All novelists long, in their heart of hearts, to write a book that wins both universal esteem from the critics and a wide readership who’ll pay the full hardback price. Only occasionally does such a novel actually come into existence. Wolf Hall was one, Atonement another; and before them came AS Byatt’s Possession: A Romance, which won the Booker Prize in 1990 and became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.
You wouldn’t have bet on Byatt, who died on Thursday aged 87, to pen an international bestseller. When she published Possession, she was best-known for The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985), the first two volumes in the sequence she called the “Frederica Quartet”; cerebral, knotty books in which various brainboxes engage in literary, scientific and philosophical discussions in formidable depth.
Such was the breadth of the learning deployed in those novels that many reviewers wrote about Byatt in the sort of half-impressed, half-scornful tone with which some male critics used to patronise Virginia Woolf: the term “bluestocking”, defunct for decades, was revived especially for Byatt. Nor did they appeal to a wide readership: “I’m always deeply surprised when anyone says anybody is reading it,” Byatt observed of The Virgin in the Garden in 2001.
But with Possession she changed direction, and took millions of readers with her. It was Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, published in English translation in 1983, that proved the decisive influence. She noted the power that that novel’s combination of intellectual games, abstruse philosophising and rattling storytelling held: “My husband’s friends in the City became passionately interested in 12th century religious politics, because it was a good detective story,” she recalled. “I learnt a lot from watching them read that.”
Byatt had been a published novelist for more than a quarter of a century by the time Possession appeared, but the book combines the intellectual heft of her earlier work with a new feeling for intrigue and suspense. Byatt herself coined the term “narrative greed” for the reader’s desperate desire to know what happens next in a suspenseful story; Possession has it in spades.
The book is an academic detective story, set over two periods. In the present day, a hapless academic, Roland Michell, uncovers some previously unknown letters written by Randolph Henry Ash, a celebrated Victorian poet, which seem to indicate that Ash was once involved in a juicy love-affair. The book follows Roland’s investigation into the identity of the mystery woman, leading to his own romance with feminist scholar Maud Bailey, while other, less scrupulous, academics race to beat them to the truth.
In an astonishing feat of ventriloquism, Byatt also brings Ash and his lover, fellow poet Christabel LaMotte, to life; not just by reproducing the letters that pass between them – which, in the proper Victorian manner, are staid on the surface but ooze with encoded passion – but also providing us with reams of poetry. Very few novelists who write about poets dare to include examples of their verse, but Byatt dashes off Ash’s Browning-esque dramatic monologues with astonishing aplomb.
Byatt had to fight to be allowed to keep the letters and the poetry in the book: her publishers took the standard line of underestimating the public, and thought they would put potential readers off. In fact, the pastiche verse and correspondence are many readers’ favourite aspects of the book.
Possession has several serious concerns. They include the morality of critics and biographers delving into the private lives of the dead – leading, at one point, to a literal grave-robbing attempt – and the counterpointing of the neglect of Christabelle’s poetry down the centuries, because she is a woman, with Maud’s difficulties being taken seriously as an academic in the late 20th century. But these themes are wrapped up in a romantic adventure story, reminiscent of the works of Georgette Heyer or Margery Allingham: Byatt admitted to having loved both those authors since girlhood but having studiously kept any trace of their influence out of her fiction until Possession.
It’s not surprising, then, that reading Possession gives you the sensation of watching a dam bursting: here is an author realising for the first time that, yes, she does know how to keep readers on the edge of their seats for hundreds of pages at a time. In Possession, Byatt combined her habitual high seriousness with a new playfulness to create a reading experience that comes damn near to perfection.