Monthly Spotlight: Possession by A.S. Byatt
In 1990, A.S. Byatt won the Booker Prize for Possession, at once a literary detective novel and a triumphant love story. The novel was a literary sensation
Winning the Booker Prize in 1990, Possession follows two modern-day scholars as they uncover a secret affair between famous fictional poets, all the while falling in love themselves
Whether you’re new to Possession or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.
Maud Bailey is a scholar researching the life and work of her distant relative, a little-known 19th-century poet named Christabel LaMotte. Roland Michell is looking into an obscure moment in the life of another Victorian poet, the celebrated Randolph Henry Ash. Together, the two uncover a dark secret in Ash’s life: though apparently happily married, he conducted a torrid affair with LaMotte. As Maud and Roland dig deeper, they too find themselves falling in love.
Maud is a literary scholar who is an expert on the works of Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte. She’s seen as being reserved and has a cold demeanour. She has a distrust of men who have only seen her as an object of beauty.
Roland is an academic researcher who specialises in the works of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. He is described as being quite meek with a non-threatening and gentle personality. He’s in a dead-end job and an unsatisfying relationship and aims to find success.
Christabel was a Victorian poet who was unappreciated for her work. She is intelligent and a recluse, and is protective of her independence.
Randolph Henry Ash
Randolph was a prominent Victorian poet who was married to a woman named Ellen. He was described as being handsome and charming, with a private but passionate nature.
Antonia Byatt published her first novel in 1964 and, apart from an interlude as an academic, wrote them – and short stories, essays and critical appreciations – for the next six decades. Although she was known for her high intellectualism, on winning the Booker Prize in 1990, she famously declared – with perhaps a hint of a josh – that she would spend the winnings on a swimming pool for her house in France.
Byatt said that writing is about ‘pleasure’ but it is a pleasure she took very seriously: ‘I, who I am, is the person that has the project of making a thing,’ she wrote. She died in November 2023.
Sam Jordison, The Guardian
‘In short, the whole book is a gigantic tease – which is certainly satisfying on an intellectual level. But still, that doesn’t account for its singular appeal. Possession’s true centre is a big, red, beating heart. It’s the warmth and spirit that Byatt has breathed into her characters rather than their cerebral pursuits that makes us care. And it isn’t just “narrative greed” that makes it such a compelling page-turner, it’s the fact that Roland and company’s stories, troubles and triumphs are genuinely moving. There’s real magic behind all the brainy trickery and an emotional journey on top of the academic quest. So I loved it. The stormy conclusion is perhaps overwrought, and the postscript that follows could even be described as corny – but I still put it down with a tear in my eye.’
The Washington Post Book World
‘This is a novel for every taste: a heartbreaking Victorian love story, a take-no-prisoners comedy of contemporary academic life, and an unputdownable supernatural mystery. You turn the last page feeling stunned and elated, happy to have had the chance to read it.’
The Sunday Times
‘This cerebral extravaganza of a story zigzags with unembarrassed zest across an imaginative terrain bristling with symbolism and symmetries, shimmering with myth and legend, and haunted everywhere by presences of the past […] Possession is eloquent about the intense pleasures of reading. And, with sumptuous artistry, it provides a feast of them.’
Jay Parini, The New York Times Book Review
‘As Possession progresses, it seems less and less like the usual satire about academia and more like something by Jorge Luis Borges. The most dazzling aspect of Possession is Ms. Byatt’s canny invention of letters, poems and diaries from the 19th century. […] Possession is a tour de force that opens every narrative device of English fiction to inspection without, for a moment, ceasing to delight.’
Diane Johnson, The New York Review
‘Possession, A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel, is brilliant, with all that “brilliance” implies of terse cleverness, remarkable intelligence and learning, and hard, glittering surface, like a tea tray of rich, glazed fruit; it is also charming, with all that “charm” implies of slightly illicit wiles, seductive ease, and pleasure. It is both a considerable feat of literary scholarship and a good read. Like a meticulous doll’s house perfect down to the last detail, with tiny dolls’ shoes covered in tiny seed pearls, and a tiny ship in a bottle on the mantel, it must have required immense cleverness and patience, in which the reader, apart from his enjoyment of the story, takes pleasure as at any feat of human ingenuity.’
‘Possession was actually written very fast, because until I wrote it, for the ten preceding years I’d had a full-time university job. And a house full of small children… I think it did it good in terms of popular success to have been written without interruption.’
Read the full interview here.
‘Another thing I should say about Possession is that it’s the only one of my novels that’s been written on the whole without interruption, without somebody getting ill, without a disaster happening, without having won the Booker Prize, without being pushed around by book tours. And it has that kind of dreadful energy that comes of having written it from the first word to the last with the whole book in your head.’
Read the full interview on the Paris Review here.
There are numerous poems and journal extracts included throughout Possession, from poets Ash and LaMotte, which Byatt had invented herself. In a BBC Book Club interview, Byatt said she thought people may recoil when faced with these elements of the novel, but that readers have a right to skip. What contribution do you believe the poems and journal extracts make to the overall narrative? Did you, like Byatt suggested, choose to skip or embrace these sections, and how did that decision impact your understanding and enjoyment of the story?
Ownership and possession are running themes throughout the book, especially when it comes to the work of Ash and LaMotte. Before writing the novel Byatt stated that she had once spotted a well-known scholar of the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge and thought, ‘it’s almost like a case of demonic possession, and I wondered – has she eaten up his life or has he eaten up hers?’ Do you think this is the case with Michell and Bailey: has their quest for knowledge on the two poets consumed their lives?
While existing a century apart, Byatt has portrayed certain similarities between the two couples (Ash and LaMotte, and Bailey and Michell) in both their mannerisms and their physical appearances. What resemblances did you notice, and what significance did Byatt invite readers to draw?
It’s believed that Byatt based Ash and LaMotte on real-life poets, including Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson and Christina Rossetti. Discuss the influence these poets had on Byatt’s poetry within the novel.
In an interview with the New York Times, Byatt stated that she wanted to try to instill her novel ‘with the kind of warmth of a Shakespearean comedy.’ Do you think she was successful in this endeavour?
Possession has been described by critics and readers as an array of different genres, from romance to thriller, historical fiction to metafiction and even a detective story. Is it fair to pigeonhole the novel in such a way? Does the novel benefit from being all these things at once?
Maud, who is conventionally attractive, sees the way that she looks as a vulnerability, whereby people treat her as a possession, as property or an idol. This causes her to keep her defences up, otherwise, she fears she may lose her autonomy. How does Byatt prompt us to reflect on the broader impact of others’ perceptions in contemporary society, and to what extent can physical appearance influence our sense of control and autonomy?
In the novel, it’s said that ‘for the difference between poets and novelists is this – that the former write for the life of the language and the latter write for the betterment of the world.’ Do you believe this assertion? Can poetry not have an equally positive impact on society than Byatt infers in this quote?
The scholars aim to obtain Ash’s and LaMotte’s possessions to gain knowledge from them. Discuss to what extent collecting and ultimately interpreting these artefacts can result in an accurate retelling of the past, without knowing the full context of the material.
Ash is said to have had a greater reputation for his work than LaMotte, with Ash’s work more widely known and applauded. Do you find that Byatt has written the poems of Ash and LaMotte of equal merit, or can LaMotte’s be seen as lacking? Consider the impact of fame and recognition on our perception of artistic value, and explore whether Byatt invites readers to question the criteria by which we assess the quality of literary works.