Among the many texts that shape A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the journals of Ellen Ash and Sabine de Kercoz stand out in form as well as in content and offer intriguing commentaries on authorship, audience, and intentionality. Despite the repeated academic dismissal of “dull” Ellen Ash (Possession, 240) and Sabine’s mostly peripheral status in the novel, these two female journal-keepers draw out key problematics, illuminating the blurred distinctions between past and present, public and private, and personal and professional. Both women, however implicitly, remain conscious of their status as writers and expect their words to one day reach an audience: Ellen chooses not to burn her journal, thereby keeping it from the category of “things they should not see” (480), while Sabine wavers between several potential purposes and so writes for several different audiences. Read together, the two women’s journals broaden Possession’s conception of the figure of the author by challenging the correlation between publication and authorial skill. Lynn Z. Bloom writes that the consciousness of potential audience and “eternal readership” means that “for a professional writer, there are no private writings” (quoted in Shiffman, 94). This idea of the “professional writer” gets challenged by the journals in Byatt’s work, and academia’s reluctance to incorporate (and, in so doing, professionalize) these private writers speaks to a false divide between what we think of as historical artifacts and what we think of as literary forms.

On the exterior, the two journals serve very different purposes. Sabine’s journal begins with infinite potential and consciously maps out her writerly aims: “The blank space of these white pages fills me with fear and desire. I could write anything I wished here, so how shall I decide where to begin? This is the book in which I shall make myself into a true writer; here I shall learn my craft, and here I shall record whatever of interest I may experience or discover” (364). Sabine acknowledges that her own intention will affect the tone and content of her journal: “Am I writing this for Christabel to see, as a kind of devoir — a writer’s exercises — or even as a kind of intimate letter, for her to read alone, in moments of contemplation and withdrawal? Or am I writing it privately to myself, in an attempt to be wholly truthful with myself, for the sake of truth alone? . . . [A work written for only the author’s eyes] loses its desire, female as well as infantile, to charm” (365). In the end, Sabine’s journal, intentionally or otherwise, serves to charm its readers at the expense of its own narrative complexity. Contemporary readers of Sabine’s writings seem more concerned with the plot contained within her journal than the method of the journal itself, with the “narrative shock and pleasure” prevailing over narrative techniques themselves (410).

Ellen’s “endless” journal, in contrast, seems determined not to charm its readers, and dwells instead on mundane household details (36). Yet, when invested with intellectual legitimacy, Ellen’s journal takes on a literary depth, and her subtle withholdings transform into a challenge of patriarchal hegemony. Adrienne Shiffman, writing of Ellen Ash’s journal, notes how Ellen writes herself as a Victorian ideal, the epitome of domesticity and femininity, but then critiques that standing through the very act of writing: “The woman who ‘writes herself’ both deconstructs and reconstructs womanhood: by publicizing herself — choosing to valorize certain details of her life by recording them in written form — she challenges the dominant cultural construction of femininity as passive or muted” (Shiffman, 94). As Beatrice Nest declares, “I think she wrote it to baffle. Yes. To Baffle” (239). Shiftman observes the “subtle subversion in the diarist’s writing” (Shiffman, 97) and calls for a deeper academic interest in the female journal — both within Byatt’s text and without it — when she notes that “only a very closer reading can reveal what [Elaine] Showalter has called ‘ragged edges’ — those bits and pieces that defy tidy inclusion in standard literary schema” (Suzzane L. Bunkers quoted in Shiffman, 98). The “private” journal presents itself as a legitimate literary object only to the reader willing to locate within it the playing with terms, tone, and half-truths. Ultimately, Shiffman writes, “the gaps in the journal of Ellen Ash can be seen as sites of emptiness, absence, or, to use Spender’s terminology, female negativity” (Shiffman, 100) which push against the masculine language and social context in which she writes. “In her anticipation of a readership,” Shiffman concludes, “Ellen collapses the generic boundaries of the female diary: the ‘private’ journal becomes a public text. In the process, Ellen demonstrates herself as [Emile] Benveniste’s split subject: the ‘I’ who writes the diary is quite distinct from the ‘I’ who emerges in the text. Ultimately Ellen Ash is both private and public, subject and object, poet and poem, and, as such, she baffles” (Shiffman, 103).


1. How does Sabine’s writerly journal compare to Ellen Ash’s “fictional” journal? How might we inflect our reading of Sabine with the phallocentric-resistant “gaps” that Shiffman finds in Ellen’s writing? How do both women compare with the voice of Christabel Lamotte? Why does Byatt offer us so many “private” female literary spaces and so few comparable male spaces? Is authorial self-consciousness, for Byatt, a specifically gendered female trait?

2. Do we read the journals differently from the way we read the letters? How does our audience position change? How does the definition of present-ness (dated letters, undatable poem origins) fluctuate in discussions of private and published letters?

3. Sara S. Hodson writes of “the modern concept of privacy” as “a relatively recent addition to the American legal landscape” (Hodson, 195). Yet ethical questions of ownership and penetration are definitely present for, not only Byatt’s scholars, but Ash and his contemporaries as well. How does this consciousness of writing and the protectiveness over writing affect the way we read? Does the search for the truth justify violations of privacy? Does Possession, as Hodson writes, represent merely a “cult of celebrity” (Hodson, 203)?

4. “Letters, Roland discovered, are a form of narrative that envisages no outcome, no closure. His time was a time of the dominance of narrative theories. Letters tell no story, because they do not know, from line to line, where they are going . . . Letters, finally, exclude not only the reader as co-writer, or predictor, or guesser, but they exclude the reader as reader; they are written, if they are true letters, for a reader” (145). How do the driving themes of time, of history, and of origin affect narrative in Byatt’s novel? How does literary form inflect history?

Works Cited

Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Hodson, Sara S. “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities.” The American Archivist, 67.2 (2004): 194-211.

Shiffman, Adrienne. “‘Burn What They Should Not See’: The Private Journal as Public Text in A. S. Byatt's Possession.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 20. 1 (2001): 93-106.

Related Materia in the Victorian Web

Last modified 4 April 2010