The weather in Edinburgh today reverted to “norm” with lashings of rain and wind that made the marquees of the Book Festival in Charlotte Square creak and flap like the sails of multi-masted schooners. It’s a rather disconcerting experience to sit under them since, but for the noise of the traffic, you might well be at sea!
Luckily we were still enjoying good weather on Friday when I listened to AS Byatt at the Festival – her first ever appearance, presumably not for want of an invitation – and she was quite remarkable. The event was chaired by Stuart Kelly, literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, a good choice because he’s one of the few interviewers in Edinburgh able to provide a resonant sounding board for Byatt’s wit and intellence.
That evening the two 10,000-pound prizes – one for fiction and the other for biography – set up by Janet Coats in memory of her husband, the publisher James Tait Black, were awarded to AS Byatt for her amazing novel The Children’s Book, and to John Carey for his biography of William Golding.
The Children’s Book follows the lives of a group of families from 1895 to 1919, from the end of the Victorian era through the radiance of Edwardian society with its idealism and Fabian arguments about class and society, through to the horrors of the First World War. I asked her whether she regarded her books as historical novels, to which she replied: “My books are not genre historical novels”, adding that she had had a crush on Georgette Heyer as a young reader, and also enjoyed other historical novelists. Also she loves Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, saying that it is “nearer a genre book than The Children’s Book, but nonetheless transcends that category.”
Her remarks about women writers have been widely reported in the press. She did say that “If you are trying to think, there are always reviewers who take the attitude that it’s like a dog standing on its hind legs, as Samuel Johnson put it: it would be better if you didn’t do it.” But her own work and her acknowledged debt to many other women authors, poets, historians and artists reveal that the reality is different. The rapturous applause of the audience here in Edinburgh – and all the laudatory comments I heard afterwards while standing in the book signing queue – prove that she would do better to listen to her readers not the reviewers.