Towards the end of A.S. Byatt's first novel about the Potter family, The Virgin in the Garden (1978), the heroine and a clever friend debate the question of whether modern life has rendered some literary forms obsolete. The year is 1953, and the immediate occasion is the staging of a verse drama in the manner of Eliot and Fry; but the debate quickly turns to Frederica Potter's own hypothetical future as a writer. Though the 17-year-old Frederica insists that 'a form is as good as the writer who chooses it,' the slightly older and more sophisticated Edmund Wilkie is sceptical. You will think differently, he tells her, 'when you decide to be a lady novelist, and get set to write a long novel by Proust out of George Eliot, and it won't get up and walk.' The author of The Virgin in the Garden was also 17 in 1953, but Frederica Potter is not A.S. Byatt - even if subsequent novels have shown her giving up the same dissertation (on 17th-century religious metaphor) that her creator abandoned, or spending some time, as Byatt herself did, teaching literature to art students in London. Indeed, to judge by this final instalment in the series, Frederica was not just quibbling over the adjective when she defiantly responded: 'I won't be a lady novelist.' (When we last see her, she has hesitantly embarked on a career in television.) But while Frederica may have no intention of writing that 'long novel by Proust out of George Eliot', the long novels in which she figures are clearly marked by the genetic traces of that improbable couple - although their bloodlines have been hopelessly complicated by an array of literary ancestors, from 17th-century and Romantic poetry to the fiction of near contemporaries such as Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch. And even on occasions when the Potter novels don't 'get up and walk' - which they mostly do, with considerable energy - they are always acutely intelligent about their lineage.
LRB 28 November 2002 | PDF Download