Last fall London’s literati gathered in the cavernous, historic Guildhall for the announcement of the prestigious Booker Prize—a $40,000 award that in the past has been captured by novelists such as V.S. Naipaul and Nadine Gordimer. With a field that included Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore, the competition was tough; bookies were flooded with bets, and viewers all over Britain tuned in to the live telecast. The odds-on favorite was A.S. (for Antonia Susan) Byatt, whose tour de force romantic novel Possession had dazzled reviewers and sold more than 100,000 copies. And sure enough, Byatt’s was the name read from the podium. Yet no one in the room seemed happier than another novelist, Margaret Drabble, who rushed up to Byatt and gave her a kiss. “She said she always knew I would win,” says Byatt, “and that she’d had money on it.”
To those who know the pair, it might come as a surprise that Drabble, who happens to be Byatt’s younger sister, was banking on the older woman’s triumph. Intense competitors, the two have a reputation as the Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland of British literature. Since the early 1960s, when Drabble, now 51, established herself with novels like A Summer Birdcage and The Millstone, Byatt, 54, a university senior lecturer and literary critic, has written four less successful novels and been known chiefly as Drabble’s sister. Even post-Possession, interviewers have felt compelled to compare her work with Drabble’s.
But now it is Byatt who is collecting the laurels, and the lucre. After the Booker (which prompted both Salman Rushdie and Iris Murdoch to make congratulatory phone calls), she walked off with the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize, which is worth almost $50,000. Of Byatt’s breakthrough book, the Washington Post’s Michael Dirda wrote: “Book critics are paid to offer informed, careful judgments, full of erudition or good sense or both, but sometimes all we really want to say…is ‘Wow!’ ” Now No. 9 on the New York Times best-seller list, Possession has been snapped up by Warner Bros., which may bring Byatt’s tale to an even bigger audience.
An intricate detective story shot through with satire and bodice-ripping romance, Possession follows the fortunes of two scholars, a man and a woman, who stumble upon evidence of a previously unknown love affair between two 19th-century poets. As the modern pair follow the twists and turns of the earlier relationship, they too become romantically entangled. In a high-melodrama finale during a thunderstorm in a Sussex graveyard, Byatt’s protagonists discover an unexpected connection to their prey.
Byatt took her inspiration from a Coleridge scholar she had seen haunting the British Museum Library. “She had spent the whole of her life thinking somebody else’s thoughts, and I thought, ‘In a sense she is possessed by Coleridge.’ ” she says. “I also thought she possesses him in the physical sense, since everything we read of him is mediated by her. And I thought, if you have two poets, you have two scholars, and then I had my plot.”
The driving force in the author’s own life is language: “It’s the one thing I really understand more than I care about sex or cooking or families or anything,” says Byatt (a mother of three who is devoted to second husband Peter Duffy, a financial specialist). “My professional and human obsession is the nature of language, and my best relationships are with other writers. In many ways, I know George Eliot better than I know my husband.”
It is by no means a new passion. The eldest of the four children of Sheffield barrister John Drabble and his wife, Marie, a high school English teacher, Antonia devoured Tennyson, Scott, Dickens and Austen as a child. Prolonged bouts with asthma and a near-fatal ovarian infection at 10 gave her time in bed with her books. It was in those years too that the rivalry between Antonia and Margaret began. “There was too much competition,” remembers Byatt. “We didn’t get on.”
Married in 1959 to Ian Byatt, a lecturer in economics at Oxford (where she was working on her Ph.D.), Antonia labored to complete her first novel while caring for a young daughter, Antonia, and a son, Charles. Published in 1964, The Shadow of a Sun received only passing attention from the same critics who hailed Drabble as a virtuoso. The pattern would be repealed every time the sisters published. “I always felt as though somebody were sort of breathing on my heels and whatever I did was not quite good enough,” she says now. “The really irritating thing about it is that my novels have been seen in terms of hers, and I don’t see them that way at all.”
Still, she kept writing. Through her 1968 divorce and her marriage to Duffy, through the birth of their daughter, Isabel, she turned out literary criticism and well-crafted fiction. Only the 1972 death of her 11-year-old son, Charles—who was killed by a driver who had been drinking—slowed her. Pregnant with daughter Miranda, steeped in pain, she continued to teach at University College, though there were times when “I didn’t know how I was going to get across London in one piece,” she says. “I think I didn’t really start feeling better until Miranda was older than he had been.”
Over the years—as Byatt continued to publish and to attract a following—her relationship with her sister became less strained. Despite public perceptions, she says, the two now see themselves as colleagues rather than rivals. “If we meet at literary dinners, we will come together in a corner and talk about books,” says Byatt. “It will be two people who understand how each other’s mind works sharing books. I think the problem is not her and me so much as what people make of the fact that we both exist. You can make friends with your sister instead of being ferocious competitors. You really can.”
These days Byatt divides her time between the family’s cluttered 19th-century brick house in southwest London and its country house in France. Constantly in demand as a lecturer, the author, who only last year described herself as a “quiet little woman of 53,” races about to book signings. seminars and other Possession-related events and looks forward to the day when she can sit down once more to write. If there is anything nipping at her heels now, it is only the thought of her next novel. “I have to ask myself, ‘Can I do it again?’ ” she says. Then she nods and adds, “I think I can.”
Michelle Green, Harriet Shapiro in London