Public and Private Collections in A. S. Byatt's the Children's Book

By Hicks, Elizabeth | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2011 | Go to article overview

Public and Private Collections in A. S. Byatt's the Children's Book


Hicks, Elizabeth, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


In 2003, British novelist A.S. Byatt wrote a short story entitled "Body Art" for inclusion in The Phantom Museum and Henry Wellcome's Collection of Medical Curiosities. The book is a companion volume to the catalogue of the exhibition of the Henry Wellcome Collection, held at the British Museum in 2003. It celebrates "one of the twentieth century's least known but most mysterious of museum collections" (Hawkins and Olsen viii)--that of Henry Solomon Wellcome, co-founder of pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome and Co. Before writing their contributions, Byatt and the other authors visited the Wellcome Collection in a storeroom in West London. According to the editors of The Phantom Museum, Hildi Hawkins and Danielle Olsen, the fictional Eli Pettifer Collection, which was eventually depicted by Byatt in "Body Art," captures the "sense of disorientation, as well as the sheer iteration which was part of Wellcome's method for imposing order on his objects" (x). Part of the Pettifer collection comprises "bottles--ancient tear-bottles, ornate pharmacy bottles in pale rose with gilded letters, preserving jars, specimen jars. There were surgical and gynaecological implements, repeated, repeated. Saws and vices, forceps and tweezers, stethoscopes, breast-pumps and urinary bottles. Shelves of artificial nipples, lead and silver, rubber and bakelite" (Byatt, "Body" 19). This listing of objects exemplifies one of Byatt's recurring themes--that of materiality. The prominent role of objects in her fiction may be observed in her reference in the short story "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye" to "things made with hands [...] that live a life different from ours, that live longer than we do, and cross our lives in stories" (277). For scholars of material culture, "things" resonate with a meaning beyond their role as artifact. According to Susan M. Pearce, material culture refers to "selected lumps of the physical world to which cultural value has been ascribed" ("Museum" 9). Anthropologist Daniel Miller writes that the artifact acts "as a bridge, not only between the mental and physical worlds, but also, more unexpectedly, between consciousness and the unconscious" (99). Byatt endows material objects in her writing with both cultural and symbolic meaning.

Recently a field of Byatt criticism has emerged that focuses on the role played by collections of objects in her fiction. Indeed, the Eighth ESSE (European Society for the Study of English) Conference, held in London in 2006, attracted two papers on this aspect of her work, which were subsequently published in 2009 as part of The Exhibit in the Text: The Museological Practices of Literature. One of these, written by Carmen Lara-Rallo, points out Byatt's "fruitful relationship with museums and the activity of collecting that operates on two levels of her writing career: the contribution to catalogues of exhibitions and other museum publications, and the inscription of museums and collections in her fiction" (220). In addition to the collection in "Body Art," Lara-Rallo proffers other examples from Byatt's fiction, such as the specimens in the Biology (Bilge) Lab in The Virgin in the Garden. She also notes Byatt's references to factual museums, such as the Museum of Ephesus and the Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in the short story "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye," and the Linnaean Society in The Biographer's Tale (225). Further, she points out that Byatt has penned non-fictional pieces for such publications as the "National Gallery News" and a catalogue of Patrick Heron paintings for the Tate Gallery.

Byatt's 1990 novel Possession: A Romance also describes collections, one of which comprises artifacts that had once belonged to nineteenth-century poet Randolph Henry Ash. As Lara-Rallo notes, in this novel, not only are Ash's effects collected after his death, but in life he himself is also a collector, with "his own assortment of natural, hand-made, and exotic objects" (235).

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