The recent renaissance of British
Prizewinning novelist A. S. Byatt visited Emory in
March as the sixth biennial Richard Ellmann Lecturer in
familiar with the work of literary critic, reviewer, and novelist
A. S. Byatt
are, like Byatt herself, curious about human nature.
Human thoughts and human subjects are her proper subjects,
said Anne Fogarty from University College in Dublin, a member
of the international selection committee that brought Byatt to
Emory in March for the sixth biennial Richard Ellmann Lectures
in Modern Literature. The three-part lecture series attracted
more than two hundred attendees.
Byatt, who is best known outside academe for her Booker Prizewinning
novel, Possession: A Romance, and the 1996 film of her
novel Angels & Insects, is passionate about writing; about
natural history and the sciences; about the Victorian era, art,
color, language, and rhythm; and about the recent rebirth of the
British historical novel. During her lecture series, Fathers,
Forefathers, Ancestors: The Surprising Renaissance of the British
Historical Novel, she presented what she termed a galloping
survey of the genre.
The lectures were celebrated with a pig roast at Lullwater, presided
over by Goodrich C. White Professor of English Ronald
Schuchard. The opening lecture, Fathers, discussed
British novels of World War II written by those born after the
I work in a very disciplined way if left to my own
devices, which I usually am not. I read myself into writing.
Something easy, then more difficult, until my brain is moving
very fast. If you do this every day, [your writing] moves
along. If you do not, you lose it.
great writers with whom she converses:
Coleridge, [George] Eliot, [Wallace] Stevens, Proust,
Balzac. I feel particularly as if IÕm having a conversation
with Eliot, and I know she wouldnt have liked me because
she didnt like passionate women disciples.
dubious honor? One of ten distinguished
white poohbahs (Newsweek, August 3, 1998) on
the advisory board of the Modern
Library, which in 1998 released a controversial list
of the one hundred best twentieth-century novels in English.
One recurring theme, Byatt said, is imagery from those writers
childhoods and films of secret agents and heroes captured behind
enemy lines, of the Spitfire pilot coming down in flames
or alone in the clouds, and brave men cracking under interrogation.
Forefathers addressed the researched novel and nineteenth-century
fiction as seen through the lens of modern times. Byatt suggested
that the authors of these novels are ventriloquists
who give voices to literary voices and who close the
gulf between the vocabulary of criticism and the feel of
As an innocent reader, I learned to listen again and again
to text, she said. Her own historical novel, Possession,
plays with the Victorian rhythms by which I am haunted.
Ancestors concluded the series with a discussion
of the Darwinian concept of time as a constructive force in both
the narrative and the ethic of the novel. Complementing the series
were a screening of Angels & Insects and a panel with Byatt
and Philip and Belinda Haas, the films director and producer,
as well as a reading from Byatts most recent collection
of short stories, Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice.
Byatts lectures will be published for Emory University by
Harvard University Press this fall.S.P.