Those who care already know that A Whistling Woman is the
fourth and final volume in the series of books A.S. Byatt has written
around the character of Frederica Potter. I've never read the first
one, The Virgin in the Garden, but I read a thoroughly
waterlogged copy of Still Life when I was a freshman at
UCSC. I lugged a copy of Babel Tower back from England with
me, unread, and finally devoured it the summer after I graduated
college. I wasn't planning to buy A Whistling Woman right
away, but I recently went to go hear Byatt speak and there were the
copies of the book laid out on a table so beautifully. I wasn't
planning to read it right away, but once the book was in my possession
I could not resist. It did not disappoint. It would be a disservice
to the novel to try to pin it down to any one idea, but suffice it to
say that it takes place in England in the late 1960s. Free love,
student rebellion, the birth of mass culture, developments in science
and neurobiology, cult psychology, and of course a little bit of
fairy tale it's all in here. I dogeared many many pages; I
couldn't possibly begin to quote all the good bits. But here's one
passage that gave me a thrill: "Not that he did not care about
art. Across the lawn, which was mazed with shining spider-threads and
brilliant with dew, was his Hepworth (purchased by the University, at
his instigation). It was a large, pierced white oval stone, strung
with crossing wires. He saw the shadow of the threads on the glimmer
of the stone, the yew-dark through its centre. He had known Hepworth
in Hampstead, in 1938, when he had just arrived from Holland, braced
for the war to come. They had talked maths. She had described to him
the interest of pierced forms, the way the hole incorporated air and
light in the solid stone. She described the sensuous pleasure of
working hand and arm into and through a spiralling tunnel." And when
Frederica admits how confused she is about the direction her life
is taking, admits that she can't imagine staying confined to one
discipline, her friend says: "And so? You must just whistle harder.
Louder. You won't do either perhaps quite as successfully as you
would have done a straight university 'career.' But you'll know
more." Yes. Exactly.
A Whistling Woman and a Crowing Hen
Is neither good for God nor Men.
A frequent saying of Byatt's maternal grandmother
"And just as I'd taken the highest tree in the wood," continued the
Pigeon, raising its voice to a shriek, "and just as I was thinking I
should be free of them at last, they must needs come wriggling down
from the sky! Ugh, Serpent!"
"But I'm not a serpent, I tell you!" said Alice. "I'm a
"Well! What are you?" said the Pigeon. "I can see you're
trying to invent something!"
"II'm a little girl," said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she
remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day.
"A likely story indeed!" said the Pigeon, in a tone of the deepest
contempt. "I've seen a good many little girls in my time, but never
one with such a neck as that! No, no! You're a serpent; and
there's no use denying it."
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Here, at the Fountains sliding foot,
Or at some Fruit-trees mossy root,
Casting the Bodies Vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
There like a Bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver Wings;
And, till prepar'd for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various Light.
Andrew Marvell, "The Garden"