Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession: A Romance is a 1990 bestselling novel by Antonia Byatt, sister of Margaret Drabble. It won the Booker Prize in 1990. Part historical as well as contemporary fiction, the title ‘Possession’ refers to issues of ownership and independence between lovers, the practice of collecting historically significant cultural artefacts, and to the possession that a biographer feels for their subject.

The novel incorporates many different styles and devices: diaries, letters and poetry, in addition to third person narration. Possession is as concerned with the present day as it is with the Victorian era, pointing out the differences between the two time periods satirizing such things as modern academia and mating rituals.

Byatt herself writes the following about creating the work:

‘I had been thinking about such a novel for at least 15 years, and it had changed a great deal in my head during that time. Unlike anything else I have written, it began with the title. I was sitting in the old round reading room in the British Museum, watching the great Coleridge scholar Kathleen Coburn pacing round and round the circular catalogue, and I realised that she had dedicated all her life to this dead man. And then I thought “Does he possess her, or does she possess him?” And then I thought there could be a novel, “Possession”, about the relations between the living and the dead. It would be a kind of daemonic tale of haunting.

I then realised that there was a blunt economic sense to the word. Who “possesses” the manuscripts of dead writers? I turned this over in my mind, and quite a long time later I realised that “possession” also applied to sexual relationships. At that time I was working on the wonderful letters of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and I had the idea of two pairs of lovers, one modern, one high Victorian, possessing each other in all these senses.

My original plan had been to write a kind of experimental novel, a ghostly palimpsest of literary, theoretical and intrusively biographical texts, behind which the lovers and poets could be glimpsed, but not seen clearly. What changed everything was my reading of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, with its parodic medieval detective story. My husband’s friends in the City were all engrossed in this book, and interested in all the medieval theology it contained. The secret, I saw, was that if you tell a strong story, you can include anything else you need to include. So I started inventing a detective story like those I read in my childhood.

I discovered that detective stories have to be constructed backwards – the plot has to be invented to reach a denouement that is already worked out. Things have to be hidden in order to be found at strategic moments. In psychological novels, the characters make the plot as their feelings become clear. The rigour of this new form was a liberation. I found myself parodying scenes from Dorothy L Sayers and Georgette Heyer.

The idea of the novel was that poems have more life than poets, and poems and poets are more lively than literary theorists or biographers living their lives at second hand. I always feel a kind of shock when I turn back to a poet’s work after reading things written about him/her. Formally my novel needed the presence of real poems. I don’t write poetry. Robertson Davies had written a novel about an opera, and had used the poems of Thomas Lovell Beddoes as a phantom libretto. My editor at the time was that very good (underrated) poet, DJ Enright. I told him I was thinking of using Ezra Pound’s early “Victorian” verses. “Nonsense,” said Denis. “You will write them yourself.”

So I went home and wrote a Victorian poem about a spider. I found the poems came easily; they were written as they were needed in the shape of the novel, as part of the run of words – I see a novel as a piece of knitting, all one continuous thread.

People ask me about my “research”, implying that this is a chore, and not the delight of discovering things one didn’t know. But in my case I was, and had always been, already possessed by the poems of Tennyson and Browning. I read them as a small child – my mother was a Browning specialist. Their rhythms sing in my head, and indeed crop up oddly in passages of my novels where they are not needed.

When the book was finished, publishers on both sides of the Atlantic were troubled and dubious. They begged me to cut out the poetry, to cut down the Victorian writing. “You have ruined a nice intrigue with these excrescences,” said the only American publisher brave enough to take it. I wept in the early mornings. Then it won the Irish Times Aer Lingus prize, and the Booker prize, and to everyone’s astonishment – including my own – became a bestseller. People write theses on my imagined poets. It is translated into more than 30 languages. I owe a great deal to Umberto Eco’.

This is an immensely rich and rewarding read. I’m confident it will reward your effort.

ISBN 978-0099800408

Antonia Byatt

[Postscript 2023 – Antonia Byatt died on 16 November 2023. An obituary is found here AS Byatt obituary | Fiction | The Guardian]

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