“Burn what they should not see”: The Private Journal as Public Text in A. S. Byatt’s Possession

Adrienne ShiffmanMcMaster University
Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring 2001), 93-106

This article opens with a review of some key moments in recent feminist considerations of the diary, autobiography, and life writing, and adopts the view that a reexamination and re-appropriation of the diary as a literary form locates it on the borderline or threshold of autobiography. While the diary is an autobiographical act of writing the self, it simultaneously subverts the conventions of the traditional male-centered genre. Adopting Lynn Z. Bloom’s delineation of the “public private diary,” this essay argues that the importance of the audience in what has been traditionally regarded as a private genre cannot be overstated. Applying these ideas to A. S. Byatt’s Possession and citing Byatt’s own claim that “of course all autobiography is fiction,” the essay shows the ways Byatt’s fictional construction of a nineteenth-century diary by the wife of a canonical male poet exposes the genre of the diary as a textual construct.


Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]