On Histories and Stories Jacqueline McGrath Book Lovers

book On Histories and Stories

reviewed by Jacqueline McGrath

Published in Issue No. 52 ~ September, 2001

I first encountered the novels of A.S. Byatt in a British Literature
survey I took to fulfill a degree requirement in college. When the
professor assigned Possession, Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize
winner, she did so with an apologia to the class for its bulk, but
beseeched us to “read it anyway” as she hoped we would enjoy how it
managed to allude to everything we’d ever read before, all while
narrating a new romance that, my excited professor insisted, we “would
not be able to put down ’til the end.”

As we all know, reader-to-reader-, that’s the most enticing
endorsement one can make for a novel, and in the case of
, it proved more than true. Since that time, I’ve
enjoyed an intellectual love affair with Byatt through one dense novel
after the next, and as any other lover of her thoroughly literary and
constitutionally European stories and novels would agree, it is a
pleasure to complicate my liaisons with her books by reading her own
critical thoughts about the writing and traditions of writing
histories and stories.

A.S. Byatt’s On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays (Harvard
University Press 2001) is a collection of seven essays (most of which
were published or delivered as lectures prior to appearing here) and
an introduction by Byatt herself. Each essay exhaustively examines
either the process of storytelling, or the thematic relationships
between texts Byatt favors or considers a part of the canon. And what
composes the canon, Byatt argues in her introduction, should in fact
be less politicized than it has become. Byatt writes, “As George
Steiner wisely pointed out, making syllabuses, which is a political
activity, is different from making a canon.” She adds, to explain
herself, “A canon (which is not immutable) is (I think) what other
writers have wanted to keep alive, to go on reading, over time. There
is always a fear that good books may slip through the net of
syllabuses, or disappear when political priorities change” (2). This
is a connotation of that canon and a concern about literary politics I
can endorse as a syllabus maker myself – Byatt does not deny how
deeply politics are embedded in literary production but regrets the
subsumation of a writer’s art into its social politics.

This position, of course, springs from Byatt’s identity as a writer,
and as someone who reads as a writer does. As she further explains
this position, “I think those of us who write about modern writing
have a duty to keep the discussion open and fluent and very broad
based. We need to create new paradigms, which will bring new books,
new styles, new preoccupations to the attention of readers.” It is
certain that the essays in this collection, broad ranging and
appreciative as they are of a variety of writings and writers, fulfill
her description for what criticism should be.

The first three essays, “Fathers,” “Forefathers,” and “Ancestors,”
were delivered as part of the Richard Ellman memorial lectures at
Emory University, and as a result each essay is especially accessible
and lively, while retaining Byatt’s characteristically dense catalogue
of writers, thinkers, and critics.

“Fathers,” which refers to the historical themes of birth and
conception in the novels of, among others, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis,
and William Golding, examines the question Byatt poses at its start:
“why has history become imaginable and important again? Why are these
books not costume drama or nostalgia?” That is, throughout this
essay, Byatt traces the relationships between narrative and the
writing of history (a complicated relationship she explores to some
success in her most recent novel, The Biographer’s Tale, which
troubles the boundaries between biography, autobiography, fiction, and
creative nonfiction). Byatt notes that one motivation for the
“renaissance” of historical novels “has been the political desire to
write the histories of the marginalized, the forgotten, the
unrecorded.” But in “Fathers, ” Byatt explores the historical novel
through narratives of war, explaining that she “became interested in
the slippage between personal narratives and social or national

And so, the bulk of this first essay is devoted to quoting, at length,
from novels like Elizabeth Bowen’s In the Heat of the Day
(Vintage Paperback 1948), Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices
(Collins 1980), William Golding’s Free Fall (Faber and Faber
1956) and Julian Barnes’ Staring at the Sun (Picador 1987).
While Byatt succeeds in illustrating how these war narratives address
survival and conception in historical contexts, the essay at times
become a mere advertisement for passages she likes in various novels.
However, liking a turn of phrase or an image is as plausible a reason
as any for writing about a novel, so I am willing to tolerate these

The second piece, “Forefathers,” elaborates on this theme, opening
with the thesis that, “This essay is about the extraordinary variety
of distant pasts British writers are inventing, and the extraordinary
variety of forms in which those pasts have been constructed.”
Historical fictions like John Fowles’ A Maggot (Vintage
Paperback 1996), and Simon Schama’s Citizens (Penguin 1989),
which “caused a great deal of excitement by making a deliberate return
to the use of storytelling and characters in the writing of history,”
are both unabashedly celebrated by Byatt for their variety of
historical imagination. In fact, Byatt’s interest in the narrative
possibilities for telling history is evident in my own favorite
historical novel, Possession, which she admits “plays serious
games with the variety of possible forms for narrating the past,”
including in her novel conventions of the detective story, biography,
the romantic novel, the campus novel, and the epistolary novel, among

But in a shift away from examining the form of history and story, the
third essay, “Ancestors,” explores how Darwinian thought has affected
fiction, which she credits with profoundly shifting our “sense of the
nature of time and the nature of human relations,” and argues that
Darwin’s idea of adaptation over time is consistently resisted by much
modern fiction.

Byatt supports this idea by tracing George Eliot’s novels (which Eliot
saw as “natural histories”) to recent British novels like Lawrence
Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros (Vintage 1998), an 800 page
“natural history,” and Hilary Mantel’s A Change of Climate
(Viking 1994). She also addresses how “twentieth century novelists
seem to have shifted their interest from the laws of development to
the operations of hazard.” She cites Peter Carey’s Oscar and
and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels
(Flamingo 1991) for their examples of “outrageous coincidence and
extravagant chance” (88), and Byatt ultimately declares that the ideas
of Darwin introduced a new “idea of the human individual,” which has
resulted in new stores and novels.

In the fourth essay, “True Stories and the Facts in Fiction,” Byatt
continues to discuss the features of historical fiction, but in this
she focuses on the “complex aesthetic and intellectual reasons” for
setting a novel in the historical past. Byatt examines the
relationship between the scholarship necessary to such work, and the
artistic decisions and sensibilities involved in writing historical

To explore these issues, Byatt writes at length about language and the
construction of a good modern sentence (which “proceeds evenly,
loosely joined by commas, and its feel is hypothetical, approximate,
unstructured and always aiming at an impossible exactness which it
knows it will not achieve”). Just so, Byatt adds, the modern novel
reflects “scholarly habits of mind,” and Byatt cites Doris Lessing as
an exemplar of such writing.

But in a turn, the essay discusses the essence of truthfulness in
fiction, which she describes as a pursuit that is necessarily artful,
and tactful, and Byatt declares that “it is the fiction writer who
believes that the idea of truth may, through all the obfuscation and
rhetoric … have meaning.” And so, the latter half of the essay
discusses Byatt’s own “historical fantasies,” “The Conjugal Angel” and
“Morpho Eugenia,” which both appear in Angels and Insects, and
she points out how both stories depend on historical research,
artfully and truthfully rendered in narrative fiction.

“Old Tales, New Forms” marks a shift in this collection from Byatt’s
focus on histories to that of story telling – a form she considers
more closely related to myth and fairy tale than to chronological
histories. She writes about how old tales have a “metamorphic life” in
the ways they are told and retold, shaped and reshaped, and she points
to a vast European interest in storytelling, citing Calvino, Carter,
Potocki, Calasso, and Rushdie as premier examples.

But in her own novels, Byatt writes, she finds herself tempted to
storytelling because it’s a narrative mode, she claims, that permits
her to “feel and analyze less,” a distinction that seems to do an
injustice to the depths and complexities of tales. And she adds that
while writing Possession, she came to a conviction that
“stories and tales, unlike novels, were intimately to do with death,”
citing the shared narrative form with human life in their beginning,
middle, and end, as well as the consistent theme in famous tales of
stories being shaped in relationship to death (Scheherazade,
Boccaccio’s storytellers, etc.). I’m not sure tales own death outright
(no more so than other artistic genres), but the thematic emphasis on
death is certainly apparent in Byatt’s examples.

This essay, too, lists tale after tale before Byatt admits that she is
above all interested in the literary tale, which is of course
drastically distinct from the orally performed tale, and she describes
the layers and allusions of the literary tale as deeply important to
its narrative power.

Byatt looks at the tale more specifically in the sixth essay, “Ice,
Snow, Glass,” and analyzes how these three elements figure in tales
like Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” the Grimms’ “Glass
Coffin,” and “Snow White.” I will not recount each tale here – for
that, you might turn to Byatt’s own collection of literary fairy
tales, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. But in this essay,
Byatt explores the various symbolic possibilities of each element,
especially the oppositions to them (ice/fire, snow/blood), with
special focus on the ice princess and the preservation of “solitude
and distance, staying cold and frozen, as a way of preserving life.”
In an uncharacteristically explicit discussion of women characters,
Byatt suggests that women and artists especially benefit from such
preservation, listing examples ranging from Elizabeth I (who is, in
fact, the focus of Byatt’s first novel, The Virgin in the
), Eliot’s Dorothea and Rosamond, whom Byatt compares to
Snow White and Rose Red, and Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott.” Byatt
concludes her essay with an idea that summarizes her discussions,
throughout this collection, of the relationships between readers,
writers, and stories: “These stories are riddles, and all readers
change them a little, and they accept and resist change

The final essay, which Byatt first published in the New York Times
in April 1999, is titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told,”
which Byatt identifies as The Thousand and One Nights, because
it is stories about storytelling – and it is a story that “appears
to be a story against women, but leads to the appearance of one of the
strongest and cleverest heroines in world literature, who triumphs
because she is endlessly inventive and she keeps her head.” This essay
is a fine conclusion to Byatt’s previous essays, because it is a final
argument for the necessary art of storytelling. As Byatt asserts,
“Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the
circulation of blood.” And great stories are shape shifters, Byatt
adds, images of beginning and ending, “tales that are handed on, like
gifts, like objects for delight and contemplation.”

So, too, is Byatt’s collection here – at times pedantic and even
elitist (perhaps unavoidably so, given the author’s Cambridge
education and British character) but deeply provocative, satisfying,
and exciting, for like the best of literary criticism, it challenges
readers to connect their own reading experiences and ideas to those
articulated here.

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Jacqueline L. McGrath grew up on the south side of Chicago and now resides in mid-Missouri, where she teaches folklore and composition at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her work has appeared in Southern Folklore, The Journal of Folkore Research, and Western Folklore. When she's not teaching, Jackie devotes her time to campus activism, union building, and camping in remote corners of North America.