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The Academic Fictionist: A. S. Byatt

A. S. Byatt’s stories thread through notable periods in British history and defy expectations with intellectual characters and fantastical elements. Throughout the decades, A. S. Byatt has woven a rich tapestry of fictional works inspired by real-life authors and artists as well as influential literary movements.


AS Byatt

Antonia Susan Byatt (née Drabble) was born on August 24, 1936, in Sheffield, a city in South Yorkshire, England. Her father was a judge, and her late mother was a Cambridge teacher turned housewife whose domineering personality greatly affected the Drabble children. Byatt is also the elder sister of fellow novelist Margaret Drabble, each of whom, press have reported, harbors some enmity toward the other.


After attending boarding school in Sheffield High School and The Mount School in York, Byatt went on to take her undergraduate studies in Newnham College, Cambridge, and her postgraduate studies in Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia, and Somerville College, Oxford. She taught English and American literature at University College, London, from 1972 to 1983 before becoming a full-time writer. Nevertheless, Byatt would maintain her academic streak and later achieve several honors, including honorary doctors of letters at Bradford and Cambridge as well as an honorary fellow title at the London Institute.


Byatt published her first novel, The Shadow of a Sun, in 1964, followed by The Game in 1967. However, her claim to fame as a novelist began after the publication of The Virgin in the Garden in 1978, the first of a four-part series about a family in Yorkshire, set during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The novel revolves around two intelligent sisters and explores such themes as strained familial relationships, speculated to mirror those of Byatt herself, and hardship in the midst of war. The rest of the series includes Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996), and A Whistling Woman (2002). Another notable work of Byatt’s is Possession, published in 1990, a romance-slash-literary-thriller about two scholars who investigate the relationship between two well-known Victorian poets. Possession received critical acclaim and was awarded the Booker Prize and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize.


AS Byatt Books

Apart from novels, Byatt has also written several short story collections, including Sugar and Other Stories (1987), The Matisse Stories (1993), The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994), Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998), and Little Black Book of Stories (2003). Apart from fiction altogether, she has also written such critical essays and works as Iris Murdoch: A Critical Study (1976), Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time (1970), and Portraits in Fiction (2001).


In a 1991 New York Times interview, shortly after the publication of Possession, Byatt mentioned the names of some of her literary heroes, including “Shakespeare, Donne, Balzac, Henry James, Coleridge, Browning, and her idol, Iris Murdoch.” Byatt commented, “All my heroes wrote long sentences. I like people who are interested in the way the mind puts the world together.” In the same interview, Byatt remarked on the importance of facts in formulating fiction and in writing as a whole. “I think that the immense mass of information constantly battering one about is one of the great joys of this word—and also its great terror. Very hard to write about, but I think you should have a go. I don’t only write about English literature. I also write about chaos theory and . . . ants. I can understand ants.”


Possession

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