“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.

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?   

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.”) (Update, Aug. 19, 2013, 12:30 p.m.: Despite her earlier claim, Drabble has continued to write. Her latest novel, The Pure Gold Baby, comes out in October.) 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.  

But, in the past 20 years, Byatt has come from behind to earn the accolade of “the more glamorous sister.” Of those 18 major awards and dozen honorary degrees, a greater share are hers. She also wins the silver screen: Her novella Morpho Eugenia turned into the 1995 film Angels and Insects; a Possession movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart hit theaters in 2002. Though exact figures are hard to come by, a combination of more and bigger prizes, Hollywoodization, and stronger book sales (nourished, again, by prizes) conspires to make Byatt the more economically successful writer. Take Possession: It sold 92,849 copies in the U.K. and more than 100,000 in the U.S., where it reached No. 9 on the New York Times best-seller list; estimated revenue from England alone runs to almost 670,000 pounds—about $1 million. That doesn’t count the 20,000 pound Man Booker winnings, a $50,000 windfall from the Irish Times–Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize, and additional income from the sale of movie rights to Warner Brothers.

As for the feud itself: It’s been well-documented by the British press, though neither sister likes to discuss it at length. It began in childhood, when both Sue and Maggie were fixed in the laser gaze of their domineering mother. In a 1991 profile of Byatt, journalist Mira Stout describes how the working-class Kathleen Marie “fought her way to Cambridge, but gave up teaching ‘for her children.’ ” Her “anger at being a housewife cast a terrible pall” over her daughters, and instilled in each of them a ferocious ambition.

That ambition may have turned into a kind of anxious, competitive striving. Even as a 10-year-old, Byatt said, “I always felt as though somebody were sort of breathing on my heels and whatever I did was not quite good enough.” It didn’t help that Kathleen Marie appeared to favor the younger sister. “My mother liked Maggie much better,” Byatt told Stout. “They could fight and scream, and slam doors at each other and then feel better. I just froze.”

Of course, Drabble remembers their upbringing differently. “It is just an incomprehensible relationship to me,” she admitted to the Guardian in 2011. “I was the little sister who thought she [Byatt] was clever and wonderful, and she thought I was in the way all the time. I think it is so normal for an elder sister to resent the younger one.” She returns to the theme of elder/younger sibling dynamics in a Paris Review interview:

“My sister was not very nice to me—my big sister. I used to tag along after her and she was always … well, she used to play with me a lot when we were little … I think this is what went wrong. I used to expect her to go on playing with me and of course she got bigger and didn’t want me around. That made me very sad and I always felt that I had been shut out, rejected by her.”

Drabble also suggests that Byatt never got over having to share their father with another sibling, especially because she was an only child when he left for World War II and an older sister when he returned. “When he came home at the end, she couldn’t accept that I was there, too. Of course, he was very nice to me and taught me to read when I was four,” Drabble said.

The tension grew as the two daughters’ interests converged. “It’s just unfortunate that we were interested in the same things,” Drabble has said. As the sisters began to publish, their creative work afforded them fresh opportunities to give and take offense. Byatt’s novel The Game centers on a tortuous sibling relationship. When it came out, she sent a copy to her sister and enclosed a note. “With love,” it read, and “I think I owe you an apology.” Drabble has described the book as “mean-spirited” and finds justification in its pages for her policy of not reading any of her sister’s work. (The exception, she’s explained, is Possession, because it draws less on autobiography. Byatt does not read Drabble’s novels either.) For her part, Byatt has objected to Drabble’s representation of Kathleen Marie in her writing. “I would rather people didn’t read someone else’s version of my mother,” she told the Telegraph.

And then there was the tea set. (As a twin sister, I can attest that there is always a tea set, or a drawing, or a blouse.) Both Drabble and Byatt wanted to write about it, but Drabble got there first. In her memoir The Pattern in the Carpet, she explains:

“She [Byatt] was so upset when she found that I had written, many decades ago, about a particular tea set that our family possessed because she had wanted to use it herself. She felt I had appropriated something which was not mine. Writers are territorial and they resent intruders.” 

(I found this particular provocation slight and small-minded until I remembered how my sister and I would fight over which tiny fragments from our conversations about assigned reading made it into our English papers. “Disconsolate is my word,” one of us would wail, desperately hoping to attach it to Holden Caulfield. “I thought of it!”)

By 1990, the rivalry was fierce enough—and the estrangement deep enough—that Drabble reportedly bet an acquaintance $100 that her sister would win the Booker Prize. Why? So that the money she’d make if Possession triumphed would soften the sting of watching Byatt crowned and feted.

Many articles about the pair take for granted that two women so similar would hate each other. But their animosity is not a given: The writer-sisters Charlotte and Emily Bronte had a passionately warm, close relationship. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell shared a deep and respectful love. Perhaps Byatt and Drabble are just not temperamentally suited to sisterhood. They both have reputations for sensitivity and querulousness. They both cherish privacy, even seclusion. “A lot of what I write is about the need, the fear, the desire for solitude,” Byatt told the Paris Review in 2001. “I find the Brontes’ joint imagination absolutely appalling.”

It seems natural to look for the final word not in press interviews—in which emotions are necessarily polished and gentled—but in the two women’s work. Possession in particular features one character contemplating her own journal: “a narrative of jealousy and bafflement and resentment.” “I have noticed,” the character says, “that writing such things down does not exorcise them, only gives them solid life.” A pair of illustrious British authors I can think of would probably agree.