Byatt’s Birthday

Celebrating Byatt on her 80th birthday

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Byatt turns 80 today. I interviewed her some years back after she had finished The Children’s Book, a very long novel, short-listed for the Booker Prize. Set in the decades leading up to World War I, it follows several families (loosely based on the family and friends of the children’s writer, E. Nesbit) as they try to live according to exaggerated progressive and esthetic principles. Like all of Byatt’s works, this one is sprawling and erudite. Byatt herself seemed to know everything about everything — a modern incarnation of George Eliot, acutely aware of carrying this mantle. Byatt has written a lot but remains best known for her 1990 Booker award-winning novel, Possession. Academics of my vintage have a special fondness for this work since it tells the story of two literary scholars whose lives parallel those of the two 19th century poets they are researching. Both pairs fall in love in the face of obstacles. The book is filled with large swaths of Robert Browningesque and Christina Rossetti-ish poetry that Byatt composes for her characters. It’s a tour de force of mimicry though I admit to having skipped a good deal of it to get to the love story. I suspect that its appeal for many of us was that it was a dissertation wrapped in a bodice ripper. The 2002 movie, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart, captures the intellectually and emotionally overheated effect, making for a great grad student date flick. A dramatic moment in the interview was Byatt’s terse statement that she doesn’t speak to her sister, novelist Margaret Drabble. •

Feature image courtesy of Nationaal Historisch Museum via Flickr (Creative Commons). 

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Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her latest book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us about Empathy (formerly The Drexel InterView), has just been published by Yale UP.

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