Two Brilliant Sisters, One Epic Literary Feud

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Aug. 19 2013 5:30 AM

“A Narrative of Jealousy and Bafflement and Resentment”

Two gifted sisters, a domineering mother, and one of the greatest literary feuds of English lit.

A S Byatt versus Margaret Drabble
A.S. Byatt versus Margaret Drabble

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty.

This is part of a special series about great rivalries: between tech titans, sports franchises, and even dinosaur hunters. Read about the series here.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

It sounds like the premise for a novel: Two brilliant sisters from Sheffield, England pursuing their writing careers side by side. Omnipresent comparison and competition. A feud. Veiled barbs in books. Studied indifference in interviews. Fame favoring first one and then the other.

The women, now 76 and 74, have scaled the highest balconies of the British literary edifice as novelists, short-story authors, critics, scholars, and biographers. Between them, they’ve racked up more than 18 major awards, received four royal titles, published 57 books and countless essays and articles, earned a dozen honorary doctorates, and taken exactly one high-profile shot at J.K. Rowling. Despite all that, the insatiable reader still wants to know: Who’s better?   

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It is too early to judge the relative canon-worthiness of literary grand dames Antonia Susan (A.S.) Byatt and Margaret (Maggie) Drabble. (Plus—what an obnoxious question!) Conventional wisdom goes that Drabble, the younger sibling, shone brighter from the mid 1960s to 1990, courtesy of her two blockbuster novels, the comedy of academic manners The Millstone and the conflicted feminist fairy tale Jerusalem the Golden. (The Millstone won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1966; Jerusalem the Golden won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1967.) After 1990, Byatt took the lead. The turning point was when she scored the prestigious Man Booker Prize for her fifth novel, Possession.

Not that we’re keeping score.

Though both writers operate in a realist vein, Byatt has proven more willing to venture into historical writing, as in Possession, and her stories occasionally shimmer with the fantastic. She cites wintry Nordic myths as an influence, and her collection The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye contains the following glorious sentence:

“Once upon a time, when men and women hurtled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jewelled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.”

By contrast, Drabble roots her prose, for the most part, in the here and now. It is at once clearer and looser, less lush, and even more acidic: “Perhaps the rare and simple pleasure of being seen for what one is compensates for the misery of being it,” muses one of the sisters in A Summer Bird Cage. 

Their mother had lofty intentions for both of them from the beginning. Of course, you will go to Cambridge,” she told them as toddlers, and they did, one after the other. Drabble sparkled more, blazing past her older sister’s first-class honors with a starred first. Drabble published first, too: Her 1963 book A Summer Bird Cage preceded Byatt’s debut, The Shadow of the Sun, by three years. She claims she fell into writing almost by accident, during languid afternoons of pregnancy boredom. She had planned on being an actress and had understudied for Vanessa Redgrave at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon before dropping out to marry her first husband, Clive Swift. “Sue always wanted to write,” Drabble said of her older sister in 2011. “I didn’t want to. I just happened to write a novel when I was pregnant and had nothing to do.” (Burn?)

The intense, bookish Byatt confirms it. “If I had not been a driven writer,” she told an interviewer in 1996, “I would have quietly given up when she first published a novel. It would have been much the easiest thing to do.”

More good news for team Drabble: As of 2013, she has written more novels (17) than Byatt (11), though in 2009, Drabble announced that her 46-year career as a novelist was over because she feared repeating herself. (Journalist Tim Walker wrote, “One woman who is unlikely to be too disappointed by her decision to quit is her sister.”) She is also famous for editing two editions of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, a tome known in scholarly circles as “The Drabble.” Byatt has yet to have a staple college text named after her.  

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