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A S Byatt: The Virgin in the Garden

This novel confirms Byatt as one of the foremost English novelists, if that needed confirming. The story is set in the period just before and just after the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (June 1953), apart from the framing set fifteen years ahead. The action takes place in and around a minor boys public school (i.e. private boarding school) and, in particular, involves the family and colleagues of one of the teachers at the school, Bill Potter. Potter is an excellent teacher but decidedly dogmatic and demanding. He has high hopes for his children, which they seem determined not to fulfil, and will not allow them to lower for one second the high standards he has set for them.

The children are Stephanie, a brilliant student who got a first at Cambridge and could have had a career, as her father wished, in letters. Instead she chose to become a teacher at the local grammar school and, worst still, at least as far as her father is concerned, she marries the local impoverished curate (Potter resolutely refuses to attend the wedding) and soon is pregnant by him; Frederica, seventeen years old, in love with Alexander, but curious about sex be it with Alexander or, failing him, some other man, taking her A levels and ambitious to act in Alexander’s play and, finally, Marcus, a pupil at the school, a total loner, who starts having visions and who is befriended by Lucas Simmonds, a teacher at the school, the only one who understands him, who helps him in various psychic transmission experiments. Apart from Simmonds, the other main character and teacher at the school is Alexander Wedderburn who has written a play about Queen Elizabeth I, which is to be performed during the Coronation period and which, as we know from the opening scene set in 1968, is destined to become famous.

Byatt’s novel is far too complex to analyze here. She looks not only at psychological themes, such as the effect of a dominating father on his family (wife and children), changing sexual mores in Britain and the role of the middle-class in providing culture to the working classes and at socio-historical themes such as the change from a drab war culture to a brighter post-war culture, the renaissance – real or imagined – of a change of monarch and the role of arts in a culture but at more profound philosophical themes such as the place and meaning of religion in a culture, the nature of Englishness and the eternal question of what is reality and what is not.

And the Virgin in the Garden? This is just one of the many things that make this such a wonderful novel. On one level, it refers of course to Queen Elizabeth I, the subject of the play whose creation and production take up so much of the novel and, by extension, to Queen Elizabeth II, whose coronation is to usher in a new age. There are also Frederica, whose curiosity about sex leads to several fumbled attempts with older men before actually losing her virginity to one of the least likely characters; her sister, who, though she has already lost her virginity, is concerned that men seem more interested in marrying her than fucking her and, finally, their brother, Marcus who, though he has a brief homosexual encounter, loses his virginity in a more spiritual way, with fairly disastrous consequences. Byatt even has a bit of a laugh with the idea, poking fun at D H Lawrence whose views on virgins in gardens were a topic of conversation in England in the 1950s and generally mocking Lawrence’s view of earthy sex.

This is a book you will need to read several times to appreciate its worth and the many things that are going on in it but you will find it worth it.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Chatto and Windus