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A. S. Byatt



  “Dazzling, virtuosic … as substantial and impressive a storytelling achievement as the ample heritage of the eminent Victorians themselves.”

  —Boston Globe

  “Brilliant … A novel like Possession, which is both a mystery and a love story, and is also reassuringly complex and allusive, is a rarity … [a] feat of human ingenuity.”

  —Diane Johnson,

  The New York Review of Books

  “More heartfelt and more fun to read than The Name of the Rose … Its prankish verve [and] monstrous richness of detail [make for] a one-woman variety show of literary styles and types.… What is finest in Possession is what the artist illuminates about those, including herself, who love the word.”

  —Judith Thurman,

  The New Yorker

  “Utterly convincing … Possession is as solid and entertaining a novel as has been seen in years.”


  “A. S. Byatt takes the passion and psyche-searching of a 19th century novel and molds it into a detective story to create a literary thriller.… A work of reflecting mirrors and twisting intrigues. Byatt’s sometimes biting prose … becomes a page-turning flood of emotion.”

  —New York Newsday

  “An exhilarating, virtuosic exploration of the many ways language has of speaking … [Byatt] ingeniously juxtaposes the previous century with the hothouse world of the contemporary academy [and] puts all her linguistic and parodic skills on display … [a] tour de force.”

  —New Republic

  “An altogether convincing literary romance … as lushly sensuous in detail as a pre-Raphaelite painting yet wonderfully entertaining.”

  —Joyce Carol Oates, Vogue

  “[A] wonderfully two-tiered mystery of letters, the most craftily constructed conjunction of Victorian and modern styles since The French Lieutenant’s Woman … [Byatt’s] elaborate creations of poetry, correspondence, and journals in Victorian style are vivid.… You will be transfixed.”


  “[A] gigantic treasure hunt of a literary novel.”

  —Village Voice Literary Supplement

  “Brilliant … [a] dazzling treasure-trove of a novel … witty, intricate, appealing [with] one of the giddiest, most satisfying plot resolutions of the year.”

  —Seattle Times/Post-Intelligencer

  Books by A. S. Byatt


  The Shadow of the Sun

  The Game

  The Virgin in the Garden

  Still Life

  Sugar and Other Stories

  Possession: A Romance

  Angels and Insects

  The Matisse Stories

  Babel Tower

  The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye


  The Biographer’s Tale


  Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch

  Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time

  Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings

  Imagining Characters (with Ignês Sodré)


  Copyright © 1990 by A. S. Byatt

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by Chatto and Windus, Limited, London, in 1990. First published in the United States by Random House, New York, in 1990.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

  Cooperativa Utopia: Excerpt from “Melusina, Malia e Fobia del Femminile” by Silvia Vegetti Finzi, from Melusina, Mito e Leggende di una Donna Serpente, Rome: Utopia, 1986. Reprinted by permission.

  W. W. Norton and Editions du Seuil: Excerpts from Ecrits by Jacques Lacan, translated by Alan Sheridan. Published in the United States by W. W. Norton and Company. Reprinted by permission of Editions du Seuil for the estate of Jacques Lacan and W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

  The Hogarth Press, Sigmund Freud Copyrights and The Institute of Psychoanalysis: Excerpts from “An Outline of Psychoanalysis” and “Totem and Taboo,” by Sigmund Freud, from the The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by James Strachey. Reprinted by permission.

  Macmillan Publishing Company: Excerpt from “For Anne Gregory,” from The Poems of W.B. Yeats: A New Edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran. Copyright 1933 by Macmillan Publishing Company. Copyright renewed 1961 by Bertha Georgie Yeats. Reprinted by permission.

  Oxford University Press: Excerpt from “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep” and “Sick Love,” from Collected Poems 1975, by Robert Graves.

  Copyright © 1975 by Robert Graves. Reprinted by permission.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Byatt, A. S. (Antonia Susan), 1936–

  Possession : a romance / A. S. Byatt.—1st Vintage International ed.

  p. cm.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-81956-7

  I. Title.

  PR6052.Y2P6 1991

  823′.914—dc20 91-50023


  For Isobel Armstrong



  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page




  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Postscript 1868

  About the Author

  When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.… The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.


  Preface to The House of the Seven Gables

  And if at whiles the bubble, blown too thin,

  Seem nigh on bursting,—if you nearly see

  The real world through the false,—what do you see?

  Is the old so ruined? You find you’re in a flock

  O’ the youthful, earnest, passionate—genius, beauty,

  Rank and wealth also, if you care for these:

  And all depose their natural rights, hail you,

  (That’s me, sir) as their mate and yoke-fellow,

  Participate in Sludgehood—nay, gr
ow mine,

  I veritably possess them—…

  And all this might be, may be, and with good help

  Of a little lying shall be: so Sludge lies!

  Why, he’s at worst your poet who sings how Greeks

  That never were, in Troy which never was,

  Did this or the other impossible great thing!…

  But why do I mount to poets? Take plain prose—

  Dealers in common sense, set these at work,

  What can they do without their helpful lies?

  Each states the law and fact and face o’ the thing

  Just as he’d have them, finds what he thinks fit,

  Is blind to what missuits him, just records

  What makes his case out, quite ignores the rest.

  It’s a History of the World, the Lizard Age,

  The Early Indians, the Old Country War,

  Jerome Napoleon, whatsoever you please.

  All as the author wants it. Such a scribe

  You pay and praise for putting life in stones,

  Fire into fog, making the past your world.

  There’s plenty of ‘How did you contrive to grasp

  The thread which led you through this labyrinth?

  How build such solid fabric out of air?

  How on so slight foundation found this tale,

  Biography, narrative?’ or, in other words,

  ‘How many lies did it require to make

  The portly truth you here present us with?’

  —Robert Browning

  from “Mr Sludge, ‘the Medium’ ”


  These things are there. The garden and the tree

  The serpent at its root, the fruit of gold

  The woman in the shadow of the boughs

  The running water and the grassy space.

  They are and were there. At the old world’s rim,

  In the Hesperidean grove, the fruit

  Glowed golden on eternal boughs, and there

  The dragon Ladon crisped his jewelled crest

  Scraped a gold claw and sharped a silver tooth

  And dozed and waited through eternity

  Until the tricksy hero, Herakles,

  Came to his dispossession and the theft.


  from The Garden of Proserpina, 1861

  The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or, rather, protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow. The librarian handed it to Roland Michell, who was sitting waiting for it in the Reading Room of the London Library. It had been exhumed from Locked Safe no. 5, where it usually stood between Pranks of Priapus and The Grecian Way of Love. It was ten in the morning, one day in September 1986. Roland had the small single table he liked best, behind a square pillar, with the clock over the fireplace nevertheless in full view. To his right was a high sunny window, through which you could see the high green leaves of St James’s Square.

  The London Library was Roland’s favourite place. It was shabby but civilised, alive with history but inhabited also by living poets and thinkers who could be found squatting on the slotted metal floors of the stacks, or arguing pleasantly at the turning of the stair. Here Carlyle had come, here George Eliot had progressed through the bookshelves. Roland saw her black silk skirts, her velvet trains, sweeping compressed between the Fathers of the Church, and heard her firm foot ring on metal among the German poets. Here Randolph Henry Ash had come, cramming his elastic mind and memory with unconsidered trifles from History and Topography, from the felicitous alphabetical conjunctions of Science and Miscellaneous—Dancing, Deaf and Dumb, Death, Dentistry, Devil and Demonology, Distribution, Dogs, Domestic Servants, Dreams. In his day, works on Evolution had been catalogued under Pre-Adamite Man. Roland had only recently discovered that the London Library possessed Ash’s own copy of Vico’s Principi di una Scienza Nuova. Ash’s books were most regrettably scattered across Europe and America. By far the largest single gathering was of course in the Stant Collection at Robert Dale Owen University in New Mexico, where Mortimer Cropper worked on his monumental edition of the Complete Correspondence of Randolph Henry Ash. That was no problem nowadays, books travelled the aether like light and sound. But it was just possible that Ash’s own Vico had marginalia missed even by the indefatigable Cropper. And Roland was looking for sources for Ash’s Garden of Proserpina. And there was a pleasure to be had from reading the sentences Ash had read, touched with his fingers, scanned with his eyes.

  It was immediately clear that the book had been undisturbed for a very long time, perhaps even since it had been laid to rest. The librarian fetched a checked duster, and wiped away the dust, a black, thick, tenacious Victorian dust, a dust composed of smoke and fog particles accumulated before the Clean Air acts. Roland undid the bindings. The book sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper, blue, cream, grey, covered with rusty writing, the brown scratches of a steel nib. Roland recognised the handwriting with a shock of excitement. They appeared to be notes on Vico, written on the backs of book-bills and letters. The librarian observed that it didn’t look as though they had been touched before. Their edges, beyond the pages, were dyed soot-black, giving the impression of the borders of mourning cards. They coincided precisely with their present positions, edge of page and edge of stain.

  Roland asked if it was in order for him to study these jottings. He gave his credentials; he was part-time research assistant to Professor Blackadder, who had been editing Ash’s Complete Works since 1951. The librarian tiptoed away to telephone: whilst he was gone, the dead leaves continued a kind of rustling and shifting, enlivened by their release. Ash had put them there. The librarian came back and said yes, it was quite in order, as long as Roland was very careful not to disturb the sequence of the interleaved fragments until they had been listed and described. The librarian would be glad to know of any important discoveries Mr Michell might make.

  All this was over by ten-thirty. For the next half-hour Roland worked haphazardly, moving backwards and forwards in the Vico, half looking for Proserpina, half reading Ash’s notes, which was not easy, since they were written in various languages, in Ash’s annotating hand, which was reduced to a minute near-printing, not immediately identifiable as the same as his more generous poetic or letter-writing hand.

  At eleven he found what he thought was the relevant passage in Vico. Vico had looked for historical fact in the poetic metaphors of myth and legend; this piecing together was his “new science.” His Proserpine was the corn, the origin of commerce and community. Randolph Henry Ash’s Proserpine had been seen as a Victorian reflection of religious doubt, a meditation on the myths of resurrection. Lord Leighton had painted her, distraught and floating, a golden figure in a tunnel of darkness. Blackadder had a belief that she represented, for Randolph Ash, a personification of history itself in its early mythical days. (Ash had also written a poem about Gibbon and one about the Venerable Bede, historians of greatly differing kinds. Blackadder had written an article on R. H. Ash and relative historiography.)

  Roland compared Ash’s text with the translation, and copied parts onto an index card. He had two boxes of these, tomato-red and an intense grassy green, with springy plastic hinges that popped in the library silence.

  Ears of grain were called apples of gold, which must have been the first gold in the world while metallic gold was unknown … So the golden apple which Hercules first brought back or gathered from Hesperia must have been grain; and the Gallic Hercules with links of this gold, that issue from his mouth, chains men by the ears: something which will later be discovered as a myth concerning the fields. Hence Hercules remained the Deity to propitiate in order to find treasures, whose god was Dis (identical with Pluto) who carries off Proserpine (another name for Ceres or grain) to the underworld described by the poets,
according to whom its first name was Styx, its second the land of the dead, its third the depth of furrows.… It was of this golden apple that Virgil, most learned in heroic antiquities, made the golden bough Aeneas carries into the Inferno or Underworld.

  Randolph Henry Ash’s Proserpina, “gold-skinned in the gloom,” was also “grain-golden.” Also “bound with golden links” which might have been jewellery or chains. Roland wrote neat cross-references under the headings of grain, apples, chain, treasure. Folded into the page of Vico on which the passage appeared was a bill for candles on the back of which Ash had written: “The individual appears for an instant, joins the community of thought, modifies it and dies; but the species, that dies not, reaps the fruit of his ephemeral existence.” Roland copied this out and made another card, on which he interrogated himself: “Query? Is this a quotation or is it Ash himself? Is Proserpina the Species? A very C19 idea. Or is she the individual? When did he put these papers in here? Are they pre- or post-The Origin of Species? Not conclusive anyway—he cd have been interested in Development generally.…”