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AS Byatt

Dame A.S. Byatt is a British novelist, academic, and short story writer. She is best known for her 1990 novel, Possession, that explores the themes of academic ownership and love. Byatt has also published multiple short story collections.

Below is a biography of Byatt and an overview of some of her key novels. You will also find an exploration of her short stories and an explanation of why poetry is important to Byatt's work.

A.S. Byatt: biography

A.S. Byatt was born Antonia Susan Drabble on 24th August 1936 in Sheffield. Byatt's father was a lawyer, and her mother a schoolteacher. Her mother was also one of the first female graduates from Cambridge. Byatt went to Sheffield High School and then followed her mother's footsteps to attend Cambridge University.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Byatt held various teaching and lecturing positions. She became known in literary and academic circles, gaining a full-time lecturing position at University College London. She was also appointed as one of the judges on the panel for the prestigious Booker Prize.

Byatt began publishing from the 1960s onwards. Her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, was published in 1964, with her second, The Game, following in 1967. Byatt also published academic works, including a study on the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

In 1959, Byatt married Ian Byatt, and the couple had two children, a son and a daughter. They split ten years later, in 1969. In the same year, Byatt married Peter Duffy, who is her current husband. The couple has two daughters. In 1972, Byatt's son from her first marriage died tragically in a car accident at the age of eleven. The grief had a huge impact on Byatt.

Byatt continually wrote throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but her real breakthrough came with her 1990 novel, Possession. The novel follows two academics, Roland and Maud, in 1980s England as they attempt to uncover a previously unknown romance between two Victorian poets. Possession became a bestseller, being translated into multiple languages. It also won the Booker Prize in the same year it was published.

From the late 1980s onwards, A.S. Byatt also began publishing collections of short stories, which proved to be very successful. These collections include Sugar and Other Stories (1987) and Little Black Book of Stories (2003). Byatt was also made a dame for her contributions to literature.

Today, A.S. Byatt is a critically respected novelist and short story writer. She is still writing.

A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble

A.S. Byatt is the eldest of four children in the Drabble family. She has two sisters and one brother. One of her sisters is Margaret Drabble, the well-known novelist and critic. Some of Drabble's works include The Millstone (1965) and The Needle's Eye (1972). Like her sister, Drabble has also been made a dame.

There has been much speculation about the relationship between Byatt and Drabble. Many believe they do not see eye to eye and seek evidence of this in their respective novels. For example, Byatt's novel, The Game (1967), details a fractured relationship between two sisters. Drabble took great offence at the depictions in this semi-autobiographical work.

Byatt has admitted that she and her sister have always been professionally competitive and that she often felt threatened by Drabble's success. However, as an older writer, Byatt now cares more about her work than anything else.1 Both sisters have accused the press of sensationalising their relationship, but the fact remains that neither reads the other's work.

A.S. Byatt: novels

Now let's look at some of Byatt's best-known novels.

A.S. Byatt: The Shadow of the Sun (1964)

The Shadow of the Sun was Byatt's first novel. It revolves around the story of Anna Severall, a young woman and aspiring writer in 1950s England. Anna is a shy and retiring person because she lives in the shadow of her father, Henry, who is a successful author. Anna often tries to run away from the reality of her life but always returns home out of fear.

Oliver Channing, a prominent critic of Henry Severall's, comes to stay at the Severall family home with his wife, Margaret. A series of complex and intertwined relationships develop. Anna moves from relying on her father to relying on Oliver, who she places on a pedestal. Oliver enjoys this and attempts to control her to gain the upper hand over Henry. Oliver feels he has ultimately done this once he sleeps with Anna. Margaret and Henry also become close. Anna experiences a watershed moment during a thunderstorm. She feels an urge to run out in the rain and does so. Oliver tries to stop her, but she refuses. Anna has finally gained a sense of independence and agency.

Anna then goes to Cambridge, where she becomes involved with a man named Peter Hughes-Winterton. Once again, she falls back into old patterns and allows Peter to control her. Oliver arrives and saves her from this relationship. However, this means Anna is now under his control again. She discovers she is pregnant. Peter offers to marry her and raise the child together, but Anna does not want this. She fears being trapped in a domestic role for the rest of her life. Anna tries to flee to York and pursue her dream of being a writer, but Oliver stops her. It is decided that Anna will have the baby and remain with Oliver. She ends The Shadow of the Sun trapped and confined.

Byatt's novel captures the fears of many women during the 1950s and 1960s. Although opportunities for women were improving, society still expected them to be wives and mothers above all else. The Shadow of the Sun shows how hard it can be for women to escape patriarchal realities.

A.S. Byatt: Possession (1990)

Possession is the novel that changed Byatt's career and launched her to fame. It was a bestseller and a work of historical fiction that follows two English academics as they investigate a hidden love story between two Victorian poets. Through the course of their investigations, these two academics also fall in love.

Historical fiction is when a text is set in a different time period to the one it was written and published in. Famous works of historical fiction include Ian McEwan's Atonement (2011) and War and Peace (1867) by Leo Tolstoy.

Possession begins with the academic Roland Michell, an expert on the fictional Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Roland discovers love letters in an old book that once belonged to Ash. This is shocking as Ash was always thought to be happily married. Roland secretly takes the letters and begins an investigation to discover their addressee.

Roland's investigations lead him to team up with Maud Bailey, an expert scholar on the little-known Victorian Feminist poet Christabel LaMotte. This is who Roland believes Ash was having an affair with. Maud is distantly related to LaMotte, and she also becomes invested in uncovering the truth about the two poets' affair. Roland and Maud feel possessive over the story of LaMotte and Ash.

Roland and Maud investigate extensively, travelling around both England and France. They come across a significant amount of love letters between LaMotte and Ash, proving that they were lovers. The two poets shared an intense and passionate love affair, despite the various barriers they faced. They were only split apart by LaMotte falling pregnant. She kept this secret from Ash and gave their daughter to her sister to raise as her own.

Other unscrupulous academics have also become interested in the story of LaMotte and Ash. Roland, Maud, and various colleagues meet at Ash's grave. Here, they uncover a letter from LaMotte and a lock of hair that have been buried with the poet. LaMotte's letter explains about their daughter to Ash but seems unopened. The academics assume Ash was not able to read the letter and, therefore, never knew he had a daughter. However, Byatt's postscript reveals that Ash did meet his daughter as a young girl and recognised her. The lock of hair in his grave is hers.

Possession ends with Roland and Maud realising that they too, have fallen in love. Like LaMotte, Maud has always feared men trying to possess her because of her beauty, but she is finally moving past this fear. The love story of LaMotte and Ash has ignited a parallel love story between Maud and Roland.

Can you draw any similarities between the themes of The Shadow of the Sun and the themes of Possession?

A.S. Byatt: short stories

A.S. Byatt began publishing short story collections in the late 1980s and has continued into the twentieth century.

Her first collection, Sugar and Other Stories (1987), contains eleven stories, many of which have self-referential qualities. The title story of the collection, 'Sugar', follows a woman as she tries to uncover her family's history. She does this while her father is extremely ill in hospital in Amsterdam. The woman's attempts are continually thwarted by her own mother, who has a tenuous relationship with the truth. She comes to terms with the fact that she is unsure if some of her childhood memories are real or mere fabrications by her mother. Her father reveals that he has been similarly influenced by his wife. In 'Sugar', Byatt introspectively explores the complex relationship between truth and fiction.

Byatt's other short story collections include:

  • The Matisse Stories (1993)
  • Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998)
  • Little Black Book of Stories (2003)

A.S. Byatt: poetry

While A.S. Byatt never published poetry of her own, the form is still key to her work. As an academic and lecturer, Byatt took an interest in poetry, studying Wordsworth and Coleridge. This had an impact on the novels she went on to write.

Byatt's most famous novel, Possession, focuses on poetry as essential. Both Roland and Maud are academics that specialise in studying poets. Ash and LaMotte's status as poets was key to their identities. Byatt also includes poems throughout the text of Possession. Some of these are by real historical poets, like John Donne and Alfred Tennyson. However, many are fictional poems of Byatt's own creation, attributed to either Ash or LaMotte. As scholars, Roland and Maud use the poems of Ash and LaMotte to discover more about the two poets. By including the poems in the text of Possession, Byatt allows readers to do the same thing.

AS Byatt - Key takeaways

  • A.S. Byatt is a famous novelist and short story writer.
  • Byatt's sister, Margaret Drabble, is also a successful author, and the two have a turbulent relationship.
  • Byatt's first novel was The Shadow of the Sun in 1964.
  • Possession (1990), a tale about both academic and romantic ownership, proved to be Byatt's most popular work.
  • A.S. Byatt has also published many short story collections to critical acclaim.

References

  1. Mira Stout, What Possessed A.S. Byatt?, The New York Times, 1991.

Frequently Asked Questions about AS Byatt

A.S. Byatt has written multiple novels and short story collections but her most famous novel is Possession (1990).

Margaret Drabble is Byatt's sister.

A.S. Byatt won the Booker Prize with Possession.

Byatt is known as a novelist, short story writer, and academic.

A.S. Byatt wrote Possession

Final AS Byatt Quiz

Question

When was Possession published?

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1990.

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What genre is Possession?

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Romance.

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What are two key themes in Possession?

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Ownership and the past.

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Who did the lock of hair in Ash's grave belong to?

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He and LaMotte's daughter.

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Why is Maud wary of men and relationships?

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Because in the past she has been treated like an object to be owned.

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Why is Maud given legal ownership of all of LaMotte and Ash's correspondence?

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Because she is their direct descendent.

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What is the major barrier to Ash and LaMotte's romance?

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LaMotte's pregnancy.

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Why does Mortimer Cropper want possession over his research?

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For power and glory.

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What do LaMotte and Maud share a fear of?

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Being possessed and controlled by the person they are in a relationship with.

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What are two things the scholars in Possession never discover?

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Who the lock of hair in Ash's grave really belonged to and the fact that Ash met and recognised his daughter.

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What point is Byatt making about history in her novel?

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That there will always be a distance between history and those who study it.

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Why is the discovery of LaMotte's love for Ash surprising?

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Most scholars thought her to be a lesbian.

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What is the name of LaMotte's former home?

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Seal Court.

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What are three traits that could be used to describe Roland?

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Struggling, driven, and meek.

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Why does Roland believe he cannot possess Maud?

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Because of her success and beauty.

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When was Possession published?

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1990.

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What two genres does Possession fit under?

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Romance and historical fiction.

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What are two key themes in Possession?

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Passion and women.

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What are two important aspects of historical context to remember for Possession?

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Second wave feminism and Victorian society.

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What is the definition of historical fiction?

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A story that is set in a different time than the one it was written and published in.

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Why is LaMotte's pregnancy scandalous in Victorian society?

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Because she and Ash are not married and he is married to another.

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What kind of passion do Roland and Maud initially show?

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Passion for their work.

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What gets in the way of Roland and Maud's relationship?

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Maud's fear of passion and wish to avoid being objectified.

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Why do LaMotte and Blanche isolate themselves?

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To pursue their art and avoid social pressures.

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When did second wave feminism begin?

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The 1960s.

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What did second wave feminism focus on?

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Systemic gender inequalities and reproductive rights.

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What element of academic second wave feminism does Maud critique?

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Its focus on sexuality.

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How was marriage seen in Victorian society?

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As something sacred.

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What is a patriarchy?

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A patriarchy is a society in which the sexes are unequal; men are privileged and women are subordinated. 

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Why does LaMotte keep her pregnancy secret?

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To avoid a scandal.

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When was A.S. Byatt born?

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24th August 1936.

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Which novel launched Byatt to fame?

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Possession (1990).

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True or false: as an academic, Byatt conducted a study into the poet John Keats and the novelist Mary Shelley.

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False: Byatt's study was into the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

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Which two real poets did Byatt include work by in Possession?

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John Donne and Alfred Tennyson.

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What kind of relationship does Byatt have with her sister, Margaret Drabble?

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A complex and turbulent one.

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Which prestigious literary prize was Byatt on the judging panel for?

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The Booker Prize.

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In The Shadow of the Sun, why is Anna a shy and retiring person?

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Because she lives in the shadow of her father Henry.

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What is a common theme in Anna's relationships with men in The Shadow of the Sun?

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She allows them to control her.

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What difficulty does The Shadow of the Sun showcase?

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The difficulty for women to escape patriarchal realities.

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What is the definition of historical fiction?

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Historical fiction is when a text is set in a different time period than the one it is written and published in.

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What split Ash and LaMotte apart?

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LaMotte's secret pregnancy.

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Who does the lock of hair belong to in Ash's grave?

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His and LaMotte's daughter.

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What was the name of Byatt's first poetry collection?

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Answer

Sugar and Other Stories (1987).

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Which literary form is key to Byatt's work despite her never publishing in it?

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Poetry.

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Why does the woman in 'Sugar' struggle to uncover the truth about her family's past?

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Answer

Because of her mother's lies and fabrications.

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