Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Possession

Go To

"When a writer call his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim 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 probably and ordinary course of man's experience. The former — while as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while its 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."
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Preface to The House of the Seven Gables.

Possession: A Romance is a novel by A.S. Byatt.

Set in 1980s England, Possession is about a scholar, Roland Michell, who while working at the London Library finds letters that suggest a relationship between two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. He gets in touch with a Professor in Lincoln, Maud Bailey, who specialises in Christabel's life and work, and together they begin their quest to prove that there was a relationship - but not without help, and competition, from other scholars who want their bit of credit.

Has nothing to do with Demonic Possession although there's a comparison or two, and characters talk about being possessed by ideas or irresistible impulses, in keeping with the many delightful plays on words and references.

It is also not to be confused with the 1981 drama Possession, or the 2012 Sam Raimi film The Possession.


This work provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Christabel and Blanche were likely lovers. After the discovery of the letters, Christabel becomes Ambiguously Bi.
  • Animal Motif: Roland's soft, dark features and his underground living earn him the unwanted nickname "Mole" from his girlfriend.
    • Christabel is often compared to a bird.
  • Broken Bird: Christabel after she finds out she's pregnant.
    • Blanche, after Christabel who's been her lover has her affair with Randolph.
    • Both Maud and Roland, she by a love affair that turned out nasty, he by his entire upbringing and misfortunes in employment. Blackadder is this as well, given his training at the hands of an egotistical Cambridge don who specialized in destroying the confidence of his students.
    • Roland's girlfriend Val too, though she's more pitiable than sympathetic. Forced to become a secretary instead of a scholar in her own right; her doctoral essay on Ash was dismissed as having been written for her by Roland, who hadn't so much as looked at it.
  • Advertisement:
  • D-Cup Distress: Beatrice Nest. Referred to as "her embarrassment", they have dictated and in some ways ruined her life.
  • Diary: The diaries of Henry Crabb Robinson (a real person, a journalist, attorney and diarist/memoirist), Ellen Ash, Blanche Glover and Sabine de Kercoz are nested within the novel
  • Driven to Suicide: Blanche Glover drowns herself after discovering Christabel's affair with Randolph.
  • The '80s: Roland finds the drafts of Ash's letters in late 1986 and the novel finishes around the Great Storm of 1987.
  • Epistolary Novel: The letters between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte form the basis of the plot.
  • Expy: The fictional Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte are based off real Victorian poets, in both poetic style and in their lives.
    • For Randolph, it's Robert Browning. Ash also contains a hint of Alfred, Lord Tennyson as both were named the poet laureate under Queen Victoria.
    • For Christabel, it's Christina Rossetti. Both were born to immigrant fathers and English mothers (Italian for Rossetti, French-Breton for LaMotte), both were strongly religious which influenced their poetry and both died unmarried. Roland even guesses that Ash's letters were written for Rossetti before dismissing the idea. Christabel's style in poetry is strongly reminiscent of Emily Dickinson, who also drafted a series of mysterious, unsent letters to someone called "Master" who's never been identified. And of course there are elements of Browning's real-life wife Elizabeth Barrett - the romance between the two was legendary; and like Christabel, Barrett's work fell in to a long period of unfashionable dismissal, before being reappreciated by feminist scholars.
  • Famous Ancestor: Maud is Christabel's great-great-great-grand-niece.
    • Mortimer Cropper's great-grandmother was the prominent socialite, philanthropist, entrepreneur and Spiritualist medium Priscilla Penn Cropper.
  • Grave Robbing: Cropper illegally exhumes Randolph and Ellen Ash's grave to steal the box that Ellen had buried with them.
  • Happily Married: Randolph and Ellen, as Ellen wrote at the end of her husband's life that they went forty-one years of marriage without fighting. Ellen even knew about and forgave Randolph for his adulterous relationship with Christabel because she loved him.
  • Historical Domain Character: Real-life lawyer and diarist Crabb Robinson is briefly given a voice when Roland makes his first concrete connection between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte.
    • A Shout-Out is given to Robert Dale Owen (D-IN), social reformer, feminist, advocate for free love and birth control, anti-slavery activist, co-founder of the New Harmony Commune and ardent Spiritualist. Cropper works at a university in Utah named after him.
  • Identical Grandson: Despite their distant relationship, Roland points out that Maud resembles Christabel and Randolph.
  • Kind Hearted Cat Lover: Roland, at the very end. The landlady's 17 cats (never allowed outside) have saturated Roland and Val's basement apartment in cat box odor. She's taken to hospital and the cats escape, whereupon Roland feeds them and arranges for their welfare.
  • Meaningful Name: Christabel is named after the poem of the same name by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Maud Bailey and Christabel LaMotte, both of whom jealously guard their autonomy, are named after a type of castle.
  • Merlin and Nimue: The story of Merlin and Vivien is a recurring motif.
  • Mystical White Hair: Christabel's hair is a very pale blonde and while she is not actually supernatural, she does have a somewhat ethereal air to her and writes poetry about The Fair Folk. Maud appears slightly fae too, with her green attire and very light blonde hair, especially as she conceals it most of the time.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: While it's widely considered that Ellen Ash was a regularly dull Victorian housewife, Beatrice Nest becomes convinced that she was far more shrewd that expected and wrote her diary with the intention to baffle its readers.
  • Postmodernism and Feminism are discussed intelligently.
  • Sassy Black Woman: Leonora Stern, who is mixed race, has the kind of personality that fills up entire rooms. She is bisexual, and it's implied she ends up with Blackadder.
  • Sexless Marriage: Randolph and Ellen, as Ellen is terrified of sex. Then, even when Randolph is very gentle and she wants to go through with it, she's physically unable; we know her condition today as vaginismus. The scene where this is described is one of the most tragic in the novel.
  • Show Within a Show: The poetry of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte.
  • Spooky Séance: Randolph's and Christabel's last meeting is at one of these. Whether or not anything psychic really happens, Randolph calls this his "Gaza Exploit", comparing himself to Samson tearing down the Philistine temple, and writes "Mummy Possest", a poem about fake mediums. Robert Browning actually did expose a fake at a seance note  — and wrote "Mr. Sludge, the Medium".
  • The Wild West: Mortimer Cropper is American and frequently described in terms befitting a gunslinger. At one point The Virginian is invoked.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: