Jan/Feb 2002 Book Reviews

Portraits In Fiction

A.S. Byatt
Random House (December 2001) 101 pages
ISBN: 0 7011 73160

reviewed by Ann Skea

Portraits in words and portraits in paint are opposites, rather than metaphors for each other.

This is A.S. Byatt's opening line, but what does she mean? Surely both are metaphors for the person depicted, aren't they? Surely both can be equally informative and equally imaginative, can they not?

Apparently not. Byatt, as an artist with words, favours words over pictures and argues that they are better at presenting a person's character and presence. But one of my favourite portraits is of two young men and I know as much about them from this picture as any word portrait could tell me. I know that the elder is the more serious, proud of his position, ready to shoulder responsibility. And the younger, who has a pleasant, open face, makes me laugh. I can see how pleased with himself he is, how carefully he has done his hair, how much he loves his soft, kid boots. No words can quite capture the quality of that painting but the artist was inspired and that inspiration shines through and conveys something of the nature of his subjects. Words, too, can do this but in both cases it depends on the skill of the work's creator. Dull portraits are as common in literature as in art, inspired work is rare in both.

Byatt, nevertheless, presents an interesting argument and illustrates it with examples of portraits in fiction and fictional writing about art from a wide range of work, including her own. Amongst the authors and artists she discusses are Proust, Ford Maddox Brown, Ford Maddox Ford, Oscar Wilde, Emile Zola, Joyce Carey, Iris Murdoch, Holbein, Durer, Monet and Manet. Rather spoiling her argument about the superiority of words, however, are the many beautiful reproductions of portraits which accompany the text and add to the attraction of the book.

Ironically, considering her thesis, this book is based on a lecture which Byatt gave at the National Portrait Gallery, London, last year (2000) for the Heywood Hill Annual Lecture. But this is not a dry, heavy lecture. It is beautifully presented, entertaining and light in tone (it is literally light, too, being a surprisingly thin book for its price).

Byatt tells us that she first began to haunt the National Portrait Gallery when she was planning a novel which, in part, concerned the difference between art and literature at the times of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. The Darnley Portrait of Elizabeth I at the Gallery, she says, "dazzled and then obsessed" her, and she offers us her portrait in words of this painting. But what does that do? It points out things which an imaginative viewer might notice: that the fan is "dangled or gripped"; that its colours suggest passion; that Elizabeth has the "stillness and energy of a young girl." All true. All part of the imaginative picture of Elizabeth I which a viewer might construct in their mind.

Yet, but both words and painting equally prompt and also limit the imaginative viewer in different ways. Byatt's word description of her own fictional characters may suggest or state things about them just as the Darnley Portrait does about Elizabeth I. Her presentation of her characters is just as subjective as the artist's presentation of Elizabeth, and readers or viewers will still construct their own images from these sources, and no two mental images will be alike in every detail. So, is art less able than words to depict the "variety of selves" of its subject? Does a painting fix an image in time more than a word portrait does? I think not.

As you can see, this is a book which makes you think. For anyone who loves art and literature, Byatt has interesting things to say about both and says them in an interesting way, although she is, naturally, biased towards words. As a lecture, this book is different to Byatt's fictional work and will appeal a different group of readers. But those who know and enjoy her novels will recognize her style and find that her arguments, here, make interesting background reading to her stories.


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