A. S. Byatt (24 August 1936 – 16 November 2023)
We are deeply saddened to announce the death of Dame Antonia Byatt, one of the most significant writers and critics of our time. She died peacefully at home surrounded by close family. A girl from Sheffield with a strong European sensibility (‘I have a Germanic imagination,’ she told Desert Island Discs in 1991), Antonia had a remarkable mind which produced a unique creative vision.
She has been an integral part of publishing since 1964, starting with her first novel The Shadow of the Sun. Twenty-three other spectacular novels and works of criticism followed, including: the stunning sequence known as the Frederica Quartet; Possession (1990), a romantic tour de force about a pair of young scholars investigating the lives of two Victorian poets, which was an eminent winner of the Booker Prize; and The Children’s Book (2009), shortlisted for the Booker Prize and winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. She was also a master of the short story and her most recent publication, Medusa's Ankles: Selected Stories (2021) brought together the best of these.
Antonia’s Quaker schooling encouraged a clear independence of thought, and throughout her career she had an unerring ability to ask direct and searching questions. Her novels showed a profound engagement with history and historical consciousness – and an understanding of the traditions in which she wrote – whether folktale or novel. And if her fiction offered an imaginative realm of ideas, it was also warm and engaging, and filled with unforgettable characters: Christabel LaMotte, Frederica Potter, Olive Wellwood. Antonia could dive deep into symbolism and metaphor but there is nothing disembodied about her work. Like her mentor Iris Murdoch, she married her intellect with a charismatic earthiness.
Antonia was an intensely visual person: her love of unusual objects and colour-filled art was there on the page, but also overflowing in her house in Putney, which she shared with her husband, and fellow lover of things, Peter Duffy. And of course there were thousands of books: working with her and her editor, Jenny Uglow, on Peacock and Vine (2016), an illustrated essay on the connections between William Morris and Mariano Fortuny was, said Antonia’s publisher Clara Farmer, ‘also an exercise in wrestling piles of gorgeous, illustrated volumes down the stairs and on to the dining table where we got to work with great pleasure (and many Post-its)’.
The world of publishing was hugely important in Antonia’s life and she cultivated friendships all around the world (her work was translated into thirty-eight languages). The recipient of many awards, she became a CBE in 1990 and a DBE in 1999. In 2014, a coleopterist working in Central and South America named a species of iridescent beetle in her honour (Euhylaeogena byattae ), inspired by her portrayal of naturalists in the novella ‘Morpho Eugenia’ in Angels and Insects (1992). Antonia was especially delighted to receive the Erasmus Prize in 2016, awarded by the king of the Netherlands at a ceremony in the Royal Palace of Amsterdam and followed by a feast in a beautiful seventeenth-century merchant's house on the canals. Seeing her happiness at this honour, and her joy being abroad in Europe again after a period of illness, surrounded by friends and family and passionate admirers, was an uplifting and wonderful experience.
Zoë Waldie, her literary agent at RCW, says: ‘Antonia used to say that making things out of language was the most exciting thing she knew. She did this magnificently over many decades and held readers spellbound. Her formidable erudition and passion for language were combined with a love of scholarship and an astonishing memory, forged learning poetry and rules for spelling and grammar by heart as a child. Her writing is multi-layered, endlessly varied and deeply intellectual, threaded through with myths and metaphysics. She adored George Eliot and Proust, also Terry Pratchett. She was interested in so many things; phone calls with her about work were never routine, nor brief, and would reliably and joyfully digress to the topic of a painter or new exhibition, or to a European writer she’d just discovered, or to how the brain works, or to the tennis on television, or travel... She was a committed Europhile and relished getting to know her many foreign publishers and translators, on the continent and beyond. She was avidly interested in new writing and delighted in championing upcoming authors. We are heartbroken to have lost her, and our thoughts are with her family.’
Jenny Uglow, her long-term editor, says: ‘Working with Antonia Byatt was full of surprises. She was fascinated by metamorphosis, from the unexpected turn of individual lives, which she explored in early books like Still Life, to the chilling fantasy of short stories like A Stone Woman, and she was defiantly original, as with the inclusion of the poetry in Possession, or the form of her most original book, The Biographer’s Tale. Like many writers, she could hold the germ of a story in her head for a long time, sometimes for years, but when it emerged she would work on it assiduously in her notebooks and in conversations, reading widely to clarify the background of intellectual movements and artistic ideas, and mapping every scene in detail in her head, from the colours of clothes and the names of minor characters – which were often bizarre – to the complexity of train timetables. Finally, the shape was fully formed in her mind. Then it would flow on to the page, with not a change to be made.’
Clara Farmer, her publisher at Chatto & Windus, says: ‘Antonia’s books are the most wonderful jewel-boxes of stories and ideas. Her compulsion to write (A4 blue notebook always to hand) and her ability to create intricate skeins of narrative was remarkable. It was always a treat to see her, to hear updates about her evolving literary characters and indulge in delicious titbits of literary gossip. Like all Chatto’s publishers before me, I was devoted to her and her writing. 2024 would have been her sixtieth (Diamond) anniversary as a Chatto author. We mourn her loss but it’s a comfort to know that that her penetrating works will dazzle, shine and refract in the minds of readers for generations to come.’
Sam Edenborough, who sold translation rights in Antonia's work, says: ‘Antonia's wit, stunning range of scholarly interests and passionate engagement with other authors' and artists’ work are plain to see in her writing. These are also among the qualities that made her such an extraordinary person to know and work with. Antonia touched a great many lives in a profound way, my own included. In particular it was a joy to travel overseas with her, witnessing her friendships with her international editors and translators, and her pleasure in meeting her readers from around the world. I will miss her deeply.’