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Byatt turns 80 today. I interviewed her some years back after she had finished The Children’s Book, a very long novel, short-listed for the Booker Prize. Set in the decades leading up to World War I, it follows several families (loosely based on the family and friends of the children’s writer, E. Nesbit) as they try to live according to exaggerated progressive and esthetic principles. Like all of Byatt’s works, this one is sprawling and erudite. Byatt herself seemed to know everything about everything — a modern incarnation of George Eliot, acutely aware of carrying this mantle. Byatt has written a lot but remains best known for her 1990 Booker award-winning novel, Possession. Academics of my vintage have a special fondness for this work since it tells the story of two literary scholars whose lives parallel those of the two 19th century poets they are researching. Both pairs fall in love in the face of obstacles. The book is filled with large swaths of Robert Browningesque and Christina Rossetti-ish poetry that Byatt composes for her characters. It’s a tour de force of mimicry though I admit to having skipped a good deal of it to get to the love story. I suspect that its appeal for many of us was that it was a dissertation wrapped in a bodice ripper. The 2002 movie, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart, captures the intellectually and emotionally overheated effect, making for a great grad student date flick. A dramatic moment in the interview was Byatt’s terse statement that she doesn’t speak to her sister, novelist Margaret Drabble. •

Feature image courtesy of Nationaal Historisch Museum via Flickr (Creative Commons). 

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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Samuel Johnson is a god now. That’s a fitting accomplishment for a man celebrating his 300th this September. It is ironic, though. Johnson was big in every way. He had a penchant for looming. His shadow left most of his contemporaries with little access to the sun. But he was human. His bigness was terrestrial, not divine. He loudly and with gusto proclaimed the vices and virtues of humankind, of which the former generally outnumbered the latter. He always kept in mind that what we see, we see through a glass, darkly.

The contrast between the finitude of the man and the infinitude of his reputation is preserved in his longest-lasting and most peculiar work, the Dictionary. Dictionaries were relatively new inventions in Johnson’s time. They were the necessary product of an increasingly literate society with ever more… More…