Study Guide

Possession

By A.S. Byatt

Possession Introduction

Is school getting you down? Have you been asked to read so many novels, short stories, poems, essays, and plays that space and time have lost all meaning? Have you forgotten what it was that inspired you to take English classes in the first place? Are you feeling the need for some fun, some romance, and some adventure in your life?

Despair not, Shmoopers: A. S. Byatt's Possession may be just the thing to cure what ails you.

Possession burst forth from Byatt's mind palace in 1990, and it quickly scooped the prestigious Booker Prize, the Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize, and the Commonwealth Prize (source). Set mostly in 1986–1987 but partly in the crinoline-heavy years of nineteenth-century England, the novel is like VapoRub for the soul of any person who's ever felt just a little bit sick of school life.

How exactly does it soothe our troubled spirits? By presenting a sharply satirical and wickedly witty take on literary scholarship and modern romance—and by reminding us of how good it feels to fall in love with books and the authors who write them.

Possession's modern-day lovers are Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, two literary scholars whose lives are about to be changed in some serious ways. Roland is a barely employed postgraduate, by which we mean that he recently earned his Ph.D. in literature but hasn't found any full-time work. He's living a glum and frugal life while his long-term, he-doesn't-know-how-to-break-up-with-her, girlfriend manages the bulk of their household expenses. Maud is a frosty, tenured prof who would choose work over romance any day.

Things change for both of them after Roland makes an unexpected discovery in the London Library, where he finds two drafts of a letter that the celebrated (and fictional) nineteenth-century poet Randolph Henry Ash wrote to an unnamed woman. When it turns out that the unnamed woman may have been the comparatively obscure (and equally fictional) nineteenth-century poet Christabel LaMotte, Roland turns to Maud. Not only is Maud one of the world's leading experts on LaMotte, she's also a very distant relation.

Roland and Maud soon discover that Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte exchanged more than just letters, if you know what we mean, and the two scholars suddenly find themselves on a quest to unearth the lost story of a nineteenth-century love affair.

If all of this sounds just a little too cheesy for your emotionally vegan tastes, just remember that Possession's jacket copy doesn't boast about "intellectual fireworks" for nothing. This is one of the most in-your-face literary books you're likely to read, and amidst all of Byatt's biting sarcasm, cutting wit, and gentler teasing, Possession goes for an all-out celebration of the age-old archetypes, narratives, tropes, and conventions that have helped to shape European literature for centuries. You might even say it's possessed by them.

What is Possession About and Why Should I Care?

Why is it that musicals like Into the Woods and Wicked and television shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time draw such faithful fandoms? (Apart from all the beautiful people, that is.) Come to think of it, what makes Disney so sure that they can rake in success after success by reimagining age-old folk tales, fairy tales, myths, and legends?

We'll go ahead and hazard a guess that our questions have a pretty simply answer. For whatever reason, folktales, fairy tales, myths, and legends seem to be endlessly fascinating to many of us story-loving human beings, and for some reason, many of us seem to love hearing the same stories told over and over. After all, each new telling has the power to reveal new meanings and significance, right?

If we were cynics, we'd say that A. S. Byatt jumped onto a tried and tested gravy train when she published Possession. Since we're not cynics, though, we'll say instead that Byatt chose to tap into and explore whatever it is that makes it so much fun to recognize age-old narratives and archetypal figures in contemporary writing.

Possession's nineteenth- and twentieth-century characters share qualities with heroes, villains, and supernatural creatures that spring straight out of British, European, and Scandinavian myth and legend, and because they do, they seem timeless and familiar even though they're also unique and firmly rooted in their historical periods and places. That balance between timelessness and historical rootedness is really hard to strike, but Byatt nails it. Luckily for us, her success as a writer guarantees our pleasure as readers.

As you dip your toes into Possession (we're speaking figuratively now), you'll soon find that you're slowly being immersed into hundreds of years of British, European, and Scandinavian literature and storytelling. Don't let the scope and depth of the novel intimidate you, Shmoopers. Jump in and get possessed.

Possession Resources

WEBSITES

A. S. Byatt's Webpage
For biographical and bibliographical details, essays, and information about A.S. Byatt's public speaking engagements, why not start with her homepage?

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Possession (2002)
Aaron Eckhart may seem like strange casting choice for the character of Roland Mitchell, but we've gotta admit: after twenty minutes with those puppy-dog eyes, we were ready to suspend our disbelief.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

"Choices: On the Writing of Possession"
Want a direct line to the essays that appear on A. S. Byatt's website? Follow this link for a great primer on the choices she made as she imagined and then wrote Possession.

More A. S. Byatt on the Writing of Possession
You know you weren't satisfied with just the one essay on the ideas that inspired Possession.Follow this link to find a short piece that Byatt wrote for the Guardian Book Club.

An Interview with Byatt in the Paris Review
This in-depth interview is huge, but don't let that scare you away. Keep an eye out for the Salman Rushdie anecdote that you won't see coming, and for lots of juicy insight into Possession's poetry and characters.

An Interview with Byatt in The Guardian
For an intriguing take on jokes, digs, humor (or the lack thereof) in Byatt's work, check out this medium-sized interview from 2009.

Byatt Reviews Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
In Possession, Byatt draws on figures from folktales, fairy tales, myths, and legends as she creates her nineteenth-century and twentieth-century characters. How are her methods different from J. K. Rowling's? Check out her own opinions here.

Jay Parini Reviews Possession in the New York Times
Want to get a sense of how early reviewers reacted to Possession? Take a look at this solid thumbs-up from 1990.

VIDEO

A.S. Byatt in Conversation with Paula Marantz Cohen
Want to watch A.S. Byatt chat about her writing in a red room full of old-timey oil paintings? Of course you do. Make sure to watch Parts 1 and 2 to hear her talk about Possession.

AUDIO

A BBC Book Club Chats with Byatt about Possession
Sit back and listen to this BBC recording from 1998, in which A. S. Byatt confesses that she assumes that readers will skip the poetry and Victorian-era bits as they read Possession for the first time.

IMAGES

A. S. Byatt Reads a Book
We love this image of Byatt reading one of the poets who helped to shape her literary mind.

A. S. Byatt Wears a Sweater Like Nobody's Business
Really, this photo says it all.

Random House Cover of Possession
Nothing says "I love you" like a pair of cold, dead eyes.

Vintage Cover of Possession
Just look at that dreamy, steamy, pretty-lady profile.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart in Possession, the Film
Gwyneth has Maud Bailey's icy beauty for sure, but is Aaron Eckhart too dreamy to play Possession's "meek" Roland Mitchell?