doing anything and everything in the third and fourth novels.
Babel Tower is a decided departure from the earlier volumes, challenging Blake, de Sade, and Tolkien in their roles as sacred heroes of the counter-culture. Elements of unreality and sustained parody appear. A trio of alternate beginnings is offered. Names take on a Dickensian mix of the possible with the preposterous: Pippy Mammott, a woman who needs no further description; Rupert Parrott; the law firm Tiger and Pelt. Or Luk Lysgaard-Peacock and Elvet Gander, minor characters here, who like the bird motif they exemplify, will assume major roles in the fourth volume. Discordant voices convene: the embedded novel Babbletower; legal depositions; Frederica’s book reports for a publisher; Flight North, her housemate’s ersatz-Tolkien tale for children; quotations she collects under the name Laminations, a word which represents a way of survival for her, “of being able to be all the things she was: language, sex, friendship, thought, just as long as these were kept scrupulously separate, laminated, like geological strata....”
The dualities are more blatant: two trials at the center of the plot; Frederica’s affair with John Ottakar, an identical twin, who tests her ability to tell him apart from his brother. The metaphors are barefaced. Daniel works in the basement of a London church. Upstairs a stained-glass window has been reassembled from the remains of an original destroyed during World War II. Pieces have been rearranged randomly, new pieces added, creating abstract images mixed with the occasional animal face: what falls apart always comes back together as a fusion of the old with the new, another theme that runs through all four books.
The novel charts the demise of Frederica’s abusive marriage and her flight to London with her young son, Leo. There she befriends Jude Mason, a strange man – shades of her brother – living at the edge of society. He has authored a novel, Babbletower, about an idealistic group of men and women who escape Paris during the Terror to start a remote utopian community. Isolated from society, Culvert, the group’s leader, pushes “freedom” to ever more extreme limits until the group descends into violence. The issues confronting Frederica – education, individual freedom, the role of women, love and passion – are larger-than-life in the fable Babbletower, lengthy selections of which are peppered throughout the novel.
When Frederica helps Mason get his book published, it is quickly banned on grounds of indecency. Frederica becomes involved in two trials: her own contested divorce, and the prosecution of Jude Mason and his publisher for obscenity. An outstanding trial scene has Anthony Burgess and Alexander Wedderburn appearing for the Babbletower defense. Frederica is unable to defend herself against lies. She “sees herself as a caged or netted beast.... The net is made by words which do not describe what she feels is happening.” Babbletower is exonerated on appeal.
In parallel to Babel Tower’s beginning about beginnings, A Whistling Woman begins with a beginning about endings. The novel opens with the conclusion of the belabored fantasy, Flight North, begun in Babel Tower. Populated by a talking thrush and bird-women called The Whistlers, it makes a daunting author’s note, signifying symbolic complexity, perhaps off-putting to those who haven’t read the previous volumes, and warning those who have that closure is not ahead. At its end, we discover that its author Agatha, single mother, flat mate of Frederica and Leo in South London, has been reading aloud. The children are “appalled” when its abrupt finale leaves many mysteries unresolved:

There was no satisfaction in the end of the story. It was as though they had all been stabbed. Agatha looked shaken by their vehemence; but closed her mouth, and closed her hands on the book.

She tells them her story ends where she always meant it to end.
Two interconnected tragedies follow that interplay in diverse ways and include established and new characters. Both embroil members of three New Age-influenced milieu. The domain of liberal, humanist values includes academia, Frederica’s family, friends, fellow workers, and even student leaders in an absurdity of distortions and deceptions. The politicos, consisting of “anti-university” revolutionaries, hippies, and hangers-on encamped on the university’s outskirts, are both anti-intellectual and, in practice, anti- their own stated values. The religious cult blooming nearby attracts the seriously spiritual, the merely religious, the mentally ill, and the undercover sociologist. Hostilities within this New Age universe create the explosive climax.
The action takes place in Frederica’s native Yorkshire where her sometime lover, John Ottakar, has taken an academic post at North Yorkshire University, newly established on the campus where The Virgin in the Garden occurred. The vice-chancellor is organizing an international multidisciplinary Body-Mind Conference which will discuss questions about learning and intelligence. The conference is intended to fulfill a number of needs: the new university’s requirement for prestige, students’ demands for academic relevance, and the vice-chancellor’s interest in the quest for a Theory of Everything. These ambitions will all be debased by the self-important politicos who disrupt the conference and run riot for a few destructive hours that go down in the university’s history as the Battle.
Nearby a Quaker therapeutic community called the Spirit’s Tigers moves into a member’s mansion. First met in Babel Tower, this group involves Marcus, Gideon Farrar, and, eventually, the chancellor‘s wife. Under the influence of a charismatic self-proclaimed Manichean named Joshua Lamb, the group gradually transforms itself into a religious cult. Joshua is a former mental patient, who as a young boy was spared when his father murdered their family. Byatt’s chronicle of Joshua’s gradual mental and emotional reorganization of this horrendous trauma into a psychotic world view is equally compelling and repulsive because Joshua is neither a freak nor a fraud, but a man genuinely tormented by his demons and genuinely seeking God. This portrayal, both compassionate and unflinching, makes the book worth reading even for those unwilling to approach the tetralogy as a whole. Its depiction of charisma – and its destructive effect on those drawn to it – mirrors that of Culvert in Babbletower. Here again, the force is loose in the world, not confined to metafiction.
Frederica, now 33, ties this all together, “A pompous and superficial sort of a clever girl, with a failed marriage behind her,” as another character describes her. But Frederica is an observer not a participant in the events – she attends their finale as a reporter. She is also an observer, rather than a participant, in the exuberance of 1960s London: “She is not a child of her time in this.” Having abandoned her literary pretensions, she publishes her pastiche, Laminations. Critics declare it “clever,” but readers ignore it. Published concurrently, Agatha’s fantasy is ignored by critics, but becomes a word-of-mouth bestseller. Yet Frederica becomes a mini-celebrity as moderator of a dreadfully highbrow, BBC television talk show called “Through the Looking-Glass.” Like the novel itself, the show is “a rapid and elaborate joke.” Frederica wears Laura Ashley paisley dresses to look like a “knowing and very adult Alice.” On this stage Byatt scripts a multi-media exploration of late-1960s culture, both serious and pseudo, always commenting on the plot lines. Discussion trios include Charles Dodgson, nonsense, and an antique mirror; Sigmund Freud, creativity, and a Picasso ceramic. Male viewers squirm with discomfort as women guests frankly discuss their periods during an episode on George Eliot, Doris Lessing’s idea of “Free Women,” and a Tupperware bowl. The best of this attains the comic exuberance of an Anglicized Carl Hiassen, gleefully justifying the call in Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot for “A total ban on novels in which the main character is a journalist or television presenter.”
When her lover requests that she give up her London career to join him in Yorkshire, Frederica confronts the conflict between romantic attachment and “being a woman with a solid place in the world,” as she sees Agatha. Having sought this from the first novel, Frederica thinks, “You were exhausted by trying to make a life, trying to make sense, and by the life of the young, which depended on your own no-longer-young energy.”
For Frederica, by the novel’s end, “Things became untrue, disproved overnight.” So what ending is this? As Romantic Ending, Frederica is pregnant and contemplating life with her new lover. This satisfies the romantic impulse, but betrays Frederica’s struggle through the four novels. As Desultory Ending, Frederica is wearing “one of her Laura Ashley dresses from ‘Through the Looking-Glass’” to cover her bulging belly. At the insistence of 10 year old Leo, she has just informed a man she had bedded casually of her pregnancy.
In either case, the lovers “haven’t the slightest idea what to do” but “shall think of something.”
To a reader unfamiliar with the earlier books, this ending seems wide-open: her lover even talks about an opportunity in Australia. But the prologue of Still Life depicts Frederica ten years later with a different position, but still working for the BBC in London. Frederica’s education and emancipation enable her to balance motherhood and career, and to make choices about sex and reproduction. But in the end, neither education nor emancipation relieves sense and sensibility from the force of passionate unreason.
As Peter Shaffer’s Mozart is accused of composing with “too many notes,” A Whistling Woman has been accused of having “simply too many ideas.” Its symbols can be bewildering – spiders, webs, spirals, twins, mirrors, helixes, fires, birds. True, the birds become more maddening than threatening, but nothing is remiss; Byatt is using every possible postmodern trope as homage and as spoof.
A Whistling Woman makes a strong counterpart to Babel Tower in scope and complexity, and outdoes it in garish excess. The religious cult story ends in conflagration, as cults do; the demonstration ends in riot and destruction, as happens. The woman living-her-sexually-liberated-life story ends in pregnancy, of course. Lively embellishment makes A Whistling Woman the most lurid and unreal of the novels, the satyr play. Babel Tower, by comparison, confines its sensationalism, and its violence – with the important exception of husband abusing wife – to the embedded fiction Babbletower.
A Whistling Woman shares with the other volumes Byatt’s poetic prose, her skills at Flaubertian description, and her extraordinary emotional force. The narrative may transfix or annoy, assuming the viewpoint she is expressing. Her skill as ventriloquist was first exercised in Possession’s faithful Victorian poetry, neglected by so many readers. Here, as in Babel Tower, unsympathetic voices speak with disquieting reality.
Notably, the most powerfully written scenes in the novels seldom involve the annoying Frederica. But she shines in the light of Byatt’s flair for depicting friendships between men and women, and for conveying the complex pleasures of reading. Frederica is appealing in her friendship with Alexander Wedderburn, and engaging when reading, writing, and teaching about reading.
Each novel captures the unique sensibility of a specific historical moment in the life and times of Frederica Potter. Each, with its distinctive structure, plumbs personal histories of great intimacy. Each is an integral part of a more comprehensive whole, expressing Byatt’s complex thinking while sustaining the historical and narrative momentum. The novels reflect each other pair to pair, and mirror each other within the pairs, composing a unified work of remarkable self-reflective complexity. Undoubtedly, taken together as a single work, Byatt’s four novels work better than they do on their own.

Does this all seem long-winded? Well, that’s Byatt. (And so your reviewer.) Read it or not – most readers, she has said, are not going to read every word – she’s got to get it all in. And annoying or not, there’s something to be said for this. Possession, the movie, was disappointing because it didn’t get it all/enough in. Mysteries are often most mysterious in the details, the subplots. The Name of the Rose suggests itself.
Do not doubt that Byatt is worth reading for “pleasure of a complicated kind.” If A Whistling Woman is not for the first-time Byatt reader, any of her briefer works would make a likely introduction, particularly the historical novellas Insects & Angels, or, my vote for her best novel yet, The Biographer’s Tale, an enigma of the Borges variety.
At the beginning of A Whistling Woman, Agatha’s voice quavers as she says “This is where I always meant it to end.” There have been calls by reviewers and Frederica fans for Byatt to revisit Frederica and answer unsettled questions. But I hope she is finished with Frederica. Not because Frederica has become tiresome, which she has. Nor because A Whistling Woman is not her best novel, which it isn’t (the consensus remains with Babel Tower). No, I hope she’s done with Frederica because, having completed her project, she is free to write her best novel yet.

–C. J. Sullivan Reynolds
13 December 2003

Additional Information

Byatt Writings Referenced:

How We Lost Our Sense of Smell – Byatt’s aromatic essay; from the Guardian, 1 September 2001.

Scenes from a Provincial Life – Byatt’s essay on Madame Bovary; from the Guardian, 27 July 2002.

Harry Potter and the Childish Adult – Byatt’s controversial take on Harry Potter and his fans. From the New York Times, 11 July 2003.

Byatt Resources:

A. S. Byatt – An evolving Byatt resource that contains extensive bibliographical information.

Salon Interview – Laura Miller interviews Byatt for Salon.com

Amazon.com Search – Search Amazon.com for books and related material on A.S. Byatt.


Email C. J. Sullivan Reynolds at: cjsreynolds@pacific.net

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.