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The Virgin in the Garden (The Frederica Quartet, #1)
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1001 book reviews > The Virgin in the Garden - A.S. Byatt

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message 1: by Karen (last edited Jul 22, 2018 12:26PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Karen | 295 comments The Virgin in the Garden is set during Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953 which is celebrated by a new verse drama of the life of the first Queen Elizabeth being performed in the grounds of a stately home in Yorkshire. The main character is Frederica Potter who plays the younger Queen Elizabeth in the play and whose family and its relationships with themselves and others form the basis of the plot.

It took me a while to get into the book. Byatt's style is very dense and adjective-heavy and intelligent. Her characters seem to know half of the back catalogue of English poetry off by heart and are not ashamed to recite it. There is a storyline with Marcus, Frederica's brother, which I think went somewhat over my head. But I love both coming-of-age novels and novels about excentric families so this became just my cup of tea.

I went on Amazon to order the second in the quartet within minutes of finishing the novel. These are big books though and I am not sure when I will get round to it.

I gave the book 4 stars.


Amanda Dawn | 1243 comments For some reason, I thought this was going to be more about Elizabeth I – or even the second- than it was, but I still enjoyed this book and gave it 4 stars. I’d given “The Children’s Book” 5 earlier this year, so this one had big shoes to fill. And, while I still thought highly as this one, I didn’t feel it quite matched the brilliance of the latter.

Using both Elizabeth the II’s coronation and the play about Elizabeth I was a really effective framing device for a coming of age story. The contrast between the two is a transition from a legacy of virginity, solitude etc to one of family, marriage, and all the sexual knowledge that comes with that. I also like how it explored the transition of the age of the epic, traditional grandeur, to the change in modern disposition (contrasting Shakespearean plays and the coronation broadcast to do so).
While I do think Frederica/Alexander, and Marcus’ sad storyline were interesting, the small way in which I wasn’t enamored with this book is that I never really loved or related to any of the characters themselves which seems important to this kind of story.


Diane  | 2051 comments Rating: 3 stars


This was a struggle for me. I think I went into this with expectations set too high, based on friend's reviews and the book's descriptions. It is my first Byatt, and I am hoping that the situation improves from here, as there are at least two more on the list.

The book takes place in northern England mainly during the 1950's (around the coronation of Elizabeth II) and focuses on the Potter family and a recurring theme of unconsummated desire. The book is a something of a retelling of a play about Queen Elizabeth I.

High points for creativity, but this didn't do it for me.


Gail (gailifer) | 1536 comments Byatt's first book in her Frederica Quartet of novels.
Byatt investigates historical moments in a small setting rather than through big events. The book was published in 1978 and we are introduced to three of our main characters briefly in 1968 before stepping back to the early 1950's at the moment of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. The local festivities include a local playwright's play/pageant that swirls around England's place in myth and history along with the life and death of Elizabeth the I. For the first plot line we meet the playwright, Alexander, who teaches at a local school and Frederica as a 17 year old who is "type cast" to play the part of the virgin queen. The second story centers around Frederica's brother, Marcus, and his friend Lucas Simmonds and their investigations into "messages". Frederica's sister Stephanie's decision around her marriage to Daniel is the third plot line but they all tangle together at various moments and there are many other interesting characters in the ensemble who contribute to the stories. Byatt's attention to detail and the fact that she and her characters are completely at home in the world of English verse and have raging fights over Thomas Mann, calm romantic discussions about DH Lawrence and play constantly with quotes from a far ranging amount of English literature grounds this novel. Byatt gives us a nostalgia for a moment in time when there was hope for a new England as reflected in the words of the Virgin Queen and in the sitting around the "telly" to view the Coronation, but more importantly she looks to the nostalgia of the moment in time when young girls dream of futures pregnant with infinite possibilities which are then narrowed considerably by the end of the book.
Unfortunately, Frederica is an interesting but not likable character and it is difficult for her to carry the weight of being the main focus as she knows little about herself or other people although she is academically accomplished. Marcus is fascinating and troubling and you care about what happens to him but I actually did not understand at all what ultimately his mind was doing other than it was broken.
This is an ambitious book with an interesting look at sexual maturing, knowing oneself, and English history through literature and verse but I do not feel the need to read on in the quartet of books to find out more about these characters. Happy to be done with this one.


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