Dr Barbara Franchi a Teaching Fellow in our Department of English Studies explores how, in her later fiction, A.S. Byatt used northern locations as emblems of the climate crisis and how human actions have detrimental effects on the whole planet.
A.S. Byatt’s highbrow fiction has a vast, international appeal. The writer, who died in November, was known for her voracious appetite for knowledge and her insatiable curiosity.
Inspiration for her work draws from as diverse sources as Elizabeth I, Norse mythology, Amazonian butterflies and Matisse’s paintings. And she turned her hand to many different styles, from Victorian poetry to fairy tales.
In their statement about Byatt’s death, her publisher, Penguin, called her “a girl from Sheffield with a strong European sensibility”. That European sensibility is evident in her writing and interviews, including on the topic of Brexit.
There are several distinctly northern images in her writing. Possession features jet brooches bought in Whitby. There are recollections of Sheffield in her work of auto-fiction, Sugar (1987). She explores memories of a traumatic childhood in a mining town in The Children’s Book (2018). These examples suggest how pivotal and constant the northern presence is across Byatt’s early and more recent work alike.
In her writing, the north of England became a space where the relation between humans, nature and culture could be put to the test. More than simply recurrent themes, in her later fiction especially, northern locations become emblems of the climate crisis and of how human actions have detrimental effects on the whole planet.
Filey Beach in Yorkshire is one such landmark. In The Virgin in the Garden (1978), a vicar named Daniel Orton courts Stephanie Potter on this very beach. Here, they share their first kiss and decide to get married, but, in the midst of the salty, freezing northern wind sweeping “six miles of sand”, they are reminded of how small and impotent humans are when confronted with the formidable forces of nature.
Daniel and Stephanie’s romance is forged by natural elements and (spoiler alert) is later interrupted at the end of the sequel, Still Life (1985). Stephanie is electrocuted by her fridge after trying to save a sparrow who has entered the kitchen, therefore bringing nature quite literally where it does not, or cannot belong: the 1950s family home.
The same beach reappears in a much later tale, Sea Story (2013). This story shows how, in times of climate emergencies, a romance as hopeful as Stephanie and Daniel’s is no longer possible.
Young Harold, an ecopoet and sea lover, and marine biologist Laura seem destined for one another. But before their romance can properly blossom, Laura leaves for fieldwork in the Caribbean.
Byatt twists the proverbial message in a bottle trope into tragedy: Harold sends her a plastic bottle of Perrier which ends up in the Caribbean Trash Vortex, causing the deaths of birds and fish, and, ultimately, of Laura herself.
Harold, who, as in most cases of “slow violence”, never finds out what happened to Laura, marries a local woman and engages in small campaigns to clean the beach of plastic refuse. The beach becomes not just the counterpoint to the home where love grows and ends, but a place where an act as simple as throwing a bottle into the sea causes death and destruction on the other side of the planet.
The story does not end on a hopeful note, but underlines instead how plastics in the ocean live for far longer than humans: polluting for eternity.
Similarly, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (2011) closes with the end of the second world war, but gestures towards the impending climate catastrophe that post-war normality, industrial farming and consumer culture would accelerate. The flowers Byatt’s alter ego passes as a child are “made extinct”, and peace for humans is an empty word if it cannot guarantee that there is a thriving planet to live on.
For a writer best known for her postmodern pastiches, Byatt’s eco-fictions read as pessimistic, as they lose the joyful aspect of storytelling that her earlier work displays. Yet, it is precisely this lucid exposure of the irreversible damages that humans cause to the planet that makes of Byatt a powerful and relevant voice in understanding the world we inhabit.
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