A.S. Byatt, Booker Prize-winning novelist of ‘Possession,’ dies at 87

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A.S. Byatt, the Booker Prize-winning author of “Possession,” who grappled with history, tradition, science and myth in a six-decade career that established her as one of Britain’s most renowned novelists, died Nov. 16. She was 87.

Her death was announced in a statement by her publisher, Chatto & Windus, which said she died at home but did not give a cause or say where she was living. For years, she had homes in the Putney section of South London and the Cévennes region of southern France.

Ms. Byatt was a writer of sweeping range and ambition, exploring art, politics, memory, academic theory and romantic passion across two-dozen novels, story collections and works of criticism. She could be warm and witty in conversation, discussing her love of snooker and her collection of Venetian glass balls, although she admitted to finding “books more interesting than people” and said she preferred novels about ideas, not feelings.

Consequently, her own work was packed full of arguments and allusions. A single sentence from her novel “The Virgin in the Garden” (1978), the first installment of her Quartet series, referenced the work of Melville, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens.

Her early novels, along with scholarly studies she wrote on Wordsworth, Coleridge and her mentor Iris Murdoch, gave her a reputation as a cerebral and even humorless author. But public perception shifted with “Possession” (1990), a playful genre mash-up that brought her literary stardom at age 53.

The novel — simultaneously bookish and sexy, part campus satire, fairy tale, mystery and romance — followed two mismatched scholars investigating the love affair between a pair of Victorian poets. Ms. Byatt drew on her own scholarly background to incorporate faux 19th-century poems, letters and diary entries into the work, conjuring the musty romance of archival research as well as the bygone world of her made-up poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte.

“You turn its last page feeling stunned and elated, happy to have had the chance to read it,” wrote Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. “At once highly traditional and eminently postmodern, this is a novel for every taste: a heartbreaking Victorian love story, a take-no-prisoners comedy of contemporary academic life, and an unputdownable supernatural mystery that starts with an old book in a London library and ends on a storm-wracked night in a churchyard before an open grave.”

“Possession,” he added, “is in every way an altogether magical performance, a prodigious act of literary ventriloquism.”

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Ms. Byatt credited the novel’s success to a new, looser approach she took in its creation. “It’s the only one I’ve written to be liked, and I did it partly to show off,” she told the New York Times. “I thought, ‘Why not pull out the stops, why do this painstaking observation … why not write about the 19th century!’ I actually paced it for the first time with the reader’s attention span in mind.”

When the film rights were sold to Warner Bros., she “celebrated modestly,” the Times reported, “buying a telephone answering machine, some books and, more daringly, an account with a taxi service, since she doesn’t drive.” (The film languished in preproduction before being released in 2002, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart.)

Ms. Byatt returned to the Victorian era in works such as “Morpho Eugenia” (1992), a novella about a class-conscious naturalist studying ants, which was adapted into the film “Angels & Insects” (1995). Another novella-length tale, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” (1994), became the basis for director George Miller’s movie “Three Thousand Years of Longing” (2022), featuring Tilda Swinton as a literary scholar who uncorks a genie, played by Idris Elba, from an antique bottle.

Invoking Shakespeare, Chaucer and “One Thousand and One Nights,” “The Djinn” was one of many works by Ms. Byatt that rejected literary realism in favor of a more imaginative approach that distinguished her from many of her British peers.

“There was a wonderful moment of liberation,” she told the Paris Review in 1998, “when I realized I could write tales that came out of my childhood love of myth and fairy stories, rather than out of a dutiful sense of ‘I ought to describe the provincial young man coming up from Sheffield and how he can’t cope with the aristocracy in London.’ Anybody would rather write about a princess who had to live in the snow.”

Still, scholars seemed to exert as much a hold on her imagination as princesses, genies and Norse mythology did. Her novel “The Biographer’s Tale” (2001) centered on a young academic, Phineas G. Nanson, who devotes himself to writing a biography about a biographer, only to spend most of his time delving into the lives of historical figures: Carl Linnaeus, Francis Galton, Henrik Ibsen.

Jenny Uglow, Ms. Byatt’s longtime editor, deemed it her most original book.

“She could hold the germ of a story in her head for a long time, sometimes for years,” Uglow said in a statement, “but when it emerged she would work on it assiduously in her notebooks and in conversations, reading widely to clarify the background of intellectual movements and artistic ideas, and mapping every scene in detail in her head, from the colors of clothes and the names of minor characters — which were often bizarre — to the complexity of train timetables. Finally, the shape was fully formed in her mind. Then it would flow onto the page, with not a change to be made.”

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The oldest of four children, Antonia Susan Drabble was born in Sheffield on Aug. 24, 1936. Her father was a lawyer and county court judge. Her mother, a scholar of poet and playwright Robert Browning, put aside her studies to become a homemaker and seemed to feel trapped in domestic life. “She shouted and shouted and shouted,” Ms. Byatt told the Guardian.

Ms. Byatt described herself as “a deeply unhappy child,” claiming that she didn’t voluntarily speak to anyone until she was about 16. She was educated at a Quaker boarding school and studied English at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1957. She went on to do postgraduate work at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and Somerville College at the University of Oxford.

By then, she was well underway on her first novel, “The Shadow of the Sun” (1964), about a college student trying to step out of the shadow of her father, a famous novelist. Ms. Byatt said she began working on the novel while drifting off in classes as a college student, writing “very obsessively and extremely slowly.”

The book was published a year after Margaret Drabble, Ms. Byatt’s younger sister, released her own debut novel. Both siblings found fame as writers and literary scholars, and both were awarded damehoods by Queen Elizabeth II — Ms. Byatt in 1999, Drabble almost a decade later — although Drabble was far better known at the start of their careers. News stories frequently noted a rivalry between the sisters.

“We were close, and still are, in a basic way, but I always felt very threatened by her,” Ms. Byatt told the Times in 1991. Two decades later, Drabble told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper that their relationship was “beyond repair.”

Ms. Byatt wrote her first novels while raising two children, Antonia and Charles, rocking a baby with one hand, in her telling, while writing with the other. Her first marriage, to economist Ian Byatt in 1959, ended in divorce in 1969. Later that year, she married Peter Duffy, an investment analyst, with whom she had two daughters, Miranda and Isabel.

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When she needed extra money to pay for the schooling of her 11-year-old son, she begrudgingly took a teaching job in 1972 at University College London. That same week, her son was killed by a drunk driver while walking home from the park.

“The whole thing became the most dreadful knot,” she told the Paris Review, recalling how it helped to be distracted by students and literature, even as she sought to be a full-time writer instead of an academic. “I went on teaching for as long as my son had lived, and the moment I’d taught for that length of time I stopped.”

Ms. Byatt remained active as a critic, editing “The Oxford Book of English Short Stories” (1998) and championing the work of younger writers such as Lawrence Norfolk and Ali Smith. At times she made headlines for her reviews, including for a Times essay in which she deemed “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” unserious and clichéd, “made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs.”

Her other books included “Still Life” (1985), “Babel Tower” (1996) and “A Whistling Woman” (2002), all part of her Quartet series about a family in mid-century Yorkshire, and “The Children’s Book” (2009), a family saga set during the run-up to World War I. The novel, which revolved around a children’s writer named Olive Wellwood (loosely based on E. Nesbit), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, one of Britain’s oldest literary awards.

Ms. Byatt was later awarded the 2016 Erasmus Prize, a European cultural honor presented by King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, and the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award in Denmark. She is survived by her husband and three daughters, according to her publisher. Additional details on survivors were not immediately available.

According to a 2013 profile in the Times of London, Ms. Byatt left instructions in her will saying that no biography should be written about her, and that any unauthorized chronicle of her life should be prevented as much as possible.

“If you write things about people you are controlling them, which is why I don’t want a biography,” she said. “I don’t want somebody else’s consciousness infiltrating mine, however good they are, however brilliant, however sympathetic, however clever.” She added, “You can find me in my work but not in odd places and not the most obvious places.”

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