Excerpted from the Introduction
The historical novel had been one of the glories of the nineteenth-century novel, but as the twentieth century progressed, it passed into the realms of the specialist and of the genre writer. Some of the novels the Victorians esteemed most highly had taken place outside living memory, and were virtuoso reconstructions of a lost period. The historical novels of Scott, Thackeray, Eliot and Dickens were not outside their main endeavour, but were at the centre and perhaps also the peak of it. (George Eliot was paid more for Romola than for any other novel.)
Perhaps the evocation of lost times is an occupation for a leisured and secure age. Certainly, as the twentieth century progressed, fewer and fewer novelists seemed inclined to take on the remote past as a subject, unless they were going to declare it as their specialist occupation. It was rare, by midcentury, that a historical novel would be given wide approval and serious consideration. When Evelyn Waugh broke off from his usual field to write his remarkable Helena, set in late Imperial Rome, audiences were nonplussed and critics largely dismissive of his seriousness. Even now, scholars of Waugh have a tendency to set it aside as less interesting than his other novels. It is a historical novel, and therefore not serious. The historical classics of the period somehow stand aside, like Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God . There were some undeniably distinguished writers who worked with the remote past, such as Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose The Corner that Held Them now seems a classic of the postwar novel. But most novelists who turned to the Middle Ages or elsewhere ran the risk of being regarded as having left the mainstream of novelistic seriousness, as one who wrote a science-fiction epic might nowadays. The field was left to specialists, such as Georgette Heyer or Waugh’s friend Alfred Duggan, whose qualities are only now starting to be assessed, or to Mary Renault, who started to find ways to discuss modern-day anxieties through the prism of the past.
By the time A. S. Byatt published Possession in 1990 , the mood had been changing for some time. Perhaps the first significant statement in the modern revival of the historical novel was John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1969 . Fowles did not satisfy himself with creating a masterly fictional texture, an illusionary recreation of the nineteenth century, but concerned himself about the relationship of the present and the past. The observer’s late twentieth-century eye explicitly incorporates concerns about nuclear devastation and views a lost reality with an existentialist eye; modern-day film actresses, bestsellers from the 1960 s (‘Victorian valley of the dolls’) and urinals which today stand where the Assembly Rooms once did; all combine to create a clear anxiety about the 1960 s, and not a deliberate reconstruction of a past. ‘She was Victorian,’ Fowles said, ‘and since I always saw her in the same static long shot, with her back turned, she represented a reproach on the Victorian age. An outcast.’ The form of the novel, too, is explicitly of the nouveau roman , with its multiple possible endings, a statement for the age of B. S. Johnson. The famous 1981 film of the novel, scripted by Harold Pinter and directed by Joseph Losey, made an important contribution by constructing two parallel narratives, one in the past, the other in the present day. Many novels, in the decades to come, would follow the same double narrative path, present in the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman but not its source novel.
In the years after 1969 , a series of serious novelists began to turn to remote history as a proper subject for new, serious fiction. J. G. Farrell’s great sequence of empire had obvious applicability to current-day concerns, as well as a very modern appreciation of absurdity, as Farrell demonstrated when he denounced the Booker Prize for its sponsorship of an ongoing colonialism, even as the prize was awarded to him for The Siege of Krishnapur in 1973 . V .S. Naipaul’s magisterial fictional endeavour, too, was starting to place historical fiction in a new light; though Naipaul’s fiction was not historical, it had a fierce commitment to remote causes, and was always apt to place modern-day events in the context of the distant past. When, of all people,William Golding turned from the ferocious modernday fantasy of Darkness Visible to the Regency drama of Rites of Passage, it was not regarded as a divertimento, but as a continuing attempt to investigate the sources of man’s propensity to evil. Golding, too, added an important new element to the rehabilitation of the historical novel. Where Fowles and Farrell had written, sometimes aggressively, in their own 1960s and 1970s styles, sprung from modernity and brutal efficiency, Golding wrote in his chosen age’s own voice. ‘Pastiche’ had been a dirty word for critics, as though it were a trivial act to try to reconstruct the way subjects thought, talked and saw the world. Now, it started to seem not far from a necessity. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics was discredited; its claim that the speakers of a language see and understand the world in ways conditioned by the structure of their language was, to the professionals, not credible. In the years to come, novelists would differ. If the past was to be understood, and the ways we understood it were to be made clear, then it must be allowed to express itself in its own terms. The novelist writing about the 1860s should open his mouth, and allow the 1860s to speak, as if, sentence by sentence, the 1860s were still alive. Any number of historical novels could have been prefaced, as Peter Carey’s great investment in the historical voice, True History of the Kelly Gang was in 2001, by Faulkner’s line from Requiem for a Nun: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ (Actually, with the compliment of memory, Carey slightly misquotes Faulkner, and says ‘the past is not dead’. Evidently, the principle was so deeply embedded in the novelist’s imagination that he felt he had no need to check its accuracy.)
As the historical novel was transforming itself, over the twenty years following the publication of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, an English novelist of remarkable talents was making her slow way forward. A. S. Byatt came from a family of exceptional gifts; one sister was the novelist Margaret Drabble, another a distinguished art historian. Their background was Quaker, intellectual, fiercely questing and interested in the world rather than in the self. Speaking to me in an interview for the Paris Review in 1998, Byatt said of her earliest writing days that at university ‘I sat there in most of the lectures I went to, which weren’t many, writing this novel very obsessively and extremely slowly. And knowing it was no good, and knowing I didn’t want to write a novel about a young woman at a university who wanted to write a novel, and equally knowing I didn’t know anything else, and had to write that sort of novel . . .’
Byatt published her first novel, Shadow of a Sun in 1964 (later reprinted under its intended title, The Shadow of the Sun ). In the years following, she worked with great distinction as an extramural teacher and as a university lecturer. The novels came out steadily, but slowly. In 1978 , she began to publish a quartet of substantial novels with The Virgin in the Garden . Followed by Still Life (1985 ), Babel Tower (1996 ) and A Whistling Woman (2002 ), the quartet, contemplated from the early 1960 s onwards, shows an unusual sensibility. The development of an individual English mind, and of the changes in society around it, are traced from the 1953 Coronation and the decades following; realist construction is mirrored by the fantasies of the age, whether the Coronation pageantry or the 1960 s obsession with Sade and Tolkien in Babel Tower . Her imagination was rooted, like so many great novelists from Eliot to Lawrence and Bennett, in English Nonconformism; like them, it delighted in extravagance, the allure of narrative and exact accounts of splendour. ‘I like Bunyan,’ she told me, ‘the kind of ranting, roaring, visionary English Nonconformist.’ The imagination had, too, a sometimes uncomfortable interest in finding out where things had come from, what the world was made of, and how it was changing under the human gaze. She was always well-regarded, but, as novelists who are doing something entirely new often find, the journey can be slow. ‘[Reviewers] made two sorts of things of [The Virgin in the Garden ],’ she reflected twenty years after its publication without
resentment. ‘Quite a lot of the reviewers approached it in a sort of crabwise respectful way and said, This is a big book, and I haven’t yet worked out exactly what’s going on, which is reasonable. And then there were a few people who said, This is another novel by somebody rather like Margaret Drabble.’
Possession was published in 1990, to enormous success; it remains one of the most popular and admired winners of the Booker Prize. It cannot, quite, be described as a historical novel, though it is profoundly concerned with the past, and engages with its period through virtuoso re-creation of that past’s writings in multiple forms – like Golding, though with incomparably more breadth and variety, it enters into its period’s styles of writing with respect and authority. It clearly believes that to talk about the past, you have to respect the past’s way of talking, and use what words it knew and used, not start upon it from a point of view which assumes it knows more, and knows better. Perhaps one influence on the novelist’s idea of the possible had been a famous volte-face in a literary career. Byatt’s admired friend Penelope Fitzgerald had written five novels of modern life, before writing an astounding biography of the Georgian poet Charlotte Mew and turning, in her last years, to historical fiction of great authority and detail – three of these were published by the time of Possession ’s publication, and it is possible to glimpse some aspects of Fitzgerald’s Charlotte Mew in Possession ’s Blanche Glover, and particularly her dreadful end. Unlike Fitzgerald, however, Possession has only three episodes where the past is observed without the intervention of documents, with the omniscient novelist’s eye, in chapters 15 , 25 and the ‘Postscript, 1868 ’. In the rest, the past lives ferociously, irrepressibly, but through a great stack of documents, handwritten, preserved, lost, buried, published or suppressed. It is those documents that enter into, and transform the lives of its modern-day heroes, schemers, idealists, villains and innocent victims. ‘You have this thing about this dead man,’ Val says in the novel to Roland, ‘Who had a thing about dead people. That’s OK but not everyone is very bothered about all that.’ Not everyone: but, in the world of the novel, almost everyone.
Those modern-day characters are principally scholars and academics. By the time she wrote Possession , Byatt had left the world of academia, but she did not underestimate its passions or its brutal capacities. One of the pleasures of Possession is how exact and scrupulous are the considerations on which its most sensational drama rests: it turns, for instance, on a very specific point in legal copyright, that the ownership of the content of a letter rests with its author or the author’s heirs, although its physical substance may be sold like any other object by its owner, who remains the recipient. (This interesting point took on a real-life interest in the wake of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when a correspondent of hers sought to sell some very intimate letters; the letters could indeed be sold, as they belonged to him, but their contents could not be reproduced by the slavering press, as the ownership of the words had passed to the Princess’s heirs, who naturally refused permission for their property to be reproduced.)
The abstruse points on which the drama rests are exactly accounted for, and quickly overcome any scepticism. A very full range of scholarly inquiry is entered into: the scholars occupy pretty well every intellectual position, as well as expressing a wonderful range of human types. Leonora Stern, Beatrice Nest, Blackadder, the villainous Mortimer Cropper, Maud, Roland and the opportunistic Fergus Wolff represent as varied a range of characters as any reader could wish. They also map out a convincing and gripping range of critical and scholarly approaches. For some years, the drama of dissent in university English faculties had been played out in public, since a very famous row between structuralists and historicists at Cambridge in 1981 . The gap between Beatrice’s and Leonora’s approaches to the feminine, or Wolff ’s and Cropper’s ideas of what literature might be are, at root, detailed and potentially abstruse. They become, and remain simply thrilling because of the lives they direct, and the lives they seek to address; also because the passions and secrets of the past have a way of leaking into the present. The present-day plot is open, unpredictable,
inconclusive and largely explicit whereas the events of the past are closed, only to be read, finished with and, at the start, completely withdrawn from anyone’s understanding. Still, as Roland reflects, the present day represents ‘a plot or fate that seemed, at least possibly, to be not their plot or fate but that of those others’.
The novel turns on suppressed and forgotten facts, surfacing through papers, misread poems, letters and diaries. The truth of the events between Christabel and Ash slowly comes to light. But the novel never forgets that the past swallows its truths, too. Perhaps its most intense moments are out of reach of documentary reconstruction; when Roland and Maud begin to fall in love, they take ‘a simple picnic. Fresh brown bread, white Wensleydale cheese, crimson radishes, yellow butter, scarlet tomatoes, round bright green Granny Smiths and a bottle of mineral water. They took no books.’ The assertion of freedom from literature is cunningly undermined; we can hardly help but think of Dante’s Paolo and Francesca, who say ‘quel giorno finimmo lı` la lettura’; we are reminded that there are moments in lives, perhaps key moments, that nobody writes down and which go beyond words. The novel ends, indeed, with an act of oblivion, and at the centre of the plot is Blanche Glover, who remains tantalizingly out of reach of the novel’s interest. The novel’s names are always interesting, whether Ash, or the fact that when we see the twinned names of (Christabel) LaMotte and (Maud) Bailey, we know they are in for something of a siege. Glover, on the other hand, is what Mallarme´ called ‘the blank paper that whiteness defends’ (le vide papier que la blancheur de´fend ). We hear from her only in a posthumous document, her heart-rending will, and reported by others; does she speak, to the sound of running water, quoting Goethe, at the terrifying se´ance that brings Ash and Christabel together for one last time? Her presence is protected by our uncertainty. What she does, and what she thinks, remainblank; her large paintings – twenty-seven in the house at the time of her death, including Christabel before Sir Leoline – are lost, reconstructed only by the fantasy of the feminist critics. Blanche, we are brutally told, ‘had artistic ambitions and painted large canvases in oil, none of which have survived’. Blanche reminds us that the past may disappear forever; that some crucial elements are not preserved, that scholarship works always as a bulwark against oblivion, and depends on luck. In a later, superb novel that seems to me to draw on some aspects of Possession as it reverses its tendency to recovery, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child traces the processes of forgetting, how documents are lost, displaced, forgotten, and lives sink beneath the waves of oblivion. In Possession , lives are reconstructed and rise up again. But not all of them.