Byatt breaks rules, brilliantly

Just started reading A S Byatt's Children's Book late last night, for my review for Starmag this month. A couple of pages on, and I found a gem of a sentence. It put me in mind of the alliterative sentences I came across in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse:

The whole of the thick stem was wrought of fantastic foliage, amongst which men and monsters, centaurs and monkeys, writhed, grinned, grimaced, grasped and stabbed at each other.

Then, more pages later, another:

They drove between hawthorn and hazel hedges, along curling lanes between overhanging woods of beech, and birch, and yew.

But this last one, above, has a very unusual sentence construction, or syntax:

woods of beech, and birch, and yew

Your average English teacher - or editor - would red-ink over the first and, in indignation. The traditional rule of thumb for a list of items is a comma after an item and none before the last one, with just an and, to mark the end of the list.

Byatt, here, breaks a rule - brilliantly, I think - by, first, inserting an and after the first comma after the first item beech. Then breaking yet another, she added a comma before the last and.

For the last rule breakage, an American would pooh-pooh over it, because that's alright in American syntax. The New Yorker editor would never correct "beech, birch, and yew". The Guardian editor would, probably blue-pencilling out that last comma.

This unusual phrasing at the end of that sentence has an agenda, actually.

This sentence is in the first sentence of the second paragraph of a Chapter 2, where Philip is driven in a fly from the train station, to Olive Wellwood's house Todefright, in Andreden, with his new friend Tom, Olive's son. Philip, a runaway, who is discovered living in Tom's friend Julian's father's museum, has never seen the countryside in this way, from a moving carriage.

Byatt could have not used the commas: just "beech and birch and yew". But this wouldn't have lent an even slower effect to Philip's observance, as it would with the added commas.

The commas, like in poetry, give some pause to the way Philip is seeing the beech, the birch and the yew. He's seeing a wide expanse of these countryside trees, with wonder. Together with the and's, he's taking in the trees even more slowly, from the beech to the birch, to the yew.

I shall be reading more pages tonight, and keeping an eye for more constructions like these.


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