A Review of Portraits in Fiction by A S Byatt

It is likely that, as an writer who works solely with words, however visually descriptive these words may be, Byatt is naturally biased. Portraits in Fiction is nevertheless, exactly what literary criticism should be, provocative, well researched, well written, enjoyable to read, light enough to put down mid sentence, but deep enough to provoke further discussion. 

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Portraits in Fiction
by A.S. Byatt
Vintage, 2002, pb, 101pgs
ISBN 0-099-42984-5
RRP A$24.95

“A painting exists outside time and records the time of its making. It is in an important sense arrested and superficial…” A.S Byatt’s latest book is based on the Heywood Hill lecture 200 given by her at the National Portrait Gallery in London and looks at the different way writers use words to construct portraits. The book also explores the relationship between painting and writing, the way in which iction creates portraits, and paintings create fictions. Although this book is short, perhaps too short to match its ambitious subject matter, it covers a substantial number of writers and artists, and includes a range of full colour plates of many of the paintings she discusses. Literary criticism can be dry, but Byatt’s prose remains accessible and interesting, raising complex issues with clear enough references to keep even an uninformed reader with her.

The essay moves very quickly, from the ‘real’ Darnley portrait of Elizabeth I and Bronzino’s portrait of Lecrezia Pancitchi to Henry James’ verbal description of the latter in Wings of the Dove. We move through Proust’s Odette as she transforms into Botticelli’s Daughter of Jethro, through the verbal descriptions or “renderings” of Ford Madox Ford’s Catherine Howard and Henry VIII, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, Diderot and Balzac’s real paintings and painter characters. Some of it moves way too quickly, and the best sections are those that are meatier, such as the detailed examination of the conflict which took place between Cezanne and Zola’s after Zola’s fictional portrait in L’Ouevre, which ruined a friendship. These are portraits by Byatt of Zola, Cezanne and Manet which capture something of the mood and interior of these “characters,” portraits of the fictional artist Claude Lantier by Zola, Manet’s painted portrait of Zola which graces the book’s cover, Zola’s fictional portrait of Manet, and his own portrait of Manet’s portrait of himself. This almost dizzying but well managed interplay between artists and a writer work well, and Byatt provides enough well researched information so that even readers unfamiliar with either Zola’s work, or Manet’s can still relate to the imagery.

Similarly in her exposition of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, Byatt conducts a fairly detailed analysis of the relationship between the characters Sibyl Vane, Dorian Gray, the painter Basil Hallward, the portrait and Wilde himself, also the novel’s subject. Also explored are Iris Murdoch’s The Sandcastle, Joyce Carey’s The Horses Mouth and Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl, although perhaps in a more cursive way than Byatt does with Wilde and Zola. Byatt also makes a number of references to her own work, particularly Possession, as well as briefly exploring the way in which film, and theatre can impact on the written portrait.

The concept that all portraits are ultimately of their painters or writers, whatever the form is a worthwhile one which Byatt raises, and the book also explores the way in which fiction can delve deeper into the complexity that is an individual than a painting which is both death in life as well as life in death can:

A portrait in a novel or a story may be a portrait of invisible things – thought processes, attractions, repulsions, subtle or violent changes in whole lives, or groups of lives. Even the description in visual language of a face or body may depend on being unseen for its force.(1)

I don’t know if I agree with the latter point, which Byatt raises as a thesis from the start of the book, or even wholeheartedly with the former one (although I do think that often this is the case). A good painting may also convey these invisible things, and is of course, more than simply a naturalistic and superficial image. It is likely that, as an writer who works solely with words, however visually descriptive these words may be, Byatt is naturally biased. Portraits in Fiction is nevertheless, exactly what literary criticism should be, provocative, well researched, well written, enjoyable to read, light enough to put down mid sentence, but deep enough to provoke further discussion. One can imagine Byatt working her way through each of the paintings cited, and describing a literary counterpoint to her audience.

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