I just finished reading A.S. Byatt's novel about the late 1960s called A Whistling Woman. Like many other people I loved her novel Possession, but A Whistling Woman doesn't quite measure up. The problem with this novel is it's supposed to be about the late 1960s in England but really has little to say about that era. The author so is resolutely anti-1960s one wonders why she wrote about that decade.
The story deals with a group of characters connected with the new University of North Yorkshire in the north of England: the Vice-Chancellor Gerard Wijnobel and his fellow scientisits at the university who want to put on a conference on mind-and-body connections; the rebel youth who set up an Anti-University next door who plan to disrupt the conference; Frederica, a TV personality living in London who has family near the university and whose TV crew will film the conference; and Joshua Ramsden, a very mad spiritual leader of a religious cult holed up in a farmhouse near the university. A. S. Byatt does know how to hook a reader into her plot. I excitedly read on waiting for the long-planned for confrontation between rebel youth and university scientists as well as for the religious commune to blow up. Byatt has some very amusing touches as the owner of the farmhouse where the religious cult lives has a sheep named Tobias who thinks he's a dog.
Another pleasure of this novel as well as Byatt's other work is her love of ideas and literature. She has characters refer to metaphor, 17th century English poetry, Alice in Wonderland--it's great fun to see characters know and love their English literature. So many American novelist seem afraid to write novels of ideas but Byatt seems to revel in ideas. Byatt also includes scientists discussing their work and it's also good to have their ideas, too.
One problem with the novel is none of the characters is very engaging. Joseph Ramsden, the leader of the religious communie, is the most fascinating character. Ramsden when a child discovered his mother and sister just murdered by his father. Byatt describes him as a fascinating mixture of deep religiousness and madness. After Ramsden becomes a spiritual leader, Byatt unfortunately drops him as an important character. Byatt is more interested in her dull bourgeois characters--her scientists and London arty bourgeois like Francesca, a TV personality, and her author roommate Agatha--and avoids going deeply into the really amazing characters whose actions drive the story: the rebel youth of the anti-University and the spiritual seekers in the farmhouse.
Another problem is many of these late 1960s literary and scientific ideas in which the older characters believe--in poetry, in psychobiology, experimental psychology, and English philosophy influenced by Wittgenstein-- were very limited to their time. At one point Byatt talks about professors in the 1960s liking 17th century English metaphysical poets--true enough--but neglects that the younger generation found these poets distant and remote and fled this
literature. The younger generation had little or no interest in the older generations' ideas.
Byatt only takes the ideas of scientists, professors, and media intellectual seriously while the author lampoons the ideas of the rebel youth and the religious commune. The novelist makes the youth sound like idiotic poor-mannered know-nothings. Yet these rebel young provide the novel's most exciting moments when they march on the scientific conference.
Most of the creative ideas by the late 1960s were coming from the youth at the Anti-University and the spiritual seekers like those in the religious commune. 1960s rebels made a real critique of scientists--for example, biologists for mistreating animals--but Byatt also describes the members of the religious commune as following a madman--so the religious people must be fools. Yet the religious ideas of Byatt's "fools" have also influenced Western religious life for the next three decades.
What about the idea of feminism? Byatt is first and foremost a feminist writer, incredibly influenced by the ideas of these late 1960s ideas particularly feminisme. The irony is thatByatt fed off the radicalism of the late 1960s which she is subtly denouncing in this book.
One good example is Byatt's treatment of the three main women characters. Byatt opens the novel with a chapter on Frederica and her young son; they are living with Agatha, another single mom with a career, and Agatha's young daughter. The household seems to work but Byatt always calls it an odd family. Jacqueline, a scientist at the univeristy, is the third working woman; she rejects marriage to a fellow scientist and instead concentrates on her research.
Throughout the novel there is some some blather about "Free Woman" who have careers and and also have romance when and if they want it. By novel's end both Frederica and her roommate Agatha have found mates. Frederica and Agatha are each pictured with new mate and child making a new family. Jacqueline is pictured as lonely nun devoting herself to her science. For a novel about the late 1960s the ending sounds like the 1950s: two good women each find a man while the woman who doesn't is sad, lonley creature. Blah blah blah. Byatt is taking a tiny part of feminism--the man cooks; the woman has a career--and incorporating it into the bourgeois marriage.
Skip this book. Go and read A.S. Byatt's Possession which is a wonderful literary who-done-it about literary scholars unearthing a romance between 19th century poets.