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A S Byatt: Babel Tower

The third in the Frederica Potter series sees Frederica married and divorced and also sees Byatt romping through a whole range of ideas – language, obviously, as the title implies, but also education, sex, obscenity, marriage, what is art, religion, twins, the Sixties, the changing role of women and, of course, different perceptions of the same thing by different people.

This novel is set in the Swinging Sixties in England and sees Frederica married, with a son, Leo, to Nigel, a country squire who probably considers himself decent but is old-fashioned and, worse, cruel. Not only does he keep Frederica confined and away from her (primarily male) friends but beats her up on more than one occasion and gives her VD, from his visits to whores. When she finally runs away (with her son), he pursues her and strikes not only her but her father and her brother-in-law. A lot of the book is concerned with how she makes a life for herself and her son post-Nigel and how Nigel is determined to prevent her or, at least, restrict her.

But this is London in the Sixties and Byatt uses this to study a whole range of ideas. Frederica works for a publisher and discovers a young writer – Jude Mason – and his book, wittily called Babbletower, from which we get sizeable chunks. The book is a dystopia, about an idealistic community that goes, inevitably, very wrong because of, also inevitably, men trying to control the community, using brutal sex as their means of control. The book is compared to de Sade and Charles Fourier, though it reminds me of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series. The book is prosecuted for obscenity, which gives a basis for discussion of what is art, what is permissible and what is obscenity and what is not.

Alexander Wedderburn, the playwright from Virgin the Garden is part of a committee studying education and we follow some of this committee’s activities and hear the discussions about education – rote learning versus free-thinking, for example. The secretary of the committee becomes Frederica’s landlady and friend (both are single mothers), which leads to extensive discussions on the role of women (and, of course, by extension, men), particularly the work/mother issue.

But, as the title suggests, it is language that is a key theme here and, in particular, how we use language or, in many cases, misuse language to say what we mean – be it in art, formal rituals, personal relationships or every day. Byatt examines legal language and how it distorts, the language of art, the language of dress and appearance (which clearly changed in the Sixties, causing much confusion), the language of religion, the language of academics, the language of civil servants, the language of education, the language of sociologists, the language of men and women, the language of cruelty, the language of obscenity – they all come under her scrutiny. She shows clearly that, all too often, language leads not to communication but obfuscation and certainly to different interpretations of the same thing by different people. Another fine novel from Byatt.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Chatto and Windus