Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book


Rate this book
Winner of England's Booker Prize and the literary sensation of the year, Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and a triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire - from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany - what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

555 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1990

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

A.S. Byatt

173 books2,225 followers
A.S. Byatt (Antonia Susan Byatt) is internationally known for her novels and short stories. Her novels include the Booker Prize winner Possession, The Biographer’s Tale and the quartet, The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman, and her highly acclaimed collections of short stories include Sugar and Other Stories, The Matisse Stories, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Elementals and her most recent book Little Black Book of Stories. A distinguished critic as well as a writer of fiction, A S Byatt was appointed CBE in 1990 and DBE in 1999.

BYATT, Dame Antonia (Susan), (Dame Antonia Duffy), DBE 1999 (CBE 1990); FRSL 1983; Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), 2003 , writer; born 24 Aug. 1936;

Daughter of His Honour John Frederick Drabble, QC and late Kathleen Marie Bloor

Byatt has famously been engaged in a long-running feud with her novelist sister, Margaret Drabble, over the alleged appropriation of a family tea-set in one of her novels. The pair seldom see each other and each does not read the books of the other.

1st, 1959, Ian Charles Rayner Byatt (Sir I. C. R. Byatt) marriage dissolved. 1969; one daughter (one son deceased)
2nd, 1969, Peter John Duffy; two daughters.

Sheffield High School; The Mount School, York; Newnham College, Cambridge (BA Hons; Hon. Fellow 1999); Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia, USA; Somerville College, Oxford.

Academic Honours:
Hon. Fellow, London Inst., 2000; Fellow UCL, 2004
Hon. DLitt: Bradford, 1987; DUniv York, 1991; Durham, 1991; Nottingham, 1992; Liverpool, 1993; Portsmouth, 1994; London, 1995; Sheffield, 2000; Kent 2004; Hon. LittD Cambridge, 1999

The PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Of Fiction prize, 1986 for STILL LIFE
The Booker Prize, 1990, for POSSESSION
Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize, 1990 for POSSESSION
The Eurasian section of Best Book in Commonwealth Prize, 1991 for POSSESSION
Premio Malaparte, Capri, 1995;
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, California, 1998 for THE DJINN IN THE NIGHTINGALE''S EYE
Shakespeare Prize, Toepfer Foundation, Hamburg, 2002;

The Shadow of the Sun, 1964;
Degrees of Freedom, 1965 (reprinted as Degrees of Freedom: the early novels of Iris Murdoch, 1994);
The Game, 1967;
Wordsworth and Coleridge in their Time, 1970 (reprinted as Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in their Time, 1989);
Iris Murdoch 1976
The Virgin in the Garden, 1978;
GEORGE ELIOT Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings , 1979 (editor);
Still Life, 1985
Sugar and Other Stories, 1987;
George Eliot: selected essays, 1989 (editor)
Possession: a romance, 1990
Robert Browning''s Dramatic Monologues, 1990 (editor);
Passions of the Mind, (essays), 1991;
Angels and Insects (novellas),1992
The Matisse Stories (short stories),1993;
The Djinn in the Nightingale''s Eye: five fairy stories, 1994
Imagining Characters, 1995 (joint editor);
New Writing 4, 1995 (joint editor);
Babel Tower, 1996;
New Writing 6, 1997 (joint editor);
The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, 1998 (editor);
Elementals: Stories of fire and ice (short stories), 1998;
The Biographer''s Tale, 2000;
On Histories and Stories (essays), 2000;
Portraits in Fiction, 2001;
The Bird Hand Book, 2001 (Photographs by Victor Schrager Text By AS Byatt);
A Whistling Woman, 2002

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
27,841 (35%)
4 stars
25,562 (32%)
3 stars
15,381 (19%)
2 stars
5,950 (7%)
1 star
3,163 (4%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,963 reviews
Profile Image for Kelly.
878 reviews3,976 followers
August 6, 2014
That was.. not what I was expecting this time.

I have to admit, I did not approach this book this time around with what I would consider pure motives. I wasn’t in it to find things I had never found before, to revisit a personal classic to explore ideas that I had left behind for the time when I was ready to connect with them in the way that they deserved. I wasn’t even in it to re-approach situations and characters with a new perspective of age and experience.

No, I needed something from this book.

I can’t really think of any other way to put this, really: I was self-medicating with this book.

I’ve heard this talked about in so many different ways, if perhaps not in those words, by other book lovers that I know that I can’t be the only one who does this. I came back to this book because of the transformative experience I had the last two times. I needed to be transformed. I’ve fallen into a new line of work in recent years, and I.. well, there are a lot of things that I’ve seen that I wasn’t prepared for. It’s the sort of work where I’ve felt the need to create an entirely separate daytime persona to feel brave enough and competent enough to get through the day, one that I consider separate from what I would consider myself. I come home at the end of the day and spend my time trying to reconnect with the other person I know I am and want to continue being. Some days I can even stay awake long enough to get some of her back. It isn’t that it is necessarily objectively that horrible of an experience. It’s just something where the vast majority of the time I spend during the day is spent in tasks that are for the most part not suited to my personality or many of my strengths. It also involves things that I would personally prefer not to be part of my life. I chose this job because I had become so disillusioned with the ivory tower academic path I was on that I chose the most opposite thing that I could think of to do that still fell within the realm of my skills and education. After years of being shut up inside a library going crazy inside my head, I got sick of the whole exercise as a merry-go-round of narcissistic and masochistic head games. I decided I just wanted to be useful, do anything that didn’t leave me time for that nonsense. I think that I am useful, sometimes. Sometimes I help. Sometimes I go home and don’t wake up in the middle of the night worried, or check my email at 10 pm just in case.

But goddamn, it’s just… it’s ugly sometimes. It’s tiring, and isolating, and my daytime persona is taking over more and more of my time. There are things about her that I like and I think would benefit me if I could adopt them outside a situation of necessity. But there are things that I desperately want to save about the person that I can only be after work hours, which I have less and less time for. What I would gain is not worth what I would lose-I am lucky enough to have enough time with my other self banked right now to be able to say that with certainty. It’s the only fucking reason I can write this review right now- I’ve got the other one far enough at bay that I can only barely hear her screaming about what a fucking waste of time this is and what a terrible writer I am anyway and I should get back to doing something that fucking helps somebody.

I reached for Possession after two weeks of working twelve hour days and only one Saturday to restore my Self. I wanted it to bring me back to myself as fast as possible, though I'm sure I didn't think that consciously. I thought, Irememberthis , only, when I was lucky enough to see it on the shelf.

There are parts of this book that I have such a strong, bodily anchored memory of, that I have connected to so strongly that my body has a sense memory of what it should do at the time when I read those words. I am at the point with this book where I am not only remembering the scenes and words, I am doubling that over with my memories of myself reading them and feeding off of them, trying to make them a part of my immediate self again. It was a cycle of memory and experience, one feeding off the other to bring me back, make me disappear and make me whole again, here in the present.

I went to it looking for something that I knew wasn’t going to go away: beauty. I needed some beauty in my life so badly, and this is how you know the disease of bibliophilia has really set in- books are what I turn to when I need that. I go to books to remind myself that beauty exists and it is worth something and it is a part of me, no matter how much I forget that sometimes. There are some books that we readers can no longer do this with. Before I realized what I was doing this, it was happening for years with my constant re-reads of parts of Guy Gavriel Kay novels. He was my go-to until I read his latest novel and the spell was broken- I stayed in the present and analytical- that it wouldn't work again. That was when I started to figure out what I was doing because then I tried reading my favorite novel of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s, and similarly, rather than being swept away, all I could see was the melodramatic dialogue and some fucked up coded gender politics that I considered writing an enraged essay about. Some of this, sure, is perhaps about developing better taste and letting go of adolescent attachments. But more of it is about being so far away from what I like to think of as myself that there are days where I can’t get back.

Possession, though, it brought me back. It has not disappointed me yet. Parts of this book made me laugh and smile and exercise my brain in the way that I want it to be exercised, and alternately, it devoured me whole. There were parts where I came up gasping for air, and parts that I danced over lightly, barely reading, except for letting the pieces of a well-known structure fall reassuringly into place.. There were parts where the rhythm of it was enough, and parts where I read and re-read a page again and again until I felt I had understood it on many levels.

But mostly, it was all so much words, words, words, paragraphs and pages put together in just that way. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a read that looked to suck out whatever drop of beauty it could find, it was the “first-hand” personal accounts that stood out to me the most here- the letters and the diaries- each and every one of them a record of love, desire, becoming and stone-set final regret and loss, each and every one of them filtered though the love of words, writing and books, of the seeking, narrative embroidered kind that I recognize as one of my own:

”…I may write to you as I write when I am alone, when I write my true writing, which is for everyone and no one- so that in me which has never addressed any private creature, feels at home with you. I say “at home” what extraordinary folly- when you take pleasure in making me feel most unhemlich, as the Germans have it, least of all at home, but always on edge… But poets don’t want homes- do they?- they are not creatures of hearth and firedogs, but of heaths and ranging hounds. Now tell me, do you suppose what I just wrote is the truth or a lie?”

“Today I laid down
Melusina having come trembling to the end of this marvelous work. What shall I say of it?.... How shall I characterize it? It is like a huge, intricately embroidered tapestry in a shadowed stone hall, on which all sorts of strange birds and beasts and elves and demons creep in and out of thickets of thorny trees…”

“At first Roland worked with the kind of concentrated curiosity with which he read anything at all by Randolph Ash. This curiosity was a kind of predictive familiarity; he knew the workings of the other man’s mind, he had read what he had read, he was possessed of his characteristic habits of syntax and stress. His mind could leap ahead and hear the rhythm of the unread as though he was the writer, hearing in his brain the ghost-rhythms of the as yet unwritten…”

“We live in an age of scientific history- we sift our evidence- we know somewhat about eyewitness accounts and how far it is prudent to entrust ourselves to them.. So if I construct a fictive eyewitness account- a credible plausible account- am I lending life to truth with my fiction- or verisimilitude to a colossal Lie with my feverish imagination? Do I do as they did, the evangelists, reconstructing the events of the Story in after-time? Or do I do as false prophets do and puff air into simulacra?..”

“My dear Friend,
I may call myself your friend, may I not? For my true thoughts have spent more time in your company than in anyone else’s, these last two or three months, and where my thoughts are, there am I, in truth, even if- like the May, only a threshold-presence, by decree. I write to you now in haste- not to answer your last most generous letter- but to impart a vision…”

“I have dreamed nightly of your face and walked the streets of my daily life with the rhythms of your writing singing in my silent brain. I have called you my Muse and so you are, or might be, a messenger from some urgent place..”

“Oh Sir- things flicker and shift, they are indeed all spangle and sparks and flashes. I have sat by my fireside all this long evening- on my safe stool- turning my burning cheeks towards the Aspirations of the flame and the caving-in, the ruddy mutter, the crumbling of the consumed coals…”

“My dear-
The true exercise of freedom is-cannily and wisely and with grace-to move inside what space confines- and not seek to know what lies beyond and cannot be touched or tasted. But we are human- and to be human is to desire to know what may be known by any means…

I would not for the whole world diminish you. I know it is usual in these circumstances to protest- “I love you for yourself alone”- “I love you essentially”- and as you imply, my dearest, to mean by “you essentially”, lips and hands and eyes. But you must know- we do know- that it is not so- dearest, I love your soul and with that your poetry- the grammar and stopping and hurrying syntax of your quick thought-quite as much essentially you as Cleopatra’s hopping was essentially hers to delight Antony- more essentially, in that while all lips hands and eyes resemble each other- your thoughts clothed with your words are uniquely you, came with you, would vanish if you vanished…”

“I have been angry for so long- with all of us, with you, with Blanche, with myself. And now near the end, “in the calm of mind all passion spent,” I think of you again with clear love. I have been reading
Samson Agoniste and came upon the dragon I always thought you were- as I was the ‘tame villatic fowl’-

His fiery virtue roused
From under ashes into sudden flame
And as an evening dragon came
Assailant on the perched roosts
And nests in the order ranged
Of tame villatic fowl-

Is not that fine? Did we not- did you
not flame and I catch fire? Shall we survive and rise from our ashes? Like Milton’s Pheonix?

That self-begotten bird
In the Arabian woods embossed
That no second knows nor third
And lay erewhile a holocaust
From out her ashy womb now teemed
Revives, reflourishes, then vigorous most
When most unactive deemed
And though her body die, her fame survives
A secular bird, ages of lives.

I would rather have lived alone, so, if you would have the truth. But since that might not be- and is granted to almost none- I thank God for you- if there must be a Dragon- that He was You…”

See, that is the shit that matters. Fuck, I remember now. That is the shit that started me down this path in the first place, that lead me to make choice after choice that I thought was going there, even if it went somewhere different. That restored me again. I read the letters twice and Sabine’s diary slowly once, the sort of read that is three times over in reality. By the time I was done, my brain circuitry had slid back into it’s proper place, and I could answer the sort of basic questions that I couldn’t before I had started. I felt purged, like I had gone on a cleansing diet for a month. This is the sort of read that cleans out all the nonsense from my brain and leaves me with what is essentially important again.

It is a species of addiction- it works much the same as any other. I realize this. But for now, books like Possession, books that devour me and spit me out again remade… this is what keeps me in equilibrium, and keeps the self that I very much want to keep around from disappearing. They are my guide back. I am keeping this one, along with others of its kind, on my bedside table. I have a feeling I will need them again soon.

If anyone has any books to recommend that they turn to for beauty and rest, please let me know. I would love to add them to what I can only call my arsenal. Thank you.

* * *
ORIGINAL: I do so hate to be predictable, the girl who has victorian and victorian-wannabe shelves, and shelves for regency and romance and the-aftermath, and pretty much every other category that this would plausibly be generally shelved in (except, perhaps, pretentiousness-that's-worth-it...but we'll get to that later) but I really do love this book.

I'm going to have to go even further down the disgustingly adoring path and say that this is going to be a personal classic, for me. I don't argue that it needs to be taught in classrooms or become part of a modern canon or anything like that (though I'm certainly not against the idea), but it definitely meets the most important thing for me:

A different experience at every age/read- This is my second read through. The first time I read it was in 2002. I was 16 years old, and the movie was coming out. There was no way I appreciated this book beyond a few very shallow things. Why? 'Cause dude, there was a movie coming out with some of my favorite sexy people in it (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehele), and duuuude it was about hot Victorians having hot sexy smart people sexy sex and their words were as hot as their hot costumes and hot modern academics (ooohmygood whoos this Aaron Eckhart, hellooo!) getting it on over books, books are so awesome... Ooh look, letters with smart people references in it that I understand, this is so cool that I get even a little of this, yay!... oh did I mention HOT VICTORIANS??

... Yeah, that was about the extent of my thoughts at the time, I think. I did cry at the end, but for the most simple of reasons, something that you could cry at a freaking Hallmark special on the Lifetime channel about.

Now? I am only 23, but I'm old enough to be mostly embarrassed for myself at 16 (though I still think parts of this book are smokin' sexy), and I do feel like I'm getting worlds and worlds more out of this book than I ever got back then, and I can see myself getting more and more as I grow older, as the characters do. There's so much in here that leaped off the page and spoke to me and both my every day little problems and the bigger opinions and feelings that I have about the larger things in life. And I know there are still vast things in here that I missed, things that I don't think I quite understand yet, or call bullshit at at the moment that I just know will be of comfort to me when I pick this book up again in ten years or so, in twenty years, in thirty years. And the fact that I know that I'm going to do that, that I expect my copy to wear out and that I'll have to get a new one before I die, well, that speaks volumes, doesn't it? This particular read I really attached onto the characters struggling to find out what to do with themselves, what they were worth, after the life prescribed by their parents and other authority figures ends, those characters trying to deal with what other people expect them to be as opposed to how they see themselves, creating the narrative of your own life, being your own person in a relationship, and the connections I keep making between this book and the ideas in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. There's a fascinating fight over spiritual beliefs that I don't have the headspace to deal with now, but is haunting the back of my head, and I expect to be obsessed with it the next time I read it.

So, yeah, that's what the good books should do to you.

There's also other things, like all the fascinating things she deals with in the book. I mean, just to rattle off a few: feminism, post-modernism, living in a post-modern world, deconstructionism, many many issues of religion and spirituality, cultural relativism and archetypes, living in a globalized world, negotiating the self in relationships, the academic life and petty infighting, etc, etc. And I do mean etc, etc, etc, because there's tons in here that I'm not even bringing up, and probably tons more that I missed. Which is why I think this book is a gold mine.

Now a lot of people say that they abandon this book because they find it too pretentious, or too self-gratifying, etc. I don't really think that's the case. I think a lot of the things that could be deemed 'pretentious' are being used by Byatt to make fun of the ridiculousness of some of the characters within who are indeed pretentious. Maybe it is just the subject matter- I don't know how you avoid pretentiousness when you're writing about overeducated Victorian people with literary tendencies. It probably does tend to go to your head, the way that all works. I can see that putting people off to begin with, but if you picked up the book already knowing it was about Victorian poets and squabbling Victorian scholars then I would think you'd be prepared for that kind of thing and be able to wade through it. Are all the full length Victorian style poems she includes pretentious? Probably. But man, if I could do that, I would want to do that too. And it isn't as if they are pointless. Most of the poems are clues to the mystery, clues to the characters themselves, especially as they get longer- they're not just there to create an ambiance. Plus, we hear so much about the poems and other peoples' interpretations of them its great to actually see the real things and judge for ourselves, and fits really well into the theme about people creating their own narratives out of the past according to their present needs, and I think reflects cleverly back on the reader. For me, all of that pretentiousnes is worth it, and I find it all brilliant, that's just my response to it. I usually think agree to disagree is bullshit, but when you get into literary experimentation, I think that's the only way to come out alive.

So anyway, I tore through this in four insanely obsessed days- and this on a re-read. So if you're into this kind of thing, leap right in. Leap, I tell you! It's the way to read this one.
Profile Image for Warwick.
812 reviews14.5k followers
June 20, 2016
OK I have to say something. People keep writing reviews of this book and talking about how it was great except for all the boring poems which they skipped through.

READ THE POETRY, PEOPLE! What's the matter with everyone?? They're actually rather good, they are full of plot clues, and, duh, they're a key part of the novel you're reading. I mean what is going on here? Do people really hate poetry so much that they're skipping a few pages of it in the middle of a story? If you try that shit with Hamlet you're going to miss half the play. Or is this part of some weird trend? Perhaps you hold your hands over your ears when the Rolling Stones switch to 12/8 time, or fast-forward through all the Frank Sivero scenes in Goodfellas? Or is it literally just verse? I mean, you know there are books out there which are all poetry, right? What's the matter, do you have a rhyme allergy? Too much alliteration brings on your irritable bowel syndrome? What's going on??

I give up.

PS the actual book is excellent.

(Oct 2009)
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,178 reviews9,229 followers
December 4, 2013

A honking great piece of literary self gratification, a novel about writers (all novels about writers should be given a concrete overcoat), a grand excuse for A S Byatt to dazzle us with some fancy ventriloquism, and yes you can feel the throb of the author's perfervid intelligence like a lawnmower hacking away at the tough grass at the edge of the lawn but after all of that you have to come clean and say that Possession isn't worth the thinnest novelette written by Raymond Chandler or the most offhand poem by e e cummings or the most obscure B side by the Beach Boys either. A pure waste of time which I was suckered into by someone whose taste I had thought trustworthy, so that was a lesson bitterly learned.


This book breaks one of PB's commandments :

- Thou shalt not write a book which is a series of SOCK PUPPETS designed entirely to impress the hoi polloi at the Hay-on-Wye Literary festival when you read bits out to them in FUNNY VOICES.
Profile Image for Marjorie Hakala.
Author 4 books22 followers
April 28, 2008
A while ago I said to myself, "I'm going to pay more attention to doing things that make me happy. So I'm going to cook more creatively and read more fantasy, because I keep forgetting I like those things."

Then I started reading Possession. The happiness project got put on the back burner until I was ready to emerge from the Victorian melancholia, which placed demands on my time too great to allow for preparing meals. I never cried at this book, exactly, but I frequently wept the way a lemon meringue pie weeps when you leave it out and come back to find dots of moisture on the surface.

Oh, it was beautiful, though, a book of such tangible substance that sometimes, when I was reading it while standing, I would feel as if the book were holding me up instead of the other way around. I've read and loved a couple of A.S. Byatt's short-story collections, so I knew she had a fine control of language, but Possession is on a different plane, telling the story with a multitude of voices through letters, poems, criticism, biography, and journal entries as well as the prose of the main narrative. Byatt didn't just write some poems to go in her novel, she created two major Victorian poets from whole cloth, fitted them exactly into a time and a place, and made so bold as to have a character say about one of them, "You can't understand the twentieth century without understanding him." Does that mean we can't understand the twentieth century fully, in a world where there was never a Randolph Henry Ash? This poet isn't a fictionalized Tennyson or Browning, he's a completely invented eminent Victorian. Christabel LaMotte, likewise, is something entirely new; her poems have a dash of Emily-Dickinsonian diction but with French-English, devout Christian, determinedly feminist sensibilities. I don't know if anyone calls this book a work of alternate history, but it was poignant to think about what would be different in a world that included this poetry. I wish I could visit that world, just to read the rest of Ragnarok and Melusina.

The prose itself bordered on poetry, to such an extent that sometimes I had to stop to savor a rhythm. Like here: "But he had known immediately that she was for him, she was to do with him, as she really was or could be, or in freedom might have been." (I would quote more, but I've already loaned out the copy I read.)

In addition to the new-old poetry, Possession has packed inside it a meditation on the arts of scholarship and biography; the most moving writing about celibacy I've ever come across; a critical work on the erotics of reading; and a half-lament, half-ode to the powers of time and memory and forgetting. And, as the cover proclaims, it is a romance--a set of entwined love stories written with impossible precision and believability. It is a book about books, but in such a generous way that nearly everything books can be about is in here. Reading something like this makes me glad that there is such a thing as literary fiction.
Profile Image for Lisa.
974 reviews3,328 followers
July 7, 2018
"Literary critics make natural detectives."

I loved this novel. I know there are plenty of arguments against it, but to me, it summed up my life in the grey zone between reality lived and consumed in fiction. Whoever was caught by the passion of reading - a love story that is inexhausible, lifelong, passionate, and thus unlike most love stories between people - will recognise the thoughts that accompany the lovers on the tracks of fiction past. Whoever considers their library their most important POSSESSION will know the excitement of adding just a single poem's perfect rhythm to a collection already known "by heart", like a part in our blood circulation, as Byatt points out.

Whoever has felt a novel take POSSESSION of heart and mind for hours on end knows that reading is a curse and a blessing at the same time, for it makes one feel angry about being POSSESSED by schedules and everyday life business when all one wants to do is curl up alone and take POSSESSION of the story waiting between two covers.

Writers write alone, and readers read alone, Byatt says, but they are alone together. And that is true! Sometimes I feel more lonely in company than alone with my books. I never had a real life person who wanted to share my possessive passion for books. So sharing these fictional characters' possession is as close to a communal literary experience as I will ever get.
Profile Image for Jennifer (formerly Eccentric Muse).
448 reviews911 followers
August 5, 2017
Too much work for too little reward.

I read somewhere that if you pick up a book, and you're not enjoying it by either: a) your age (if you are under 50); or b) 100 minus your age (if you are over 50), you should abandon it and move on. There is too much to read and life is too short to be spent reading bad books.

I think this applies particularly to books in that grey zone, where you can tell the writer is winding up to something, and the style and story has enough ooomph in it to keep you powering on, despite perhaps your better judgement.

A.S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance is definitely in that zone.

It's not that Byatt is not a good writer: she is. I am enjoying her eviscerating attack on the insular, political world of academia, with its serpent-eating-its-tail kind of irrelevance. The set-up of the grad student/teaching assistant/temp couple, living in a dank basement, banned from the garden, and feeding off of each other in passive-aggressive co-dependency was ... well, pretty much perfect (and hit a little close to home!) The send-up of feminist scholarship is priceless.

But it's all a little too much to wade through for just a taste of these morsels. It's too clever, and too complicated, by half. So far, I've got two major characters, two minor characters, a slew of tertiary characters including some that we see only through the eyes of the two major ones; two poets--who are two more major characters--from each of whom I am getting internal monologue, dialogue, and painstakingly-fabricated Victorian-era poems, letters, and academic research papers reflecting all of that. And these are rife with references, allusions and imagery from Victorian and classical times, both faux and likely real, but I just can't sort it all out and right now, I don't really want to. Oh, and we're on two continents, one convincingly, and one much less so.

I've given it to p. 108, and I'm still not sure that I won't come back to it. Perhaps a different season, a different frame of mind. This novel is likely, for me, like drinking single-malt scotch in the summer: sometimes I do, but I rarely enjoy it. I need a bracing cool autumn evening, or a blizzardy night, woodfire blazing, my faithful companion, Sutcliffe, the Beagle, by my side. In other words, I need to get into a rarified connoisseur's headspace and let the experience wash over me while I noodle away at it like a crossword.

I will put this one back on the shelf and maybe try again in January.
Profile Image for Dolors.
523 reviews2,177 followers
October 22, 2017
Stolen snapshots that defy the laws of space and time:

A poet observes a mystical creature, half woman half mermaid, scouting cliffs and creeks, bathing in unruly seas and still ponds, getting drenched in the cascade of his flowing words. The ache of losing God is not so acute when intellect is met with incandescent creativity. Or with unrestrained love. His gentle curiosity breathes life into inert things, making them shine with an inner glow of their own, because he doesn’t aspire to possess what he loves, he cherishes it and makes it flourish in its natural state.

A self-effacing, underpaid assistant researcher in a dark room that smells of stale history survives in reality while his mind thrives with verses penned by the dead Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash. Unaware that he possesses a voice of his own he searches for the veiled truths of his life in the legacy of the iconic poet.

A petite, pale woman with gleaming eyes, green like emeralds, crystalline like a dragon’s stare, sits in a carriage oblivious of the bearded gentleman sitting opposite her who memorizes the lines of her features with fascinated absorption. She is reserved, protective of her independence and shrouded in mystery. Skeptical of romantic love, her passion is devoted to the life of language. She speaks in tongues of fire and torrents of poems spring from the briny seas of her feral imagination. She moves like water, eluding possession in her ever-changing shape.

A successful scholar specialized in the underrated poetess Christabel LeMotte flushes with emotion as she anxiously leafs through yellowish pages, wrapped by the familiar odor of mildew, wax and ash. Unusually blond and displaying a cool and poised detachment, she covets loneliness guided by fear of being possessed.

Four characters. Two stories. Parallel plotlines. Present and past dissolve in undelivered letters, secret diaries and rose-scented poems that act like two-way mirrors where reality becomes a mirage and generally agreed facts mere artificial constructs.
Combining cultivated erudition, refined literary taste and virtuous mastery of several genres, Byatt exposes her characters to psychological vivisection merging fictional plot with intricate disquisitions and creates highly distinctive voices that speak to the different realities of the reader.
Fast paced dialogues sprouting from picturesque secondary characters of the Academia tinted with sporadic brushtrokes of colorful yet haunting humor create the perfect palette for a Gothic scenario where raging storms, spooky cemeteries and ancient legends blend with sumptuous meditation on the concept of possession.

Does love inevitably imply possession? How can the bird fly free in the gilded cage of desire? Can love be restorative rather than demanding? Is selfless love a chimera?
Byatt doesn’t offer clear answers. She uses the third person narrator not as an omniscent actor but as a means to bring her characters closer to the readers and allow them to reach their own conclusions. All their voices speak to me in symphonic cannon with the unvarying idea that pure love thrives in letting go of the things we want to possess. Only when the object of our desires, be it the beloved person, a professional career, an idealized obsession or the inspiration to write, is released from selfish need will it open its locked gateways freely and show us the pathway to fulfillment.

But that is not the only song I hear, for raising above the melody, I distinclty discern Byatt’s contralto singing the only truth that not even rigorous scholarship can claim to possess. That after passion is spent, heartache subdued and disappointments diluted in the sea of memories, that long after the stillborn happiness has burnt out in the arson of irreconcilable pasts, dead words will be rekindled from the ashes with every new reading, Phoenix-like. And bygone lives will be infused with the spark of new beginnings, for their essence will be preserved in the artistic creations writers sent sailing the tides of time to reach shores still to be read and mornings that smell of brine to wake up to. Never to be fully possessed, but forever adored.

"In the morning, the whole world had a strange new smell. It was the smell of the aftermath, a green smell, a smell of shredded leaves and oozing resin, of crushed wood and splashed sap, a tart smell, which bore some relation to the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful."
Profile Image for Duane.
828 reviews397 followers
February 10, 2017
Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1990.

Giving this book 5 stars was not ever in doubt for me. This is one of the most remarkable books I've ever read. I'm a romantic, I admit. I love art and art history. I love good historical fiction. But all that combined still does not make a good book. A.S. Byatt pulls all this together with the most important aspect of any book, great writing. But she adds something else also, something that's hard to put your finger on, a uniqueness, an edge, if you will, that puts this work in a class of it's own. It's a modern classic, without doubt, and it's worthy of all it's awards and praise.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,106 reviews3,878 followers
June 25, 2019
Like many biographies... this was as much about its author as its subject.

AS Byatt has characters describing biography as “a form of religion… a form of ancestor worship”. She is a novelist who loves the academic approach to biography, applied to fiction and semi-fiction, creating po-mo metafiction that is rich in texture and research, but which can be a little hard for mortals to digest.

There are two main timelines here: a pair of Victorian poets (Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, loosely based on Browning/Tennyson and Christina Rossetti, respectively), and various modern academics who specialise in either RHA or LaMotte (principally Roland Michell and Maud Bailey). When a connection between the two Victorians is discovered, professional rivalry and collaboration are at odds in the literary detective story that ensues. That opens the possibility of modern romance to parallel the past, culminating in rather ludicrous scenes in Cornwall.

The Great Ventriloquist

That is the title of (fictional) Mortimer Cropper’s famous biography of (fictional) RHA, described in the quote at the top), but it applies to Byatt, too. The stories unfold in an impressive variety of documents and genres, from different periods: epic poems, diaries, letters, lists, and more. There are also references to real authors, including Emily Dickinson and Willa Cather.

But it alternates between being too self-consciously clever (all those unique writing styles, with the historical poems hiding clues to secrets of the past as well as triggering ripples in the modern story) and too predictable plotwise, propped up by stereotyped characters and clichéd situations.

And as well as the layers of fictional biography, and wondering who is speaking on whose behalf, literal ventriloquism is a recurring theme, there is a seance, and there is even po-mo musing in this po-mo book, when Roland considers “partly with precise postmodernist pleasure, and partly with a real element of superstitious dread, that he and Maud were being driven by a plot or fate that seemed, at least possibly, to be not their plot or fate but that of those others.” Roland also wonders why novels “do not habitually elaborate on the… intense pleasure of reading” and concludes the “regressive nature of the pleasure” is to blame. Too much!

In the first chapter, I read this, and empathised:
His own huge ignorance, a grey mist, in which floated or could be discerned odd glimpses of solid objects, odd bits of glitter of dimes or shadows of roofs in the gloom.
For example, those deeply familiar with Victorian literature, and especially Victorian interest in insects and jet mementoes, would gain more from this than I managed.

Nevertheless, this novel is a brilliant achievement. Parts of it are moving, inspiring, thought-provoking, and educational. And yet there was a disconnect between me and the words. The researchers were possessed, but I was not. Overall, I found more to admire than to love. But I suspect the failing is more mine than Byatt’s.

How Does Byatt Categorise Herself?

The quote at the top of this review is true of this novel, as well as the fictional biography it is describing (Cropper’s one of RHA). But what does Byatt think of herself and her works, I wonder?

She wrote in RHA’s letter to LaMotte:
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.
Here, Byatt proves she is both.

Thoughts on Possession and Love

After writing my review, I turned to those of friends. In her excellent review (here), Dolors asks "Does love inevitably imply possession?"

That is a huge and profound question, deserving deep thought. My initial reaction is that people often say that love implies possession, whereas I think the two are mutually exclusive. The possession of love does not, or should not, limit the freedom of the subject of that love. Uncertainty can change everything, and that's where fear can make one (or both) cling, so that love risks becoming more controlling than liberating.

The very next day, a blog I subscribe to cited Kahil Gibran's famous lines in a piece about finding the balance between independence and intimacy in long-term relationships:
"Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls".

Quotes about Fabric, Decor, and Dress

A Byatt trademark:

* “He wore a long black silk dressing-gown, with crimson revers, over black silk pyjamas, crimson-piped, with a monogram on his breast-pocket. His slippers, mole-black velvet, were embroidered in gold thread with a female head surrounded by shooting rays or shaken hair.”

* “The stained glass worked to defamiliarise her. It divided her into cold, brightly coloured fires… The green silk of her scarf glittered with turreted purple ridges. Dust danced in a shadowy halo round her shifting head, black motes in straw gold, invisible solid matter appearing like pinholes in a sheet of solid color.”

* “Leonora was resplendent and barbaric in a scarlet silk shirt and trousers, faintly Oriental, faintly Peruvian, with woven rainbow-coloured borders.”

* “Prettily sprigged curtains hung on carved wooden rings from a brass rail. Inside the front window a maidenhair fern stood in a large Minton pot. On the front door, painted a deep Delft blue, hung a sinuous brass dolphin door-knocker. There were buds on the roses and a sea of forget-me-nots at their feet. There was a frieze of bricks with moulded sunflowers between storeys. Every brick breathed fresh air; each had been stripped and drenched with blow-torch and high-speed jet, so that the house lay revealed beneath its original skin.”

* “The bathroom… tiled floor was a greyish violet. With little bunches of ghostly Madonna lilies-they were of Italian design-on certain tiles, not all. These tiles extended halfway up the walls, where they met a paisley vinyl paper crawling with busy suckered globules, octopods, sea-slugs, in very bright purple and pink. There were toning ceramic fitments, in dusty pink pottery, a lavatory-paper holder, a tissue-holder, a toothmug on a plate like those huge African lip-decorations, a scallop-shell holding pristine ovoids of purple and pink soap.”

Other Quotes

* “Victorian dust, a dust composed of smoke and fog particles accumulated before the Clean Air Acts.”

* “She was dressed with unusual coherence for an academic.”

* “Letters... are a form of narrative that envisages no outcome, no closure... Letters tell no story, because they do not know, from line to line, where they are going... Letters, finally, exclude not only the reader as co-writer, or predictor, or guesser, but they exclude the reader as a reader, they are written, if they are true letters, for a reader.”

* “Cold air seemed to pour down the stone steps like silky snow.”

* “She held his time, she contained his past and his future.”

* “Leonora was a kind of verbal Cleopatra, creating appetite where most she satisfied.”

* “All stories… will bear telling and telling again in different ways. What is required is to keep alive, to polish… And yet to add something of yours, of the writer, which makes all these things seem new.”

* “In Romance, women’s two natures can be reconciled… enchantresses and demons or innocent angels.”

Byatt’s Novels of Biographers - and other related books

All four Byatt novels I’ve read are layers of fictional biography, executed with varying degrees of success: a writer writing about writers writing.

The Children's Book, 4*. See my review HERE.
Possession, 3*. This book.
The Biographer’s Tale, 2*. See my very old review HERE.
Even her myth-based Ragnarok, 4*, is related, as it's interwoven with the life of a child who is largely her. See my review HERE.

I’ve also read some of her short stories, most recently, The Little Black Book of Stories. See my review HERE.

Another novel of similar themes to this, also 3* for me, is Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent. See my review HERE.

Word Play

These, I mostly like.
* Ash (the poet), lots of dust and ashes, and researchers in the basement of the BM, aka The Ash Factory.
* Possession in many forms, literal and metaphorical.
* Medusa, mermaids, and serpents.
* LaMotte, motte (as in motte and bailey castle) and motes of dust.
* Blanche Glover (LaMotte’s companion) and gloves.
Gloves lie together
Limp and calm
Finger to finger
Palm to palm
With whitest tissue
To embalm

In these quiet cases
White hands creep
With supple stretchings
Out of sleep
Fingers clasp fingers
Troth to kee
- C. LaMotte

Cliché Alert

This may seem petty, but I was so swamped by how many and how often they cropped up that I want a list for future reference.

There’s nothing inherently wrong (or inaccurate?!) about any of these, but I felt they were overdone:
* Rich, brash Americans.
* Feminists, lesbians, and bisexual women.
* Socially awkward academics.

Most of these were borderline comedy that felt out of place:
* A creepy country house needing repairs.
* Snowed in, in a remote place.
* Car chases.
* Near misses.
* Convenient coincidences, essential to make the plot join up.
* Digging up a grave at night.
* Caught in a storm.
* Legal small print.
* An antagonistic pair who fall in love (very Mills & Boon).
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book461 followers
July 12, 2015
I am a Romantic, in Wordsworth's sense of the word. I love the details of 19th Century life, the language of that time, poetry, a mystery and human tragedy and struggle. Above all, I love a good story. A.S. Byatt has given me all of this and more. She is an intelligent and multi-talented author, and I was delighted to accompany her through the throes of Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte's love story to the last riveting moment.

I have pushed this book to the back of the shelf for years, simply because I saw the movie first (a practice I try very hard to avoid) and felt I might not be so captivated knowing the basic story already. I loved the movie, but as is so often the case, the book exceeds and fleshes out the characters in ways that only brilliant writing can do. I am so happy to have overcome my scruples and finally embraced Byatt in print.

I think it is quite difficult to maintain a story within a story, span different ages, and have all the characters seems real and interesting. This book is a double story: it is the story of Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, two 19th century poets who defy their circumstances and the times to have an affair of the heart, the mind and the body. Their love is transcendent, and like most love of this kind, it demands a high price from them both. Running in parallel to this story is the story of Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, a couple of academics who study the lives of Ash and LaMotte respectively, who come upon a series of clues that tie the poets to one another and eventually reveal the depths of their true relationship. Roland and Maud come across as real (if not as enthralling) as the poets and their story drives the mystery forward to its solution.

As to the poetry that Byatt includes in the book, it is both quite good and interesting in its own right and serves to furnish clues and press the unveiling of the mystery itself. The story could have been told without it, but I do think it would have lessened the impact to have had the poems discussed so frequently and never have seen any of them. I can find no flaw in Byatt's telling and I think it is kind of laziness not to want to put in any hard work yourself for the pleasure of such a tale.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,111 reviews8,041 followers
November 11, 2017
I did it! I conquered the beast. That's a tad dramatic, but this book wasn't always the most fun to read even though I do appreciate everything Byatt accomplished. Creating this story about fictional Victorian poets, including their writings, letters, diaries, etc. is extremely impressive. But I did find it slow at times and she tends to digress a lot into descriptions that add very little to the story. I assume her own writing style was trying to mimic the poets' own writing styles, but I thought it was too wordy. The last 100 pages or so were definitely the best, and I really enjoyed the ending. Not one I'd probably ever read again, but who knows—I can see it being more rewarding on a re-read now having the knowledge of what is to come. Also this book definitely made me think a lot about poems vs. poet (i.e. the value of a creator vs. the value of their creation). 3.5 stars
Profile Image for Fabian.
940 reviews1,546 followers
September 24, 2020
Basically, "Possession" is a (n outstanding, albeit old-fashioned) poet's "showcase." I firmly believe that poetry books are not worthy of sharing the same shelf space as works of fiction-- this is a merger of two arts, surely. The plot and the prose is only a pretext for getting all these snippets of poetry in a book! Byatt's possession of her characters is the novelty here: she has done something pretty outstanding, mainly giving both fictional historical poets true, clear voices. The poetry shines through, but it is unfortunately not to my taste. Dabbling in mythology and lore, some Gothic exotica--it doesn't totally astound. The Victorian poems are so droll, so irrelevant to the excitement of the modern day, that it's truly amazing just to see the way intellectuals "make love." (They aren't deliciously repressed nor even in the slightest interesting.)

So again, I come across another highly praised (and prized) novel which is, despite all attempts at realism and Romance (an art truly left dead & buried-- but ripe for modern interpretation surely) mediocre.
Profile Image for Sarah Mac.
1,062 reviews
February 9, 2017
"With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! Want to see my book report?" -Calvin & Hobbes (Bill Watterson)

Indeed, Calvin. You speak the truth. And thanks to slogging through a sample portion of that intimidating & impenetrable fog known as Possession, I've learned an important lesson. Lend me your ears, gentle reader -- I'm about to whisper another truth that's been missing from your day-to-day literary drudgery.

A.S. Byatt is smart.

Oh, yes. A.S. Byatt is smart, & she wants everyone to know it. If the world refuses to listen, she'll wedge the truth into our ears with a handful of steel-plated swabs. I suspect Possession isn't a novel so much as an intellectual mercy killing, as she's taken it upon herself to correct the error of our feeble dreams -- i.e., that the common masses have received an education sufficient to understand the higher thinking of Literature. (Nothing culls the herd quite like an intimidating capital letter, right?)

After suffering through the entirety of another impenetrable Byatt fog (Angels & Insects), I'd guessed myself prepared for the onslaught. But no. There was zero chance of harmonious discourse between my inferior brain & the superior Literature of Possession. It's the simple result of a simple equation: I failed to appreciate that A.S. Byatt is smart, therefore I failed to appreciate why I should give a rat's ass about these fictional academic blowhards & their bloated, self-indulgent dialogues.

...But perhaps the failure isn't all my fault. A.S. Byatt is smart, remember. My undergrad-level education & leisure reading hobbies are but a minor blip -- what hope did I have to appreciate Literature that proposes to celebrate the written word & Victorian culture? Call me a fool, gentle reader. But even after failing to meld with Possession, I'm gripped by the most ignorant of blind faiths. I believe my wounded pride shall recover. Surely those of lesser intellectual proportions can aspire to greatness -- even yours truly as she tosses & turns through another sleepless night, weeping salty tears of ignorance into a soggy, mildewed pillow.

Yes, it's true. A.S. Byatt is smart. That's the beginning, the middle, & the end...so please excuse me while I post Possession on Paperback Swap. Maybe I can trade it for something I'll actually enjoy reading.

Profile Image for Adina.
795 reviews3,065 followers
September 1, 2016

This was mainly my fault. What went through my mind when I decided to read a book about a love story between two poets when I do not like poetry? Didn’t it cross my mind that there was going to be poetry in this novel? The answer is, not really. I read in the synopsis that there were going to be letters and a literary investigation. It sounded intriguing and it was a Booker winner, among which I found a few gems.

After skipping quite a bit I have the following observations:
1. WARNING! Do not attempt to read this novel if you do not read poetry. It is full of it, chapters of it, and it would be a pity to do as I did, skip them as they add to the plot. I tried to read the first ones but after a few chapters I could not be bothered anymore.
2. The language is quite pretentious. It may be annoying for some and extraordinary writing for others. Like every art piece this is a subjective matter. I enjoy beautiful writing but this time I felt like the author tried very, very hard to write smart. I have to admit that I felt quite dumb reading this and I believe the novel is better suited for people that enjoy literary research and books about books.

The novel was not suited for me for the reasons stated above and it does not mean that I believe it is a bad book. It was 2* for me but I gave it 3* since I skipped the poetry and some of the letters so my understanding of the novel was impaired.
Profile Image for Captain Sir Roddy, R.N. (Ret.).
480 reviews291 followers
October 11, 2009
I just finished reading A.S. Byatt’s novel, Possession, again for about the fourth time. It has been several years since I last read it, and I have to say that I saw it in a completely new light. It is a literary masterpiece that is exquisitely plotted and written.

This time around I very carefully studied the epigraphs leading off most of the chapters and all of the beautiful poetry included in the text. I don’t know that I gave much more than a cursory glance to the poetry during previous reads. This time though, I focused on Byatt’s poetry and discovered just how much it enriched and influenced the novel’s dual plots.

Regarding the epigraphs, I recommend that the reader carefully study each epigraph before reading the chapter; and then upon finishing the chapter, go back and read it again and see if you correctly figured out the true meaning of it. There are little puzzles and clues throughout the entire novel, most of them residing within the poetry sections.

This is a beautiful love story, achieving a level of romantic passion, emotion, and anguish like that of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but with the Byronic or Gothic touches of the Bronte sisters. It is clear, to me, why Byatt was awarded the Booker Prize for Possession in 1990; and that this novel is clearly destined to be a classic work of literature.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,392 reviews2,386 followers
November 5, 2018
A marvellously layered book and a masterclass in ventriloquism: I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so full of alternative voices, all pulled off so perfectly – from a contemporary 3rd person narrative, to the poetry of two quite different authors, to letters written by three individuals (four if you include a suicide note), and journals penned by two separate women; even a pastiche of academic feminist criticism from the 80s which is hilarious. Through it all emerge two love stories, triangulated differently, the contemporary one oddly moving, and a tale that probes the relationships between poet and poetry (do we need to know a life to understand the text?) and academic biography.

Alongside the different voices are various tones: the brash academic comedy of Cropper waving his American cheque book around as he negotiates small English country lanes in his unwieldy Mercedes; the more affectionate humour associated with Leonora Stern and her 80s feminist-theoretical readings; and the sad archivist Beatrice Nest who has been working on an edited edition for the previous twenty-five years and has nothing much to show for it.

Byatt plays with the multiplicitous meanings attached to the word and concept of ‘possession’: material things that have contested ownership, owning and being owned, self-possession, obsession.

I’ve seen reviews where readers have skipped the poetry which is sad because it’s both an important carrier of the novel’s ideas and themes as well as making interventions in the narrative. Four stars rather than five as in places I found this a bit cold: I was intellectually engaged throughout, not always emotionally so. Oh, and for the record, I saw shades of Robert Browning in the verses of Randolph Henry Ash.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,498 followers
January 5, 2018
A fun ride that wavers between the competitive/collaborative work of two literary contemporary scholars in England and their subjects, fictive Victorian poets who had a secret love affair. The latter slowly comes out through letters, close reading of poems, and other clues pieced together by creative sleuthing. I liked how the story contrasts the cultures of the two eras and its accounting for why literary scholars often become obsessed with the personal lives of their favorite writers in order to "possess" them. �
Profile Image for Perry.
631 reviews502 followers
January 13, 2019
Poets Possessed by Passion Puissante pour les Mots et la Romance

"[A]ll great poetry asks us to be possessed by it ." Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language, 2003.

“I am two fools, I know,
For loving, and for saying so.” John Donne


My initial reaction here is 5 stars for pulling off a complicated structure surrounding romantic stories of 2 pairs of poets. Prior to the last 10 or so pages, I might have said 4 stars. The last 5 pages, in particular, are apt to pop the pluvial plug.


"Love is so short, forgetting is so long." Pablo Neruda
Profile Image for Christine.
6,550 reviews473 followers
April 3, 2018
Re-read 2018 - Focused more on Beatrice Nest in this re-read. I love this book so much, everyone is treated so well by Byatt.

For me, Possession is like a bottle of wine or a box of really good chocolate (the really, expensive and sinfully good kind). There is an aboluste beauty in this book, and it seems to lie in the details. How all the characters still in character, the resolution to both romances at the end, all the touches about criticism - all these ring true.

Over the years I have read this book, my favorite character has gone from Maud to Leonora then to both. Leonora, it seems to me, is so much larger than life, and I have to wonder if the character got away from Byatt, if perhaps, she had been intended to be more of "bad" critic than she is.

One of the best and greatest books ever written. Without a doubt, a canon book. Something I re-read every year to year and a half.
Profile Image for Simona B.
887 reviews2,973 followers
July 21, 2017

“Tell your aunt,” he said, “that you met a poet.”

This is not a proper review. This is just a list of the thoughts that at one point or another, during or after the reading of the book, struck me and got stuck in my head, of the peculiarities of this book that enchanted me, and of a couple things more. This list is not supposed to make sense to anyone but me, but I hope you will still be able to draw from it inspiration or motivation to rush to the nearest bookshop or library and get a copy of this magnificent book; those who have read it, instead, will surely understand many, if not all, of these points. I am sorry for this jumbled form, but I found, curiously enough, that if put in a more cohesive text these ideas make still less sense.

- What possession, and of whom or what? Of the scholar by the poet, of the poet by the scholar; of the man by an idea, dream, castle in the clouds, obsession; of one lover by the other, and vice versa, platonically, carnally; of the listener, or reader, by curiosity, by the need to know what lies on the other side of the words and by the words themselves, the end of the story, how it is going to end. Intellectual possession, spiritual possession, romantic possession, sexual possession, narrative possession, and all of their nuances.

- Mind and body and the places where they touch and where they do not, where they embrace each other and where they would tear each other apart, if only we’d let them.

- The hatred, or disgust, we feel when we become acquainted with the tortuosity of our minds

- and the fear, or disgust, we feel when we become acquainted with the physicality of our bodies.

- How utterly ugly it can become –sexuality, relationships– between men and women, between partners, and how blissful.

- Past and present running in parallel, in contrast and symmetrically.

- The academic world, its clowns, it devotees, its treasure hunters and its novices.

- Feminism, sometimes kindly and intelligently mocked, sometimes forcefully endorsed.

- Literary criticism and categories, interpretation, virtuosity, ventriloquism, textual camouflage.

- The tracing of sources halfway between a detective story and the research for an academic paper.

- We never know the whole story. No one gets to know the whole story, ever, not even who writes it, not even who lives it, because even those who live it will only ever have their own perspective, and not other people’s. And to all stories, there is always another side, and another side, and another side.

The only thing about Possession that I didn't like, or disagreed with, if you will, and therefore the only reason why this isn't a five-star reading for me, is (to do with) the arrangement of the narrative material. I found it difficult to come to care for the characters because the story progresses very slowly, not really flowing, due to the abundance of letters, academic documents and such, and also of POVs, even POVs of very secondary characters in whom the reader is, generously, only tenuously interested. I think that this, however, mostly concerns my personal taste and enjoyment of the story; rarely have I seen such a masterfully crafted piece of contemporary literature (or of any other genre you would like to place this book into).
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.5k followers
November 26, 2008

Brilliant literary puzzle-book, including a well-realised fictitious author loosely based on Tennyson... one of the best attempts of this kind since Pale Fire. Some people think the book is too clever by half, but what do you expect? Just as constructive to criticise Powell for including too many characters who are upper-class twits, or Proust for not making his sentences short and punchy...
Profile Image for Alison.
308 reviews109 followers
January 3, 2008
O.K., I finally finished Possession! Here goes.

Possession is a highly celebrated novel by A.S. Byatt that contains two story threads. The first story could be categorized as historical fiction. We learn about the relationship of fictional poets Christabel LaMotte and R.H. Ashe through old journal entries, letters, and their "poetry" (the poems were actually created by Byatt, since the two authors never actually existed). Ashe was married, and LaMotte was in a relationship with a woman. But we come to find out that the two poets had a romantic affair.

The second part of the story is a contemporary romance slash literary detective novel (think high-brow chic lit meets The Da Vinci Code). Maud & Roland are literary scholars. Maud's life's work has been dedicated to the study of her ancestor, LaMotte, and Roland, naturally, is an Ashe expert. Roland accidentally stumbles upon a letter from Ashe to LaMotte, and this sets off Maud & Roland's journey to the unraveling of the romance between the two historical poets. And, of course, a romance of their own (Yea!)

This book is a masterpiece at 555 densely worded pages. The title and the theme of Possession run throughout the book. What can we truly know about the past? Because we read letters and journals and are able to piece together what people's daily lives may have been like, are we able to actually possess their souls, read their minds and know their secrets? What do historical biographies really tell us about people? How well can you really know someone? Won't there always be a disconnect between reality & our perception of the past when it's tainted with our personal assumptions, emotions, and biases?

Maud was unclear on her emotions regarding being in a relationship. How much does our partner aim to possess us? Are we able to be a part of a relationship, yet remain free? In marriage, are there parts of our partner's souls that we'll never possess unless they choose to reveal them to us? Does being in a relationship mean that you own the other person? Is that person still a person, independent of the relationship?

The two poets dabbled in the spirit world--at one time attending a mutual seance. Are the spirits of the ones who've gone on before us capable of possessing the ones who remain behind? What of demons? Can they own us and alter our destinies when our worst nightmares have come true for us?

Also, literally and lawfully speaking, these letters and journals...who has the right to read private thoughts? What if the owners took pains to make sure things were kept hidden? Do we have the right to know? Because we stumble upon things, or they are left to us via a legacy, do we own them because we possess them? Is it our lawful right to know things that were intended to be hidden, or buried away? Does celebrity negate the right for privacy?

All of these themes make up "Possession", and so much much more. This book is for literary junkies. It's for soulful, passionate people, and people who appreciate brilliant poetry and prose.
Profile Image for Cindy Newton.
617 reviews128 followers
July 5, 2016
There have been so many reviews written about this book, by so many people much more articulate than I am, that I really don't feel I have anything new and/or brilliant to add. I will, therefore, just record my thoughts about it.

I thought it was lovely. The language flows beautifully, both in the prose and the poetry sections. The story itself is intriguing, the flowering illicit romance between the poet and his poetess, and the more muted one between the scholars obsessed by them. Byatt does an excellent job of leading us into the ever-deepening waters of the mystery. It starts off as mild curiosity, and she carefully feeds the fire until it is a blazing inferno and you just HAVE to know what happens! I love how the letters reveal so much about both the characters and their deepening relationship. I did find some parts of them tedious--especially the parts about Ash's gathering of marine samples, and some of the more exhaustive description of the countryside. I daresay my impatience to find out what happens played a part in this. I thought she tied everything up wonderfully well at the end--especially the very last section, which laid to rest the anguished heartburnings I felt on behalf of Ash.

I have to think that she was satirizing the world of literary criticism and academic focus on authors. It's a strange career, when you think of it. Your entire life is spent studying every detail of someone else's life. Your only achievement is your depth of knowledge about someone else's achievements. It seems rather preposterous when you really think about it. Every one of the professors whose focus of study was Ash or Christabel were (with the exception of Roland and Maud) pretty obnoxious and unlikeable in some way. They are definitely possessed by their callings, to the point where lying, cheating, and stealing become worthwhile. The title of the book was examined in a myriad of ways in the book: by the scholars, by the relationship between the poet and poetess, by the relationship between Roland and Maud, and a variety of others.

I did enjoy this book, but think I may enjoy it a bit more on a second reading. I was also possessed while reading this time--by the desire to know how the mystery ends. Another reading can be a bit less feverish, perhaps.
Profile Image for Kim.
286 reviews777 followers
June 15, 2009
I picked up this book because I had seen it in a recommended reading site and then a friend said that it was really good. But...
Yes, there's a but... it took me 3 tries to get past page 10. I should have known then... but (again with the 'but') I persevered... thinking that I would eventually get into it, that I would get to the meat of it. By, page 300 I felt like I was trapped. I had already invested this much time into it and felt, at that point, that I had to finish it. I'm not saying that it probably isn't a great book. I'm sure it won awards and I'm sure that the writing is considered fair, but when I pick up a book called 'Possession - A Romance', I don't know... I guess I was expecting something with a bit more passion . Maybe the fact that it had to include 'A Romance' in the title should have tipped me off. The story centers around the discovery that two fictitious 'famous' poets had an affair and thus altered the meaning of their work to the scholars that study said poets. Okay. My problem is that I never really cared about either the poets or the scholars. There were times that I thought 'Yes, here we go'. But, it fizzled. Maybe the writing is too 'proper' for me. I have no doubt that this book is beloved by many, just not me.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,418 reviews536 followers
August 16, 2020
[3+] After hearing so much praise for so many years, I thought I might love Possession. This novel is for readers who have the patience to linger over long stanzas of Romantic poetry, lush descriptive passages and academic esoterica. Alas, I am not that reader. At least not now. Clearly, Byatt is brilliant. I did enjoy Roland and Maude’s quest.
Profile Image for Lori  Keeton.
454 reviews93 followers
April 10, 2022

I am going to be an outlier on this one and I really hate it. I have been sitting on writing this review for 8 days now and I still don’t know how I feel about it or how to rate it. It is a commendable, worthy, fascinating premise with some of the most exquisite writing. And you wonder why I am so uncertain about my thoughts. All I can say, is that for the reviews of friends I’ve read who gush over this novel, I just can’t. I spent 23 days reading this chunkster and could only really read 2 or 3 chapters at a time. When I read Gone With the Wind, it took me 23 days and I flew through it. I know that’s an odd comparison because the subject matters are completely different. The writing is very, very dense and made for a slow-going process to completion. This is also what I would consider a very cerebral novel which meant much to ponder and soak up. All of these sound like criticisms but I don’t necessarily view them that way. I admired much of what this novel has to offer. Byatt has to be an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable writer to have created all of the poetry and letters that each character was to have written. So, I am extremely in awe of her talent but just not able to flood my review with 5 stars of love.

In this novel, Byatt gives her readers a very complex storyline that includes everything from romance and tragedy to mystery and conflict. We are introduced to an academic named Roland Michel who has spent his life’s work studying a Victorian poet called Randolf Henry Ash. Roland happens upon two drafts of letters written by Ash stashed between the pages of an Italian philosopher’s Principi de Scienza Nuova, a book that had once been owned by Ash, and sends him into utter excitement at his discovery since they’ve never been seen before. Roland figures out who Ash may have written the letters to: a Miss Christabel LaMotte, a writer of religious-themed poems and children’s books. Miss LaMotte, Roland learns, has a following among feminist scholars which leads him to locating a Dr. Maude Bailey who is an expert on LaMotte. They form a partnership and begin a long investigation into what could possibly come from this abstract connection between these two Victorian poets.

Byatt produces the poems, fiction, essays and letters written by these Victorian poets as well as other characters’ writings and allows the reader to interpret them. But through these included writings, we get the stories within the stories to decipher and mull over. She creates a multitude of voices and perspectives among the long cast of characters and switches between time lines to affect her plot.

As this review has taken shape, I am reminded of how academic this novel is in its premise. This is a book about literary critics who study, read and reread and over-analyze the writings and lives of a pair of obscure literary figures from the past. They are devoted to what they discover and as Maude says Literary critics make natural detectives. It’s interesting to think that what they find may only interest a small group of people in their academic world.

The title becomes the main theme and is represented in more ways than one. Primarily, the academics must ask themselves - who owns those discoveries, the things of the past? Also, there is physical and emotional possession, possessing ideas, feelings, desires to name a few.

As I said, this was very slow and dense and demanding. There was much to be interpreted with the poems and passages that weren’t so easy for me, a non-poetry reader. Towards the final 1/4, the pace ramped up and some out of ordinary circumstances started to happen that really didn’t feel like the rest of the novel.

Proof of Byatt’s talent:

I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you. No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.

Only write to me, write to me, I love to see the hop and skip and sudden starts of your ink.

He knew her, he believed. He would teach her that she was not his possession, he would show her she was free, he would see her flash her wings.

…words have been all my life, all my life--this need is like the Spider's need who carries before her a huge Burden of Silk which she must spin out--the silk is her life, her home, her safety--her food and drink too--and if it is attacked or pulled down, why, what can she do but make more, spin afresh, design anew….
Profile Image for Mona.
467 reviews281 followers
October 13, 2015
Artfully Told Tale of Academics, Victorian Poets and Romance

I wanted to like this book more than I actually did.

Many Goodreaders really like this metafictional novel, which contains a story (and poetry) within a story.

There is much to admire here.

The author skillfully interweaves two time periods. One was 1987 (close to the time the novel was written), the other nineteenth century Victorian England.

She not only invents two poets, but writes a lot of their poetry. The skill and brilliance involved here is astonishing.


Most of the characters (with a couple of exceptions) left me cold.

And I found both the Victorian romance and its poetry cloying, like overly sweet pastries, though I suppose this style was typical of the time.

And the more contemporary romance was rather chilly.

The book's title, "Possession", has many meanings. It refers to the possession of romantic love, ownership of precious objects, and the almost demonic possession that can take over those on a quest.

The 1987 timeline involves a gaggle of academics. All of them are scholars of Victorian poets and writers. The author gently mocks the academics and their obsessions with ideas no one else cares about. At the same time, she makes the professors believable and very human characters.

The focus of the novel are two fictional Victorian poets.

One, Randolph Henry Ash, married to Ellen Ash, is considered one of the greatest poets of his time.

The other, Christabel LaMotte, is less well known, primarily because she is a woman. She is also a closeted lesbian, living quietly with her lover, Blanche Glover on Mount Ararat Road in Richmond in London.

Apparently LaMotte is based on real pre-Raphaelite poetess Christina Rossetti, although I much prefer Rossetti's poetry to LaMotte's. Plus their looks are different. Christina, although apparently a beautiful woman, had Italian coloring---dark hair and olive skin (or
so it seems in the pictures of her). LaMotte has very fine light blonde hair (described as containing multiple shades of blonde) and fair skin.

After writing each other a series of remarkable letters, which seem to be very much in the style of the time,

LaMotte seeks refuge with relatives on the Brittany coast. Her cousin Sabine also keeps a journal of the time.

The academics in the 1987 timeline are all experts in LaMotte, Randolph Ash, or Ellen Ash (Randolph Ash's wife), who kept a journal.

Roland Michell is an unknown London scholar. He is a quiet and reserved young man. In the London library in a book by Vico (presumably Giambattista Vico, the eighteenth century Italian philosopher and historian) he accidentally stumbles on some letters of Ash. They seem to be drafts of secret love letters. Roland uncharacteristically pockets the letters. He keeps his find secret.

Roland lives with Val, a woman he met in college. The live in a crumby basement room that reeks of cat urine, and Val supports Roland. Neither of them are terribly happy with the situation or with each other.

Fergus, a fellow scholar, refers Roland to Maud Bailey. (Maud had a romance with Fergus). Maud is an established authority on LaMotte.

Maud is a beautiful, cold, and extremely reserved woman. She keeps her beautiful blonde hair under a head wrap. She is also a very competent scholar.

Maud gets infected with enthusiasm for Roland's quest to find out what happened between Ash and LaMotte. The two of them decide to disappear for awhile on a secret quest to find out more about the connection between Ash and LaMotte.

Other scholars get involved, some at Roland and Maud's request, others simply because they "pick up the scent" of an exciting hunt.

Beatrice Nest is a scholar who specializes in the journals of Ellen Ash, Randolph Ash's wife. Maud enlists her help. Beatrice is a hesitant, prudish woman who is ashamed of her large breasts and big body. She's older (over fifty?) Beatrice feels protective towards Ellen Ash. She's not sure she wants Ellen's secrets to be exposed to public scrutiny. Roland is irritated by Beatrice's slowness. Surprisingly, Maud takes to Beatrice.

Leonora Stern, a feminist professor from Tallahassee, Florida, is another expert on Christabel LaMotte. She shows up unbidden at Maud's apartment, to Maud's annoyance. Leonora has heard rumors about new discoveries on LaMotte. Leonora can be obnoxious and irritating, but still she is one of my favorite characters. She is larger than life. Proudly full figured, flamboyant, omnisexual (she is mostly lesbian but seems to be open to any type of sexual partner), she is resplendent and she knows it and plays it up. She dresses in bright colors and outrageous hippie clothing. She writes about female sexuality in LaMotte's poetry. She also tends to butt in where she isn't wanted. Of course, she is one of the characters that was not included in the Hollywood movie.

James Blackadder is Roland's estwhile boss. He is a dour Scot, who turns out to not be as curmudgeonly as he seems to be. Roland works for him at his so-called "Ash Factory" in the British Museum. He is another of my favorite characters. Of course, he was cut out of the Hollywood movie as well.

The last professor is Professor Mortimer Cropper, the man everyone loves to hate. He curates the Stant Collection at the fictictious Robert Dale Owen University in the apparently made up town of Harmony City, New Mexico. He greedily snatches up historical objects of interest (usually curios associated with famous writers). He wants all the Randolph Ash memorabilia he can get his hands on. The other professors all loathe him. He is not above using illegal and immoral methods to get his hands on objects he wants for the Stant Collection (or for his own secret personal collection, which he is rumored to hide in his home). He is lean and lithe and drives a Mercedes, as he has inherited wealth.

Other characters include Sir George Bailey and his disabled wife Joan. (Apparently they belong to another branch of Maud's family and may be distant relatives of hers); and Euan MacIntyre, a solicitor (British lawyer).

While I admired the scholarship, work, and artistry involved in putting this long novel together, as I've already mentioned, I have some reservations about it.

For one thing, I didn't think Ash and particularly LaMotte were terribly sympathetic characters. Christabel LaMotte wreaks havoc on literally everyone around her, and while she does express remorse for this, it seems like too little too late. Her behavior completely turns off her French cousin Sabine, who is actually a more sympathetic character that Christabel is.

For another thing, I wasn't wild about the poetry of either Ash or LaMotte, although part of my problem with their writings might have been the way the audio reader, Virginia Leisham, read them.

Finally, I found many of the 1987 characters to be a bit chilly, although as I mentioned, Leonora and Blackadder are colorful.

Virginia Leisham's reading of the audio didn't help matters. She gave Cropper, who's from New Mexico, an inexplicable stagey Southern accent that would have been more suitable for a production of "The Glass Menagerie" than for a guy who grew up in the Southwest. She did do better with some of the other characters. Still, I think I would have preferred a different reader.

I hope my review doesn't deter Goodreaders from reading "Possession". Lots of people love this book, and certainly its treatment of the Victorian poets and of (nearly) contemporary scholars of Victorian literature is fascinating.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
290 reviews726 followers
January 24, 2023
This is what I wanted The Secret History to be.

I have been looking for a long a time a book set in academia that focuses on students researching, going to university/library/museums to write and study, obsessed with a certain topic for no rational reason, moved only by the love for studying. I am tired of dark academia books where education and culture "justify" murder/crimes and, rather than studying, scholars are more into using drugs and alcohol or being in a cult! I do not see myself represented in that depiction but I found myself finally represented, as a student, in this book.

Coming to the book itself. Possession tells the story of two researchers, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, specialized in two fiction Victorian poets: Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, loosely based on Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Roland, while studying Ash's copy of Gianbattista Vico, comes across a draft of a letter that opens up a previously unknown correspondence between these two poets, giving them a whole new perspective on their lives.

Therefore, you have to study and find evidence of this, while reading the letters, the poems and the journals present in this book; in the meanwhile, the whole academic world is put under a magnifying lens - given that the author herself is an academic, it's interesting too see how she views it and how she experienced it.

A.S. Byatt and I seem to share a very similar taste, in what regards Victorian era, love for letters and poetry, thoughts on how culture and art form us. Besides, she has a perfect understanding of Victorian era.

In between all the different themes touched upon, the most interesting to me is the dichotomy between Victorian women who loved and wrote about wild nature and moors and, at the same time, were recluses in their own houses to mantain their independence.

An immersive read in which I found everything I love and care about - and more.
Profile Image for Roya.
193 reviews376 followers
March 9, 2019
It took me three attempts to get this one right. Something about the premise drew me in from the get go. I was destined to love this book. No way around it. I was in for an unpleasant surprise. It didn't take long before I found myself bored to tears. The language was so outmoded. Everything about it was plain difficult. I put it aside for a couple months in the hopes that it would get easier. It was still the same. I was still the same.

A couple years passed. It was always in the back of my mind. In the end, curiosity and sheer stubbornness got the best of me. There was, to a lesser extent, a hopefulness about things. A hope that despite everything I disliked, there was something here that was worthwhile, that gave it value. So with this in mind, I read until I reached the end.

There are some things that won't change. I don't love this style of poetry. Most of the letters between dead poets were eyebrow-raising at best and sleep-inducing at worst. None of that stood out to me. What did was the story. Towards the end, it become everything I'd wished for in perhaps the quietest way possible. Loose ends were tied off. The story was as rich as I always thought it would be. Down to the final sentence.

I wouldn't recommend this to most people. It's a particular book for a particular person. This doesn't take away from it. Know yourself and what you like. I personally enjoyed this and I'm glad I gave it all the chances I did.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,963 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.