Skip Navigation

Submitted Literature

Possession: A Romance

By A S Byatt


Possession brings together multiple narratives – present day scholars researching two fictional Victorian poets and the complicated story of the poets themselves. The wife of one of these Victorian poets, Ellen Ash, is unable to consummate her marriage, remaining celibate until the death of her husband. Much of the novel focuses on the relationship her husband then forges with a contemporary writer, Christabel LaMotte, who bears a child with him illegitimately, and both characters are examined in depth. Through letters, poetry, and a parallel narrative set in the postmodern era, we unravel the story that links the scholars, Christabel, Ellen and her husband Randolph, and learn about the intimacies of their relationships with each other.  


The novel is not exactly a narrative of madness – rather one focusing on the intricacies of sexual relationships, and the toll on women’s mental health when their attitudes or physical capabilities don’t match what is expected of them. Possession focuses largely on many different female characters and their exploration of their own sexuality – both in the Victorian era which the scholars are studying, and the postmodern era. The restraints on sexual expression both in the near past and the Victorian era are exposed, and it is the themes of possession of the body, of personal mental faculties, and of the body of others which bind the characters together. 

Key Themes:

  • Psychosexual Disorders

Significant Quotes / Pages

109 – ‘‘We may imagine her sitting there, smiling demurely under her bonnet, holding her skirts away from the wet, whilst Randolph contemplated his possession […] of the lady he had worshipped from afar, through so many hindrances and difficulties’’

355 – ‘‘The idea of Woman is less than brilliant’’

366 – ‘‘I dislike the hatred, which seems to come from outside myself and take possession of me, like some great bird fixing its hooked beak in me, like some hungry thing with a hot pelt and angry eyes that look out of mine that leaves my better self, with her pleasant smile and her serviceableness, helpless’’

422 – ‘‘Milk hurts,’ Maud said. ‘A woman with milk who can’t feed a child, is in pain.’’’

423 – ‘‘Things had changed between them nevertheless. They were children of a time and culture which mistrusted love, ‘in love’, romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure. They were theoretically knowing: they knew about phallocracy and penisneid, punctuation, puncturing and penetration, about polymorphous and polysemous perversity, orality, good and bad breasts, clitoral tumescence, vesicle persecution, the fluids, the solids, the metaphors for these, the systems of desire and damage, infantile greed and oppression and transgression, the iconography of the cervix and the imagery of the expanding and contracting Body, desired, attacked, consumed, feared’’.

459 – ‘‘An attempt. A hand not pushed away. Tendons like steel, teeth in pain, clenched, clenched.

The approach, the locked gateway, the panic, the whimpering flight.

Not once, but over and over and over’.


459 – ‘‘The eagerness, the terrible love, with which she had made it up to him, his abstinence, making him a thousand small comforts, cakes and titbits. She became his slave. Quivering at every word. He had accepted her love.’’

Reference: A S, Byatt. 1990. Possession: A Romance. London: Vintage, 1991


Ms Hannah Loret-Howick
Date Review Submitted: Tuesday 26th January 2016