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This interview is taken from PN Review 77, Volume 17 Number 3, January - February 1991.

A.S. Byatt in conversation Nicolas Tredell
A.S. Byatt in Conversation


Nicolas Tredell: With its romance form and its partly Victorian setting, your latest novel, Possession, clearly differs in significant ways from your earlier fiction . How did Possession come about?

A.S. Byatt: It came about really because I had the idea for the title. I'm putting together this collection of my essays, and the chap who was helping me discovered a review I did in 1974 of a book of essays by John Beer, and it said: 'I often think of writing a novel called Possession'.
 I'd had the idea when I was working on Coleridge in the British Library, and there was Kathleen Coburn working on him, and it came to me that possession worked both ways - she thought Coleridge's thoughts and his thoughts were entirely mediated by her. Then much later I got the ideas of the spiritualist mediums, possession in that sense, and sexual possession, if you had two poets rather than one, and economic possession. So, in a sense, it began quite differently from the other novels I've written. With, as it were, almost a witty concept, an idea. The people grew out of the idea and out of a sort of passion I had for Victorian poetry. And the modern characters are very secondary to the interest in the 19th century.

That sense of belatedness, of the modern characters as pale shadows compared to the Victorian titans who precede them, comes across very strongly in the novel. Were you happy to achieve that?

That was wholly intentional. It was partly a feeling, in reaction to the modern university situation, that critics are tiny little people compared to writers: which is not a fashionable thing to say because all the critics are attempting to extrude. It's partly also to do with bits of my own intellectual history. My great friend Isobel Armstrong, to whom Possession is dedicated, has had, during the whole of my acquaintance with her, a theory that the great Victorian poets have never been seen to be as great or as complex as they are, partly because Leavis and Empson chose to disparage them. And the more you read them, the more you realize that, for instance, In Memoriam is one of the absolute great poems in English literature. So it was partly a sense that these poets hadn't had justice done to them. Then there was a quite other starting point, which was my technical realization that John Fowles had pulled off The French Lieutenant's Woman, not because his knowledge of Victorian literature was vast, but because he had used a convention of illicit sexuality to make sexuality exciting again. About five years later, I had the thought that one of the reasons that sex isn't interesting now isn't because of the permissiveness of the novels, but because of the endless sexual analysis of everything done by theorists. So I started my satirical framework with all those things in mind. Then of course I realized I was actually allowed to be interested in plot. When I was starting to write at Cambridge in the fifties, what one admired was, say, Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer, in which the heroine is sitting in a teashop, and the person she's waiting for doesn't come, and the whole of the future is indeterminate. Then later on you got all these multiple, variant narratives like the end of The French Lieutenant's Woman, or like Barthelme beginning his impossible narratives by saying that someone was dead then telling his life. So in a sense I was writing closure both in a highly theoretical way, and out of intense pleasure.

Yes, while Possession is quite a plural text in some respects, the use of the conventions of the romance and of the Victorian novel do conduce to closure. You're unrepentant about that?

I think closure is the really revolutionary narrative mode at the moment. Well, it must be, these things come in circles. I think part of the excitement about fairy tales, which increasingly people have got excited about, not only the feminists, is that they do have a beginning, a middle and an end, and I think people have a sort of huge hunger for this.

You don't feel that closure is an ideological imposition, as the post-structuralists argue?

I think they're confusing art with life when they say that. And ideas of the random, of the haphazardness and ungraspability of life, have been grossly exaggerated. When Virginia Woolf says that life hits us as a series of random impressions, it jolly well doesn't. It hits us as a series of narratives, though they may be mutually exclusive narratives. We may be hit by random impressions, but if we're intelligent we immediately put them into an order. Yet everybody accepts Virginia Woolf's remark quite uncritically, whereas if you say stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end, they say, no, no, no.

A potentially controversial aspect of Possession is its treatment of feminism. The novel could seem to suggest, for example, that Maud's feminism is really very superficial, and she finds that the pressure of the past and of her desire for Roland goes far deeper. Is Possession an attempt to put feminism in its place?

It's a double-edged weapon. Anybody who reads what Christabel says and what Blanche says should see that it's a very, very feminist book. It's about the right of a woman to be a great writer and to put her work first. Elaine Feinstein, in her review of the book, righly saw the true point of contact between Maud and Christabel as the moment when Christabel gives a cry which I think is my cry throughout the book: you're taking away my autonomy, you're giving me something wonderful that I regard as secondary, my work is what matters: and nevertheless she falls heavily in love because she's a very powerful and passionate woman. And Maud has got Roland sitting in her room, and he doesn't know what to do, and she's trying to write an essay, and Elaine Feinstein quoted a passage that I'd forgotten that I'd written: 'If he went out of the room it would be grey and empty. If he did not go out of it, how could she concentrate?' (p. 430). I think Maud does hold her feminist views, but she hasn't solved, by holding them, the problem of how to behave, and she hasn't, which I think is purely comic, solved the problem of being very beautiful. I've known two or three very beautiful women and they've all had this problem of not being sure who they were. I know a very blonde woman who went to a feminist congress and was severely criticized because they assumed that she had dyed her hair. I think Christabel's feminism in the 19th century, which was partly instinctive, is a wonderful thing. And I've tried to reproduce the social circumstances which make her automatically abase herself as a poet before Randolph, though I think she secretly knows she might be better, but she only knows it intermittently. I really don't want, myself, to be ghettoized by modern feminists into writing about women's problems.

But does Possession give feminism its due ? In your earlier fiction - for instance, with Anna in Shadow of a Sun, and with Stephanie in The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life - you evoke with great power the enormous pressures women come under, from fathers, from lovers, from husbands, from children. It could be argued that what Anna and Stephanie lacked, in their day, was some kind of discourse of feminism that would have helped them to articulate and possibly to alter their situation.

I think it's rather like George Eliot. The feminists in her own day accused her of not joining in, and yet the powerful images of what it was like to be a woman who couldn't use what she had got are those she produced in her creation of Dorothea in Middlemarch, not what they said. I honestly hope and believe that the existence of Stephanie and Anna is as strong a statement as any that I could theoretically make, and as much use. I read a very good article about descriptions of childbirth by women which assumes that my accounts of childbirth in the nineteen fifties and sixties are informed by feminist perspectives, whereas in fact they are simply accurate memories of, for instance, the rage I felt at not being allowed to walk up and down when I was in labour. It's nothing to do with feminist theory having told me that, I observed it. If Christabel's poetry is properly read, it contains all sorts of images which modern feminist scholarship has made available for me to see as the powerful guiding images of women's lot. I think I'm fighting a different theoretical battle, for the work of art not to be propaganda.

The argument today would be that your position is itself -

An ideological position. Of course it is. But is that the most interesting thing about it, having said that? I suppose I also think, when I really consider it, that the feminist movement, whatever its virtues, has not produced any satisfactory answer to what I see as the major biological/intellectual problem of women. Unless you choose doctrinaire lesbianism, which happens not to interest me either biologically or theoretically - people may if they wish, but it's not my line - this problem is what to do with the fact that you're a childbearing animal and that, whatever the feminists say, the nurturing of small children is a female thing. Men may join in, and this may be very desirable as a piece of social engineering, but damn it, one's instincts are there, you can't theorize them away. And this seems to me a more important problem than, say, Mary Jacobus trying to find a prise for feminist consciousness in reading The Prelude.

Possession also takes issue with post-structuralism, particularly with its challenge to notions of the substantial self and of character. But nonetheless, the way the novel is written, with its proliferation of putative texts and its range of linguistic registers, gives a greater sense than in your previous novels that the characters are, in a way, textual products . They're not portrayed in the same way as the characters in, say, The Virgin in the Garden or Still Life.

No, they're not. Possession is a postmodernist, post-structuralist novel and it knows it is. It does present itself as a piece of Victorian melodrama, but of course it's no such thing. I don't believe it's possible to do that in good faith now. There's a marvellous bit in Bakhtin where, I think he's talking about the parodies of sonnets in Cervantes, and he says that they are, of course, perfectly formed sonnets, but the subject of the parody is always the sonnet. And because Possession is, in places, a parody of a Victorian poem and a Victorian novel and of an epistolatory novel, the subject of the novel is, as in postmodernist fiction, the novel, the book. But within that, it is also a sort of passionate plea for readers to be allowed to identify with characters. I mean, you can do both. You can both feel the passion of Ash and Christabel, and do the standing-back and thinking. You don't have to cut one out. Most postmodernist fiction cuts out any emotion very much earlier on. It doesn't allow the reader any pleasure, except in the cleverness of the person constructing the postmodernist fiction. I think that's boring. I think you can have all the other pleasures as well.

You actually invented poets, rather than using real 19th century ones. Was there any particular reason for that?

There were several reasons. I had originally thought of possibly doing it about the two Brownings, because they would bring in the sexual meaning of the keyword. Then I thought, you're in danger of a terrible libel action and you're actually very restricted in inventing your scholars if you do that. I also had this desire to have freedom of movement in inventing what happened to them and how they felt. And if I put real people into it, it could be much more anti-fictive, and since it was partly about the power of the fictive over the critical, it had to be fictive. Then I had the idea that I would do what Robertson Davies does in The Lyre of Orpheus; he invents a libretto for an opera without Orpheus, and for the lyrics he uses what he claims are the works of an obscure Victorian poet; I haven't checked, but I think it's all Thomas Lovell Beddoes. And I said to Dennis Enright - I really do owe him a huge debt - that I might do that, seize obscure bits of poetry. He looked at me robustly and drew himself up to his full height, and said: Nonsense, you write them yourself. I suddenly saw he was right, of course. The challenge was to create the poems as well as the people.

Did you find the poems difficult to write?

I thought I would find it awful, and then, when I started, something rather like possession actually did happen, and the whole of my passion for Victorian verse, and for blank verse as opposed to free verse, and for rhyming lyrics as opposed to delicate little half-lost lines which are again full of indeterminacy, came up, and all the poems somehow got written. The poems are part of the text, in the sense that they were all written at the place where they came in the text. The ordinary reader doesn't have to read it like that, but each poem should be read in its place and it's part of the metaphorical structure of the place it's in.

You've spoken in the past, for example in your essay.'Nature morte', of seeing the structure of your novels in terms of visual images. Did you have these images when you were writing Possession?

Yes, I did. I don't think I drew it in quite the way I drew the others. And it wasn't as controlled by colour words: The Virgin in the Garden was red, white and green, and Still Life was purple and blue. I think the next one, Babel Tower , is probably red and black, but I haven't quite worked it out. But I saw Possession much more in terms of a series of different sorts of pictures. What did I see? I saw a kind of cat's cradle of patterns in which the linear narrative - I always have that pattern, which I got from reading Spenser really, in which there's a kind of linear narrative, and then an enclosed space which is a metaphor, or an object, or in this case a poem, which you interrogate differently, but which is part of the narrative movement; the line goes through it, it doesn't stop and start again. What colours did I see? I have a terribly clear visual image as I speak to you; it's something to do with a lot of different-coloured flowers on grass. It's very paradisal, and it's to do with the image of the tree and the serpent and the woman in the paradise garden, which comes from a wonderful book by John Armstrong called The Paradise Myth . He says there is a sort of archetype, that he's found in paintings and myths and poems and everywhere, of a closed garden which always contains a boundary, and a river crossing the boundary, and a figure like Hermes in the Primavera who is pointing out, and a figure of the woman and a figure of the serpent in some form. I saw Possession as a series of endless variations on this theme in totally different pictorial styles, some of them abstract. The worst moment was when they were trying to cut it, and I knew that the poem which ought to go was Randolph Ash's about the Garden of Persephone, and yet that was, in a sense, the central meaning of the novel. It starts with Vico's image of language and mythology as corn. It's exactly the same image as in The Virgin in the Garden: language is flowers, the flowers coming from the mouth of the Primavera. The reason I love North Yorkshire so is that for me language and the earth are wholly intertwined there. There are these wonderful words like the Boggle Hole, Jugger Howe, Ugglebarnby. It's a sort of image of a paradisal state as in our idea, Foucault's idea, of a 16th century in which words denote things. And of course, that's why I get so distressed by literary theories which say language is a self-supporting system that bears no relation to things. Because I don't experience it in that way. I don't have any naive vision of words and things being one-to-one equivalents, but they're woven, like a sort of great net of flowers on the top of the surface of things.

But don't your own later novels, especially The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, tend to encourage the idea of language as a self-supporting system? You take such enormous pleasure in savouring words, almost for their own sake as it were, that words do start to escape from things.

Well, Coleridge wonderfully said that he was sure that words were things like other things in the world. And the truth is that if you're standing on Jugger Howe or you're at the Boggle Hole, all those things are there together, the spiders and the stones and the sea and the words Boggle and Hole and you're there and they're there and they're not separate systems. I know that Iris Murdoch is right, and that Wittgenstein is right, to say that, however much we may try to get at what is under the net, we're only ever describing the net. But if you make the meshes fine enough, the net is so beautiful that all the bumps and humps of things under it are so, yes, so accessible, you can actually sort of see them under the net.

It's interesting that you use the verb 'see' again in this context, because vision is very important in your fiction, in a range of senses, from a very rich kind of everyday seeing, to a concern with disturbances of vision, to attempts to evoke the visionary - as with Henry's very primal kind of vision in Shadow of a Sun, or Marcus's strange and intense visual experiences in The Virgin in the Garden. Could you explore the importance of vision in your novels?

It goes back to very early childhood experiences. There are five or six childhood experiences which I always feel sort of made me what I am, and they're all solitary and they're all to do with light or dark. The very first thing I can remember is lying in a pram on the grass and seeing the edge of the pram hood and the shape of the wash-house roof and a piece of blue sky, and I do actually think I remember coming back from seeing these to realizing that I was there, in that, and thinking, here I am. And then I remember, when I was a small child, being frightened of shapes moving on the ceiling at night - there was a tree outside my bedroom - and thinking, do I think this is a bear, no I don't think this is a bear, but it means that there are things you can see and not see. And then I remember - I was a desperately unhappy child, it must be said - sitting up against a barred gate at my elementary school trying to get away from the other children, and I was sitting very very still so they wouldn't notice me. It was a very hot, beautiful day, and on the other side of the gate was a little strip of road and then there was a huge meadow full of buttercups - it always comes back in my books, it comes back in the epilogue to Possession - absolutely full of flowers, all of which were reflecting the light back. And I remember thinking, things are amazing, they're wonderful, if one could see this instead of having to go back in there, it would all be alright. When I first met Charles Rycroft, I mentioned that Helen Gardner had told me that if you haven't thought a thing out in words, you haven't thought it. I said to Rycroft, it isn't true, I know that I know certain things and I know them in visual shapes, and the word may or may not come to be fitted to the pattern that I already know is there. And Rycroft said, of course, this is primary thought as opposed to secondary thought.

Your novels explore, in their form and content, different ways of structuring and ordering the world. In The Virgin in the Garden , you draw a fascinating distinction between a kind of organic ordering - the obverse of the dissociated sensibility, if you like - and the idea Frederica has, after her day out in Goathland when the doll salesman picks her up, of 'lamination' - of, as it were, dividing experience into thin plates or layers which lie alongside each other but don't interpenetrate. Could you say more about that idea of 'lamination'?

Yes. I was about to say earlier that Frederica is not a visionary. Stephanie is, Marcus is, but Frederica, I think, is in a way the modern world. And of course she's going to be very unhappy in the sixties, with all of the things that they stood for. I think the seventies and the eighties do laminate. And I suppose I think of lamination in two ways really. I remember thinking of it as a strategy for survival when I was Frederica's age, in the sense that I thought you could possibly manage to be both at once, a passionate woman and a passionate intellectual, and efficient, if you could just switch gear and switch gear from one to the other, but if you let them all run together organically, something messy would occur and you would get overwhelmed. On the other hand, I think I also have this desire to connect everything I see to everything else I see, which you could take organically, in the sense that everything is part of some monistic universe and that anyway it's all organic and connected because it's in my head, or which you could take as purely mechanical. But lamination was related to other things as well, like being in the middle of Goathland and knowing you ought not to be interested in the landscape because the Wordsworthian vision is no longer accessible. You know that, even while you're looking at the moors in an almost Wordsworthian way. But if you laminate it, you can have the Wordsworthian feeling and you can have the consciousness that you ought not to be having it. I invented the doll salesman and I did him by instinct. He also, in a sense, represents the modern world, because he makes dolls, not people, he makes identical images quite a lot less well than women. I felt that because he, who would never have been in Wordsworth, was in that landscape, one was allowed to have the Wordsworthian emotion back again even while saying you weren't allowed to have it.

You're talking, then, of a kind of modern consciousness which can still, in a sense, have primal experiences, but only in a divided, self-conscious way. There's no return to innocence?

No, but I'm not sure there ever was innocence, you see. I think it's a misreading of Wordsworth and Coleridge to suppose that they thought there was. The child in the 'Immortality Ode' is a fiction, and the child Wordsworth in The Prelude who was part of the mountains is a fiction. I don't want to go back, I never have wanted to go back. But I also think that if one's spent the whole of one's life worrying about T.S. Eliot and the dissociated sensibility, he must have said something that in some sense was true, or we wouldn't have been worrying about it. We would have just not understood what he was saying. And thinking back to the paradigm of oneself standing at the Boggle Hole with the words Boggle and Hole and all the light off the sea and the spiders and the ammonites: you think very fast about Lyell and time and geology and what you are and what you might write. It's all part of one thing really. And is it as immediate as the odour of a rose? I think it is. I think my thoughts are.

But it's the notion of 'immediacy', whether of thought or of sensuous experience, that has been a crucial target of post-structuralism and deconstruction.

I will tell you another story. Before I had the job at University College, I used to go to Frank Kermode's seminars on literary theory, and I enjoyed that. That was a wonderful and very formative experience. We made acquaintance with Barthes and structuralism - I don't think we got as far as deconstruction, I don't think it was in, in those days. But I used to come out of those seminars and write down lists of words rather as Roland writes them in Possession (p. 431), words that were not amenable to that theoretical language, words which were part of what I feel is the central and not peripheral work of what I call writing. I never call it anything other than writing now, I don't call it creative work, and I do it in a sort of mischievous way in order to claim it. When I say writing, I mean somebody making something which they think to be a work of art - though there are pieces of literary writing which call themselves criticism, like that Eliot essay on 'dissociation of sensibility', which actually are works of art. I think immediacy is an illusion, but I don't feel it. I mean, my actual consciousness denies it wholly. I think that most of the language in which this metaphysics of presence is talked about is an illusion; the word 'immediacy' is not the same as the odour of a rose. I feel it to be a language which, even if I learnt to handle it properly, wouldn't give me a great deal, whereas poetry does. And poets who have read some of that language and sensed some of those problems, they're alright. What I want to do in my novels is to describe varieties of human experience, like thinking very hard in abstract terms, which most novelists don't describe. And what I think I want to convey is that the experience of thinking very hard in abstract terms is just as immediate as the experience of standing next to a rosebush.

You mention the University College seminars, and you've been involved with the teaching of literature as a university lecturer and also through serving on the CNAA and the Kingman Committee on the National Curriculum. Has your service on those bodies changed your views about the way literature should be taught?

Sometimes I talk in a very alarmist way about how a culture of great complexity and beauty, which I value, is vanishing overnight, which I think is happening, and at other times I'm very excited by the new developments. I think the National Curriculum is possibly a very good thing, in the sense that all sorts of dotty educational theories will be curbed by it. All children will have to learn a body of knowledge. But then good teachers are going to be very inhibited by it, and I'm very deeply troubled, purely from the point of view of my own corner of the woods, by the disappearance of literature from most of the 'A' Level language subjects. I'm deeply troubled by the accusations of élitism that are levelled against anybody who really cares about the canon in the broadest sense as we have known it. Of course certain things have been taught that weren't actually worth bothering with, and certain things have not been taught that were marvellous, but to say everything must go out because it was once valued and that it's élitist to value things that everybody can't read I find very frightening. I find the whole concept of élitism very frightening because I think it does down exactly the people it's meant to be helping. It's alright for postgraduates to study popular novels, but then they've got a real technical interest, and a big enough social knowledge to see what in society is being reflected by these things. But I really don't think little children who haven't read a good novel should be studying the form of a bad one. I'm frightened to death by the banishing of the literature of the past - I might say that fairly clearly for the record. On the other hand, I've seen wonderful things going on when I've gone round with the CNAA, and I've seen some wonderful teaching going on at schools when I went round with Kingman. And I think if you talk to schoolteachers, you feel that they're terribly battered people who actually once cared very deeply about literature and could again if - I think the whole profession has been bedevilled ever since the nineteen fifties by turning the study of literature into a kind of huge piece of social engineering. I think Eliot was absolutely right that literature was being used as a substitute for religion, and it was then also used as a substitute for socialism. And the thing that went out of the window on both occasions was sensuous pleasure, without which, as Coleridge rightly said, there's no point at all. I mean, the primary purpose of literature, as Wordsworth and Coleridge knew, is pleasure. The thing is, the big people give you a much greater pleasure than Freddy Forsyth, whom I like reading, but who can't produce the kind of shiver that goes down your back when you realize that somebody's written something like 'that fair field/Of Enna, where Proserpine gathering flowers/Her self a fairer flower by gloomy Dis/Was gathered' (Paradise Lost, iv., 268-71).

May I ask you in conclusion about your future plans for your own fiction? You've mentioned that your next novel, continuing the series of The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, will be called Babel Tower, and it will presumably be coming up to the nineteen sixties in terms of period. Can you tell us more about that?

Babel Tower is about the cracking-up of language and the tearing-loose of language from the world. It ought not to be realistic in the way that The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life were, though they're both less classic realist novels than they look. What I want to do is to continue the note of the two previous novels, but I felt Babel Tower should be more fragmented up into a series of stylistic gestures and textures. I think I can write it as a cross between that and Possession . It's about voices as opposed to writing, and it and Volume Four move much more into different areas of visual art as a kind of paradigm. I thought that video art, for instance video portraits, which link up with Walter Benjamin and the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, would do very well for Babel Tower . It's different from the Primavera in The Virgin in the Garden and from Van Gogh in Still Life . I've got to get the beginning right. I want - in a sense, I want the Post Office Tower, because this novel is haunted by language towers, and the Post Office Tower is a sort of communications tower, isn't it? Then I have stuck a thing called the language tower into the imaginary new University of North Yorkshire, and the students attack this tower. And I've got the trial of an obscene book and a divorce case, and both, as it were, produce a kind of degradation of language, in the sense that the language of the court degrades the language both of the book and of the marriage. The novel also begins to be haunted by small children, the next generation arriving . . . Babel Tower's got a big notebook written, but it's got far too much plot, far too many characters, far too many ideas. The next thing is to do the chronology, because I think some of the things don't happen in the right relation to each other, and I shall see what that is if I do the chronology. Then I hope to write it during the next year-and-a-half, and also another book of short stories. I've got another novel after that which in many ways is going to be the sort of pleasure that Possession was. It's about a sort of children's story writer and it's going to be called - let me get this right - The Hedgehog, the White Goose and the Mad March Hare . I'm quite pleased with that. You see, those are nice words, hedgehog and white goose. You can't have a theory about those.

This interview is taken from PN Review 77, Volume 17 Number 3, January - February 1991.

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