20th century, Arts

Intensity of vision: A.S. Byatt’s The Shadow of the Sun

By Victoria Elliott

The English faculty of Cambridge in the 1950s belonged to two men: Lawrence and Leavis. For a female undergraduate with ambitions to write, the pressure could have been crushing: the lessons were that literature should be moral to be great, and that very few were capable of greatness, so you were better off just studying those who were than trying yourself. One of Britain’s great post-war authors, A.S. Byatt, wrote much of her first novel during her days as an undergraduate in just this situation.

The Shadow of the Sun

The Shadow of the Sun concerns Anna Severell who stands on the threshold of adulthood, and her struggle to establish who she is, and what she can do, in the shadow of her father, a famous English novelist. It was first published in 1964, a year after Byatt’s younger sister Margaret Drabble had produced her first novel; as a result, many critics saw the central relationship of the novel as representing Byatt’s own struggle to emerge from the shadow of her sister. This, to me, is simplistic. The second major male character in the novel is Oliver Canning, an academic who makes his living mainly as a critic of Henry Severell’s novels, and with whom Anna embarks on an affair after she begins studying at Cambridge. The twin pillars that dominate Anna’s world, therefore, are her father, the great novelist, and the critic, who constantly reiterates to Anna that she is ‘like him’ and that she can never achieve anything akin to what her father has. Lawrence and Leavis live again. In any case, I suspect that Byatt does not identify with Anna, but in fact with her father.

The book establishes two themes which have come to be dominant in Byatt’s work: the sun, in all its symbolic glory, and the intensity of vision, of experience, which can be both the driving force and the crippling limitation of genius. Her doctoral research, never completed, partly concerned the role of the Sun in the Neoplatonic creation myths, where it is the male force of creation. Later Byatt transfigured this with the imagery of Queen Elizabeth I in The Virgin in the Garden. In this book it remains threatening, overwhelming: the initial chapters take place in a summer where the heat is oppressive, and the sun dominates everything. Its centrality is emphasised by the title of the novel, restored by Byatt to its original version in the edition published in 1991, following the Booker prize she won for Possession. The poet, Cecil Day Lewis, working at Chatto and Windus originally agreed to publish the novel, but suggested that ‘Shadow of a Sun’ was a more mellifluous version of the title. But Byatt insists, in the 1991 preface, that The Shadow of the Sun is more what she meant: ‘The sun has no shadow, that is the point. You have to be the sun or nothing.’

A. S. Byatt

It was a message that chimed strongly with me when I first read the novel at eighteen, virtually the same age as the heroine, but gauchely superior and more adult, which as a teenager in the late 90s as opposed to the early 60s I might well have been. Wanting to write, but not knowing what, or how, was an ambition I could identify with. In some ways it is Byatt’s introduction to the novel which resonates most strongly for me, before the novel itself. In it she relates matter of factly the way life was in the 1950s: as a research student she married and consequently had her research grant taken away – a man in the same position would have had his grant increased to cater for his increased household. She describes finishing the novel as a ‘desperate’ faculty wife in Durham in the early 60s: writing at the kitchen table dandling a child on her knee; dashing across to the library to write for the hour a day that the cleaning lady was there.

It is a problem which faces every single woman in the novel: Anna’s mother, Caroline, has entirely sacrificed her life to ensuring the happiness of her important husband, and expects Anna to do the same, to Henry’s slightly uneasy but grateful acceptance; Oliver’s wife, Margaret, wants to devote her life to him, throwing herself into domesticity, but crumbles when he refuses the gift she offers; Anna is trapped by pregnancy at the end of the novel. It is one of the aspects which gained in strength in my later readings of the book, towards the end of my time at university, contemplating the constraints that domestic life was likely to impinge on my ambitions, both academic and writerly, and resenting the fact that for a man it remains easier. It throws into perspective the extraordinary achievement of A.S. Byatt’s career.

I still resent the ending of the novel, because for me it is the wrong ending. Anna is waiting in a hotel for Oliver, who has just discovered that she is pregnant with his child but contemplating marrying someone else. She is on the point of leaving, of accepting her father’s offer of money to go away somewhere, to discover what she herself can do, to establish her own personality in the absence of the men who have dominated her life, but when Oliver comes in she abandons the idea, tells him she loves him and the novel ends with her thinking of the impossibility of life having gone any other way. The novel’s chronology is imprecise, but Anna can be no more than twenty at this point. I understand that Byatt is making a comment both about the character, whose life has been constricted by what Oliver has told her, and also about the options open to women at the time, but I see it as an unhappy ending, which denies hope. Today, perhaps, it can end differently.

Byatt. A.S., The Shadow of the Sun (1964)
Todd. R, A.S. Byatt (Writers and their work)(1996)