Artists as Parents in A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book and Iris Murdoch's The Good Apprentice
Published in Connotations Vol. 20.1 (2010/11)
Near the beginning of her long career as a novelist and critic, A. S. Byatt published Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965), which she wrote, as she was to say later,
out of a passionate curiosity about how Iris Murdoch's novels worked, what the ideas were behind them, how the ideas related to the forms she chose, how her world was put together […]. It is not too much to say that I was morally changed, for the better, I think [by writing this study]. And I had learned a great deal about writing and thinking. (Degrees of Freedom viii)1)
It is not surprising if such an early and thorough absorption in the older novelist's work reverberates through even Byatt's most recent fiction. Certainly one fruitful approach to the richness, denseness, and complexity of Byatt's The Children's Book (2009) is to examine it as in part a response to Murdoch's writing and more specifically to her late novel, The Good Apprentice (1985). My concern in examining the relation between these two texts is not with the unsurprising fact that Byatt uses Murdoch,2) but with the way in which she uses one particular Murdoch narrative, intensifying it and darkening it so as to forward her own literary concerns. My approach to this subject is threefold, as outlined below.
The most obvious comparison between the two novels relates to Byatt's pervasive treatment throughout The Children's Book of the artist as parent, and it is with that topic that I begin. One strand of her interwoven narrative is so close to Murdoch's version of the artist as [→page 109] father that the differences of detail and emphasis are all the more striking and significant. Another thread in the texture of The Children's Book is the interaction between realist and non−realist narrative modes. Again, Murdoch's treatment of the artist−as−father in The Good Apprentice also illuminates Byatt's handling of this interaction, as I go on to show. I end with a related question, the significance of the interweaving of numerous stories in Byatt's fiction. Even more than Byatt's former novels, The Children's Book works through a complex of multiple narratives (many concerned with parental failure). Such a structure greatly develops one element of Murdoch's fictional treatment in her later works, including The Good Apprentice. More importantly, perhaps, it builds on ideas of the self and society discussed in Murdoch's philosophical writings and implicit in her fiction in its multiple explorations of the moral responsibility of the artist.
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"I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son" (1).3)
The Good Apprentice, Murdoch's twenty−second novel, begins with the words of the biblical Prodigal Son. Edward Baltram, the son in question here, is a bright young student at the University of London, who has unintentionally brought about the death of a beloved friend by feeding him LSD and then leaving him alone—as it happens, to fall, or perhaps, jump from a high window. Edward's guilt and misery immobilize him until, partly through the prompting of his psychiatrist uncle, he leaves London to find his natural father, Jesse Baltram, a well−known painter, whom he has not seen for years, in the strange house, Seegard, which Jesse has built in the marshes not far from the sea. The aging Jesse is protected, or perhaps imprisoned, by three women, his wife "Mother May" and his two adult daughters, Bettina and Ilona, who weave their own clothes, treat every meal as a sacrament (104) and live based on their own rituals in accordance with [→page 110] Jesse's desire to create "the good society on the basis of simplicity" (160).4) "We stand for creativity and peace, continuity and cherishing," asserts Mother May (161). But Jesse is ill, mentally and physically, the women are isolated and frustrated, and soon after Jesse's death by drowning—whether by suicide, murder, or accident the reader never knows—Seegard begins to crumble: "the enchanter's palace was already beginning to fall to pieces" (484).
The Children's Book has its own version of the establishment at Seegard. The artist−enchanter here is the distinguished potter, Benedict Fludd, who like Jesse Baltram lives in an isolated and decrepit house in the marshes near the sea,5) with a wife, and two daughters, all three strangely beautiful, as are the Baltram women. The life of the household revolves entirely around the father and his ideas, his uncertain moods, and his art, as at Seegard, where the artist's daughter asserts: "'[h]e is the source of everything we do'" (The Good Apprentice 163). Fludd's own son, Geraint, longs to leave his father's house, but just as Edward needs and seeks for Jesse, so the aspiring young potter, Philip Warren, half−consciously seeks for the father−in−art that Fludd will become. Both households are represented as potential centres for the arts and crafts, for workshops and summer camps (GA 161; CB 42, 217). And, more significantly, like the Baltram women, whose life at Seegard retains only the shell of their aspirations to "creativity and cherishing" as they become increasingly demoralized and apathetic, so the women of the Fludd family live in a state of paralysis and squalor, which changes after Fludd's suicide, like Jesse's a death by water.
Both Byatt's Benedict Fludd and Murdoch's Jesse Baltram have been likened severally to Eric Gill, the sculptor, stone−worker and print−maker, another indication of the similarity of the two artists within their narratives.6) Their households resemble Gill's in certain respects: a visitor noted that his was "more than somewhat arty−crafty" (MacCarthy 153). Like Jesse Baltram, Gill had aspirations towards the simple life, "making useful things by hand" (MacCarthy 60); like Jesse, who designed Seegard himself, his preference in architecture [→page 111] was for "spareness, purity, blatant honesty of structure" (MacCarthy 93). It is Fludd, however, whose work more closely resembles Gill's, for like the stone−worker's the potter's art is tactile, and for both men this tactile quality is directly and obsessively sexual, far more so than Jesse's paintings, though these have their own "erotic force"(181). Gill, while he was waiting to be received into the Roman Catholic church, was at work on a life−size marble phallus: his biographer, Fiona MacCarthy comments, "it was his own, a perfect copy with dimensions meticulously taken" (MacCarthy 115).7) In The Children's Book Philip, Fludd's apprentice, and his sister Elsie laugh over the discovery of "a larger−than−life, extremely detailed, evenly glazed model of an erect cock and balls, every wrinkle, every fold, every glabrous surface gleaming" (188), presumably made by Fludd as a bizarre self−portrait. (Jesse too has his phallic monument, a lingam stone in a clearing at Seegard, but rather than making it, like Gill and Fludd, he has merely set it up, and it is a symbol rather than a representation).
A more sinister parallel between the historical and the fictitious artist also involves tactility and sexuality. Gill sexually molested his own two teenage daughters and also used them as models for erotic life−drawings (MacCarthy 157). As for Benedict Fludd, he has a sort of Bluebeard's chamber,8) which Elsie unlocks in his absence, to find to her distress shelves full of "obscene chimaeras, half vessel, half human. They had a purity and clarity of line, and were contorted into every shape of human sexual display and congress" (279). The female figures have the faces of Fludd's daughters, Imogen and Pomona, and they represent the two girls at all ages, going back into childhood. (The male participants are "faceless fantasms" ). In addition, both Jesse Baltram and Benedict Fludd have the "sexually possessive attitude towards [their] own daughters," that Gill's biographer, Fiona MacCarthy has noted (xi, 203−04), and that caused all three to resist their daughters' marriage. Byatt, in using Gill's extraordinary life, draws more heavily on its disturbing elements than Murdoch does.
For if Byatt is engaged in retelling the Seegard narrative—and I think she is—she is also concerned both to intensify and to darken it, [→page 112] so that it is characteristic that, while Jesse drowns in calm inland water, Fludd kills himself in the wild and treacherous sea off Dungeness point. Byatt imagines more fully the implications of such a household as Seegard, not just for the male members of the household but also for its abused women. Edward and Philip may be liberated through their father figures, but the women experience this contact as paralysing. Murdoch's narrative indicates Jesse's capacity for exploitation and tyranny: Ilona complains that he refused either to let her train as a dancer or to allow Bettina to go to a university and made Bettina's relationship with her "'young man'" impossible so that they end up diminished, as "'just bad painters, pretend artists'" (200), while Bettina asserts that they do not let Ilona go near her father because "'[h]e lusts after her'" (197). However, Murdoch is not concerned to represent in any detail the damage Jesse does to his family. Though Bettina and her mother both resent their position, this resentment in itself has a kind of energy that Fludd has drained away from the women of his household. Byatt shows Fludd's family, more particularly the women, as unquestionably harmed by his obsession with his art and by his terrifying anger and his sexual aggressions, though she never directly shows the process of wounding. The few people who know them all comment on "the curious lifelessness and inhibition of the three female members of the Purchase House family […] as though they had sleeping sickness or are under a spell" (111). Philip Warren's first impressions of Purchase House are of "the watchful fear, or at least anxiety, in the curiously inert female members of the family" (129). The daughters gradually take on "their mother's vacant look" (207), and in the mother that vacancy is partly the effect of the alcohol and laudanum that dull the pain of her marriage. Pomona, the younger daughter, sleepwalks naked to Philip's bed. Imogen, once she has escaped from her father's house, becomes hysterical at the thought of returning to it (421): "'I can't sleep in that house. I can't, I can't, I can't,'" she weeps (421). For the women of his family Fludd's suicide liberates them and gives them a chance for recovery. Fludd's wife soon seems "relieved and released by her [→page 113] husband's death" (462). Imogen marries, happily. Pomona, who will also eventually marry,9) is shown to have known about the existence of the Bluebeard's closet full of indecent pots, and, while she feels unable to smash them, she finds some sort of comfort in burying them. Murdoch represents Jesse as an artist of questionable achievement10) and a selfish father: Byatt's Fludd is a great artist and a near−ruinous parent. "'He had genius. He was excessive in everything he did,'" says his oldest friend after Fludd's death (459). Byatt both shows the genius of his work (ecphrastically and through other characters' responses to it) and the damage caused by his excess. This intense connection between art and parental failure is an important element in the complex of parental failures in this novel.
The potential of the artist for social or moral destructiveness has been a concern of Byatt's throughout her career, as she acknowledges. She has described The Children's Book as involving "one of the steady themes of my writing that I don't understand […]. I don't understand why, in my work, writing is always so dangerous. It's very destructive. People who write books are destroyers" (Leith interview). Elsewhere she writes, "my early attempts at fiction were, formally, very concerned with its dangers […]. I saw novelists as consumers" (Passions 22).11) Through her re−imagining of the Jesse Baltram narrative in The Good Apprentice she enlarges her vision of the moral and social dangers involved in the production of art to include the visual arts.
If Benedict Fludd abuses his position as parent, so do other artists—and other, non−artist, parents—in this novel. The family is a place of danger, both individual and, at this period, international. These are the years before the First World War, and Byatt not only repeatedly comments on the close relations between Europe's royal houses, but also shows us a puppet play with "the crowned heads of Europe as a gang of squabbling children, quarrelling over toys"(386). Again she reminds us of the internecine violence to come through her allusion to the first Covent Garden performance of Richard Strauss's Elektra in 1910, "a drama of royal families stirring violently in bloody passion, matricide and revenge" (544). But it is most notably the writers who damage their families. The nature of the abuse relates to the nature of the art. As I have said, the potter, who works with his hands, abuses largely through touch. The storytellers abuse by spinning stories out of other people to the neglect of their individual reality.12) Olive Wellwood, who is, ostensibly at least, the mother of seven children,13) is a fantasy writer of some distinction, working mainly for children. Her obsession with her craft leads to repeated failures in human interactions, blinding her to other people's vulnerabilities and responses. Olive's daughter Dorothy watches her mother with the young Philip Warren: "Mother thinks his home is unhappy and his family are cruel—that's one of her favourite stories. She ought to see—I can see—he doesn't like that" (26). Olive's reaction to Philip's sister is the same—"witchy," Elsie thinks resentfully (160), as she observes Olive spinning stories out of a hard reality.
Olive's worst failures, though, are inevitably with those to whom her obligations are strongest, that is with her own children. For each of them she creates a growing and changing narrative, their "secret tales" (143), but Dorothy comes to understand that Olive really writes "the children's books" for herself (316). Olive's preoccupation with her storytelling means that her greatest fault as a parent is "abstraction—a want of attention" (313), and this lack of attention is also a lack of imagination, so that she does not notice the harm that her art does to her best−loved child, Tom. Byatt uses Elizabeth Barrett Browning's extraordinary poem "A Musical Instrument" to suggest Tom's half−knowledge of the irreparable damage done to him. It is his favourite poem, one which he often recites to himself, implying his half−articulated grief at the "cost and pain" of his mother's art:
Yet half a beast is the great god Pan
To laugh as he sits by the river,
Making a poet out of a man:
The true gods sigh for the cost and pain,
For the reed which grows nevermore again
As a reed with the reeds in the river. (239)
[→page 115] As Isobel Armstrong says, "[the] extravagant manipulation of Tom's emotions" by the narrative of "Tom Underground," which his mother has created for him, "is partly what destroys him" (4). And when Olive, without warning, turns this story into a West End play, all Tom can do is walk away, and keep on walking until he reaches the end of land, and then walk on into the sea.14) His sister, preparing her own act of vengeance against her mother, comes to sense that Tom's suicide is a response to Olive as mother and writer: "Tom had meant to be revenged on Olive, evade Olive, free himself from Olive and being written about" (569−70). Olive herself comes to recognise that she has killed her son (542). As with Fludd and his daughters, she has damaged her children by turning them to art, by putting them to the service of herself and her art.
In Byatt's concern with the destructive potential of the artist, she draws into her narrative Murdoch's fictional Baltram family and Eric Gill's actual family, as I have shown. Her novel's temporal setting in the later years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century, the "Golden Age" of English children's books, is also part of this intertextual weaving. In an interview about this novel, she comments on this period:
I started with the idea that writing children's books isn't good for the writers' own children. There are some dreadful stories. Christopher Robin at least lived. Kenneth Grahame's son put himself across a railway line and waited for the train. Then there's JM Barrie. One of the boys that Barrie adopted almost certainly drowned himself. This struck me as something that needed investigating. And the second thing was, I was interested in the structure of E Nesbit's family—how they all seemed to be Fabians and fairy−story writers. (Leith interview)15)
Just as Fludd resembles Jesse, so Byatt represents Olive as resembling Nesbit in a dozen ways,16) not so much as a writer—she lacks Nesbit's determined facetiousness and political touches—but in relation to her family. For my purposes—and, I assume, for Byatt's—the most important of these relate to her children. While, like Nesbit, Olive accepts as her own her husband's children by another woman and supports the [→page 116] whole family by her writing, she allows, again like Nesbit, the other woman (her own sister) to play the traditional maternal role. Nesbit's stepdaughter Rosamund said: "Auntie [that is, her own natural mother] was the only mother we ever knew. Mother [Nesbit] was always too busy to attend to us" (Briggs 211−12). Moreover Olive resembles Nesbit in concealing from her children throughout the years of their childhood their actual parentage so that when they find out they are disturbed and resentful (Carpenter 130).17) Dorothy, one of the children in question, when she discovers her actual parentage, complains bitterly to Humphry, for years her putative father: "'All of you, you and both of them have made this muddle"—both of them being Olive and her natural father (346; Byatt's emphasis). And in Olive's household Dorothy is vulnerable to the sexual attentions of Olive's husband, just as Nesbit's stepdaughter was allegedly sexually pursued by her own father.18) Byatt uses the narrative of Nesbit's life just as she uses Murdoch's Baltram family in her exploration of the failures of the artist as parent.
All parents fail. Olive's story "The Shrubbery" is about a totally understandable maternal failure—overworked, she tells her mischievous son to go into the shrubbery and not come back (95−102). And, chillingly, he obeys her. And all the parents in this book, artist or not, fail in one way or another, whether through distraction or ill−health or poverty. Yet the focus is on the artist's failure. Any consideration of the artist as parent in this novel, however, should be read in the context of two important elements in The Children's Book and indeed in Byatt's work as a whole. Firstly, if Byatt represents parental failure she also insists on parental passion. Olive's lethal stupidity about Tom is all the more disturbing in that she loves him more than any of her children. The various babies, wanted or unwanted, born into the novel are greeted with triumph by their mothers. And when Dorothy finally meets her biological father, Byatt's narrative voice insists not only that "she was not happy now except when she was with him" (376) but also that he needs her just as much, so that his son complains that his father is "bewitched" by this newly discovered daughter [→page 117] (379). This passion is important elsewhere in Byatt's work, in all four novels of her tetralogy, in Possession, and in the short story "Body Art," for instance.19) Secondly, whatever the moral and aesthetic failures of individual artists, art itself is supremely important in this novel; as Louisa Hadley notes, her studies of the artist are "a key feature of her work" (5). Byatt presents half−a−dozen varieties of art here—lyric poetry, fantasy literature, realist literature, pottery, puppetry, conventional theatre, jewellery. She also shows the social operations of the arts through exhibitions, art galleries, and museums. One recurrent thread is her representation of the early difficulties of the Victoria and Albert Museum, while an important and prolonged episode involves the 1900 Paris exhibition. Byatt illustrates the response to art as well as its production, showing not only Tom's extreme reaction to his mother's play but also the strong if less kinetic responses of the audience to performances of Cinderella, a puppet version of The Sandman and the historical first run of Peter Pan. Byatt's language here underlines her interest in the reality of art production, especially her obvious delight in the technical language of the potter—for instance, "grog," "a glost firing" (105), the colours "sang de boeuf," "Iznik red" (106), "wedging the clay," "engobe," "pin−dust" (128). In The Children's Book Byatt contemplates parenthood and art as they are, as central to human life. If she takes the figure of the artist as father in The Good Apprentice and intensifies it, she does so because of her concern with the dual responsibilities of the artist, to art and to "life"—that is to human contacts and more especially to the child.
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As Sam Leith points out, "The Children's Book is on one level a work of careful social and psychological realism […]. On another level, it is stuffed with the motifs of fairy stories: doubles, changelings, locked rooms, underground journeys, boys who refuse to grow up." In a different way—and again the difference is significant—The Good Apprentice also works on the two levels of realism and fairy tale. Murdoch [→page 118] treats the London parts of her novel realistically enough. When the narrative moves to Seegard, however, it approaches the conventions of fairy tales or allegory. Peter Conradi describes Seegard as "half real, half belonging to the world of art and magic" (The Saint and the Artist 334), and by contrast it is the world of art and magic that is more striking. Byatt herself, in writing about The Good Apprentice, describes it as "a comedy, in places a fairy tale, about horrible and unbearable things" (Degrees of Freedom 291; my emphasis). She writes of Edward's time at Seegard, with its "enchanted castle," its enchanter−father, its three beautiful and mysterious women, as "a healing brush with old myths" (Degrees of Freedom 330).20) Edward needs both to encounter this enchantment and to recognise it as enchantment so that he can question its meaning and its power and finally witness the crumbling of the "enchanted palace" (484). When he first meets Jesse and perceives his father's mental and physical affliction, Edward sees Seegard as a place of myth and danger: "Is this a holy place where pure women tend a wounded monster, a mystical crippled minotaur? Or have I been lured into a trap, into a plot which will end with my death?" (201). He sees Ilona and Bettina as "elf maidens" (480) and fears that what he eats at Seegard is "fairy food, not fit for humans" (261). In such an atmosphere the normal relations between cause and effect become blurred, so that magical thinking replaces science. Ilona makes a love potion for Edward, Mother May comes to believe that she can kill just through the power of her own hatred, and Edward has a vision of his father under the water long before Jesse is actually drowned. And though Murdoch's narrative never leaves the bounds of the physically possible—Edward's vision could be the result of "that awful drug I used to take, " as he acknowledges (307)—all the Seegard scenes are coloured with an air of enchantment. And when Edward and the narrative return to London, they return to the conventions of realism—to tube stations and football.
Byatt like Murdoch associates art with the fairy tale. In The Children's Book, however, the world of the fairy tale is not located in one place. It is everywhere. The novel involves performances of A Midsummer [→page 119] Night's Dream, Cinderella, Hoffmann's The Sandman (in Kent), Peter Pan and Olive's Tom Underground (in London), and Thora and the Lindwurm (in Munich). Virtually all of the artists in the book are involved in the creation of the fantastic. Fludd's pots are not simply experiments in significant form but are covered with slightly sinister beasts, water−creatures or "Black Widow spiders […] their spinnakers busy, their multitude of eyes glittering opal" (209). Anselm Stern, the puppet master, produces plays based on Hoffmann and the Brothers Grimm. (Indeed Byatt involves Germany so strongly in the narrative at least as much because of Hoffmann and Grimm as because of the harsh political realities of the period.) Olive's stories are fantastic. And Byatt insists that we the readers experience this art. Her protracted descriptions allow us as readers to be present at the performances. We read Olive's stories, we look through the narrator's and the various characters' eyes at Fludd's pots. Byatt provides her readers with a variety of fantastic narratives that they can use and abuse hermeneutically within her texts and that her characters use and abuse in understanding themselves and each other. Fairy tales provide a means of groping towards understanding. The Sandman enables Griselda, the carefully reared daughter of a rich banker, to perceive that "there were better things in the world than she was being offered" (75). Philip learns to read through a book of fairy stories and these tales provide him with ways of interpreting his life at Purchase House and the people around him—"for better or worse, for insight or danger," as Byatt's narrator says (133). Olive's underground fantasies glamorize the darkness and danger of life underground, which as a miner's daughter she can apparently neither face nor forget. As Isobel Armstrong remarks in an important brief comment on the novel, "such failures [as Olive's] to confront the underground of the self, failures that culminate in the literal underground trenches of the 1914−18 War, result in the unthinking destruction by parents of their children, of which the war was a terrifying example." Byatt implies that fairy tales and art are inevitable, and both necessary and dangerous to human interactions.
[→page 120] "I can't say how important it was to me when Angela Carter said 'I grew up on fairy stories—they're much more important to me than realist narratives.' I hadn't had the nerve to think that until she said it, and I owe her a great deal." (Leith interview)
The importance of fairy tales is apparent in Byatt's work at least from Possession onwards. In The Children's Book Byatt is concerned not to mingle the fairy tale and the realistic as she so brilliantly does in "The Djinn in The Nightingale's Eye," where a genie and a television set can comfortably inhabit the same hotel room. She also eschews the mode of The Good Apprentice, where the fantastic and the realist narrative coexist but are physically separated. In The Children's Book,the fantastic is everywhere because art is everywhere in the world of this novel. Yet it operates only within the works of art the novel evokes, and, less tangibly, through the various myths and legends she touches on—her Pomona could be and is not the goddess Pomona, her Prosper could be and is not a Prospero figure. Byatt carefully grounds these fantastic elements in the world of ordinary cause and effect. Murdoch's narrative allows Jesse Baltram a sort of license, so that he is not judged by the same criteria that Edward in his guilt uses to judge himself or that his stepbrother Stuart uses in his aspirations towards the good. At Seegard moral perception works differently, so that to Jesse, the enchanter, the "good" Stuart represents "an alien magic" (478).
Byatt indicates that Purchase House is just imaginable in these terms: the etymology of its name we are informed is "an old word for a meeting place of pucceles, little Pucks" (531). Pomona feels that Fludd's family is enchanted: "'I feel we're under a spell. You know, behind one of those thickets in stories […]. We sew. That's part of the spell. We have to sew things or something dreadful will happen'" (338). Once her father is dead and she has left Purchase, she comes to remember it "like two dreams—one full of beautiful things—pots and paintings and tapestries and embroideries and flowers and apples in the orchard—you know—and one full of interminable boredom and waste, and—things that were not right but were all that happened" [→page 121] (583). Yet the narrative insists from the beginning on Purchase House as a place of contingency—of dirt and incompetence, fear and anger. It is not an enchanted castle and Fludd is no enchanter. The same ethical criteria operate here as in the rest of the novel.
Byatt collects many of her characters at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 in front of "The Puppets"—"Les Fantoches"—by the little−known Jean Weber, a curious and repellent painting, which indeed caused some sensation in 1900. It represents an artist's garret, in which
the naked body of a woman […] lay diagonally across most of the canvas. Her head lay at an awkward angle. […] She looked both very uncomfortable and completely inert, her flesh like putty. Behind her sat a bearded, handsome man, his face intent on a delicate doll, or puppet, whose waist was circled by his two hands—the two seemed to be conversing. (267)
("Inert," the word Byatt applies to the naked woman, she also uses of the Fludd women .) According to the art historian Philippe Jullian, the painting was "intended as a warning of the dangers facing the young generation of poetic painters, whose work did not bear the stamp of the École des Beaux Arts" (128). Byatt's characters explain it in different terms. Her theatrical producer, August Steyning, comments: "It's about the borders between the real and the imagined. And the imagined has more life than the real—much more—but it is the artist who gives the figures life." But Anselm Stern, the German puppet master and one of the more sympathetic artists in this novel responds more thoughtfully:
"What one gives to one's art […] is taken away out of the life, this is so. One gives the energy to the figures. It is one's own energy, but also kinetic. Who is more real to me, the figures in the box in my head or the figures in the street?" (268)
He goes on to remark, "[t]he message is […] that art is more lifely than life but not always the artist pays" (268). The novel repeatedly insists on the "lifely" quality of art but also on the danger for those associated both with artists and with their art.
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[→page 122] Towards the end of The Good Apprentice, Stuart, walking alone along Oxford Street, suddenly has a mental image of himself that disgusts him with its thoughtless egotism:
[A] tall man, among the people, swerving and tacking to avoid touching them, looking over their heads, walking like (he suddenly felt, and it was a terrible image) a man seen in a film, when the star is seen walking alone in the crowded streets of New York […] filled with the magical significance of his role, happy or unhappy, an image of power, of the envied life, surrounded by other actors who are, by contrast, devoid of being; and it is all false. (446)
Stuart's dedication to his concept of the good drives him to reject this instinctive sense of oneself as "the star" of one's own life. In this passage, as he walks through London, Stuart is miserably thinking of the difficulties of the dedicated life that he has chosen and remembering his painful encounter with a crazed Jesse, who denounced him as a "dead man" (292). Much of Murdoch's philosophical writing explores ethics as involving the discussion of "the fat relentless ego" (Sovereignty of Good 52) and this is the concern at issue here. The "collision of forces" (Good Apprentice 478) between Stuart and Jesse is largely connected with their attitudes towards the ego. Stuart is bent on freeing himself from its claims and its mechanisms, while Jesse has for years exploited the strength of his own ego and lives at Seegard as very much "the star" of his own life. The contrast between the two men embodies a concern that works not only through Murdoch's philosophical writings and her fiction, but also through her literary criticism. Her literary heroes are Shakespeare and Tolstoy largely because their writing avoids the egotistical: "[w]ith what exhilaration do we experience the absence of self in the work of Tolstoy, in the work of Shakespeare," she writes ("The Sublime and the Good" 218). She would agree with the Tolstoy scholar, Gary Saul Morson, who writes "I like to paraphrase Tolstoy's thought in this way: we are all natural egoists who see life as a story in which we are the hero or heroine, but morality begins when we see ourselves as a minor character in someone else's story" (145).
[→page 123] Murdoch explores this concern through the structure of her novels as well as through the thoughts and interactions of their characters. Much of her later fiction involves a number of interwoven narratives, and, in addition, in some novels—notably An Accidental Man (1971) and Nuns and Soldiers (1980)—a number of otherwise peripheral characters make their voices heard through letters or through haphazard party conversations. The Good Apprentice is not merely the story of the two possible contenders for the title role, Edward and Stuart. It also involves the middle−aged love triangle of Harry, Stuart's father, and Edward's aunt, Midge and her psychiatrist husband, Thomas McCaskerville. It also touches on the broken lives of the Seegard women, and, to a lesser extent, the dead Mark's grieving mother and his sister, Brownie Wilsden, on Sarah Plowmain, a girl−friend of Edward's, and on Harry's family friends, the Brightwaltons. Murdoch does not treat these lesser characters as mere walk−ons in the lives of the major characters. She jolts her readers by suddenly alerting us to their independent concerns—to Sarah's pregnancy scare, to Brownie's engagement to Giles Brightwalton, for instance. She felt, however, that she never fully explored this kind of structure. Conradi, in his biography of Murdoch, comments that occasionally she would "lament lacking the courage at a late stage to take out the central characters and leave only peripheral ones, as if this could open up the book and liberate the characters from her puppet−mastering" (A Life 432−33). Indeed, after the success of the first−person novel The Sea, The Sea (1978), she spoke at a conference at Caen in 1978 claiming that
[m]y ideal novel—I mean the novel I should like to write and haven't yet written—would not be written in the first person, because I'd rather write a novel which is more scattered, with many different centres. I've often thought that the best way to write a novel would be to invent the story, and then to remove the hero and heroine and write about the peripheral people—because one wants to extend one's sympathy and divide one's interests. (Chevalier, Rencontres 81)
Byatt, who quotes this passage in Degrees of Freedom (328), sympathizes with this approach to fiction and with the urge to create a multiple−centred [→page 124] novel. She compares Murdoch with another of her own great literary models, George Eliot, in this regard:
she has a world so full of so many characters, so some of them are seen as simply perceived by other people wandering away at the very edge of the narrative […]. One thing I love about Iris Murdoch is that she knows that, because egocentricity as a writer is alien to her, and it's against her principles as much as it was against George Eliot's. And of course what they both do is switch the centre of sympathy to the reader, frequently enough for the reader actually to go through the moral process of realising the different people are real to each other in different ways, which is very moving. (Imagining Characters 184)
"[E]gocentricity as a writer" is alien to Byatt, too. She rejects what she called "me−books" (Kelly interview) and informed Jean−Louis Chevalier: "I did not start as some writers would say they did, with the desire to describe their own lives […]. It is very important to be nobody, rather like the reader inhabiting the book" ("Speaking of Sources" 7). Byatt's fiction has, over the years, increasingly worked towards Murdoch's ambition of multiple centres. My own discomfort with the tendency to label Byatt's tetralogy as "The Frederica Quartet" relates to this sense of her work, for it seems to misdirect readers, to provide them with a mistaken focus. The Children's Book certainly has multiple focal points. In an interview, Byatt spoke of Olive as the heroine and quickly corrected herself, referring to Murdoch as she did so:
I think there isn't a main character … Iris Murdoch once said the world has enormously more people in it than you can ever imagine. She said whenever she finished a novel she wanted to start again and write it from the point of view of all the minor characters. In a sense I felt I was able to do that, because the minor characters became major characters when the book turned its gaze on them. (Leith interview)
Olive is indeed a major character, but so are her children (or two or three of them), and so are Fludd, and Philip, and his sister Elsie, and a dozen others. The orbits of their narratives intersect and then swing away from each other. In addition, the careful historical placing of the [→page 125] novel gives a sense of a mass of unexplored lives. When, at the end of the novel, in May 1919, some of the survivors—of the war and of the narrative—are reunited, Byatt communicates both a sense of a possible future—for Philip and Dorothy, for Griselda and Wolfgang, for Elsie, Charles⁄Karl and their family—and a shadowing of the darkness of that future: Dorothy's father, Anselm Stern, has left Munich for Berlin "because Munich was not now a good place for Jews" (614). She is also able to communicate the mixture of relief at survival and grief at their losses that most families must have felt in 1919. Her readers, that is, share in the sense of relief and loss: they have lost Julian, Geraint, and all of Olive's sons, but Philip, Charles⁄Karl and Wolfgang survive. Such a communication is possible because of Byatt's multiple narrative; because some narratives can be imagined as continuing but more are completely broken off.
* * *
No browser, idly opening The Children's Book and reading a couple of pages, would imagine herself for half a moment to be in the world of Iris Murdoch. Byatt and Murdoch are obviously quite different novelists. The differences between the two writers are, no doubt, largely those unaccountable differences between person and person, but they surely are in part generational, in part a matter of the disciplines from which they have emerged, as Byatt notes:
I don't think she [Murdoch] cared as much as I do about the textual web of language partly because she didn't really come out of English Literature. She came out of philosophy and her linguistic preoccupations were always with truth and precision and dialogue. Mine are really with poetic resonance and with the kind of intensely thickly woven mat of linguistic crisscrossings. Iris was a story teller. I have learned to be a story teller. I wasn't born one." (Chevalier, "Speaking of Sources" 23)
Something the two writers undeniably share, however, is a passionate sense of the importance of literature and its complex ethical function, and it is this shared passion that has been my focus in this paper. [→page 126] Byatt, in reimagining the Seegard episode of The Good Apprentice, questions more forcefully the moral status of the artist not just in relation to art but also in regard to the world of other people. She can do this with even greater intensity through her rethinking of the relation between the fantastic and the realist modes in fiction, a rethinking that is, as I have argued, enabled in part by her close knowledge of Murdoch's handling of this interaction. In addition, her understanding and furthering of Murdoch's use of the multiple−centred novel helps communicate that central concern of both artists—"the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real" ("The Sublime and the Good" 215).
Simon Fraser University
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