Laureation Address – Dame Antonia S Byatt

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Dame Antonia S Byatt
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters

Laureation by Professor Andrew Murphy
School of English
Tuesday 19 June 2012

(L-R) Professor Noam Chomsky, Vice-Chancellor and Principal Louise Richardson, Dame Antonia S Byatt

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Dame Antonia Byatt.

In an interview with Mark Lawson, Dame Antonia observed that she thinks of herself ‘both as a northerner and as a Yorkshirewoman’ and it may be that the rigour and clear vision of her work owes something to roots struck originally in hard, fertile northern soil. Dame Antonia was educated at a Quaker school, and, though not a Quaker herself, she relished the power of the religion because it drew her, as she puts it, to sit ‘in silence and [listen] to the nature of things’ – good early training for any writer, we might feel. Dame Antonia studied English at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she first began seriously writing novels – writing oftentimes, in fact, while she was attending lectures. One tutor stopped in mid-discourse to observe to her ‘You don’t have to take that many notes, it’s not that interesting’. Having graduated from Cambridge, Dame Antonia undertook postgraduate work at Bryn Mawr and at Oxford, before settling for a time in Durham.

Her first novel was The Shadow of the Sun, published in 1964 and, by the mid-60s, she had moved to London and was teaching at the Central School of Art and Design. In 1972, she accepted a lectureship at University College London, where she taught until she returned to being a full-time writer in 1983. She has said that, rather than trying to teach her students, she instead shared enthusiasms with them and asked them questions. The point of asking questions, she explains, is that students then ‘have to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it’. This is, surely, as sound a piece of advice on teaching as anyone could ever give. During her time at UCL, Dame Antonia published a number of meticulously researched critical books, including studies of the work of Iris Murdoch and of Wordsworth and Coleridge. And she continued, of course, to write novels.

In 1990 she published Possession: an ambitious, rich and complex book that weaves together a twin narrative of a scholarly quest in the twentieth century and the Victorian lives of those who are the subject of that quest. The novel was, in fact, rejected by 14 American publishers, and the US publisher who did accept it threatened to take a red pencil and ‘cross out all the Victorian bits because they were destroying a fine modern intrigue’. Thankfully, this publisher did not get her way and the novel went on to win the Booker Prize.

With its juxtaposition of a great variety of textual forms – letters, diaries, poems, passages from invented critical works and biographies – Possession has often been seen as a postmodernist text. Dame Antonia herself, however, rejects the label, noting that, insofar as she is interested in the postmodernist notion of ‘deconstruction’, it is only so that she can, ultimately, reconstruct more strongly what she has taken apart. Possession is a novel that questions the limits of scholarly knowledge, but it is also a novel that sees value in the knowledge that scholarship pursues: imperfect knowledge, certainly, but knowledge which advances our understanding of the world, and of our, human, place in it.

Dame Antonia has said of her work that she is ‘trying to express delight in the fact that human beings think, because what they think is extraordinary, and how they think is extraordinary.’ In her work over the years – now running to some 30 volumes in total, including the Frederica Quartet and 2009’s The Children’s Book – Dame Antonia has used fiction to explore a broad range of important intellectual issues. She brings an invigorating and necessary seriousness to the business of writing fiction. As a critic in the Paris Review has observed of her work:

If English writing has stopped being a matter of small relationships and delicate social blunders, and has turned its attention to the larger questions of history, art, and the life of ideas, it is largely due to the generous example of Byatt’s wide-ranging ambitions.

In these serious times, we need writers of serious purpose, writers with minds capacious enough to understand global complexity, but also with compassion enough to analyse our human world with grace and tenderness. Antonia Byatt is just such a writer: a writer for us to honour and to treasure.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to the fields of literature and literary criticism I invite you to confer on Dame Antonia Byatt the Degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

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