Jane Campbell. A. S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination. -

Jane Campbell. A. S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination.

Arnd Bohm
Jane Campbell. A. S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004. Pp. x + 310. $42.95

1 Based on original research, clearly structured, carefully written, and elegantly printed, A. S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination is a major contribution on one of the most successful contemporary British writers. Jane Campbell, now professor emerita of English at Wilfrid Laurier University, was among the first academic critics to give Byatt's writings serious consideration. This volume incorporates the earlier analyses into a comprehensive examination of Byatt's œuvre down to 2002.

2 Campbell's approach is straightforward, treating the primary texts in chronological order, with one chapter for each of the books. Brief summaries of key plot elements and central characters are interwoven with comments on Byatt's narrative technique and aims, as well as with references to the opinions of other critics. Although the rigid adherence to the parenthetical MLA citation style becomes irritating at times—footnotes would have been less distracting— the style makes the study accessible to a wide range of readers; one would expect no less of a Byatt fan.

3 That Campbell is a fan is readily apparent. Even though this is not an adulatory biography, Campbell's sympathies lie with her subject, who is presented as a noble campaigner for women's rights and autonomies. The introduction outlines the comforting thesis that Byatt, while enlarging the space for women's voices and roles, is not a strident feminist: "In the complex worlds of Byatt's fiction, women's voices are in dialogue with those from the male tradition" (2). Byatt emerges as an advocate of good things such as truth, moral responsibility, and ordinary decency among people. A dominant theme of Byatt's feminism is, according to Campbell, the "heliotropic imagination" of a "genderless sun": "there is nothing intrinsically male about the sun, or female about the earth" (16). The notion that both feminine and masculine beings can radiate and enlighten is nice enough, but is perhaps less important in Byatt's mythology than her fundamental allegiance to fluidity and flux as opposed to masculine rigidity.

4 As all readers recognize, the main difficulty Byatt's work presents is the density and diversity of her literary and cultural allusions. Campbell does a good job of identifying these references, especially where they concern Victorian influences such as Browning. She is less thorough in dealing with the allusions to German literary sources, such as the German Romantic fairy tales or implications of the Goethe epigraph to The Biographer's Tale.

5 The main shortcoming of the study follows from Campbell's aversion to letting any sort of sophisticated theory inform, much less destabilize, a somewhat simplistic model of writing and reading. The intentional fallacy sneaks in via quoting what Byatt in her role as a critic says about other writers or about her own work (e.g., 160–61), and then applying it to the texts. This would be less damaging if Byatt were not operating in the grand tradition of Menippean satire, which ensnares all critics as gullible participants, as hapless victims. For instance, when Campbell attempts to classify the genre of Possession, she grasps at metafiction and at postmodernism, and thereby becomes the sort of critic that the novel has already pilloried. Campbell is trapped all the more easily because she trusts Byatt far too much, confident that this writer is every woman's friend. A soupçon of suspicion might have alerted Campbell to Byatt's deep contempt for academic discourse shaped by generations of masculinism. When Byatt submitted a letter, with poems, to the respected journal Victorian Poetry under the pseudonym Maud Michell-Bailey (a character from Possession!), she left no doubt about her assessment of the world of scholarship that she had left behind in order to become a hugely popular writer. Byatt's ability to manipulate the literary market compares well with that of Umberto Eco. A revealing moment not discussed by Campbell is that Possession was carefully repackaged and rewritten for American readers. Despite Campbell's confidence that Byatt's "paramount interest remains the telling itself, the production of narratives about women that interrogate and revise old stories and create new ones" (191), it is more than likely that the desire to earn money through writing takes precedence.