Synopses & Reviews
This electrifying new novel forms the triumphant conclusion to the great Frederica quartet depicting the forces in English life from the early 50s to 1970.
While Frederica the spirited heroine of Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower falls almost by accident into a career in television in London, tumultuous events in her home county of Yorkshire threaten to change her life and those of the people she loves. In the late 1960s the world begins to split. Near the university, where the scientists Luk and Jacqueline are studying snails and neurons and the working of the brain, an anti-university springs up. On the high moors nearby, a gentle therapeutic community is taken over by a turbulent, charismatic leader. Visions of blood and flames, of mirrors and doubles, share the refracting energy of Fredericas mosaic-like television shows. The languages of religion, myth and fairy-tale overlap with the terms of science and the new computer age. Darkness and light are in perpetual tension and the meaning of love itself seems to vanish; people flounder, often comically, to find their true sexual, intellectual and emotional identity.
The focus of these novels first widened from the old nuclear family to the experimental group and now narrows again to reveal the different, modern patterns of intimacy which emerged in these years. Through her wayward, lovingly drawn characters and breath-taking twists of plot, Byatt illuminates the effervescence of the 1960s both its excitements and its dangers -- as no one has done before. A Whistling Woman is the ultimate novel of ideas made flesh gloriously sensual, sexy and scary, bursting with ideas, contradictions, scientific discoveries, ethical conflicts, sly humour and wonderful humanity.
"Fans of A.S. Byatt's fiction can be divided into two groups: Those who cannot understand her novels and those who lie....The British publisher claims that A Whistling Woman
stands on its own, but I just wished it would stand still. This peripatetic story about the late 1960s is as fascinating, eclectic, and confusing as that psychedelic era." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review
The last in Byatts magnificent quartet of novels on intellectual life and thought in the 1950s and 1960s, A Whistling Woman can be read on its own. Rich in metaphor and glancing allusion, it is a tale of learning and anti-learning, sects and cults, the complex sexual relationships of humans and snails....It makes a fine conclusion to the quartet. Economist
Byatts intellectual adventure is full of energy and vitality
[with] solid delights, keen and demanding pleasure. Allan Massie, The Scotsman
The triumphant conclusion to Byatt's dazzling quartet of novels about English life is set in the late 1960s as the world begins to split. While Frederica--the spirited heroine of the novels--falls into a career in television in London, tumultuous events in her home county of Yorkshire threaten to change her life and those of the people she loves.
A Whistling Woman
portrays the antic, thrilling, and dangerous period of the late ‘60s as seen through the eyes of a woman whose life is forever changed by her times.
Frederica Potter, a smart, spirited 33-year-old single mother, lucks into a job hosting a groundbreaking television talk show based in London. Meanwhile, in her native Yorkshire where her lover is involved in academic research, the university is planning a prestigious conference on body and mind, and a group of students and agitators is establishing an “anti-university.” And nearby a therapeutic community is beginning to take the shape of a religious cult under the influence of its charismatic religious leader.
A Whistling Woman is a brilliant and thought-provoking meditation on psychology, science, religion, ethics, and radicalism, and their effects on ordinary lives.
About the Author
A.S. Byatt, author of the Booker Prize-winning Possession, is internationally acclaimed as a novelist, short story writer and critic. Her most recent fiction outside this tetralogy is The Biographer’s Tale, a novel, and Elementals, a collection of short stories. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1999.
Reading Group Guide
FROM THE BOOKER PRIZE-WINNING AUTHOR OF POSSESSION
“Rich, acerbic, wise. . . . [Byatt] tackles nothing less than what it means to be human.” —Vogue
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance you groups reading of A. S. Byatts A Whistling Woman, the final novel in the quartet, which includes The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower.
1. Frederica celebrates and explores the sexual and social freedom women experienced in the 1960s in her television broadcast entitled: “Free Women” [pp. 144-152]. How do the three “free” women in the novel, Frederica, Agatha, and Jacqueline, experience and express their freedom, sexual and otherwise? How is their freedom limited? How do the resolutions regarding the two pregnancies in the novel reflect on womens (sexual) freedom? Why do the women in the novel all keep their relationships secret, and how does this secrecy reflect on their freedom? Does the novel ever answer Fredericas question, “What do women want?” [p. 153]? What about her later question, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” [p. 336]?
2. How do the subjects of Fredericas television shows amplify certain events or themes of the novel? For example, what is the significance of the images of light and mirrors that appear throughout the novel, such as in the theme of Fredericas television show (Alice in Wonderland) or, as the first broadcast is entitled, “Through the Looking-Glass” [pp. 140-41] and again in the Manichaean religion as interpreted by the Dun Vale Hall cult [see pp. 234-240, for example]?
3. Would Fredericas television shows be successful in contemporary society? Would they have even been successful in the United States? What do the reactions of the different characters in the novel to Fredericas shows reveal about televisions role in society? What view of television does the author intend to convey by having the cult members join Joshua Lamb to watch the static on television on his so-called “Night Watches” [pp. 317-18]?
4. Why does Byatt go into such great depths to develop the evolution of Joshua Ramsden/Lambs character? How is religion both his salvation and his downfall? What is Byatts commentary on religion, and is religion effective as a tool to make peoples lives better? What is Byatts commentary on psychology, and its effectiveness as a tool to cure mental illness?
5. How does religion differ from cult ideology in the novel? How does group behavior differ from individual behavior? What do Brendas and Elvets letters reveal about cult mentality? Is there an implied parallel between the camp set up by the Anti-University on one side of the University, and the cult being established at Dun Vale Hall on the other side? Why do certain characters remain outside of these “groups” while others are drawn into them? How is group behavior juxtaposed with the intellectual life of Luk or Jacqueline or Frederica?
6. In the debate between genetic determinism and free will that runs through the novel, what does the Ottokar twins symbiotic existence prove or disprove? Why does John Ottokar object to Luk Lysgaard-Peacocks studies of the “cost” of normal sexual reproduction [p. 330]? What impact might Luks studies have on contemporary views on genetics and reproduction?
7. Does the syllabus for the Conference on Body and Mind demonstrate that science and humanities subjects are interrelated? Does Byatts interweaving of plot and characters support the argument that art, science, religious life, and intellectual life are all interwoven and interconnected? How are the scientists compared to and contrasted with the artists in the novel? Which group is better situated to understand or comment upon human behavior? How does Fredericas television show compare to the Body and Mind Conference as a forum for ideas?
8. Frederica meditates, “All the recent movements—the student Left, the dreamier counter-culture, the religious communities, had seen the nuclear family as a static thing, a source of oppression, the wrong kind of social form and structures. Who is the father was an outdated Victorian question” [p. 422]. Does the resolution of A Whistling Woman affirm or denounce these counter-family movements of the 1960s or affirm a traditional family structure or neither? Is it significant that the seemingly perfect new “family” formed by Agatha, Saskia, Frederica, and Leo [p. 13] dissolves by the end of the book with Agatha forming a more traditional family with Gerad Wijnnobel [p. 423]?
9. The lecture schedules of the Anti-University participants were blown from the marquees and shredded, and the shreds were blown into trees. Of these scraps, Byatt writes, “Some of the more mystical Anti-Universitarians thought these bleaching strips represented Tibetan prayer-rags. Others thought they were not nice and represented the last vestige of capitalist conspicuous waste. No one fetched a ladder to take them down” [p. 287]. And of student protestor Nick Tewfell, Byatt writes that many years later he became a cabinet minister in Tony Blairs cabinet [p. 377] What is the tone of these passages and does it convey the authors opinion of the student protestors? How do the University administrators and mainstream academics view the Anti-Universitarians? Can one body exist without the other?
10. Who are the Whistlers in Agathas fable and what do they symbolize? Is it significant, in light of Luks studies of bower birds, that the Whistlers chose the bodies of birds, rather than some other animal? Why does Luk tell Frederica to “whistle harder. Louder” [p. 417]?
11. In what ways is Byatts novel stylistically both traditional and contemporary? How does Byatt use different voices, both in letters and in dialogue, to vary the texture of the novel and move the plot along? Is Frederica a modern heroine?
12. Daniel gives Frederica his opinions about the ending of Shakespeares late comedies: “The human need to be mocked with art—you can have a happy ending, precisely because you know in life they dont happen, when you are old, you have a right to the irony of a happy ending—because you dont believe it” [p. 401]. Is the reader to interpret the ending of the novel in this light, or is Daniel just being a pessimist? Does the novel have a “happy ending”?
13. Does Vincent Hodgkiss experience homosexuality in a university setting differently than he might have outside of a university [p. 297]? Is Byatts description of his ascetic life [p. 298] uniquely homosexual or could it also describe a heterosexual life? Does it apply to any of the other characters in the novel? Is this type of life fulfilling on either an intellectual or an erotic level?
14. The list of names of Byatts characters is amusing and ironic: Elvet Gander; Avram Snitkin; Paul-Zag; Joshua Ramsden/Lamb; Lyon Bowman; Waltraut Ross; Jonty Surtees; Luk Lysgaard-Peacock; Gideon and Clemency Farrar; and on it goes. How do the characters names reflect their personalities and their role in the novel? Does the explanation of the origin of Ramsdens name prove its significance or its absurdity [p. 116]?