AS Byatt
Portraits in Fiction


Published by Random House

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

A S Byatt writes in Portraits in Fictionthat "Portraits in words and portraits in paint are opposites rather than metaphors for each other. A painted portrait is an artist's record, construction, of a physical presence… A painting exists outside time and records the time of its making." In contrast "a portrait in a novel… may be a portrait of invisible things" such as thought and desire. A painting, therefore, is largely a spatial experience while the understanding of a text is temporal, for through it we experience the unfolding of the writer's imagination. As readers we share the author's journey, whereas with a painting - however many marks are left revealing the struggle of its making - we are witnesses only to the point of arrival.

The sitter of a portrait may also feel threatened by the artist's interpretation, with the work, more often than not, ending up more a portrait of the artist than the sitter. But those who find themselves appropriated into novels may feel attacked; and haunted thereafter by an often unwanted doppelganger. Writers rely on the varying images constructed by their readers; so Byatt tends to be distressed by film adaptations and the "blasphemous feeling" when her characters are represented by photos of real people on book covers.

Portraits in Fiction originated as a lecture given at the National Portrait Gallery. Byatt uses her immense erudition to delve into the complex relations between portraits and characters. In her own novels, she has evoked the power of portraits - as in A Virgin in the Garden, set in the 1950s at the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II, where her red-haired heroine takes on some characteristics of the Darnely Portrait of Elizabeth I. Novelists have often used portraits as imagined icons, while characters may use them as temporary mirrors: as when Milly Theale is shown a Bronzino in Henry James's The Wings of the Dove. It bears a striking resemblance to her own image; she reflects on her mortality and "the paradoxical timelessness and death of portraits".

Byatt's authors range from Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch to Salman Rushdie, and her artists from Holbein to Cézanne. She gives a prolonged analysis of perhaps that most famous portrait in literature, Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, where the portrait shifts from its normal fixity into a hidden temporal narrative recording the decadence of both Dorian's life and the erotic arousal felt by the artist. Though packed with analysis and information this is a book, perhaps, more for the scholar than the casual reader. Those without a knowledge of the novels or portraits discussed may find Byatt's discourse rather arcane.


Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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