Articles for ‘AS Byatt’

Possession: Ideas for Further Reading

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Possession is an unusual novel, weaving past and present together, and thinking hard about its own and other literary writing. Two of the Cambridge Authors team - Raphael Lyne and graduate editor Sylvia Karastathi - felt it might be worth making suggestions about a range of novels that someone might read next, depending on what really caught your imagination in Possession. If you have your own ideas, you can add them at the end.

Below you'll find descriptions of novels from two contributors. We've avoided one obvious area: Byatt's own work. However, some of the things you might have found interesting in Possession are revisited in her other novels. For example, The Biographer's Tale (2001) features the writing of a biography about a biographer. The Children's Book (2009) is also about a writer who writes special stories for her own children. Byatt is clearly a writer for whom the fictional worlds within fictional worlds matter a great deal, but she is not alone in this.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)

(Raphael Lyne)

Vladimir Nabokov's novel is, like Possession, centred on the life and work of a poet. There are two central characters. One, the poet John Shade, has died, and part of the book is taken up with the text of his final poem, Pale Fire. The other, Charles Kinbote, a friend and colleague of the poet at a fictional university, provides a foreword and a long commentary on the poem. As the novel unfolds, the reader begins to realise that this commentary is rather strange. It keeps discovering idiosyncratic things in the poem, especially references to the exile of the King of Zembla. Gradually it becomes apparent that the commentator Kinbote thinks he is, or may actually be, the King himself; and that he believes that an assassin sent to kill him has ended up killing Shade. He maintains that the poem records all of this as a result of conversations between the two friends. The book plays a brilliant game with what is true and what isn't, and what the interpreter brings to a poem (or a novel). As well as being wonderfully ingenious and witty, Pale Fire is also full of powerful and poignant moments relating to Shade's life, his friendship with the eccentric Kinbote, and even the strange story of the Zemblan King.

When I read this novel I was already a Nabokov fan, having read Lolita (which I sought out for its controversy, but I enjoyed for its astonishing wit) and Pnin (which was lighter, but still razor-sharp). Pale Fire made me feel newly enthusiastic about the prospect of studying literature: I was amazed that something so clever, ingenious, and intensively designed, could still be moving and emotionally acute. In retrospect I think it might have been quite an important realisation - that being artificial and being affecting need not be at all contradictory. The way it weaves together poetry and fiction is very different from Possession, but in both cases it's fascinating to think about how the poetry is made to fit into the narrative, and also how sometimes it isn't.

John Irving, The World According to Garp (1978)

(Raphael Lyne)

When I was a student I remember being recommended Irving's novel A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989 - it had just come out in paperback), which I loved. As a result I followed up Irving's other novels. I liked The Cider House Rules, which shared with Owen Meany a quirky, richly interconnected set of characters and stories. I also ended up admiring The World According to Garp, the early novel which propelled Irving to public acclaim, but I can remember a particular reaction to it. I thought in some ways it seemed like a particularly adult novel. It is a typical Irving story, in that it is strange, but grand, taking in a whole life, shattering events, and many people's stories. It features some of his characteristic obsessions (e.g. wrestling). It also told of problems in marriages, disappointments in life, infidelity, recovering from trauma, and the fear of loss and death - things of which I was lucky enough not to have much experience at the time. So it seemed a heavier read, though not necessarily a better one, than the other Irvings I had enjoyed. The reason why it might be a thought-provoking comparison for Possession is that it is about a writer's life, work, and career. There are inset passages of his fiction, which itself weaves in and out of the themes of his life, and other characters are readers. So it too is involved in a multi-faceted way with the relationship of lives and novels, and it too has to find a character's literary voice. There is a film of The World According to Garp starring Robin Williams: I think it's pretty good.

Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (1996)

(Raphael Lyne)

Telling the story of the Nazi Holocaust is extraordinarily difficult. Many novelists, film-makers, and other artists, have tried out ways of using their form's limitations and possibilities to capture something of its magnitude and significance. In Martin Amis's novel Time's Arrow things happen backwards, so events of the concentration camp at Auschwitz are turned the wrong way round. I think Time's Arrow is an outstanding novel, but it caused controversy at the time for what seemed to some like a gimmick. Fugitive Pieces finds its perspective on the Holocaust in two connected stories and voices. One is that of the poet Jakob: as a child in Poland, he narrowly escapes being killed by Nazi soldiers. He runs into an archaeologist who takes him away to safety on the Greek island of Zakynthos. The first part of the novel tells the story of his growing up, his life as a poet, his relationships, and the burden of the past. The second part is written from the perspective of Ben, a Canadian academic who admires Jakob's poetry. He is the son of Holocaust survivors, and also feels the burden of his family's suffering. The novel is written by a poet and is highly poetic in style - beautifully but not over-densely written. The place of the poet's work within the novel links with its persistent interests in memory, language, and how one can express and reconcile oneself to the past. Like all the novels I have recommended, it is very different from Possession in many ways. However, like them, it makes a writer into a character, and puts a literary response to events at the heart of the novel.

Margaret Forster, Lady's Maid (1990)

(Sylvia Karastathi)

I was introduced to Margaret Forster's work through a novel that recounts the after-life of a painting by British artist Gwen John. I was struck by her innovative blending of biography and fiction and subsequently found out about her curious first person autobiography of William Makepeace Thackeray, and her more traditional, yet acclaimed, biographies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne du Maurier.

It is often presumed that the correspondence between Randolph Ash and Christabel La Motte in Possession echoes that of Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning during their courtship and marriage. Their 573 extant letters, the most self-contained correspondence in English literary history, feature musings on art, the readings of the poets, together with practical plans for their escape to Italy. In Lady's Maid she fictionalises the well-documented affair between Barrett and Browning through the perspective of Barrett's real-life maid Elizabeth Wilson. It's a novel that stands on the threshold between biography and fiction, combining elements of the detailed research of the biographer with the imaginative work of the novelist.

It is a trend of 1990s fiction to re-write history through the perspective of marginalised voices - especially those of working class women - whose experience has been overlooked in the official archives. Wilson gets mentioned in the correspondence as indispensable for Barrett's convenience: 'very amiable, easily satisfied, & would not add to the expenses or diminish from the economies' (Barrett's letter of July 1846). Byatt's own concerns in Possession with what kind of 'truth' can escape the archive have been previously articulated in pioneering works of feminist research such as The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick: Victorian Maidservant by Liz Stanley (1984). Forster's novel nods to such textual sources as well as to the jocular tone of Virginia Woolf's Flush, the famous biographical experiment that recounts the life of Barrett's spaniel.

Reading Lady's Maid opens for the reader an alternative world of Victorian life, featuring 16-hour working days, when a lady could barely get out of bed without her maid's help. It also exposes the hidden domestic work that enabled lives of the mind such as Barrett's. As an antidote to Byatt's novels of the mind, that are in constant anxiety about the pressures of domesticity for women, Forster's Wilson reminds us of the hard material circumstances that deprived working people of intellectual pursuits. Using the genre of the epistolary novel Forster gives voice to a historically anonymous character, who, in any other genre, could not have been central to her own life-story.

Lynne Truss, Tennyson's Gift (1996)

(Sylvia Karastathi)

A literary farce about Victorian high-brows? Lynne Truss, author of the famous punctuation book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which made commas fashionable, writes with humour on the domestic lives and familial relationships of Victorian Literati. On a summer's day on the Isle of Wight Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate, is waiting to hear what people think about his latest poem Enoch Arden. His wife is hiding unfavourable reviews as well as letters from unwanted admirers, such as Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll). In the house next door the famous photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia Woolf's great aunt, is making the servants paint the garden roses white for yet another exhausting pre-Raphaelite shoot. Observing the un-literary, mundane, but ultimately human side of famous Victorian artists, Truss's tongue-in-cheek narrative dares to take on the perspective of their closest relations and cast literary legends in a 'domestic' light. One of my favourite moments in the novel occurs at the Tennysons' breakfast table between the laureate and his wife Emily: surprised to find a parody of In Memoriam in the magazine Punch, she eats the page in panic. When her husband asks why, she 'thought quickly. "Perhaps my anaemia craves the mineral in the ink!"'.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (1995)

(Sylvia Karastathi)

In the debates surrounding the search for the best of the Booker prize winners in the summer of 2008 The Blue Flower was declared the best book that ought to have won the prize but didn't (The Guardian, September 2008). It's the kind of novel about which people sometimes say: 'I've always wanted to read it'. After her death in 2000, Fitzgerald's reputation has soared, with scholars still discovering unpublished stories and letters, but The Blue Flower is seen as her masterpiece. It narrates the early life of Fritz von Hardenberg (1772-1801), student of law, philosophy and history, who later, under the pseudonym Novalis, became a key figure of German Romanticism.

Set in provincial Saxony at the end of the 18th century it provides an excellent introduction to the sensibility of the Romantic Era in 55 short, fleeting chapters. The book's epigraph from Novalis - 'Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history' - befits Byatt's attitude towards the historical novel, and the gaps that it is apt to fill. Fritz's inexplicable love for pre-adolescent Sophie, mundane and ordinary, is at the centre of the novel. I was struck by the elliptical sketches with which Fitzgerald draws her world, in a reticent and restrained manner that is at the same time attentive to the significant details of domestic life. Byatt has many times expressed her admiration for Fitzgerald's novel. Like her own works it is a novel of the mind; recondite and challenging, but alive and entertaining in ways that writing about writers seldom is.

John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)

(Sylvia Karastathi)

I cannot remember a single other novel that shaped my undergraduate experience of reading English more than Fowles' retrospectively narrated historical novel. Innocent, at the time, to the playfulness and conceits of post-modern fiction, I was taken in (and away) by the over-omniscient narrator, who would offer me alternative endings to the novel, and in a conversational manner would comment on the characters' decisions. I felt almost mocked about my naïve willingness to suspend disbelief and immerse myself in a pseudo-Victorian world, which constantly foregrounded its own artifice. This is not the world of nineteenth century Victorian England, I was constantly reminded, but I was irrevocably gripped.

Taking an 1860s plot and telling it from an 1960s point of view, Fowles's narrator follows the love story of Sarah Woodruff, who lives in Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman, with Victorian nobleman, Charles Smithson. Fowles' novel has often been compared to Byatt's on the basis of the common narrative thread of clandestine love and adultery in Victorian England, as well as the retrospective attitude to a particular historical moment. Fowles, however, is a lot more openly and self-consciously critical of the sexual mores of Victorian society and the hypocrisy surrounding issues like prostitution. Although not a novel about writers, Fowles's novel is affectionately parodying the genres and styles of much Victorian writing. Thomas Hardy and Wilkie Collins resonate in the plot, and the carefully selected epigraphs (from Marx, Darwin, Alfred Tennyson and Mathew Arnold among others) gesture to fictional and non-fictional works that shaped Victorian thought.

Byatt: Victorian Poets in Possession

Monday, May 11th, 2009

Here undergraduate Laura Kilbride outlines some of the ways in which Possession touches on the work of real, as well as fictional, Victorian poets. Readers of the novel don't necessarily need this knowledge, but those who have it can appreciate some of the more subtle features of Byatt's work.


Robert Browning (1812-1889) was an accomplished poet and critic, married to the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He is often identified as the model for Randolph Henry Ash. Ash shares with Browning a preference for the , which Byatt draws on in poems such as 'Swammerdam' and 'Mummy Possest'. Ash and Browning show similar interests in spiritualism, the social conditions of the period, the religious and cultural consequences of Darwin's Theory of Evolution, changing attitudes towards the Bible, and love in the modern age.

Echoes of Browning's poetry and life are ample in Possession. Sometimes these are present at the level of plot and character. The are one obvious source for the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte. Ellen Ash's dilemma of how to deal with a pregnant maid is also in part biographical borrowing. In contrast to Ellen Ash's dismissal of her maidservant, the Brownings made financial arrangements for the mother and child. Browning's poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came' is one possible source for Byatt's wandering academic in the wilderness, who also stumbles across his destination quite by accident. More subtle ideas in Browning's poetry can be found in '', a poem which questions the ethical claims of . These ideas are played out via the discourse of a drunken, womanising monk. Like Fra Lippo Lippi, Byatt is also concerned with the differences and similarities between art and narrative, the visual and the linguistic:

I drew men's faces on my copy-books,
Scrawled them within the ,
Joined legs and arms to the long music-notes,
Found eyes and nose and chin for A's and B's,
And made a string of pictures of the world
Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun (ll. 129-134)

The importance of 'Mr Sludge, The Medium' in Possession is indicated by Byatt's choice to include part of the poem as an epigraph for her novel. This poem is a long dramatic monologue spoken by the poetic persona, Mr Sludge, a spiritual medium who has been caught in the act of tricking his audience. The extract in the epigraph introduces the reader to the question of truthfulness in fiction, and the idea of the writer's voice as a for past or dead voices. In 1854 Browning and Elizabeth were present at a séance held by Daniel Dunglas Home, a famous American spiritualist. Elizabeth was impressed by the experience, while Browning remained cynical, as his poem shows. Sludge's defence depends on the collapsing of the boundary between reality and fiction. The poem is also important stylistically. Browning's line and chatty, which are shot through with and frequently terminate in are easily identifiable within 'Swammerdam' and 'Mummy Possest':

There's another picker-out of pearl
From dung heaps, ay -, your literary man,
Who draws on his kid gloves to deal with Sludge
Daintily and discreetly, - shakes a dust
O' the doctrine, flavours thence, he well knows
The narrative or the novel, - half believes,
All for the book's sake and the public's stare,
And the cash that's God's sole solid in this world!
Look at him! Try to be too bold, too gross
For the master! Not you! He's the man for muck;
Shovel it forth, full-splash, he'll smooth your brown
Into artistic richness, never fear!


I too have seen S.T.C. I was but an infant - his pudgy Hand rested on my golden curls - his Voice remarked on their flaxen paleness - he said - or I have since by thinking created his voice saying - for I too, like you, must be imagining, I cannot let things alone - I believe he said 'It is a beautiful name and will I trust not be a name of ill omen.' Now this is all the Clue I have to the end of the poem of Christabel - that i's heroine was destined for tribulation - which is not hard to see - though how she might obtain Happiness thereafter is harder, if not Impossible.
(Christabel LaMotte to Randolph Henry Ash in 'The correspondence', Chapter 10.)

The poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is key to an understanding of Possession. The incompleteness of his narrative poem 'Christabel' (which Coleridge, in his Preface, confessed was due to his 'own indolence') leaves the fate of the eponymous heroine open to the imagination. By naming her Victorian poetess after the heroine of Coleridge's poem, Byatt establishes links at the level of plot and theme. The reader who is aware of the plot of 'Christabel' and its uncertain ending is made doubly aware of the unstable future faced by Byatt's heroine.

Coleridge's poem tells of Christabel's midnight discovery of a mysterious character called Geraldine, who has been snatched from her home by a group of men and abandoned in the wood. Christabel, who had been praying for her knight-errant, offers to help Geraldine to a place of safety. They move within Christabel's father's walls and lie down to sleep. During the night a tremendous conviction of having sinned creeps over Christabel. In the morning they ask for the help of Christabel's father, Sir Leoline, who is entranced by Geraldine. Christabel cannot communicate her growing sense of dread to anyone because she is has been struck dumb by Geraldine's spell. The poem as it stands ends with Christabel's helplessness as Sir Leoline prepares to send out a party to inform Geraldine's father that she is safe.

The reader who is aware of the literary heritage of the name 'Christabel' will be able to detect traces of related themes and ideas in Byatt's narrative. Female vulnerability, safety within walls, female friendship and sins which cannot be named are therefore made more prominent. Byatt encourages the reader to reach across literature, weaving correspondences, echoes and expectations into their own experience of reading.

'Christabel' can be found in many places, but you could start with


I read and reread Emily Dickinson, whose harsher and more sceptical voice I found more exciting than Christina Rossetti's meek resignation. I wanted a fierce female voice. And I found I was possessed - it was actually quite frightening - the nineteenth-century poems that were not nineteenth-century poems wrote themselves, hardly blotted, fitting into the metaphorical structure of my novel, but not mine, as my prose is mine.

 (A.S Byatt 'On Writing Possession')

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was an American poet who lived in Amherst, Massachusetts. She is one of the major models for Byatt's poet Christabel LaMotte in terms of both style and character. Dickinson suffered numerous family deaths throughout her life and this, combined with a lifelong struggle with , may have led her to choose a secluded existence. After 1867 she refused to open the door to callers, talking to them from the other side of the door, and in later life did not leave her room. She became a model for Christabel LaMotte's conception of female creativity as walled up, sheltered from the concerns of the outside world. Emily Dickinson wrote hundreds of poems, mostly untitled, which she sowed into bundles of and were only discovered after her death. Her themes include pain, death, identity and the troubled relation between creation and God. For a more detailed comparison of the style and thought of Christabel LaMotte and Dickinson you should consult the 'intertextuality' resource on this site.


My mind has been full since childhood of the rhythms of Tennyson and Browning, Rossetti and Keats.

 (A.S Byatt 'On Writing Possession')

Aside from Emily Dickinson, Byatt found a further model for Christabel LaMotte in the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). Like Dickinson and LaMotte, Rossetti also experienced and wrote about pain. She was connected to the group of writers and painters through her brother Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, although her involvement within the group tended to vacillate. Several of her poems make interesting readings against Possession in terms of content and idea. It is tempting to posit the enigmatic 'Winter: My Secret' as a possible source for the LaMotte poem 'Dolly keeps a Secret' (you can compare the two below) which leads to Maud's discovery of the love letters in Christabel's bedroom. The poem's teasing hint towards a hidden truth which cannot be revealed has raised biographical speculation. Byatt parodies this kind of guesswork in Leonora Stern's conviction that LaMotte suppressed her homosexuality.

'Introspective' and 'The Hearth Knoweth Its Own Bitterness' are both poems which might be read alongside LaMotte's poem 'Our Lady- Bearing- Pain' for their attempt to contemplate inexpressible pain and sheer depth of emotion in words, using such techniques as repetition and paradox. Furthermore, at the age of nineteen Rossetti also wrote a novella entitled Maude, which was published after her death. Its portrayal of a young female poet who meets her tragic death in a road accident has often been read as a conscious self-portrait. This work is also relevant in so far as it provides a model for Byatt's Maud and calls to mind the literary heritage of the character in Possession.

Christina Rossetti, 'Winter: My Secret'

Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows and snows,
And you're too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret's mine, and I won't tell.
Or, after all, perhaps there's none:
Suppose there is no secret after all,
But only just my fun.
Today's a nipping day, a biting day;
In which one wants a shawl,
A veil, a cloak, and other wraps:
I cannot ope to everyone who taps,
And let the draughts come whistling thro' my hall;
Come bounding and surrounding me,
Come buffeting, astounding me,
Nipping and clipping thro' my wraps and all.
I wear my mask for warmth: who ever shows
His nose to Russian snows
To be pecked at by every wind that blows?
You would not peck? I thank you for good will,
Believe, but leave the truth untested still.
Spring's an expansive time: yet I don't trust
March with its peck of dust,
Nor April with its rainbow-crowned brief showers,
Nor even May, whose flowers
One frost may wither thro' the sunless hours.
Perhaps some languid summer day,
When drowsy birds sing less and less,
And golden fruit is ripening to excess,
If there's not too much sun nor too much cloud,
And the warm wind is neither still nor loud,
Perhaps my secret I may say,
Or you may guess.

Christabel LaMotte, 'Dolly Keeps a Secret'

Dolly keeps a Secret
Safer than a Friend
Dolly's Silent Sympathy
Lasts without end.

Friends may betray us
Love may Decay
Dolly's Discretion
Outlasts our Day.

Could Dolly tell of us?
Her wax lips are sealed.
Much she has meditated
Much -ah - concealed.

Dolly ever sleepless
Watched above
The shreds and relics
Of our lost Love
Which her small fingers
Never may move.

Dolly is harmless.
We who did harm
Shall become chill as she
Who now are warm
She mocks Eternity
With her sly charm.


Think of me if you will as the Lady of Shalott - with a Narrower Wisdom - who chooses not the Gulp of outside Air and the chilly river-journey deathwards - but who chooses to watch diligently the bright colours of her Web - to ply an industrious shuttle - to make something - to close the Shutters and the Peephole too -

 (Christabel LaMotte to Randolph Henry Ash in 'The Correspondence', Chapter 10, p. 187)

Tennyson's poetry features in Possession directly when in Chapter 5 Roland, being driven through Lincolnshire by Maud to visit Christabel's grave, recalls three lines from 'The Lady of Shalott':

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye
That clothe the wolde and meet the sky.

Byatt writes that 'Roland saw immediately that the word 'meet' was precise and surprising, not vague'. Byatt has Roland use the poem in a number of ways. He reverts to the lines of Tennyson to communicate the landscape before him, while also acknowledging that the countryside in question is significant because Tennyson has communicated it in a poem, creating a on the scene. Byatt uses the poem to convey both the scene and Roland's biographical approach to the world.

The poem itself is also significant considering Byatt's portrayal of female creativity in the character of Christabel LaMotte. 'The Lady of Shalott' narrates the story of a beautiful woman who lives alone in a tower cut off from the world. Forbidden to look out of the window, she views the world with the aid of a huge mirror, and passes the time by weaving those things she observes onto her loom. The appearance of a young knight, Lancelot, causes her to break her pact: she turns to look out of the window. The mirror cracks and the Lady realises she is fated to die. She leaves her tower, unmoors a boat and pushes off down the river in the direction of Camelot. Her body is discovered by Sir Lancelot, who remarks that 'she has a lovely face'. The poem was a popular subject among painters of the period as an emblem of female creativity and power. The plot of the poem clearly has resonances with Byatt's own creative female, Christabel, whose life of seclusion is interrupted by her correspondence and affair with Randolph Henry Ash, after which her life is altered irreversibly.

Tennyson also wrote a long narrative poem entitled 'Maud, A Monodrama'. Like Browning's Dramatis Personae this poem, which takes the form of a dramatic monologue, communicates an entire story through the voice of one character. It charts the flowering relationship of a lower-class, unnamed speaker with the initially 'proud' and beautiful Maud. They fall in love, but the marriage is not supported by society and the end is not a happy one. Tennyson wrote that 'This poem of Maud or the Madness is a little Hamlet, the history of a morbid, poetic soul, under the blighting influence of a recklessly speculative age'. Byatt is clearly drawing on her literary heritage and reading of Victorian poetry in her depiction of her two modern characters, Maud and Roland.

Further Reading and Thinking

Obviously the big thing you can do to follow up this survey is to read the poems themselves, and to think about how they work in relation to Possession - whether as something in the background of the work and its creation, or as a clue to unlock its secrets. Most of the poems mentioned can be found online without much difficulty.

In this piece there are also artists, portraits, poems about artists, and so on. The web is a wonderful source for Victorian art as well - though you could chase up these artists in a gallery near you.

You can find portraits of figures mentioned here at the National Portrait Gallery and its website, The one of Browning by George Frederick Watts is of particular interest because of a passage in Possession: 'The portrait by Watts [of Ash] was mistier and less authoritative; it had been painted in 1876 and showed an older and more ethereal poet, his head rising, as is common with Watts's portraits, from a vague dark column of a body in a spiritual light' (pp.16-17). Is this a good description of the artist's style?

One of the greatest pictures of 'The Lady of Shalott' is by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt. It is held at the Manchester Art Gallery, and it is beautifully reproduced on their website,

A poem in which a character, real or not, relates their story and/or feelings. This form was popular among Victorian poets, and Browning's My Last Duchess is one of the most acclaimed. It is not only a Victorian genre, however, and Sylvia Plath's Lady Lazarus is a later example.
One fine example can be found at
I.e. Brother Filippo Lippi, an Italian monk who was also one of the most important artists of the fifteenth century. He had a colourful life, which we know about not least because of Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists
Idealist art would aspire to portray the ideal essence of reality, e.g. perhaps the soul rather than the body, whereas Realist art would focus on the thing itself as perceived. Behind these artistic practices lie different philosophical opinions as to the nature of reality.
The margin ('marge') of a book of antiphons, i.e. religious call-and-response chants.
A channel.
A term often used for unrhymed iambic pentameter verse.
Style favouring short clauses and short sentences.
Rhetorical questions do not expect an answer, sometimes because they are unanswerable.
A rhetorical figure in which the voice breaks off, perhaps because of inability or unwillingness to continue; 'I can no more'.
A kidney complaint causing pain, vomiting, fever, swelling, and urinary problems
Bundles or clusters, used of papers in this case.
The name derives from the group's belief that art should be freed from the classical elegance and formal technique they felt was prevailing in art theory and education at the time. They traced this back to the Italian painter Raphael - Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520 - and themselves aimed to emulate the freer, vivid, complex vision of earlier Italian painters.
A comment; traditionally 'glosses' are explanatory comments on features of texts such as the Bible, poems, etc.

Byatt: The Place of Poetry in Possession

Monday, May 11th, 2009

The poetry in Possession is often structured like a series of Russian dolls nested inside one another. Poems introduce and end chapters, crop up in conversation or in the minds and letters of the characters. Here Laura Kilbride lists the places where poetry appears, and suggests some ways the embedded poems may be important.

This page contains a simple summary list, broken down chapter by chapter, of the poems that appear in Possession. This list is meant to work as a resource that leads to lots of particular reading suggestions. It's also the case that knowing more about the poems behind the novel will add to your understanding of the novel itself. Here are some questions to consider about the place of poetry in Possession:

  1. How does the location of each poem within the plot of the novel affect how it is meant to be received?
  2. How does the location of those chapters which are entirely poetry affect how we read the novel?
  3. Is it significant that certain chapters contain no poetry?
  4. What difference does it make when a poem appears as an , in comparison with when it is 'embedded' in the chapter? For example, is it easier to read the embedded texts because they are given a frame or a local context?
  5. How do the epigraphs guide our reading of each chapter?
  6. How do the characters in the novel read or use poems, and should we read in a similar way?

Chapter by Chapter

Dedication to Isobel Armstrong (Literary critic specializing in nineteenth century poetry and women's writing, Professor at Birkbeck College, London).
Epigraphs: Nathaniel Hawthorne Preface to The House of the Seven Gables; Robert Browning's Mr Sludge, the Medium'.

Epigraph: Randolph Henry Ash (RHA), excerpt from The Garden of Proserpina.

Embedded: 'She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep' by Robert Graves.

Epigraph: RHA short excerpt from Ragnarök III.
Embedded (within Roland's consciousness) 'Finding out Ancient Battles from the Shards'.

Epigraph: Christabel LaMotte (CLM) 'The Thicket is Thorny'.
Embedded poems: 'I Like Things Clean About Me' (CLM, embedded in Veronica Hamilton's Criticism, where it is compared to George Herbert); 'From So Botched and Cramped a Creature' (CLM, insect poems); 'The One about the Cumaean Sibyl' (CLM, in Maud and Roland's conversation); Fergus Wolf quotes W.B. Yeats, 'For Anne Gregory', with reference to Maud's hair.

Epigraph: RHA, from The Incarcerated Sorceress.
Embedded: Excerpt from Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott' ('On either side the river lie...', embedded in Roland's consciousness); CLM's epitaph on the tombstone; CLM 'Dolly keeps a secret / Safer than a friend'.

Epigraph: RHA, The Great Collector.

Epigraph: CLM 'Men may be martyred / Any where'.
Embedded: in Beatrice Nest's narrative, RHA, 'We two remake our world by naming it'; CLM's Melusine in Ellen Ash's Journal.

Epigraph: CLM, 'All Day snow fell'.
Embedded: CLM, fragment from The Drowned City (in Roland's reading, prefaced by a note by Leonora Stern); CLM (?), 'And in the pool two fishes play" (in Maud's thoughts by the fishpond).

Embedded: CLM, poems / riddles in the fairytale 'The Threshold'

Embedded: CLM, 'Metamorphosis' and 'Psyche' (both enclosed within correspondence to RHA); fragments of poetry within the letters, the language of which might often be deemed 'poetic'; John Donne 'A : Forbidding Mourning', to which CLM responds in 'The grassy knoll / Shivers in his embrace'.

Whole Chapter: RHA, Swammerdam.

Epigraph: CLM, 'What is a House? / So strong - so square...'
Embedded: RHA's note, with the brooch to Ellen, transcribed in Ellen Ash's Journal ('I love a paradox and so I send'); RHA / CLM compared in the conversation of Roland and Maud.

Epigraph: RHA, Ragnarök II

Epigraph: RHA, from Ask to Embla, XIII.
Embedded: RHA quoting Wordsworth in a letter to Ellen, 'Mark! How all things swerve...' from 'Monastery of Old Bangor' in the Ecclesiastical Sonnets; Maud quotes the beginning of CLM, Melusina.

Epigraph RHA, 'And is love then more/ Than the kick galvanic'
Embedded: RHA quotes Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare before the consummation.

Whole Chapter: CLM, The Fairy Melusine, Proem.

Embedded: John Donne's 'Love's Alchemy' as the source for RHA's Mummy Possest (in Blackadder's footnote).

Epigraph: CLM, 'Gloves lie together/ Limp and Calm'.

Epigraph: CLM, From The City of Is.
Embedded (or, more accurately, Epilogues): CLM, 'Our Lady- bearing- Pain' (sent by Ariane Le Minier to Maud Bailey).

Epigraph: CLM, 'I press my palms on / Window's White Cross'.
Embedded: CLM quotes 'Faith' by George Herbert in a letter to Madame Cropper.

Whole Chapter: RHA, Mummy Possest.

No poems.

Embedded: Ash's Epitaph (Cardinal Bembo's epitaph for Raphael), Ash reciting from John Donne's 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning' on his deathbed ('Dull sublunary lovers' love).

Epigraph: RHA, from The Garden of Proserpina.

Epigraph: RHA, 'In Certain Moods We Eat Our Lives Away'.

Embedded: CLM, in her last letter to Ash, quotes Samson Agonistes by John Milton.

Embedded: RHA asks his daughter if she knows the verse from The Garden of Proserpina.

Further Thinking

The questions at the top of this article invite you to consider the particulars of these extracts and allusions in this novel. You could also look at our 'Intertextuality' resource, and the case study there, to think about the ways in which one text takes from, or opens itself to, another.  There you'll also find a guide to some other novels that interweave writings of various kinds into their fictions.

A phrase or quotation placed at the beginning of a work; the word also means an inscription, typically made on stone
A term that means all the things that accompany a text but which are not part of the text. Prefaces and dedications, indexes, illustrations, covers, and so on. The term was popularised by Gérard Genette in his book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997).
Saying goodbye.

Byatt: Intertextuality and Possession, A case study

Monday, May 11th, 2009

Here undergraduate Laura Kilbride undertakes a critical experiment. The goal is to map out in visual form the intertextual relationships of a poem. The one chosen is 'Our Lady- bearing- Pain' (p. 381), written by A.S. Byatt in the fictional persona of Christabel LaMotte.

There are two main aspects of this experiment as it is presented here. First, the Byatt poem (on the left, below) has been marked with links to show its intersections with two poems by Emily Dickinson (on the right); when you run your mouse over a highlighted section of the left-hand poem, the relevant part(s) of the other will be highlighted. Secondly, the Byatt poem is annotated to keep track of what these connections are and what they mean to the poem. These notes often use terminology to describe the poetic effects. What we have here are two ways of annotating a text: one more traditional, the other (the dynamic highlighting) more innovative.

'Our Lady- bearing- Pain'
(Christabel LaMotte, i.e. A.S. Byatt, referred to in notes as CLM)

Our Lady- bearing- Pain
She bore what the Cross bears
She bears and bears again -
As the stone- bears- its scars
The Hammer broke her out
Of rough Rock's ancient- Sleep-
And chiselled her about
With stars that weep- that weep-
The Pain inscribed in Rock-
The Pain he bears- she Bore
She hears the Poor Frame Crack-

And knows - He'll - come - no More -

It came all so still
The little Thing-
And would not stay -
Our Questioning -
A heavy Breath
One two and three -
And then the lapsed
Eternity -
A Lapis Flesh
The Crimson- Gone -
It came as still
As any Stone -

My subject is Spilt Milk.

A white Disfigurement
A quiet creeping Sleek
Of squandered Nourishment

Others in a heavy Vase
Raise darkly scented Wine -
This warm and squirted White
In solid Pot - was mine -
And now a paradox
A bleaching blot, a stain
Of pure and innocent white
It goes to Earth again -
Which smelled of summer Hay
Of crunching Cow - Divine -
Of warm flanks and of love
More quiet, more still- than mine-
It runs on table top
It drips onto the Ground

We hear its liquid Lapse

Wet on soft dust its sound.
We run with milk and blood
What we would give we spill
The hungry mouths are raised
We spill we fail to fill
This cannot be restored
This flow cannot redeem
This white's not wiped away
Though blanched we seem
Howe'er I wipe and wipe
Howe'er I frantic- scour
The ghost of my spilled milk
Makes my Air sour.

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'
(Emily Dickinson, referred to in notes as ED)

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through-
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum-
Kept beating- beating - till I thought
My Mind was going numb --
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space- began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here-

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down-

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing- then-

Pain - has an Element of Blank
(Emily Dickinson)

Pain - has an Element of Blank -
It cannot recollect
When it begun- or if there were
A time when it was not-
It has no Future- but itself-
Its Infinite contain
Its past- enlightened to perceive
New Periods - of Pain.

Further Reading

You might follow up this essay's turn towards rhetorical terminology by looking at one of the online resources devoted to it. There is a forest of rhetoric, for example, at It is sometimes difficult to separate out the useful material from the volume of terms and definitions, but a precise critical vocabulary is worth some effort!

Further Thinking

What do you think of this method? Do you think this helps uncover how a poem was written? Or does it tell us something else, e.g. how the poem seems to expect us to read it? Or might such colour-coding end up sacrificing coherence and poetic effect?

Whether or not you like the method, it's hard to deny that Byatt has carefully woven her characters and their works out of authors and their works. What difference does this awareness make to your reading of Possession?

In the notes you'll find some technical rhetorical terms describing poetic effects. What do you think such technical language adds to reading poetry?

Rhetoric is an ancient discipline that describes the technique of eloquent, persuasive speech. One of its most important aspects is a list of figures or tropes, ways in which language may be varied to good effect. Some of these are still very famous (e.g. metaphor, simile); others (e.g. bomphiologia, which means bragging exaggeration) are not. These terms can enable us to be precise about verbal effects.
Title: Like Emily Dickinson's poems, few of Christabel LaMotte's are actually given titles. Instead the first line of the poem is used. The lack of a definite title adds to the poem's enigmatic or riddling quality, removing the element of apparent intention that usually accompanies the choice of a title.
Repetition: Both CLM and ED make poetic use of repetition to emphasise the inescapable and overwhelming power of pain. In the ED poem the second instance of repetition within a line is also a structural repeat, with the verb and the dashes occurring in the same positions. This is a rhetorical figure usually termed isocolon.
Paranomasia or (as we would call it) pun: Here 'bore' functions in two ways: as the past tense of the verb 'to bear' and the verb meaning 'to drill' or 'to eat away at' something, suggesting the irascible nature of pain. The second meaning arises when considering the nearby image of the rock, usually a symbol of impregnability. ED also makes use of puns to express pain. The word 'Period', which (in American-English) means a final clause completed by a full stop, also refers to a quantity of time. The pun on 'Period' is therefore ironic, as the time period of pain is 'Infinite' and will not stop when a sentence stops.
Dash: Both ED and CLM make poetic use of this type of punctuation in their poems. In CLM the dash breaks up the flow of speech to convey the speech of a suffering persona, for whom forming complete sentences proves too difficult. C.f. 'Pain- has an Element of Blank' In ED the dash also creates a dramatic pause, causing the reader to dwell on each word as a unit or image in itself. Here the reader is led to focus on a verb of repetitive movement, contributing to the effect of the repetition which presents the incessant experience of pain.
Enigma: Both poems are enigmatic or riddling. The focus is on the reader to create a whole narrative from the fragments of speech broken up by and joined by the dashes.
Asyndeton: The occurrence of words or parts of speech not joined by conjunctions (e.g. and, but), technically known as asyndeton, produces a sense of a confused speaker, while contributing to the sense of the poem as an enigma.
Allusion: Two forms of allusion are present here, one local and one general. Though CLM is Byatt's Victorian poet, Byatt may be alluding to a short poem by W.B. Yeats called 'Spilt Milk' ('We that have done and thought, / That have thought and done, / Must ramble, and thin out / Like milk spilt on a stone'). However, a more general form of intertextuality may be at work, as the proverbial phrase 'There's no use crying over spilt milk' hovers at the back of the reader's mind. The supposed death of a child which leaves the lactating mother with milk in her breasts, but no child to feed, is certainly worth crying over. In this instance the allusion works against its original proverbial context, creating tragic irony.
Rhyme scheme: Though LaMotte's poem is trimetric - that is, in trimeter, or divided into three 'feet' or metrical units, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable - rather than borrowing Dickinson's tetrameter (a metre consisting of four feet in a line), both poems use a similar rhyme scheme based on an abcb pattern. The scheme is less ballad-like and sing-song than the standard abab rhyme scheme, yet is still able to exploit all the poetic effects which accompany rhyme. See the last note, below.
Paradox: Both poets make use of paradox in an effort to convey the illogical or inexplicable experience of pain.
Capitalisation: Both CLM and ED capitalise words in addition to proper nouns and the beginning of sentences. This emphasises the word in question, prompting the reader to stress the word in reading. Occasionally this also creates proper nouns or concepts of things, so that in the CLM poem a 'Lapse' is imagined as a unique and self-contained movement, as the drop of milk falls to the floor.
Anaphora: repeating the same word at the beginning of the line for several consecutive lines. Both poets do this for poetic and emphatic effect.
Anticipatory rhyme: The rhyme-scheme abcb creates anticipatory rhymes, opening up a number of possible rhymes to the reader's ear at the first b line. These are then completed by the answering b rhyme in the last line of the stanza. This technique, used by both poets, yokes words and concepts together across the stanza.

Byatt: Intertextuality

Monday, May 11th, 2009

Or, How to read Possession?

In this essay Laura Kilbride introduces a very important idea in literary theory - intertextuality - and suggests ways that A.S. Byatt's novel might be addressed as a work in which it features prominently.

There is no reason why the reader cannot simply enjoy Possession as it is without stooping to track every suggestion of intertextuality. Yet Byatt's position as a 'clever and hinting sort of woman' (as Christabel LaMotte is described in the novel) suggests that Possession might be best enjoyed and understood in conjunction with other texts. Possession, like T.S Eliot's intertextual poem 'The Waste Land', might function as a base or touchstone for the reader's knowledge of other literary works. As with Eliot's poem, rereading the book after a space of some years would certainly generate new thoughts and connections because of the other texts a reader has entertained in the intervening period. In the words of LaMotte, 'The Thicket is Thorny', but it is also the riddling and enigmatic nature of the text which make it so enjoyable.

What is Meant by 'Intertextuality'?

At its most basic level intertextuality acknowledges the fact that no text is an island. All texts are intertexts in so far as they refer to, recycle and draw from other pre-existing texts. The term was coined by the French critic and philosopher Julia Kristeva in 1969. By inventing it, Kristeva was proposing a new theory of reading in which meaning is not communicated between the writer and reader directly but is instead produced when the reader recognises the text as a 'mosaic of quotations' of previous texts, which she then decodes in order to make sense of the work. This means that the production of meaning in a text takes place on both horizontal and vertical axes:

Previous texts

Reader → (Inter)Text ← Writer

Texts which follow

Whether a text as a whole is based on a source, as was the case with James Joyce's rewrite of Homer's Odyssey in Ulysses, or whether it simply uses language from the same lexicon, the theory of intertextuality recognizes that all texts are reliant on prior traditions and literary forms.

Intertextuality in Critical Theory

Kristeva is recognized as the originator of the term, but it took a long time for her work to be translated into English. As a result Anglo-American understandings of intertextuality tend to depend on the reformulations of French theorist Roland Barthes. For Barthes the text is:

a new tissue of recycled citations. Fragments of codes, formulae, model rhythms, bits of social discourse pass into the text and are redistributed within it [...] The intertext is a field of anonymous formulae whose origin is rarely recoverable, of unconscious or automatic citations without speech marks. (Roland Barthes; see entry for 'Texte (théorie du)' in Encyclopédie universalis (Paris, 1973).)

Barthes negates the notion of authorial intention as a guide to the interpretation of texts, suggesting that a work can be intertextual without the writer realising. It is this which allowed Barthes to claim in a famous essay ('The Death of the Author') that the author, as a meaning-making category, was dead. Instead the text is a thick-textured web produced from pre-existing texts and reproduced by the reader who has to act as a kind of literary detective to decode the textual formulae.

Intertextuality in Practice

An intertextual approach to the interpretation of literature encourages questions such as: How does this text relate to its sources? What language, symbols, stock images, rhythms, poetic forms and techniques are present in the text and which are left behind? How is this text in dialogue with previous genres, themes and historical contexts? An intertextually minded critic might also assess how latent or available the intertextual elements are and how far the writer expects the reader to pick up on connections to prior texts in order to decode their significance. There is some debate among critics as to what counts as Intertextuality. Some critics consider the presence of broad themes and ideas as intertextual components; others argue that only a straight quotation counts as an intertextual moment. This makes intertextuality one of the most fraught and uncertain terms in literary criticism.

The advantage of an intertextual approach is that it focuses on the process of composition to reveal intention, while allowing for the reader's role in producing the meaning of a text. It is both reader and writer centred, encompassing the entire process by which a text comes into being and is understood. The disadvantage of an intertextual approach to literature is that it seems to require specialist knowledge on the part of the reader. It ignores the fact that a word or phrase can mean something to a reader, whether or not the reader knows if that word or phrase has already been used by a previous writer.

Intertextuality in Byatt's Possession

Knowledge of the sources of Byatt's novel is certainly an advantage to the reader when it comes to divining Possession. Her work is highly intertextual, self-consciously drawing on Victorian poetry, biography, and other texts. Byatt is aware of the theory of intertextuality, as the discovery of Maud and Roland in Chapter 12 makes clear:

'Well is there an echo here? This is out of Ask to Embla. It possibly links that fountain to the one in the Song of Songs, as well. Listen:

We drank deep of the Fountain of Vancluse
And where the northern Force incessantly
Stirs the still pool, were stirred. And shall those founts
Which freely flowed to meet our thirsts, be sealed?'

Maud said 'Say that again.'

Roland said it again.

Maud said, 'Have you ever really felt your hackles rise? Because I just have. Prickles all down my spine and at the roots of my hair. You listen to this. This is what Raimondin says to Melusine after he is told she knows he has looked at her in her marble bath and broken the prohibition:

Ah, Melusine, I have betrayed your faith.
Is there no remedy? Must we two part?
Shall our hearth's ash grow pale, and shall those founts
Which freely flowed to meet our thirsts, be sealed?


'Which came first? His line or her line? There are problems about dating Ask to Embla - which we're obviously on the way to solving, among other things. It reads like a classic literary clue. She was a clever and hinting sort of woman. Look at those dolls.'

'Literary critics make natural detectives,' said Maud. (p. 237)

In this example of intertextual reading a whole quotation has been tracked from one text into another. The existence of intertextuality at the level of quotation aids them in interpreting the two texts in question, leading them to postulate arguments for intention, date and context. Byatt is obviously aware of the intertextual approach and appears to be recommending a similar approach to her reader.

Though the interpolation of whole quotations rarely occurs, other more subtle instances of intertextuality are present in Possession. Byatt's conscious use of allusion, the borrowing of names and settings from previous works of literature and biography all suggest an intertextual approach to composition. Most notable are her debts to the poetry of Robert Browning, S.T Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti and Alfred Tennyson.

Further Reading

Our case study of intertextuality in Possession (in the menu on the left) follows up this introduction. There are numerous books on intertextuality, but they are all quite technical and challenging. Graham Allen, Intertextuality (London and New York: Routledge, 2000) and Mary Orr, Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), are good introductions which illuminate the French theory. Christopher Ricks, Allusion to the Poets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) takes a different term as its paradigm, and is a useful contrast to Allen and Orr in that it is always grounded in close analysis of literature. If you are interested in Latin literature (especially Virgil and Ovid) then Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) is an excellent book. The texts covered may be off your usual patch, but the account of intertextuality is very thoughtful.

Further Thinking

1. Other terms (some used here, some not) partly overlap with intertextuality: allusion, imitation, influence, source. Find out what you can about these words and their uses in criticism, and then think about the implications of using one rather than another when both will do. (These terms can imply views about how literature works, and indeed about how one might view authorities, etc.)

2. For some people the kind of theoretical discussion found in Kristeva and Barthes does not fit easily with the experience of reading a novel like Possession for pleasure (as Laura acknowledges early on). How do you think Possession, which encourages us, after all, to think about how critics and theorists read, manages to hold these things together?

Another way of thinking further about intertextuality is to try other novels that focus on, or worry about, the process of writing, the status of the storyteller or narrator, and the relation of the novel to other works on which it is based (or after which it has been written). For some suggestions on where to turn next, read Raphael Lyne's and Sylvia Karastathi's discussion in 'Possession: Further Reading'.

Possession Illustrated

Monday, May 11th, 2009

Possession makes reference to a number of great works of Victorian visual art. In this section information about some of these pictures, and the pertinent quotations from the novel, have been gathered together by Sylvia Karastathi. We have not reproduced them all here for a number of reasons: first, because they require copyright permission; second, because they are easily found online; also because finding one of these pictures will often take you to a gallery or a collection that will reveal works by the same artist, on the same subject, or in the same place, which can be very rewarding. Please do come back to this page once you've seen the things you need to see, and add a comment on the artworks below. Where we do have the images, you can click on them to see them even better.

1. Frederick Leighton, 'The Return of Persephone', c. 1891, now in Leeds Art Gallery. (Reproduced by permission of Leeds Museums and Galleries, City Art Gallery.)

This painting is mentioned on p. 3 of the novel: 'Lord Leighton had painted her, distraught and floating, a golden figure in a tunnel of darkness'; and p. 85: 'He circled the round walls with his spotlight, revealing a skewed print of Lord Leighton's Proserpina, and a cross-stiched sampler, impossible to read under the dust.'

Proserpina, also known as Persephone, was the daughter of Ceres (a.k.a Demeter), the goddess of the Harvest. She was stolen away by Pluto (a.k.a. Hades), the god of the underworld. A deal was later struck whereby she spent half the year with both. Do you think this picture portrays her being taken away from her mother, or restored to her? Byatt's word 'distraught' might mean different things, depending on what you think.

2. Edouard Manet, Portrait of Émile Zola, 1868, now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

This painting is mentioned on p. 16 in relation to two fictional portraits of Ash by Manet and : 'The Manet has been painted in England in 1867, and had some things in common with his portrait of Zola'.

Émile Zola (1840-1902) was a French novelist who defended Manet when he was sidelined by the establishment and its major art exhibitions. The portrait was partly a gesture of gratitude.

Julia Margaret Cameron, 'The Dirty Monk (Alfred Lord Tennyson), albumen print 1865.

Julia Margaret Cameron, The Dirty Monk (Alfred Lord Tennyson), albumen print 1865

3. George Richmond, Portrait of Charlotte Bronte, c. 1850, now in National Portrait Gallery.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Photograph of Julia Prinsep Stephen, 1867, now in National Portrait Gallery.

These two artists are mentioned in Cropper's journal on p. 100: 'I was particularly taken by the collection of portrait sketches and signed photographs of eminent nineteenth-century figures - drawings by Richmond and Watts, photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron'.

Richmond is also mentioned on p. 126: 'Ellen Ash constructed from Richmond's sketch reproduced in Cropper's Great Ventriloquist. All Richmond's women have a generic mouth, firm and fine and generous serious, variable yet related to some ideal type.'

Richmond's picture of the novelist Charlotte Bronte can be compared to other images of the same writer on the National Portrait Gallery website; does the suggestion about his characteristic mouth ring true? Cameron's pioneering photographs are also discussed in the Tennyson section of this site; here you can see a famous picture she took of Tennyson himself (reproduced by permission of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust, and the Dimbola Galleries and Photographic Museum).

4. Edward Burne-Jones, 'The Beguiling of Merlin', 1872-7, now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Wirral. (Reproduced here by permission of National Museums Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery.)

William Holman Hunt, 'Lady of Shalott', c. 1886-1905, now in the Manchester City Art Gallery.

'The Beguiling of Merlin' is mentioned on p. 172, where LaMotte discusses Blanche: 'She is engaged on a large painting of Merlin and Vivien - at the moment of the latter's triumph when she sings the Charm which puts him in her power, to sleep through time'.

Hunt's 'Lady of Shallot' is mentioned in CLM's letter on p. 187: 'Think of me if you will as the Lady of Shalott - with a Narrower Wisdom - who chooses not the Gulp of outside Air and the chilly river-journey deathwards - but who chooses to watch diligently the bright colours of her Web - to ply an industrious shuttle - to make something - to close the Shutters and the Peephole too - '.

These two paintings on themes from Arthurian legend are important works of the movement. As is seen in the Tennyson section of this website, Arthurian stories were of great interest to the Victorians.

Further Thinking

Please add a comment on something that strikes you about one of the pictures mentioned in Possession, and what difference it makes to look at the thing itself.

Watts (1817-1904) was a Victorian painter and sculptor, known both for his portraits and his symbolist art. On the National Portrait Gallery website ( you can see eight of his works, including one of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, featured in the Cambridge Authors 'Tennyson and Vision' resource as well as lower down this page. The Tate Britain gallery holds one of his best symbolist works, 'Hope', which is also easy to find online.
The name derives from the group's belief that art should be freed from the classical elegance and formal technique they felt was prevailing in art theory and education at the time. They traced this back to the Italian painter Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520) and themselves aimed to emulate the freer, vivid, complex vision of earlier Italian painters

AS Byatt

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Antonia Susan Byatt (b. Sheffield, 1936) read English at Newnham College from 1954 to 1957. Her mother, Kathleen Drabble, and sister, Margaret Drabble, had both studied in Cambridge, and Byatt remembers being told, as early as the age of five, that she would go to Cambridge. Here Byatt joined an English Faculty dominated by the famous literary critic F.R Leavis, and she was subsequently shaped by his views on the moral importance of literature. In an autobiographical gesture, her fictions often send their heroines to Cambridge. Anna Severell in The Shadow of the Sun (1964), written while Byatt was still an undergraduate, and Frederica Potter in Still Life (1985) both experience quintessential Cambridge narratives whilst reading at the University Library, sitting the Tripos exams, and getting ready for the June May Ball; experiences that resonate with anyone reading for a degree in Cambridge. (There is a very interesting essay by Byatt about writing The Shadow of the Sun. You can find it on her website:

Apart from many intricately woven novels - The Virgin in the Garden (1978), Babel Tower (1996), Biographer's Tale (2001) - Byatt has published richly imagined collections of short stories - The Matisse Stories (1993) and Elementals (1998). Her critical writing is at its best in the eclectic collections of essays Passions of the Mind (1991) and On History and Stories (2000), which variedly discuss topics ranging from Browning, Freud, post-structuralism and Van Gogh to modern British historical fiction, the Arabian Nights and European storytelling.  A novelist of many quotations, allusions and literary debts, Byatt sees her writing shaped by the reading of Georgette Heyer, Marcel Proust, Iris Murdoch and George Eliot. Her new novel, The Children's Book, set in the Edwardian period, was published in May 2009.

Most of the Byatt resources presented here relate to the intersections between Byatt's writing and that of other English poets and novelists, though you will also find materials on the importance of visual arts to her writing. Use the links to the left to navigate through the topics.