Published in 1989, I for Isobel follows a thoughtful young woman named Isobel Callaghan as she deals with family conflict, personal independence, and the awakening of her literary ambitions. This short, incisive novel is the defining work of author Amy Witting (the pseudonym taken by Joan Austral Fraser). I for Isobel serves in part as the entry point for a larger multi-novel project: Witting's follow-up Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop appeared in 1999 and depicts Isobel as she deals with her early successes as a writer. A third Isobel novel was planned, but was not completed due to Witting's death in 2001.
However, it at one point seemed likely that Isobel and her world would never see publication. Although Witting had completed I for Isobel by the late 1970s, publishers balked at the work - in particular at its depiction of the consistently tense and occasionally hate-filled relationship between Isobel and her mother. The novel may end with moments of artistic and intellectual fulfillment on Isobel's part, but it raises an entire series of dark themes along the way. Loneliness, religious hypocrisy, and the suddenness of death are but a few of the concerns that temper the more triumphal moments in Witting's story of the bookish yet increasingly assertive Isobel.
I for Isobel, as the story of a young woman who reads devotedly, is naturally peppered with references to the literature of the past. Auden, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, and Arthur Conan Doyle are but a few of the authors whose works Isobel consumes. At just under 200 pages in the Text Classics edition, Witting's novel may not seem especially similar to the mammoth narratives of Eliot or Dostoevsky, at least at first glance. Yet I for Isobel - like Eliot's Middlemarch - is a novel that precisely delineates the conflicts of everyday life. A work of radically dense realism, I for Isobel is also a novel of artistic growth and maturation (or artistic bildungsroman) and thus fits into a genre that authors as different as Goethe, Proust, and James Joyce have embraced.