The writer and critic AS Byatt, who explored family, myth and narrative in a career spanning six decades, has died aged 87. Her publisher Chatto & Windus confirmed that she died peacefully at home surrounded by close family.
Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, who wrote under the name AS Byatt, authored complex and critically acclaimed novels, including the Booker prize-winning Possession and her examination of artistic creation, The Children’s Book. Over her career, she won a swathe of literary awards, from the Booker to a Chevalier of France’s Order of Arts and Letters.
“We mourn her loss but it’s a comfort to know that her penetrating works will dazzle, shine and refract in the minds of readers for generations to come,” said her publisher Clara Farmer.
Born Antonia Drabble in 1936, Byatt grew up in Sheffield and York, before studying English at Cambridge, Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia and at Oxford. She began teaching at University College London in 1962, publishing her first novel, Shadows of a Sun, two years later. The complicated family relationships found in much of her fiction were already in evidence with this story of a daughter escaping a domineering father. A novel of rival sisters that followed in 1967 – appearing two years after her sister, the author Margaret Drabble, published her own novel on a similar theme – added mythological and symbolic elements, which became central to Byatt’s later work.
As she embarked on a quartet of novels charting the changing nature of the female experience in the 20th century, Byatt’s reputation grew. The Virgin in the Garden, published in 1978, found the spiky, brilliant teenager Frederica Potter in rural Yorkshire, taking the role of the young Elizabeth I in a verse play written to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II. Byatt followed Frederica and her sister Stephanie up to Cambridge, into marriage, motherhood and the struggle between intellectual and family life in 1985’s Still Life and Babel Tower in 1996 before concluding the series with A Whistling Woman in 2002.
When she broke off in the middle of this project to write Possession, Byatt found both critical acclaim and a new audience. Writing in 2009, she recalled how reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose altered her original idea of an experimental novel revolving around overlapping notions of ownership in scholarship, manuscripts and human relations: “The secret, I saw, was that if you tell a strong story, you can include anything else you need to include. So I started inventing a detective story like those I read in my childhood.”
Subtitled “A Romance”, Possession follows two academics as they fall for each other while investigating the mysterious relationship between two fictional Victorian poets. Refracting one liaison through the lens of another, Byatt layers 20th-century scholarly intrigue with invented journals and almost 2,000 lines of poetry which the author said “came easily … written as they were needed in the shape of the novel, as part of the run of words”. Possession won the Booker prize in 1990, becoming a bestseller both in the UK and the US, with translations appearing in more than 30 languages. In a post on X, the Booker prize committee said that it was “deeply saddened” to hear the news of Byatt’s death.
Byatt returned to the 19th century in 2009’s The Children’s Book, which contrasts two different versions of creativity through the lives of a writer and a potter. The novel was shortlisted for that year’s Booker prize.
Speaking to the Guardian that year, the author declared she thought of writing “simply in terms of pleasure”.
“It’s the most important thing in my life, making things,” she said. “Much as I love my husband and my children, I love them only because I am the person who makes these things.”
In 2016, she published Peacock & Vine, an illustrated essay on the connections between William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. The same year, she was awarded the Erasmus prize.
“Antonia used to say that making things out of language was the most exciting thing she knew,” said Zoë Waldie, her literary agent. “She did this magnificently over many decades and held readers spellbound.”
In 2014, a coleopterist working in Central and South America named a species of beetle – Euhylaeogena Byattae Hespenheide – in her honour, inspired by her portrayal of naturalists in the novella Morpho Eugenia.
“Working with Antonia Byatt was full of surprises,” said her long-term editor Jenny Uglow. “She was fascinated by metamorphosis, from the unexpected turn of individual lives.”