top of page

The 1990s: Possession


(Chatto & Windus: 1990) by A. S. Byatt

Possession is large and densely written and won the Booker prize in 1990. The book can be enjoyed at many levels; it revolves around two romances, one set in the 1980s and one in the Victorian period. It is also a literary detective novel, a compelling story, in which two present day academics embark on a race to find evidence of a hitherto unknown liaison between two fictional Victorian poets: Randolph Ash, thought to be based on Robert Browning, and Christobel LaMotte, an obscure lesbian poet, admired by contemporary feminist academics. Roland Mitchell, a young researcher, whose studies have focussed on Randolph Ash, comes across a letter that indicates an unlikely and previously unknown relationship between the two Victorian poets. He seeks the assistance of Maud Bailey, an expert on Christobel LaMotte, to whom she is distantly related. As their search ranges across the British landscape and the Breton countryside in France in search of clues, the young academics develop a relationship that mirrors the poets. Meanwhile, Roland’s boss and two American academics are in hot

pursuit, each academic trying to find evidence that

supports their own version of the truth.

The book recreates the lives of the Victorian poets with much detailed description. The narrative style is wordy and descriptive, full of Victorian imagery. Byatt digresses into long passages of prose, with journal extracts and the narrative is interspersed with long poems, written in the Victorian style. This has the effect at times of impeding the compelling narrative. I have to confess that when I first read the book in the nineties I gave in to the temptation to skip some of the poems. But in doing so I missed many clues, hidden in the text.

Possession is a key theme of the novel. As the academics compete to find new evidence the question is raised of who owns the past, the academics who have discovered it or the descendants of the original writers. There is also the battle for ownership of British literature between English and American scholars, traditional and feminist critics. Byatt lampoons academics, particularly the unsympathetic Mortimer Cropper, an acquisitive American, an archetypal villain who wants to possess everything relating to Randolph Ash.

This is a long, complex novel, written with many voices and perspectives and containing stories within stories. The reader is carried along by the central narrative, with a growing sense of melodrama, culminating in a dramatic climax in a graveyard, on a dark and stormy night.


bottom of page