I thought I remembered a single sentence or paragraph in A. S. Byatt’s The Shadow of the Sun that summed up the way Henry Severell’s house is organized around his writing routine. But it’s more diffuse than that, a series of descriptions and references that I somehow fused in my head.

The descriptions of Henry’s study are lovely:

The study, for a study, was very large, and full of light, which flooded in through a large french window which opened onto the terrace at the back. It had nothing of the dark leather and silver and tobacco comfort of the gentleman’s study, no steel cabinets, on the other hand, no deliberate austerity, not even the threadbare untidiness of the don’s room, with paper everywhere, and stones collected on odd beaches and brought home because they were interesting. If it had any character, it was that of the outgrown schoolroom—books, on shelves, all round the walls, not glassed in, a huge, square ugly desk in light wood, a wooden armchair, and a desk chair. There was a typewriter on the desk, and a jug of flowers, arranged by Caroline, on one of the book-cases. There was a large fireplace, and a sage green carpet, slightly silky, and nothing else remarkable but space—clear, uninhabited, sunlit space. The study was the centre of the house, and round what went on in it everything else was ordered . . . . (4-5)

He went downstairs and into the hall, where he opened the curtains to let in the grey light, too weak yet to reach the corners . . . . In his study was the flask of coffee Caroline always put out for him, and a bowl of chrysanthemums, on whose crisp, clawed points light and colour were already stirring . . . . He settled then at his desk, with his coffee, in the quiet house. He went through notebooks, settling his mind: he had never been able to cure himself of indiscriminate jottings, but it had taken him much longer to learn to read what he had jotted and he now made a point of it. (168-70)

Although Byatt describes Caroline cooking, rolling pastry, going about her household tasks, the concern for menus is Henry’s:

He disliked large meals. They slowed him. . . . He struggled with the menu to find something he could eat comfortably without impeding his next morning’s work . . . . He ordered a bottle of wine and remembered that as an undergraduate he had dreamed of literary fame to be rewarded by dinners in such a restaurant, with such a beautiful woman. He smiled to himself, for here he was, neither bored nor blasé, nor disillusioned he hoped, but merely concerned exclusively with the connection between his stomach and his working routine. (186)

I have not read this book in some time, and as I looked for my non-existent single quotation, I remembered how much I dislike it. Not one of the characters is likeable. Caroline the self-sacrificing comes closest; even as she devotes herself to her husband, house, and children, she protects a fantasy life in which she is an opera singer, and when Henry wants to talk to her, she makes him keep silent until she finishes singing an aria. Then she deals with him. I have to admire that corner of self that she has preserved. But at what a cost! The others are appalling. Henry is selfish. Oliver Canning is worse. And Anna Severell, Henry’s daughter, is exasperating. I think Byatt intended all of these effects, and the book is beautifully written, but I find it very hard to read a book whose characters I dislike.

But the introduction to the 1991 reissue clarifies many of the problems Byatt faced as she wrote this her first book, and it contains this terribly sad sentence: “No woman of my generation would have expected any putative husband to consider her work prospects when making his own decisions” (viii). She wanted work, she wanted love—as who does not?—and good cooking, too. Someone has to run the well-ordered house. How can the writer and the housekeeper be the same person?

A. S. Byatt. The Shadow of the Sun. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 1991.

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