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#readbyatt: Update the Second

by Kim on March 18, 2013 · 6 comments

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Whew, section two of this read-a-long was a doozy. It was slightly more pages than the first section, and boy, did that chapter with the letters take awhile to get though.

Anyway, I liked the format from the last recap, so I’m going to use that again. (If you missed it, here are my thoughts from chapters 1 through 6). You can also catch my co-host, Lu’s, thoughts on this section here.

Our Story So Far (Chapters 7 — 13)

This section felt rather disjointed to me, as if each of the chapters was doing something completely different and it wasn’t until I got to the end of chapter 13 (and snuck ahead through chapters 14 and 15) that the story seemed to come back together again. So, briefly, here’s what happened in each chapter:

Chapter 7: We meet Beatrice Nest, and “indisputably solid, and nevertheless amorphous” scholar who has been working, for years, on studying the diary of Ash’s wife, Ellen. Roland goes to visit her to look for clues in Ellen’s diary, then gets an invitation to go back to the LaMotte estate to read the correspondence between Randolph and Christabel (after another awkward encounter with Val).

Chapter 8: Roland and Maud head back to the estate to read the letters. While stranded overnight, they have an awkward (or perhaps romantic?) encounter outside the bathroom — scandalous! Maud also receives some letters from fellow scholars that she considers.

Chapter 9: This is a short story by Christabel LaMotte that I don’t know what to make of.

Chapter 10: Finally, the correspondence! This chapter is exclusively the letters between Randolph and Christabel, which go from very formal to quite dramatic. This chapter took me several days to read but boy did it get good at the end. I cannot wait to find out what transpired off the page.

Chapter 11: This chapter is the text of “Swammerdam,” a poem Randolph is writing during the time he is writing to Christabel and that, at some point, he must have sent to her to read. I am also not good with Victorian poetry, so I’m not sure what to make of this either.

Chapter 12: After finishing up the letters, Roland and Maud go their separate ways and agree to wait on sharing their thoughts about their discoveries until they can talk again. At some point, Roland suggests that, perhaps, Christabel accompanied Randolph on a trip he made to to North Yorkshire in June 1859. Maud visits Beatrice to review Ellen Ash’s journal and letters again, coming across evidence that Christabel’s housemate/alleged lesbian lover Blanche came to see Ellen while Randolph was away in 1859. Maud and Roland decide to follow Randolph’s journey of 1859 to see if they can find evidence that Christabel went with him.

Chapter 13: This chapter starts with a long poem, followed by an excerpt from a scholarly feminist text suggesting that basically everything Christabel wrote was about sex. It was strange. Roland and Maud go exploring, discovering evidence that Christabel may have bought some jewelry at a shop there.

Sorry this got so long! But recapping helped remind me how much stuff finally happened.

Some Thoughts on the Book

I really have to admire A.S. Byatt and what she’s doing with this book. There’s a level of detail and clear writerly chops evidence in this section that I didn’t really appreciate before. In these 140 or so pages alone, she’s written a diary, letters, short stories, poems, a scholarly text and the plot of the story — that’s genuinely impressive, even if it still feels like I’m slogging through some sections.

I also briefly wondered whether one of the reasons I struggled with (and still have to work with) this book is because it is such a challenge. I think I’ve gotten a little lazy in my reading lately, maybe unwilling to read slowly and deliberately in a way to appreciate what Byatt is doing here. For the next section, I really need to sit down and focus.

I’m excited that Roland and Maud’s investigation took some big leaps forward in this section, too. That’s the backbone of this story, and when it was moving slowly the rest of the book felt a little bogged down. But now they’re on a trip together, there’s some potential for romance, and we’re getting closer to Randolph and Christabel.

Burning Questions Going Forward

I don’t have as many questions this time. Obviously, I’m curious about what we’re going to find out about Randolph and Christabel and their relationship? And I want to know when Mortimer Cropper is going to come back, and what his deal is. And what other scholars are going to make of the tenuous connections that Maud and Roland are finding (and whether they are even there). But I don’t feel quite as over my head as I did after the first section.

How is our read-a-long going? Have you kept up? What was the best/worst part of this section? Any predictions for chapters 14 to 20, which we’ll discuss next Monday, March 25?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Care March 18, 2013 at 7:57 am

Ok, I’ve just finished Swammerdam and am in chap 12 or 13, I think? Just read about how well Maud was able to relate to Beatrice to get into Ellen’s notes. SO sympathetic for Beatrice! I can feel her frustration for her project, her sense of ownership, her feelings of what-exactly-the-hell-do-I-do-with-this?! and if anyone cares. The feminism issue here is so fascinating.
LOVED the letters and how fiery they got all of a sudden – I made a ton of marks in the pages, mostly vocab.
Good recap. I need to finish thru Chap 13 now.

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Kim March 19, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Yeah, as sad as she is to read about, I’d love to know more about Beatrice. She seems so put upon. I’m still not sure what to make of the feminist things — directly and indirectly. It gets more complicated when we finally meet Lenora!

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Mindy Withrow March 18, 2013 at 6:38 pm

So glad you’re taking the time to work through this book. I’m a big fan, and I think the most appreciative readers of Byatt’s work are the ones that are willing to take their time. Great synopsis!

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Kim March 19, 2013 at 6:40 pm

That was something I didn’t quite get when I started reading. It’s a book that demands a lot, but I think it will be well worth it once I am finished.

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