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A. S. Byatt

Byatt in Lyon in 2007
Byatt in Lyon in 2007
Born Antonia Susan Drabble
(1936-08-24) 24 August 1936 (age 86)
Sheffield, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
  • Critic
  • novelist
  • short story writer
  • poet
Alma mater
Period 1964–
Notable works
  • The Virgin in the Garden
  • Still Life
  • Possession: A Romance
  • Morpho Eugenia
  • The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye
  • Babel Tower
  • The Biographer's Tale
  • A Whistling Woman
  • The Children's Book
  • Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
Notable awards Booker Prize
Aga Khan Prize for Fiction
Shakespeare Prize
James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Erasmus Prize
Park Kyong-ni Prize
Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award
Ian Byatt
(m. 1959; div. 1969)

Peter Duffy
Children 4

Dame Antonia Susan Duffy DBE (née Drabble; born 24 August 1936), known professionally by her former marriage name as A. S. Byatt (/ˈb.ət/ BY-ət), is an English critic, novelist, poet and short story writer. Her books have been widely translated, into more than thirty languages.

After attending the University of Cambridge, she married in 1959 and moved to Durham. It was during Byatt's time at university that she began work on her first two novels, subsequently published by Chatto & Windus as Shadow of a Sun (1964; reprinted in 1991 with its originally intended title, The Shadow of the Sun) and The Game (1967). Byatt took a teaching job in 1972 so as to help pay for the education of her only son. In the same week she accepted, a drink-driver killed her son as he walked home from school. He was 11 years of age. Byatt spent a symbolic 11 years teaching (the same length of time as her son had lived), then began full-time writing in 1983. The Virgin in the Garden (1978) was the first of The Quartet, a tetralogy of novels that continued with Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002).

Byatt's novel Possession: A Romance received the 1990 Booker Prize, whilst her short story collection The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994) received the 1995 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. Her novel The Children's Book was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize and won the 2010 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Her critical work includes two studies of Dame Iris Murdoch (who was a friend and mentor), Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965) and Iris Murdoch: A Critical Study (1976). Her other critical studies include Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time (1970) and Portraits in Fiction (2001).

Byatt was awarded the Shakespeare Prize in 2002, the Erasmus Prize in 2016, the Park Kyong-ni Prize in 2017 and the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award in 2018. She has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Early life

Byatt was born in Sheffield as Antonia Susan Drabble, the eldest child of John Drabble, QC, and Kathleen Bloor, a scholar of Browning. Her sisters are the novelist Margaret Drabble and the art historian Helen Langdon. Her brother Richard Drabble KC is a barrister. The Drabble father participated in the placement of Jewish refugees in Sheffield during the 1930s. The mother was a Shavian and the father a Quaker. As a result of the bombing of Sheffield during the Second World War the family moved to York.

Byatt was educated at two independent boarding schools, Sheffield High School and The Mount School, a Quaker boarding school at York. She noted in an interview in 2009, "I am not a Quaker, of course, because I'm anti-Christian and the Quakers are a form of Christianity but their religion is wonderful — you simply sat in silence and listened to the nature of things."

A "deeply unhappy" child, Byatt did not enjoy boarding school, citing her need to be alone and her difficulty in making friends. She attended Newnham College, Cambridge, Bryn Mawr College (in the United States), and Somerville College, Oxford. Having studied French, German, Latin, and English at school, she later studied Italian while attending Cambridge so that she could read Dante. "This means that I can actually read European literature with its own rhythms even if I have to have a side-by-side text for the difficult bits", she said in 1998.

Byatt lectured in the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of the University of London (1962–71), the Central School of Art and Design and from 1972 to 1983 at University College London. She began writing full-time in 1983.

Personal life

Byatt married Ian Charles Rayner Byatt in 1959 and moved to Durham. The marriage was dissolved in 1969. The couple had a daughter together, as well as a son, Charles, who was killed by a drink-driver at the age of 11 whilst walking home from school. She spoke of her son's death and its influence on her lecturing and subsequent career. Byatt has two daughters with her second husband, Peter Duffy.

Byatt is an agnostic and a grandmother. She is interested in snooker.


Byatt has been influenced by Henry James and George Eliot as well as Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Coleridge, Tennyson and Robert Browning, in merging realism and naturalism with fantasy. She is not an admirer of the Brontë family, admitting to finding their "joint imagination absolutely appalling". Nor does she like Christina Rossetti. She is ambivalent about D. H. Lawrence and also stated: "I don't like the English gentlemanly high-church sort of refined person, except for George Herbert, who is perfect and unexpected". She had learnt Jane Austen off before her teens.

In her books, Byatt alludes to, and builds upon, themes from Romantic and Victorian literature. She cited art historian John Gage's book on the theory of colour as one of her favourite books to reread. Frank Kermode she regarded as "writing criticism about a literature that one might hope to add things to. In a way, what Kermode said William Golding and Lawrence Durrell were doing was more important to me than what Golding or Durrell were doing", Byatt said in her interview for The Paris Review's "The Art of Fiction" series.



Byatt wrote a lot whilst attending boarding school but had most of it burnt before she left.

She began writing her first novel whilst at the University of Cambridge, where she did not attend many lectures but when she did passed the time attempting to write a novel, which — given her limited experience of life — involved a young woman at university trying to write a novel, a novel, her novel, which — she knew — was "no good". She left it in a drawer when she was done. After departing Cambridge, she spent one year as a postgraduate student in the United States and there began her second novel, The Game, continuing to write it at Oxford when she returned to England. After getting married in 1959 and moving to Durham, she left The Game aside and resumed work on her earlier novel. She sent it to literary critic John Beer, whom she had befriended whilst at Cambridge and, she later said, "whose ideas, I think, run through almost everything I write". Beer sent Byatt's novel to the independent book publishing company Chatto & Windus. From there Cecil Day-Lewis wrote her a response and invited her to lunch at The Athenaeum, where he shared his thoughts on "poetry and Yeats and Auden and Shakespeare, and it was the literary conversation I had never had. When we got out on the pavement I rather tremblingly said, Might you be thinking of publishing this novel? He said, Oh yes, of course, of course". Day-Lewis was Byatt's first editor; D. J. Enright would succeed him.

Shadow of a Sun, Byatt's first novel, is about a girl and her father and was published in 1964. It was reprinted in 1991 with its originally intended title, The Shadow of the Sun, intact. The Game, published in 1967, concerned the dynamics between two sisters. The reception for Byatt's first books became confused with her sister's writing, as well as her sister's quicker rate of publication.

The family theme is continued in The Quartet, Byatt's tetralogy of novels, which begins with The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and continues with Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002). Her quartet is inspired by D. H. Lawrence, particularly The Rainbow and Women in Love. The family portrayed in the quartet are from Yorkshire. Byatt said the idea for The Virgin in the Garden came in part from an extramural class she taught in which she had read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and in part from her time living in Durham in 1961, the year in which her son was born. The book was an attempt to understand what could be achieved if Middlemarch were written in the middle of the twentieth century. Byatt's book features a powerful death scene, which she invented in 1961 (inspired by Byatt's reading of Angus Wilson's book The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot and the accident in its opening), a death scene which has drawn complaints from numerous readers for its vividness. Describing mid-20th-century Britain, the books follow the life of Frederica Potter, a young intellectual studying at Cambridge at a time when women were heavily outnumbered by men at that university, and then tracing her journey as a divorcée with a young son as he makes a new life for herself in London. Byatt says some of the characters in her fiction represent her "greatest terror which is simple domesticity... I had this image of coming out from under and seeing the light for a bit and then being shut in a kitchen, which I think happened to women of my generation." Like Babel Tower, A Whistling Woman touches on the utopian and revolutionary dreams of the 1960s. Byatt described herself as "a naturally pessimistic animal": "I don't believe that human beings are basically good, so I think all utopian movements are doomed to fail, but I am interested in them."

Also an accomplished short story writer, Byatt's first published collection was Sugar and Other Stories (1987). The Matisse Stories (1993) features three pieces, each describing a painting by the eponymous painter, each the tale of an initially smaller crisis that shows the long-present unravelling in the protagonists' lives. The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, published in 1994, is a collection of fairy tales. Byatt's other short story collections are Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, published in 1998, and Little Black Book of Stories, published in 2003. Her books reflect a continuous interest in zoology, entomology, geology, and Darwinism among other repeated themes. She is also interested in linguistics and takes a keen interest in the translation of her books. Byatt said: "I can't say how important it was to me when Angela Carter said 'I grew up on fairy stories — they're much more important to me than realist narratives'. I hadn't had the nerve to think that until she said it, and I owe her a great deal". Carter, in an earlier (first) meeting with Byatt after a Stevie Smith poetry reading, had dismissed Byatt's work, so this change of heart vindicated Byatt's approach to writing and Byatt readily acknowledged it.

Possession (1990) parallels the emerging relationship of two contemporary academics with the lives of two (fictional) 19th-century poets whom they are researching. It won the 1990 Booker Prize and was adapted for a film released in 2002.

Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia was included in Angels & Insects (1992), which was turned into the eponymous 1995 film; that film received an Academy Award for Best Costume Design nomination in 1997.

Byatt's novel The Biographer's Tale, published in 2000, she originally intended as a short story titled "The Biography of a Biographer", based on her notion of a biographer's life in a library investigating another person's life. This she developed into writing about a character called Phineas G. Nanson, who is attempting to learn about a biographer for a book he intends to write but who can only locate fragments of his three unwritten biographies instead: on Galton, Ibsen and Linnaeus. Phineas Gilbert Nanson (to give him his full name) is called after an insect and is a near anagram of Galton, Ibsen and Linnaeus, though Byatt said this was an "uncanny" coincidence which she did not realise until afterwards.

The Children's Book, published in 2009, is a novel spanning from 1895 until the end of the First World War and centring on the fictional writer Olive Wellwood. She is based upon E. Nesbit. Another character — Herbert Methley — is a combination of H. G. Wells and D. H. Lawrence, according to Byatt. The novel also features Rupert Brooke, Emma Goldman, Auguste Rodin, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde, all appearing as themselves. Byatt initially intended to title the book as The Hedgehog, the White Goose and the Mad March Hare.

Byatt said in 2009: "I think of writing simply in terms of pleasure. It's the most important thing in my life, making things. Much as I love my husband and my children, I love them only because I am the person who makes these things. I, who I am, is the person that has the project of making a thing. Well, that's putting it pompously — but constructing. I do see it in sort of three-dimensional structures. And because that person does that all the time, that person is able to love all these people." Her preference for "making things" is also present in a 2003 interview, when she said: "I don't like to talk about creative writing, which is a vestigial religious tic in me. If anything is created, God does it. I don't. I make things--making is a nice word". She writes at her home in West London and at another house in the Cévennes in Southern France, where she spends her summers. She does not write her fiction on a computer, she does so by hand, though she has deployed a computer for non-fiction articles. According to a 1991 unpublished interview with the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Byatt said she began her writing day at around 10 a.m., prompting herself by reading something easy and then something harder: "And then after a bit if I read something difficult that's really interesting I get this itch to start writing. So what I like to do is to write from about half past twelve, one, through to about four". At this point, she said, she began reading again.

Awards and honours

Byatt, pictured in Amsterdam in 2011

Byatt was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1990 New Year Honours, and was promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), "for services to Literature", in Elizabeth II's 1999 Birthday Honours.

She has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 2008, The Times named her on its list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

  • 1986: PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, for Still Life
  • 1990: Booker Prize for Fiction, for Possession: A Romance
  • 1990: The Irish Times International Fiction Prize, for Possession: A Romance
  • 1991: Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book), for Possession: A Romance


  • 1987–1988: Kingman Committee of Inquiry into the teaching of English Language, (Department of Education and Science)
  • 1984–1988: Management Committee, Society of Authors (Deputy chairman, 1986, Chairman, 1986–1988)
  • 1993–1998: Board, British Council (Member of Literature Advisory Panel, 1990–1998)
  • 2014: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Foreign Honorary Member



The following books form a tetralogy known as The Quartet: The Virgin in the Garden (1978), Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002).

  • 1964 – Shadow of a Sun, Chatto & Windus reprinted in 1991 with originally intended title The Shadow of the Sun
  • 1967 – The Game, Chatto & Windus
  • 1978 – The Virgin in the Garden, Chatto & Windus
  • 1985 – Still Life, Chatto & Windus
  • 1990 – Possession: A Romance, Chatto & Windus
  • 1996 – Babel Tower, Chatto & Windus
  • 2000 – The Biographer's Tale, Chatto & Windus
  • 2002 – A Whistling Woman, Chatto & Windus
  • 2009 – The Children's Book, Chatto & Windus
  • 2011 – Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, Canongate ISBN: 9780802120847

Short story collections

  • 1987 – Sugar and Other Stories, Chatto & Windus
  • 1993 – The Matisse Stories, Chatto & Windus
  • 1994 – The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, Chatto & Windus
  • 1998 – Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, Chatto & Windus
  • 2003 – Little Black Book of Stories, Chatto & Windus


  • 1992 – Angels and Insects, Chatto & Windus; comprises a pair of novellas:
    • Morpho Eugenia
    • The Conjugial Angel

Essays and biographies

  • 1965 – Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch, Chatto & Windus
  • 1970 – Wordsworth and Coleridge in their Time, Nelson
  • 1976 – Iris Murdoch: A Critical Study, Longman
  • 1989 – Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Poetry and Life, Hogarth Press
  • 1991 – Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings, Chatto & Windus
  • 1995 – Imagining Characters: Six Conversations about Women Writers (with Ignes Sodre), Chatto & Windus
  • 2000 – On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays, Chatto & Windus
  • 2001 – Portraits in Fiction, Chatto & Windus
  • 2016 – Peacock & Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, Knopf ISBN: 978-1101947470

Texts edited

  • 1989 – George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings (editor with Nicholas Warren), Penguin
  • 1995 – New Writing Volume 4 (editor with Alan Hollinghurst), Vintage
  • 1997 – New Writing Volume 6 (editor with Peter Porter), Vintage
  • 1998 – Oxford Book of English Short Stories (editor), Oxford University Press
  • 2001 – The Bird Hand Book (with photographs by Victor Schrager), Graphis Inc. (New York)

See also

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