Possession by A.S.Byatt

“Writers aren’t exactly people.. They are a whole bunch of people, trying to be one person.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
I read this quote some months back…No, not in any one of his books, but in one of those Hallmark posters that feature interesting quotes…..And it stuck on in my mind..

This came back to me the last few days as I started to re-read Possession (for the nth time). Possession by A.S. Byatt is a literary masterpiece that won the Booker Prize in 1990.


It is billed as a romance but is, in actuality, much more than that. It is part romance, part mystery, part an exploration (and critique) of academic life in Victorian and modern times and last but not least an exposition about writing. Roland Michell, a typical academic in his late twenties is researching the famous Victorian poet laureate, Randolph Henry Ash. Randolph Henry Ash (probably modelled on a cross between Tennyson and Browning) is much feted and much researched. Starting from where he walked and what he ate and what he studied has been researched and analysed hundred times over. During the course of his research (about mundane things like the numbers of jars of jam that Ash’s wife Ellen made) Roland stumbles upon a previously undiscovered love letter written by Ash. Huge discovery that and it starts his trail to uncovering the mystery. His guess was that this mysterious lady love of Ash’s was none other than a small poetess of the same time Christabel LaMotte. During the course of his research, he meets Maud Bailey, the great-grand niece of LaMotte and one of the two greatest experts in the world on LaMotte. The story then covers their “paper trail” as they uncover the very passionate and forbidden romance between Ash and LaMotte, interspersed with emotions and emotional baggage of their own. The discovery is big;  colleagues of Roland and Maud enter this race to claim the discovery as their own and The race to the finish gets murky. The story ends with the coming together of all the characters, Roland, Maud and the greedy academics, Mortimer Cropper and Fergus Woolfe at the grave of Ash to exhume the documents buried with Ash by his wife Ellen. Ash and LaMotte had an affair and had a daughter who was then brought up LaMotte’s sister. Maud Bailey discovers that she is directly descended from LaMotte and Ash and not just a great-grand niece. She is in fact the legal heir to all the correspondence unearthed.

The structure and the number of varied styles elevate this fairly simple tale to a complex, masterful narrative. There is an extensive focus on literary detail and allusion. The writing is simple yet effective. The imaginary world of the Victorian era and modern day London are very well brought out. And what is absolutely amazing is that each and every chapter starts with a poem supposedly written by Ash or LaMotte. And then there are those letters.

I have had a love-hate relationship with this book. I have read it many number of times and I discover a new facet with each reading. I picked it up the first time because it was a romance and about writers! (any one who loves books would understand – writing and writing well is the coolest thing to do!) I admit, I was bored out of my skull and couldn’t sit through the detailed description. I read it yes, but wasn’t much enamoured.

The movie adaptation of this book came out in 2002.


It starred Gywneth Paltrow as Maud and Aaron Eckhart as Roland. Jeremy Northam played Ash, while Jennifer Ehle was LaMotte. After watching the movie, I read the book again and liked it much better this time. It also helped that I was no longer than in my teens….

My focus this time has been entirely on the language and the style of the writer. This passionate, exceptional work, is at the heart, about writing and writers – in the Victorian period and at present. The language in the book is captivating – simple words are used with a vivid, imaginative allegory to convey a particular scene visually. Plus the different styles – epistolary, poems, diary entries (of Ellen Ash and Blanche Glover) and prose – are also there – showcasing the versatility of Byatt. The characters are detailed superbly with depth and the language extremely fascinating.

This is most certainly not an easy read; and it may not even be for many a good read. But as I get back to appreciating Byatt’s mastery over her art, would like to leave you with some lovely lines from the book:

“I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you. No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.” (LaMotte to Ash in one of their letters)

“Why do you go cold?” He kept his voice gentle.
“I – I’ve analysed it. Because I have the sort of good looks I have. People treat you as a kind of ;possession; if you have a certain sort of good looks. Not lively, but sort of clear-cut and-”
“Yes, why not. You can become a property or an idol. I don’t want that. It kept happening”
“It needn’t.”
“Even you – drew back – when we met. I expect that now. I use it.”
“Yes. But you don’t want – do you – to be alone always. Or do you?”
“I feel as she did. I keep my defences up because I must go on ;doing my work;. I know how she felt about her unbroken egg. Her self-possession, her autonomy. I don’t want to think of that going. You understand?” (Conversation between Maud and Roland)
“Randolph Henry Ash: “What is it? My dear?”
Christabel LaMotte: “Ah, how can we bear it?”
Randolph Henry Ash: “Bear what?”
Christabel LaMotte: “This. For so short a time. How can we sleep this time away?”
Randolph Henry Ash: “We can be quiet together, and pretend – since it is only the beginning – that we have all the time in the world.”
Christabel LaMotte: “And every day we shall have less. And then none.”
Randolph Henry Ash: “Would you rather, therefore, have had nothing at all?”
Christabel LaMotte: “No. This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere.”

6 thoughts on “Possession by A.S.Byatt

  1. Okay, I’m not sure I’ll look for the book (I have far too much to read in the pile beside my bed – I am the master of tsundoku!), but Ehle and Northam? Ooh. That I have to look out for. 🙂

    1. LOL but every book lover is most certainly a master of tsundoku! I have lost count of the number of books that I have piled up :-)… Do watch the movie – The Ash – LaMotte love story is exquisite and that is because of Northam and Ehle- they are splendid! Northam brings in a rare vulnerability to Ash – something I had not visualised.. I liked the movie – and had it not been for the movie, I would never have read the book properly a second time!

  2. You have told me so much about Possession that I have finally got my lazy butt “up” to the amazon site and downloaded it. It now waits in lobby with the rest of the books I have wanted to read and have not found time for. lol. The plot seems simple so I am extremely intrigued to see how how Byatt spins this into an interesting story (which obviously it seems to be). It now strikes me that the movie Letters From Juliet was probably completely inspired by this book.

  3. I fell headlong into love with the book the first time I read it. I had done MA I a decade or so back. I had to read up a lot about the lives of poets. I think I read more about Marlowe than his works. This even turned into voyeurism at some point. This is what was brought so magnificently in the book. The last scene where everyone gathers to dig at the grave of Ash was really hilarious.

    A S Byatt is not an easy author to read. But do try her Frederica chronicles – starting with The Virgin in the Garden, going on to Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman. Just stay with the series. Not easy to read, but rewarding.

    I liked the movie Possession as well. It had to cut down quite a bit of the narrative, but well, that does happen. I loved the way the movie ended. It was so beautiful.

    1. The last scene was indeed hilarious! This time, when I read Possession, I was struck more by the sheer mastery of Byatt as a writer – the way she strings words aptly to convey different emotions and that too in different styles.

      A.S. Byatt is a difficult author to read..I haven’t read her Frederica chronicles but yes I will read it sometime. Have you read The Children’s Book? I left it midway as it got way too dark.

      I liked the movie too; Jeremy Northam is an actor I like watching very much 🙂 And the ending was so touching – Ash knew!

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