2008-11-01, English, Thesis edition: Literature’s Ghosts: Realism and Innovation in the Novels of Christine Brooke-Rose and A. S. Byatt Andrew Williamson

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Physical Description
  • thesis
Published
  • The University of Queensland, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, 2008-11-01
Language
  • English

Edition details

Title
  • Literature’s Ghosts: Realism and Innovation in the Novels of Christine Brooke-Rose and A. S. Byatt
Author
  • Andrew Williamson
Published
  • The University of Queensland, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, 2008-11-01
Physical Description
  • thesis
Subjects
Summary
  • This thesis examines the novels of Christine Brooke-Rose and A. S. Byatt in order to question the extent to which contemporary British novelists are free to innovate with the forms of literary realism, forms that have a long and valued tradition in British literary production. Both authors, I argue, have reassessed the limits of the realist novel over the course of their careers, and the specific ways in which they engage with, or depart from, their literary inheritance are discussed. The introduction contextualises the literary climate out of which the two writers emerge. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was a commonplace of literary criticism to declare the “death of the English novel.” In the years following modernist experimentation, British novelists made a conscious return to the mimetic realism of the nineteenth century. Rather than the intellectual sterility that is often assumed to have dominated this period, I observe that there were in fact many writers who were continuing the innovations of the preceding generations, Christine Brooke-Rose and A. S. Byatt amongst them. To view realism to be in need of renewal is first of all to view literary production in terms of an ontological-historical distinction of texts as types of objects. It may be also to neglect the ways in which literary history is always already in dialogue with the present. Both authors have made concerted efforts to refresh literary realism; however, they have proceeded in very different ways. Brooke-Rose has experimented with the content and the form of the novel in order to renew conventions she insists are fatigued or overworked. The novels she has published since 1964 depart radically from what would ordinarily be recognised as realist fictions as they make no attempt to disguise their own textuality. Byatt, on the other hand, has reassessed realism through the forms of realism itself. Through an engagement with literary history, she revisits realism to pursue what has always been of value within it. In so doing, she creates a developmental model of literary production in which literary debts are made visible in the work of the contemporary writer. Chapter One examines Thru, the literary experiment for which Brooke-Rose is most celebrated. My starting point is her claim, following Roland Barthes’s S/​Z, that she is the author of writerly as opposed to readerly texts. I argue that to establish any such easy opposition is to neglect Barthes’s departure from the polemicism that had marked his earlier work. Rather than interrogating how well her texts are supported by her claim to be writerly, I turn the opposition around in order to examine precisely how Barthes’s readerly operates within Thru. Through a close reading both of the novel and of Barthes, I illustrate that many characteristics of literary realism that Brooke-Rose argues are exhausted, in particular characterisation and narration, are still operating in Thru. Chapter Two develops Brooke-Rose’s opposition of readerly and writerly in order to examine its consequence for her own experimental writing. Here I return to Thru to demonstrate the ways in which Barthes’s readerly and writerly operate as interdependent processes rather than as opposing terms. I then reconsider her earliest work, a period she has since disavowed. I argue that rather than a separation, there is a continuum between her earliest works and her later, more experimental, writing that has not been recognised by the author or her critics. In Chapter Three I turn my attention to Byatt’s insistence on a developmental model of literary production. Here I identify the role that evolutionary narratives play in her texts. Two of her works, Possession and “Morpho Eugenia” are set largely in 1859, a year in which a specific epistemological emergence was to reconsider genealogical relations. In this chapter I examine the writings she invents for her characters and argue that she takes metaphors from natural history in order, not only to show the close relationship between literature and natural history, but to provide her reader with a framework of literary-generational descent. Chapter Four examines more closely the ways in which Byatt converses with her literary predecessors. She offers a version of realism that has always been concerned with perception, and with the impossibility of translating that perception into verisimilar fiction. In this chapter I identify the role that art works play within two of Byatt’s earlier novels, The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, as she finds in them the same metaphorical ambiguities that bind the language of the novelist to imprecision. I then examine the ways in which metaphor works in these novels to elude precise signification of meaning. Chapter Five returns to Byatt’s neo-Victorian texts, Possession and Angels and Insects, and examines the author’s ventriloquism of her Victorian characters, which includes Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Arthur Hallam. Ventriloquism, I argue, is concerned with a remembrance of the literary dead within the present work and is thus an expression of mourning. However, to avoid melancholia the new text must also emphasise its difference from that which is being ventriloquised. I then discuss Byatt’s focus on nineteenth-century spiritualism, as it is through the trope of the séance that she reconsiders the afterlife of literary history itself. The final chapter examines the role of the critic. The mourning of Byatt’s fictionalised Tennyson is singular and overpowering. Chapter Six begins with a consideration of two of Possession’s critics, Mortimer Cropper and Leonora Stern, whose readings, I argue, are similar to Tennyson’s mourning in their inhospitality to other readings, other mournings of the literary text. I compare Cropper and Stern to Possession’s other critics, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, whom Byatt places in the role of literary heir. Not only do Roland and Maud display an essential respect for the texts that they study, but also their reading is open to revision. The literary text, as Barthes argues, must always keep in reserve some essential meaning. Only through interpretive revision, Byatt implies, is the promise of this hopeful-yet-impossible revelation made to the reader.
Language
  • English
Identifier
  • oai:espace.library.uq.edu.au:UQ:177169

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