Possession by A.S. Byatt


Michèle Roberts on A.S. Byatt’s Possession: a passionate dance between reader and text

In this personal essay, Michèle Roberts pays tribute to the late A.S. Byatt and praises her 1990 Booker-winning novel, ‘an exhilarating brew of riveting story, experimental form, richly textured writing and historical exploration’ 

Written by Michèle Roberts

Publication date and time: Published

Literary prizes turn dazzling spotlights on writers who have been quietly working away for years, writing the books they want to write, rather than the ones fashionable opinion or marketing persons deem they should. Winning a major prize, suddenly the writer, not just the lauded book, becomes illuminated; outlined in gold. A.S. Byatt became famous in 1990, when she won the Booker Prize for Possession. As her many fans all knew, she had been producing fascinating, thought-filled novels for decades.  

Her first novel, Shadow of a Sun, came out in 1964, and others swiftly followed, such as The Game in 1967, The Virgin in the Garden in 1978, and Still Life in 1985. After the success of Possession she went on producing ambitious and stirring novels, and also collections of short stories. She worked as an academic, too, lecturing on literature, and publishing two critical studies of Iris Murdoch, an edition of George Eliot, and an introduction to Willa Cather.   

I had always read her novels. I first met her when, in the mid-Nineties, the British Council invited me to join her, Julian Barnes and John Burnside on a writers’ tour of certain German cities. Panels and discussions with local writers, public readings of our own work followed by Q&A sessions; that kind of thing. We travelled around by train. Lots of time for talking. Antonia preferred to be addressed as A.S. I remember her delight in passionate conversations about books, the way her face lit up with pure, childlike pleasure as she plunged into discussion, how she would smilingly declare her enjoyment of weaving the cat’s cradle of ideas. She resembled a gleeful cherub. She seemed interested in everything on that journey: modern art in the galleries we visited, street design, glass sculptures seen in a shop window. She shocked and disconcerted me by asserting that there were no contemporary female writers she admired. Although she made an exemption for me, and for Jane Rogers (author of many acclaimed novels), I did not want to be complimented at the expense of other women.  

A. S. Byatt

She showed particular tenderness to the younger male writers we met on our travels. One female German academic suggested to me that this was unsurprising, might connect to Antonia’s sorrow for the death of her young son and be reparative in some way. Certainly, as I saw on our return to the UK, she had a talent for befriending young male writers; mentoring them, encouraging them.  

After our return to the UK, I visited her occasionally, relishing our continuing conversations about books. She reminded me of my tutors at university: there was the same sense of being kept on my toes. Sometimes we met at artists’ openings. My husband Jim Latter was a painter and knew a couple of the contemporary artists whose work Antonia supported. She admired Matisse’s work, and I felt she co-opted his astonishing colour sense into the rich palette of her writing. Possession is about sensuality and is also sensually written, concealing its intellectual bones under a lush surface of patterning metaphor. 

I greatly admired Possession, which delivers an exhilarating brew of riveting story, experimental form, richly textured writing and historical exploration. It is a modernist work, in the sense of offering the reader, as part of its dramatic and romantic plot, an account of how and why it has been made. By making her major characters poets, memoirists, letter-writers and literary scholars, Byatt can examine the difficulties of creating narratives, of achieving what can seem so obvious and simple: putting the best words in the best order. Her fictional account of literary struggles over creativity and reputation in the 19th and 20th centuries subtly points to the debates that currently continue over historical accounts and who has the right to write them, over the literary canon and who has the right to determine it, over literary value and who has the right to decide it.  

Possession by AS Byatt

Byatt foregrounds the acts of reading and writing as necessary and important for our human life. Her novel’s title refers not just to a noun or a state, but to an action. In old-fashioned romances the hero finally possesses the heroine: possession means male penetration. However, in Byatt’s version possession is explored also through literary/social relationships and more generously defined as a dance of active and passive, of give and take. That is powerfully summoned in what for me is the core of the book: a beautiful paragraph (too long to quote here) summing up the astonishing joy and delight a reader feels on encountering a text that elicits a passionate and fulfilling reading, one fuelled by imagination, eager discovery, creativity. The encounter between reader and text is erotic, in the deepest, widest sense; numinous, rapturous, sexual. Byatt is perhaps echoing the French philosopher, Julia Kristeva, who used the word for coming, la jouissance, to indicate the bliss of reading. Byatt’s hero Roland, fired by his delighted reading, suddenly discovers he is a poet: ‘He had time to feel the strangeness of before and after; an hour ago there had been no poems, and now they came like rain and were real.’   

Possession is simultaneously a post-modern work, juggling classic tropes, questioning the relevance of originality, delighting in pastiche, playing games with doubles, invoking genres such as fantasy and hagiography with affectionate mockery. It’s a ghost story, too, taking seriously the idea that the past can haunt us through the medium of written and printed texts.   

I re-read Possession when I was invited to give a lecture on it at Birkbeck (the extra-mural college of London University) in front of A.S. herself. I praised its richness and complexity, also the way it invites the reader actively to join in, to seize clues and decode them. My account of my re-reading involved suggesting that while the novel demonstrated the freedom of equals possible in the passionate imaginary dance between reader and text, this equality was not matched inside the novel’s hierarchy of forms of sexual love. Possession’s particular vision of romance places heterosexual relationships firmly above homosexual ones, as more mature, less egotistical and skittish. In the 19th-century story, Blanche Glover, the close live-in friend of poet Christabel LaMotte, appears neurotic, jealous and clingy, while in the interwoven 20th-century story, Leonora Stern, a literary scholar who is a lesbian, not only epitomises the excesses of fashionable feminist literary theory but is a bit of a sexual bully as well. A.S. listened to my talk in gracious, tolerant silence. She didn’t mind being wrestled with as well as respected.    

Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow in Possession

On winning the Booker, A.S. was often called upon to make public pronouncements, as though she had suddenly become a sibyl issuing prophecies. She remarked, on one occasion, that far from agreeing with Shelley that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, she thought that poets and writers generally were no better equipped than anyone else to pronounce upon the ills of the world. On another occasion she deplored the foundation of (what was then called) the Orange Prize for women’s fiction as sexist, as assuming that there existed a feminine subject matter. In fact the Orange Prize was not about content but about writers’ sex. It was founded in response to women being completely left off the Booker shortlist one year. (I was the only woman on the shortlist in 1992.)  

The perception was that work by women was badly read and under-valued; possibly popular and middlebrow but not properly literary. This debate reached over a century back. I wrote my pamphlet Silly Lady Novelists? in response to George Eliot’s celebrated eponymous scornful dissection of ‘feminine’ fiction writing. A.S. was like her revered George Eliot in deploying a literary name that concealed her sex. That (to me) indicated an anxiety to be taken by male critics on their terms, which they saw of course as sex-free and objective. Having won the Booker and gained the approval of top male as well as female critics A.S. did not want to indulge in what she saw as special pleading. She asserted that you could never have a prize for male writing. Way back in 1983 I published Mrs Noah’s Diary, in which God was a writer with writer’s block, having written the Bible but not sure where to go next, and with a need for a special list for male writers. A.S. and I did not always get each other’s jokes.      

Like George Eliot, A.S. felt herself to be an exceptional woman writer. This was not always comfortable. Dr Johnson likening women preaching to dogs standing on their hind legs lurked in the background. For example, she asserted that her novels set in the past were emphatically not genre historical novels. That was a feminine category that she and George Eliot both scorned. In her contradictions and ambitions and reach she was very like George Eliot. She wrote huge, stirring, provocative novels. 

Michèle Roberts was a Booker Prize judge in 2001 and was shortlisted for the prize in 1992 for her novel Daughters of the House 

George Eliot portrait