Possession (Byatt novel)

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Possession: A Romance
First American edition cover
Author A. S. Byatt
CountryUnited Kingdom
Publisher Chatto & Windus
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
Pages511 pp
ISBN 978-0-7011-3260-6

Possession: A Romance is a 1990 best-selling novel by British writer A. S. Byatt that won the 1990 Booker Prize. The novel explores the postmodern concerns of similar novels, which are often categorised as historiographic metafiction, a genre that blends approaches from both historical fiction and metafiction.

A. S. Byatt English fiction writer and critic

Dame Antonia Susan Duffy HonFBA, known professionally as A. S. Byatt, is an English novelist, poet and Booker Prize winner. In 2008, The Times newspaper named her on its list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

The Booker Prize for Fiction is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the United Kingdom. The winner of the Booker Prize is generally assured international renown and success; therefore, the prize is of great significance for the book trade. From its inception, only novels written by Commonwealth, Irish, and South African citizens were eligible to receive the prize; in 2014 it was widened to any English-language novel—a change which proved controversial.

Historiographic metafiction is a term coined by Canadian literary theorist Linda Hutcheon in the late 1980s. The term is used for works of fiction which combine the literary devices of metafiction with historical fiction. Works regarded as historiographic metafiction are also distinguished by frequent allusions to other artistic, historical and literary texts in order to show the extent to which works of both literature and historiography are dependent on the history of discourse.


The novel follows two modern-day academics as they research the paper trail around the previously unknown love life between famous fictional poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Possession is set both in the present day and the Victorian era, contrasting the two time periods, as well as echoing similarities and satirising modern academia and mating rituals. The structure of the novel incorporates many different styles, including fictional diary entries, letters and poetry, and uses these styles and other devices to explore the postmodern concerns of the authority of textual narratives. The title Possession highlights many of the major themes in the novel: questions of ownership and independence between lovers; the practice of collecting historically significant cultural artefacts; and the possession that biographers feel toward their subjects.

Epistolary novel novel written as a series of documents

An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. Recently, electronic "documents" such as recordings and radio, blogs, and e-mails have also come into use. The word epistolary is derived from Latin from the Greek word ἐπιστολή epistolē, meaning a letter.

The novel was adapted as a feature film by the same name in 2002, and a serialised radio play that ran from 2011 to 2012 on BBC Radio 4. In 2005 Time Magazine included the novel in its list of 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. [1] In 2003 the novel was listed on the BBC's survey The Big Read. [2]

<i>Possession</i> (2002 film)

Possession is a 2002 British-American romantic mystery drama film written and directed by Neil LaBute and starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. It is based on the 1990 novel of the same name by British author A. S. Byatt, who won the Booker Prize for it the year it was published.

The Big Read was a survey on books carried out by the BBC in the United Kingdom in 2003, where over three quarters of a million votes were received from the British public to find the nation's best-loved novel of all time. The year-long survey was the biggest single test of public reading taste to date, and culminated with several programmes hosted by celebrities, advocating their favourite books.


The novel concerns the relationship between two fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (whose life and work are loosely based on those of the English poet Robert Browning, or Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose work is more consonant with the themes expressed by Ash, as well as Tennyson's having been poet-laureate to Queen Victoria) and Christabel LaMotte (based on Christina Rossetti), [3] as uncovered by present-day academics Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Following a trail of clues from letters and journals, they collaborate to uncover the truth about Ash and LaMotte's relationship, before it is discovered by rival colleagues. Byatt provides extensive letters, poetry and diaries by major characters in addition to the narrative, including poetry attributed to the fictional Ash and LaMotte.

Victorian literature literature during the period of Queen Victorias reign

Victorian literature is literature, mainly written in English, during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901). It was preceded by Romanticism and followed by the Edwardian era (1901–1910).

Robert Browning English poet and playwright of the Victorian Era

Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright whose mastery of the dramatic monologue made him one of the foremost Victorian poets. His poems are known for their irony, characterization, dark humour, social commentary, historical settings, and challenging vocabulary and syntax.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson 19th-century British poet laureate

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson was a British poet. He was the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria's reign and remains one of the most popular British poets. In 1829, Tennyson was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal at Cambridge for one of his first pieces, "Timbuktu". He published his first solo collection of poems, Poems Chiefly Lyrical in 1830. "Claribel" and "Mariana", which remain some of Tennyson's most celebrated poems, were included in this volume. Although decried by some critics as overly sentimental, his verse soon proved popular and brought Tennyson to the attention of well-known writers of the day, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Tennyson's early poetry, with its medievalism and powerful visual imagery, was a major influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

A. S. Byatt, in part, wrote Possession in response to John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969). In an essay in Byatt's nonfiction book, On Histories and Stories, she wrote:

John Fowles British writer

John Robert Fowles was an English novelist of international stature, critically positioned between modernism and postmodernism. His work reflects the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, among others.

<i>The French Lieutenants Woman</i>

The French Lieutenant's Woman is a 1969 postmodern historical fiction novel by John Fowles. It was his third published novel, after The Collector (1963) and The Magus (1965). The novel explores the fraught relationship of gentleman and amateur naturalist Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff, the former governess and independent woman with whom he falls in love. The novel builds on Fowles' authority in Victorian literature, both following and critiquing many of the conventions of period novels.

Fowles has said that the nineteenth-century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first-person mimicry. In 'Possession' I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader's imaginative entry into the world of the text. [4]

Plot summary

Obscure scholar Roland Michell, researching in the London Library, discovers handwritten drafts of a letter by the eminent Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, which lead him to suspect that the married Ash had a hitherto unknown romance. He secretly takes away the documents – a highly unprofessional act for a scholar – and begins to investigate. The trail leads him to Christabel LaMotte, a minor poet and contemporary of Ash, and to Dr. Maud Bailey, an established modern LaMotte scholar and distant relative of LaMotte. Protective of LaMotte, Bailey is drawn into helping Michell with the unfolding mystery. The two scholars find more letters and evidence of a love affair between the poets (with evidence of a holiday together during which – they suspect – the relationship may have been consummated); they become obsessed with discovering the truth. At the same time, their own personal romantic lives – neither of which is satisfactory – develop, and they become entwined in an echo of Ash and LaMotte. The stories of the two couples are told in parallel, with Byatt providing letters and poetry by both of the fictional poets.

The revelation of an affair between Ash and LaMotte would make headlines and reputations in academia because of the prominence of the poets, and colleagues of Roland and Maud become competitors in the race to discover the truth, for all manner of motives. Ash's marriage is revealed to have been unconsummated, although he loved and remained devoted to his wife. He and LaMotte had a short, passionate affair; it led to the suicide of LaMotte's companion (and possibly lover), Blanche Glover, and the secret birth of LaMotte's illegitimate daughter during a year spent in Brittany. LaMotte left the girl with her sister to be raised by her, and passed off as her own. Ash was never informed that he and LaMotte had a child.

As the Great Storm of 1987 strikes England, the interested modern characters come together at Ash's grave, where they intend to exhume documents buried with Ash by his wife, which they believe hold the final key to the mystery. Reading them, Maud learns that rather than being related to LaMotte's sister, as she has always believed, she is directly descended from LaMotte and Ash's illegitimate daughter. Bailey thus is heir to the correspondence by the poets. Freed from obscurity and a dead-end relationship, Michell remedies the potential professional suicide of stealing the original drafts, and sees an academic career open up before him. Bailey, who has spent her adult life emotionally untouchable, finds her human side and sees possible future happiness with Michell. The sad story of Ash and LaMotte, separated by the mores of the day and condemned to secrecy and separation, has a kind of resolution through the burgeoning relationship between Bailey and Michell.

In the epilogue, Ash has a chance encounter with his daughter Maia while walking in the countryside. Maia, who does not know who Ash is, talks with him for a brief time. Ash makes her a crown of flowers, and asks for a lock of her hair. This lock of hair is buried with Ash and is discovered by the scholars, who believe it to be LaMotte’s. Thus it is revealed that both the modern and historical characters (and hence the reader), have, for much of the latter half of the book, misunderstood the significance of one of Ash's key mementoes. Ash asks the girl to give LaMotte (who she thinks is her biological aunt) a message that he has moved on from their relationship and is happy. After he walks away, Maia returns home, breaks the crown of flowers while playing, and forgets to pass the message on to LaMotte.


American writer Jay Parini in the New York Times , wrote "a plenitude of surprises awaits the reader of this gorgeously written novel. A. S. Byatt is a writer in mid-career whose time has certainly come, because Possession is a tour de force that opens every narrative device of English fiction to inspection without, for a moment, ceasing to delight." Also "The most dazzling aspect of Possession is Ms. Byatt's canny invention of letters, poems and diaries from the 19th century". [3]

Critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in the New York Times, noted that what he describes as the "wonderfully extravagant novel" is "pointedly subtitled 'A Romance'." [5] He says it is at once "a detective story" and "an adultery novel." [5]

Writing in the Guardian online, Sam Jordison, who described himself as "a longstanding Byatt sceptic", wrote that he was: "caught off-guard by Possession's warmth and wit" ... "Anyone and everything that falls under Byatt's gaze is a source of fun." Commenting on the invented 'historical' texts he said their "effect is dazzling – and similarly ludic erudition is on display throughout." ... "Yet more impressive are in excess of 1,700 lines of original poetry". "In short, the whole book is a gigantic tease – which is certainly satisfying on an intellectual level" but, "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". Concluding, "There's real magic behind all the brainy trickery and an emotional journey on top of the academic quest. So I loved it." [6]

Awards and nominations


The novel was adapted as a 2002 feature film by the same name, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Maud Bailey; Aaron Eckhart as Roland Michell; and Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle as the fictional poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, respectively. The film differs considerably from the novel. [8]

The novel was also adapted as a radio play, serialised in 15 parts between 19 December 2011 and 6 January 2012, on BBC Radio 4's 'Woman's Hour.' it featured Jemma Redgrave as Maud, Harry Hadden-Paton as Roland, James D'Arcy as Ash and Rachael Stirling as LaMotte. [9]

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  1. "All-Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005.
  2. "BBC – The Big Read". BBC. April 2003. Retrieved 31 October 2012
  3. 1 2 Parini, Jay. "Unearthing the Secret Lover". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 October 2014.
  4. A.S. Byatt On Histories and Stories (2001), p. 56. qtd in Lisa Fletcher "Historical Romance, Gender and Heterosexuality: John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman and A.S. Byatt’s Possession", Journal of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies vol.7 2003, p30.
  5. 1 2 Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Books of The Times; "When There Was Such a Thing as Romantic Love", The New York Times, 25 October 1990. Retrieved 23 January 2014
  6. "Guardian book club: Possession by AS Byatt". The Guardian 19 June 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2014.
  7. "2 Novelists Awarded Fiction Prizes in Ireland", The New York Times, 6 October 1990
  8. Zalewski, Daniel (18 August 2002). "FILM; Can Bookish Be Sexy? Yeah, Says Neil LaBute". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  9. "Woman's Hour Drama – Possession (Programme Information)". BBC Media Centre. BBC. Retrieved 3 June 2013.

Further reading