Possession is a gorgeous book. It is many things: a literary mystery, a two-fold love story, a commentary on Victorian and modern society, and a student of literature’s dream (in more ways than one). From reading some of A.S. Byatt’s short fiction I knew that her writing is beautiful and rich, but this novel is on another level; she successfully writes in a myriad of styles and mediums while crafting a detailed and enthralling story. Accordingly, it won the Booker Prize in 1990 and is included on Time’s list of 100 best novels since 1923. I’m telling you – a gorgeous book.
Possession begins with Roland Michell, a scholar of the famed (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. As he sifts through olds books and papers of the poet’s in the London Library, he discovers some intriguingly personal drafts of previously unknown letters from Ash to a mystery woman. With some sleuthing, and with the help of feminist scholar Maud Bailey, he discovers the letters to be for Christabel LaMotte, a poet of Ash’s era loved by modern feminists but largely ignored in her own time. With the discovery of a whole cache of letters between the two poets, Maud and Roland embark on an intensely secretive quest around England and Northern France to discover the love between the poets that will completely change the literary worlds they both work in. Byatt shifts between times in unique ways; as we see the relationship between Ash and LaMotte develop through their letters, we also see Roland and Maud become slowly but irrevocably linked. For the two of them, the discoveries they make are purely about their personal relationships with the poets and their poetry – that indefinable closeness one feels to someone never known personally, but only through the power of their writing.
This private quest between the two of them, however, slowly spreads to involve a whole cast of academics. The world of Ash and LaMotte scholars is very insular, it seems, and word and suspicions spread quickly. For people who devote their lives to studying a finite number of poems and writings of long-dead poets, a discovery as monumental as this (or any discovery of new material, really) is groundbreaking. So, their quest for the sake of the love of literature becomes a chase to get the letters, a legal battle, and a question of ownership. Academia can get ugly, especially when a big discovery comes along that can mean so much for the careers of so many people. Byatt’s exploration of this strange academic world made me think about academia as a life choice. How would it be to live your life completely consumed by and devoted to the lives of dead poets, as these academics do? Byatt (a former professor at University College London) shows us the thoughts of all these different kinds of scholars and how they try to reconcile their life’s work. Studying only the poems of a long dead Victorian poet, or an obscure female poet, or the wife of a famous poet (as the case may be, according to the character) requires much justification in the minds of Byatt’s characters, as I imagine it would. You have to really love the writings of a poet to make your living by reading and writing about them.
More than any other book I can think of, the title of Possession grows to fit the book perfectly. I didn’t think this would be the case to begin with; ‘possession,’ while an evocative and romantic word (fitting, as the book’s subtitle is “A Romance”), struck me as a generic and forgettable title. By the book’s end, however, I realized how it truly encompasses the many levels of the book. Are these scholars, stuck in the bowels of libraries and academic facilities, possessed by the deceased poets to whom they devote their lives? Who possesses whom when it comes to love? This is especially apparent as the story of Ash and LaMotte unfolds amidst the rigid era Victorian, and they must decide where their hearts lie. Who possesses, legally and for all intents and purposes, the thoughts and ideas of these dead writers – or, as it is, the writings and letters? And, perhaps most deeply felt throughout the book, how much does one truly possess oneself, especially when in love? As Roland and Maud fall slowly but strangely in love, they both struggle with their own self-possession and how they can define themselves in terms of each other and their work. As it turns out, there can be no title better than Possession.
This is all probably more than I should have written about Possession, and yet there is so much more that could be said. It is a dense book, and as much as I loved it, it took me a long time to read and digest. One of the beauties of the novel, but also one of the things that contributes to its density, is the variety of forms it is told through. Byatt proves herself as a poet as well as a novelist by including many of the major works of Ash and LaMotte, from short verses to epic poems. Hundreds of pages go by in letter form, as the romance between the poets is told. Diaries of contemporaries and family members of the poets contribute to their story, as do excerpts of the critical analyses written by the modern scholars in the book. All these different narrative voices and forms shape both eras and all characters, and somehow Byatt makes them all perfectly convincing and informed. And now, onward to The Children’s Book and beyond – I can’t wait to continue on my Byatt-quest.
(Cover via Wikipedia)