The old, and possibly apocryphal, admonition to “write what you know” never really accounted for the novelist who knows everything. While A.S. Byatt may not actually know everything, it sometimes seems that way. At the very least she’s interested in it all — literary criticism, history, politics, education, biology, painting, genetics, religion, law, physics. And when she wants to drag the whole kit and caboodle out of her intellectual closet, her favorite place to do so is in her quartet of novels about Frederica Potter. “A Whistling Woman” is the conclusion to that quartet (which also includes “The Virgin in the Garden,” “Still Life” and “Babel Tower”), and it has all the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors.
This can only be a qualified recommendation: “A Whistling Woman,” like the three other Frederica Potter novels, never mesmerizes the way Byatt’s best and most popular works, “Possession” and the novella “Morpho Eugenia,” do. She has a great gift for storytelling, but she isn’t consistently interested in using it, particularly when she’s feeling most ambitious. Many readers find the Frederica Potter books frustrating (in fact, this reader often does), but to the susceptible, they’re engrossing even when they irritate. Byatt took George Eliot as her model when she began the quartet back in the 1970s, and in it she most fully realizes her ideal of the novel as a form into which “you can get the whole world.”
The quartet describes mid-20th-century Britain and Frederica’s life as the quintessential bluestocking — one of the first women to study at Cambridge and, later, a divorcée with a young son making a new life in London. Like “Babel Tower,” “A Whistling Woman” covers the ’60s and dips into the utopian and revolutionary dreams of the time. In Yorkshire, where Frederica grew up, a small “therapeutic community” grows into an insular cult under the influence of an otherworldly madman whose childhood was disfigured by a horrible crime. And on the outskirts of the local university, an “anti-university” grows up, a sort of hippie camp where anyone can teach a class on such topics as astrology and Mao and there’s always a pot of bean soup simmering away. Meanwhile, Frederica stumbles into a gig hosting what sounds like an impossibly brainy and fanciful talk show for the fledgling BBC.
Frederica’s job gives Byatt an excuse to riffle through the intellectual preoccupations of the time — feminism, psychology, sociobiology, etc. Frederica is also deciding whether she wants to remarry, and what role sex and romance will play in her life as a single mother and a woman prone to fiercely declaring, “I want to think.” Byatt has never entirely succeeded in making Frederica appealing, perhaps because she’s never really tried to. So as usual it’s in the subplots of “A Whistling Woman” that the novel really clicks. Reading the quartet is a bit like patronizing a restaurant where the entrées are passable and the side dishes steal the show.
Every bit of the novel that concerns Joshua Ramsden, the mental patient who eventually takes over the Quaker group called the Joyful Companions, is riveting. Byatt is fascinated by charisma — its animal nature, the simultaneously magnetic and repellent nature of the people who possess it, and the often terrible effect it has on those drawn to it. Though she tries to do justice to the exhilarating iconoclasm of ’60s youth culture, mostly she depicts it as naive and scary, and the leaders of the anti-university as self-indulgent children who abuse their power. With Ramsden, though, she creates a man who may be merely and dangerously mad, but might instead — or also — be a genuine visionary and perhaps even acquainted with God. It’s an immensely sympathetic and yet menacing portrait, particularly in the passages Byatt tells from Ramsden’s point of view.
“Babel Tower” concludes with two trials (obscenity and custody), and “The Whistling Woman” finds its climax in the university’s Body and Mind Conference, a high-powered academic confab designed to bring together cutting-edge papers in both the sciences and the humanities. Byatt’s interest in the life sciences has apparently only grown since she wrote “The Virgin in the Garden,” with its somewhat schematic attempt to see a new Elizabethan era in 1950s Britain.
“A Whistling Woman” contains two passages in which Frederica feels a surpassing ecstasy — one while reading a passage from “The Great Gatsby” (“for the rest of her life she came back and back to this moment, the change in the air, the pricking of the hairs, of really reading every word”) and the other while looking at the earth as she walks down a Yorkshire hill to the man, a scientist, she has chosen almost by chance (“she thought that somewhere — in the science which had made Vermeer’s painted spherical waterdrops, in the humming looms of neurons which connected to make metaphors, all this was one”). She has expanded her notion of what she wants to think about from literature to the universe itself. And, here at last, Byatt has finally succeeded in squeezing the whole world into Frederica Potter.
Our next pick: A newly divorced woman casts a cold, clear eye on life in contemporary London