A novel from Antonia Byatt is not just a book; it is a whole literary experience: and this is certainly true of Babel Tower [London: Chatto & Windus, 1996]. If one has read her earlier novels, The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, one picks up straightaway that this is the continuing story of the talented Frederica, with a depth and breadth of literary knowledge, empathy and understanding that is probably only matched by that of the author herself.
But Frederica seems now to be marooned in a country house, married to a rich businessman, mother of a young son who has two adoring maiden aunts, a doting housekeeper and a pony. The chance encounter with an old Cambridge fellow-student passing by on a walking holiday brings home to her not only that she is profoundly discontented but that her husband is unwilling to understand her craving for literary culture and the fact that she wants work. Indeed, he sees her present role as a wife and mother as more than sufficient for any woman. He is possessive and immediately jealous and suspicious of her old Cambridge friends who write to her after that chance encounter. Out of that leitmotif this whole symphonic story is created.
As Frederica’s story unfolds, the novel is intercut with a curious tale set in the 18th century that, at first, seems completely out of context with the main story. Given the period in which the book is set, the early 1960s, this tale might seem not just of dubious taste but even sufficiently obscene as to corrupt and deprave some of its readers within the meaning of the recent Obscene Publications Act. Skilfully, as Byatt unfolds Frederica’s story as she tries to establish her right to independence, the relevance of this second story is ‘explained’ and tied into the main narrative.
Frederica finds work as a part-time teacher and runs an adult evening class on ‘The Modern Novel’ and talks to her students about Lawrence and Forster. Given Byatt’s own immense knowledge and appreciation, her lectures and the discussion that follows are wonderfully full and rewarding to read and range across the whole field of the modern novel as well as into poetry of the previous two or three centuries. She explores, in her own way, Burroughs-like ‘cut-and-paste’ composition. Her reader’s reports on novels in a publisher’s slush pile which are part of the text are gems of humour combined with analytic understanding of what makes a worthwhile novel as well as enriching this one. Indeed one could argue that the whole book is a sophisticated collage of different texts with gradually emerging and strengthening intertextuality. (And even if one didn’t want to argue that, it is still an absorbing read!)
Another parallel strand is the account of a Government-initiated Inquiry into how children should learn to read and write and whether they should, or should not, be taught grammar. It might sound a little dry but in Byatt’s capable hands we meet the many and various members of the inquiry and explore their foibles with great enjoyment. Frederica is by this point sharing a house with young Agatha, an assistant secretary of the inquiry and responsible for drafting the report. As an elegant word picture of the educational concerns of the 1960s it is rich and satisfying.
As these blogs carefully avoid any sort of plot spoilers, there is not too much more to say than that Frederica has to endure a long, emotionally draining battle towards her own self-fulfillment and that every page of the journey is worth sharing with her. It isn’t necessary to have read the two previous ‘Frederica’ books to enjoy this one; nor is it essential to read the fourth volume, A Whispering Woman (2002) but wild horses aren’t going to stop me.