A. S. Byatt Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

A. S. Byatt Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Beginning with Possession, the strong feminist strain in A. S. Byatt’s fiction began to emerge. To call her a feminist, however, is not to suppose that a doctrinaire view of women’s rights governs her fiction. On the contrary, many of Byatt’s feminists are conflicted about their politics and their relationships. For example, Maud Bailey in Possession finds that while there is much to be wary of in male behavior, she cannot do without Roland Mitchell, her scholarly collaborator. As much as Maud would like to achieve some distance between herself and Roland, their collaboration becomes a kind of marriage, an inevitable coinciding of interests that mirrors the feelings of their scholarly subjects, the poets Christabel La Motte and Randolph Henry Ash.

Just as strong a theme in Byatt’s fiction is her characters’ search for core values and religious truths, whether in the commune described in A Whistling Woman or in the harrowing séance that Ash attends in Possession. Ash is an amateur scientist who scoffs at spiritualism, and yet his minute, geological examination of his world is also, Byatt implies, a quest for the very stuff of existence, of the origins of creation and of life itself.


This novel is a tour-de-force treatment of contemporary biography, a narrative about two scholars, Mitchell and Bailey (and their rivals), in search of the true nature of the love between two Victorian poets, Ash and La Motte. The novel contains the notations from diaries, journals, letters, literary criticism, interviews—in short, all of the documents, competing scholarly interpretations, and apparatuses of modern academic inquiry. Byatt invents not only the poets but also their poems, surrounding them with what might be called the politics and procedure of biography, juxtaposing the different critical terminologies (from Freudian to feminist) of the twentieth century with nineteenth century verse forms and prose.

Several critics have lauded Byatt’s invention of the correspondence between Ash and La Motte, which seems a perfect pastiche of Victorian prose. Even more striking is the beautiful poetry the novelist invents for these two figures. This dazzling counterpoint of past and present, of Ash and La Motte and Mitchell and Bailey, is reminiscent of other great works of historical fiction, such as William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet (1824). Like its predecessors, Possession conveys the aching desire to reclaim the past, which appears only in fragments (tantalizing documents) that have to be reimagined in the interpreters’ dialogue with each other.

The character Ash recalls in many respects Robert Browning, and La Motte recalls Christina Rossetti andEmily Dickinson. Like Browning, Ash shows a special affinity for understanding the sensibility of a female poet, one that like Dickinson is rather retiring and difficult to fathom, but also like Rossetti a creator of a poetic myth that endows her with a mystique that men find irresistible.

The novel’s title suggests various forms of possession: the way Ash seeks to possess La Motte; the possessiveness of Ash’s wife, Ellen; and the demonic possessiveness of Ash’s biographer, Mortimer Cropper, and of La Motte’s female partner,...

(The entire section is 1377 words.)