The Virgin in the Garden (A. S. Byatt)

Posted: December 31, 2016 in fiction
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The promotion for this book (at least the copy I have) seems to be, “If you loved Possession, you’ll like this.” Yet it was published twelve years earlier, and the author seems to be at a different stage in her thinking and writing. Like Possession, it deals with the private lives of people who give their lives to literature; unlike Possession, these people are not career scholars, they’re teachers at a little school in Yorkshire. Stylistically, she’s writing as an academic instead of as someone who wants people to read her sentences.

He did not look, as she had supposed, perhaps feared, he might, silly.

Do not separate the predicate adjective from a linking verb with a long subordinate clause (and a second clause embedded in the first! Oh my).

This book draws a lot from D. H. Lawrence, explicitly from The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There are also a lot of parallels with The Virgin and the Gipsy. Two sisters growing up and learning about life and love, the older more serious, the younger a bit of a firecracker. Unfortunately, Stephanie and Frederica are being raised by Bill Potter, a verbally abusive, frustrated academic. He’s replaced the Bible and Christianity with Lawrence and the Romantics. It’s a curious trade, and one that leads to results he himself does not condone.

Good teaching is a mystery and takes many forms. Stephanie’s idea of good teaching was simple and limited: it was the induced, shared, contemplation of a work, an object, an artefact. It was not the encouragement of self-expression, self-analysis, or what were to be called interpersonal relations. Indeed, she saw a good reading of the Ode on a Grecian Urn as a welcome chance to avoid these activities.

I agree with Byatt’s comment on the mystery of being a good teacher, but I’m not sure if Stephanie goes about it correctly. Her method was highly valued in the early 1950s, when we were trying to make the study of literature dispassionate and scientific, but my experience with literature professors is that they generally want students to connect with the poem, or with the poet through the poem, or with themselves through the poem. Self-expression, self-analysis, and interpersonal relations are desirable and indeed necessary aspects of today’s classroom, like the time I wrote to my professor that I was having a hard time relating to Shakespeare’s sonnets because I had never been in love. [I glance backward at my twenty-three-year-old self and shake a fist, shouting “Come out of the closet! You’re gay! Pay attention to your crushes on men!”]

Stephanie is the older, steadier sister, and as such, is the one I’m more interested in. She rebels against her father, first by leaving Cambridge and teaching in the same middle-of-nowhere town she was raised in, and then by marrying the curate. Wasting her intellectual talents is one thing, but allying herself so strongly to a professional Christian is just too much. Daniel isn’t actually that great of a Christian; he doesn’t believe or care about the dogma. His interest is in social justice, so instead of spending a lot of time studying and writing sermons, he goes around finding ways to help people. This is a mission Stephanie can agree with. Her feelings don’t seem to heat up that much; he wants her, he’s a logical choice, and he represents a way to escape her father. A common sad story.

Frederica is the titular virgin, an unpopular seventeen-year-old anxious to lose her virginity. It’s the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation, so the local artsy people are doing a celebration of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Apparently there are numerous parallels between the life of Elizabeth and Frederica’s story, but I am no Renaissance scholar. Alexander Wedderburn, her father’s younger colleague at school, has written a play about the queen that will serve as the centerpiece to the Elizabethan festivities. They hire a few professional actors, but Frederica is chosen to act the part of the teenaged Elizabeth. The play gives her license to find someone to have sex with, and by the two-thirds point this is the primary element of suspense. Who? When? Where?

He produced a macintosh and laid it out under a somewhat Wordsworthian thorn bush. Frederica sat stiffly on the edge of it, telling herself that there were certain things that when she knew them would not bother her in the same way any more. She had read Lady Chatterley, true, and The Rainbow too, and Women in Love, but it cannot be said that she expected a revelation from the traveller in dolls. She wished her ignorance, part of it, to be dispelled. She wished to become knowledgeable. She wished to be able to pinpoint the sources of her discontent.

She’s not discontented because she’s a virgin. If she were, she wouldn’t have so many near-misses. There are a few times she has the opportunity to have sex but backs out at the last minute. She gets called a cock-tease, but I don’t think it’s intentional. She means to have sex, but gets disgusted with the men. There are a lot of disgusting men out there, and those who want to sleep with a teenager (after they’ve passed into their legal majority) are among them. Austen heroes, I’m looking at you – Colonel Brandon and Mr Knightley, especially. They are both my age when they marry, but Marianne Dashwood is only nineteen and Emma Woodhouse twenty-one. I have no business running after little boys like that. Frederica’s discontentment comes from her social isolation and her volatile father.

When she finally creates the right mixture of partner, place, and time, she finds that sex is different from what she had expected.

She had learned something. She had learned that you could do – that – in a reasonably companionable and courteous way with no invasion of your privacy, no shift in your solitude. You could sleep all night, with a strange man, and see the back only of his head, and be more self-contained than anywhere else. This was a useful thing to know. It removed the awful either/or from the condition of women as she had seen it. Either love, passion, sex and those things, or the life of the mind, ambition, solitude, the others. There was a third way: you could be alone and not alone in a bed, if you made no fuss. She too would turn away and go to sleep.

I found that out too, but since my first time was on my wedding night, it wasn’t immediately. At first it was this cosmic force binding us together, but in time I could also see it driving us apart. I had to learn to accept love without a physical component – love and sex became divided for me because I got love without sex, not sex without love the way most people seem to.

I suppose the reason I don’t find Frederica very interesting is that different versions of her story get told over and over and over again. Bookish teenage outcast finds her place in society? How many times have we told that story?

I identified more with their brother Marcus. He’s sixteen, but I kept visualizing him as younger. Like me, he has family-trauma-induced mental problems, including hallucinations and sporadic extreme sensitivity to light. I pushed it all into religion, where you can pass that kind of stuff off as proof of divine favor (or at least attention – Old Testament prophets did not lead peaceful lives). Marcus’s father doesn’t allow of religion, so he pairs up with a teacher who has some weird beliefs about the natural and supernatural worlds. In another time, Lucas Simmonds would have been a ghostbuster or an internet conspiracy theorist, tracking ley lines and all that good stuff, but in the 1950s the information isn’t available to him. He keeps trying to make something happen, find some proof that the supernatural is real (The Truth Is Out There), and in the process lose himself. There’s something suicidal about his desire to vanish into the air, cast off this mortal flesh and join the elementals or whatever he wants to do. Marcus isn’t really into this like Lucas is, and the self-dissolution aspect of it worries him, but Lucas has answers (however wonky) and gives him time and attention, which no one else is willing to do. It seems like Lucas’s biggest problem is one he won’t face: he’s gay. His flight from the body is really a flight from his own sexuality. If chemical castration were offered to him, I think he would take it. Instead he ends up really going off the deep end. Marcus ends the book in a bad place too, primarily because he feels responsible for Lucas. Lucas’s insanity isn’t Marcus’s fault though; you can blame society for denying the viability of homosexuality as a mode of existence, you can blame Lucas for refusing to accept himself, but none of this can be traced to Marcus. He got to the party too late to be responsible for it. I do wish that Lucas could have danced by the pond with flowers twined through all the hair on his body without being crazy – if I ever have a nervous breakdown, I hope it’s beautiful like that.

I’ve been visiting my kids this week, and I first saw them on a playground. My oldest ran up to me and commented on how many children were there and how scary crowds are, and I thought, “Oh good, you’ve inherited my social anxiety.” I’m happy for any connection with my kids. He unwrapped the book I got him and was really excited – The Ex and I both enjoyed Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence when we were his age, so Over Sea, Under Stone was a good choice – so excited, in fact, that by the time I left the next day he had finished the entire book. It’s sometimes harder to see similarities with my middle boy – he’s more Emilio Estevez than Anthony Michael Hall – but he has my preference for showing love through physical contact and my impatience with unnecessary conversation. The youngest is still sort of a mystery to me; it’s like he’s a batch of muffins that have only been cooking for seven minutes. Just not done yet. He’s sensitive and affectionate, and likes whatever his brothers are into.

I saw my dad a few weeks ago, and I’ve been crying ever since. It’s not that I miss him, though I did, it’s that my parents are kind of horrible. In the course of one evening he pointed out that even though I’ve lived in the Midwest/Southwest for two years, he’s the first one to come visit me [subtext: I’m the only one who loves you and you can’t trust anyone else], AND that he had way too many kids and he jokingly/not-jokingly wishes abortion had been more socially and morally acceptable back in the 1970s [subtext: I wish you were never born]. He tried to give me a handshake instead of a hug [subtext: You’re a stranger to me, stay out of my personal space, keep your gay filth to yourself]. This whole love/rejection thing is toxic and hard and makes the concept of family very difficult for me, so I’m not participating in my guy’s holiday family get-togethers the way he’d like me to. I’m not sure what he wants, maybe another version of his brother’s partner, but my relationships with my family (or The Ex’s family) have not prepared me for the kind of interactions he wants me to have with his parents and extended family.

I worry about my family life. I don’t know how to do any of this, being a good son or a good father or a good partner to someone who is close to his family. I try to be myself and act in ways that are natural to me, and show love whenever I can, but lately I’ve been feeling like it’s not enough. The collapse of the Potter family feels like a warning, but I don’t know how to profit from it. There must be a way to hang onto love without losing the self, there must be a way to reach out to loved ones without hurting them, and there ought to be a way to interact with my parents that doesn’t leave me sobbing for months afterward. But twentieth-century literature may be the wrong place to look for them.

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Comments
  1. I’m confident you’re smart enough to navigate all of this. I remember being in an almost total panic once I realised Mike’s family didn’t follow the rulebook on formal social relations. I function best when I know what’s expected of me- so it was a shock to have to “go with the flow”. But in the end I managed 🙂 So will you!

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