The Virgin in the Garden (1978)
by A.S. Byatt
Possession: A Romance, was published in 1990 and won the Booker Prize the following year. This win instantly catapulted Byatt to the first tier of world fiction writers, and so it is only natural to go back and look at her earlier books (she published her first novel in 1964) to look for inklings of the combination of elements that proved such a roaring success in Possession. I'm not sure if anyone took much notice of The Virgin in the Garden upon it's initial publication. The copy I checked out from the library is a paperback edition published in the aftermath of the Possession win, from which I can infer that it was out of print when she won the Booker Prize.
Byatt's reputation is as a master of the post-modern historical novel, one of the early practitioners of this form, one which almost dominates the intersection of "serious" and "popular" fiction. From the perspective of the mastery demonstrated by Byatt in Possession, The Virgin in the Garden is early days. What The Virgin in the Garden most resembles is an updated take by a woman author of the world of D.H. Lawrence circa the publication of Women in Love. Set in the aftermath of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, in a small English town so familiar to any serious reader of fiction, The Virgin in the Garden is about two sisters and a brother, the children of an eccentric, anti-clerical scholar who teaches at the local school. The Potter family consist of the eccentric father, Bill, Stephanie, the oldest sister, back from Cambridge and teaching elementary school children, Frederica, clearly the focus of the novel and indeed three others, which are known as the Frederica quartet and chart most of her adult life. Finally there is Marcus, the youngest, a pale, sickly boy with nary a friend in the world.
The plot mechanics involve Marcus finding a friend, Stephanie finding a husband, and Frederica losing her virginity. To tell more would spoil the delights of the book, but I would mention that The Virgin in the Garden is not only 420 plus pages, it is also stuffed full of classical allusions that will either force you to your phone (or not I suppose.) It did lead to me searching, and finding, different records referenced by the text, including a 1944 recording of Ezra Pound reading his poems that I found on Spotify.