A tribute to AS Byatt (1936 to 2023)

AS Byatt As A Student And Returning To College In 1997

We were sorry to hear of the death of Honorary Fellow and Newnham alumna Dame Antonia Byatt Duffy, known professionally as AS Byatt, who made such a great contribution to English literature. 

Her novels include Possession, winner of the 1990 Booker Prize; The Children’s Book, which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction; and many more. In 2008, The Times named her one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. 

Dame Antonia was born in 1936 and grew up in Sheffield and York. She came up to Newnham as Antonia Susan Drabble in 1954 to read English, and later taught at the Central School of Art and Design and at University College, London and published her first novel in 1964. She worked at UCL as a Senior Lecturer in English from 1972-1984, before returning to full time writing. 

In an acclaimed career, she wrote novels, short stories and became a critic of international renown. Her books have been translated into 38 different languages, and include the Frederica Quartet, comprising The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman. Dame Antonia was appointed a DBE in 1999 and was also a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature. 

Her mother Kathleen Bloor (NC 1925) and two sisters, Dame Margaret Drabble (NC 1957) and Dr Helen Langdon (Drabble, NC 1962), also went to Newnham. We have received many tributes from within Newnham, about Dame Antonia’s achievements and commitment to the College. Extracts from a few are included below. 

“Her contribution to British literature has been remarkable and needs to be celebrated. Her books led me to Cambridge, and to Newnham. She’s an icon alongside Woolf, Plath, Mirrlees.” – Dr Bonnie Lander Johnson. 

“Newnham featured in her novel, The Children’s Book (2009) and she took great pains to ensure the accuracy of the portrayal of the College in the pre-1914 era. She was especially supportive of the campaign to raise the funding for Library Development, which brought us the Horner Markwick building, with Skilliter and Archives.” – Dr Gillian Sutherland. 

“We overlapped in Sidgwick as undergraduates and I’ve followed her career ever since. A sad moment indeed.” – Jean Gooder.

“I reviewed a number of Antonia’s novels. She was a big inspiration for and influence on me and I am very sad she has died.” – Dr Ruth Scurr. 

“She has been a real Newnham icon.” – Professor Jenny Mander. 

Dame Antonia Byatt Duffy died on 16 November, at the age of 87. 

  • Photographs show her as a student (by Stearn and Sons) and, in 1997, giving a poetry reading in aid of the Arts Theatre (photo by Harriet Truscott).