This book has been sitting on my shelves for about six months, and so many people kept telling me that I would like it, I finally caved. I have been on a winning streak when it comes to books lately, so I was hoping this would continue said streak. A book about the things that I study at university – how could I possibly not love it?
Roland Mitchell is a young academic working on an obscure Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, for his boss, Professor Blackadder. One day, he discovers documents about a possible romance between Ash and Christobel La Motte, a just as obscure feminist poetry of the same era. Attempting to work out what this might mean for Ash scholarship, Mitchell meets Maud Bailey, and the two of them try to piece together this intriguing Victorian mystery.
To be honest, when I read for pleasure, that’s exactly what I want to do. I don’t want to have to think about the things that I could be just as easily writing an essay on. That’s not to say that I don’t read heavy books – I like to think I’m a pretty intelligent reader. And it’s not that I didn’t ‘get’ this book – maybe it’s just because it’s the end of the semester, and I don’t want to think about literary criticism any more.
This book certainly ticks all the right boxes when it comes to that aspect of this novel. I found it to be a fairly biting criticism of the literary establishment of the time, with the debate between literary biographers and literary critics very much at the forefront. Byatt herself seems to be on the side of the critics – those who are biographers are looked down upon as not quite as good as those who simply study the text itself. Roland and Maud certainly spend a large amount of time reassuring each other that what they are doing will change the criticism of their respective poets, and that this is not biographical work they are doing. Byatt also pokes fun at the postmodernists, the feminists and the post-structuralists. She uses their jargon to purposely obfuscate (see what I did there?) the rants they go on to try and convince other people that their field of research is somehow better than another.
While this book certainly talks a lot about literary circles, it is also a love story. ‘A Romance’, as the subtitle proclaims. Unfortunately, though, I felt that this aspect of the novel falls somehow short. Roland and Maud’s blossoming romance is mirrored through that of Ash and La Motte, though the latter is far more convincing. Roland and Maud are far too busy to see what is happening right in front of them, and their work is perhaps the major factor in this. The ending, which I won’t spoil, however, does provide some relief in this front, when Roland makes a pretty important discovery surrounded by stray cats. Byatt’s message here is clear – literary criticism is not everything. Quite the opposite, in fact.
A.S. Byatt’s most well-known work is a long, dense read. This does not make it bad, I’m just warning you. There’s a lot about literary criticism – and a lot about late 80s movements in said field – that might go over the heads of some people who may not be so familiar with these things. I certainly didn’t understand half of it, and that’s what my university degree is about. Give it a go if you like, but be prepared for the long haul.