The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt
(Vintage, 1978, 432 pages)
I love A. S. Byatt’s novels and short stories. The Virgin in the Garden is one of her earlier novels (to this point I had only read things she had written since the 1990s). Byatt definitely matured as a story teller with more recent novels like Possession and The Children’s Book, but The Virgin in the Garden has the same combination of intellectual history, evocative descriptions, carefully drawn characters, and surprising humor.
The novel is set in northern England in 1952 and 53, the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation. The action is centered on the preparation and performance of a local play about the original Queen Elizabeth. The events surrounding the play instigate all kinds of relational and emotional crises among the community of the Blesford Ride School. In particular, turmoil unfolds among the siblings of the Potter family as Stephanie, the oldest, turns her back on an academic career to marry the local curate, Marcus, the youngest, is plagued by strange visions that leave him traumatized and withdrawn, and Frederica, the emotionally volatile middle child, gains a leading role in the play and falls in love with the playwright.
The plot of the book drags at points, but the time that Byatt takes to subtly develop relationships between characters and to evoke a strong sense of place pays off as the drama accelerates toward the end. I love the way she express the tensions between intellectual and domestic life as felt by most of the characters in different ways. In 2002, Byatt wrote A Whistling Woman, the final of four books that follow the life of Frederica Potter. The best recommendation I can give for The Virgin in the Garden is to say that I’m very excited to have three more books to read about these characters.