As a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets uncover their letters, journals, & poems, & trace their movements from London to Yorkshire-and from spiritualist seances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany-an extraordinary counterpoint of passions & ideas emerges. An exhilarating novel of wit and romance, an intellectual mystery, and a triumphant love story. This tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets became a huge bookseller favorite, and then on to national bestellerdom. Winner of England's Booker Prize, a coast-to-coast bestseller, and the literary sensation of the year, Possession is a novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and a triumphant love story. Revolving around a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets, Byatt creates a haunting counterpoint of passion and ideas.
And then there is the scathing parody of both extremes of authorial focus: the biographically oriented, and the sexual/feminist/psychoanalytical, both of which plague the discipline in their attempts to capture and speak for the author.
Strangely, this was never how the book was presented to me whenever people tried to get me to read it. The emphasis was always on the developing relationship between the academics in parallel with that of the authors they study. This to me was a side point. I read the book as more of a love letter to a discipline than as a love story.
But it is both, of course. The story starts with the discovery of a love letter, and continues as two academics search out clues as to the development of it in the various texts produced around the 100 year-old love story. All the while surrounded by helpers and opponents in a configuration that would make Greimas drool.
I was also struck by how fragmented it was. The only other Byatt I have read is The Children's Book, and that felt very organic in how it flowed and moved. Possession is nothing like that. No novel based in an exploration of letters can be, and Byatt seems to have decided to take it to another extreme by including as many forms of writing as possible. I think the only form she skipped was drama.
The book is infamous for the poems. And to a great extent I was annoyed by Byatt's insertion of poetry (although less here than in The Children's Book). I tried to analyse why I feel this way, and I suspect it derives in part from the illusion of personal communication which still adheres to lyric poetry (I noticed, for example, that I had considerably less against the epic style poems, and those that had an ironic voice).
But it is also tied up with Byatt's tendency to set herself up for interpretation. I like interpreting poetry, but I like it less when there are such clear lines laid down for how I should interpret it. Byatt controls the interpretation by hedging narrative around poetry, by surrounding it with scholarly discussion and providing the thoughts and debates of the "authors" in letters. All of which is written by her. It is a tour de force in writing, but it makes the poetry itself lose what usually makes poetry interesting.
That said, I am very aware that my resistance to the poetry is very much a subjective, emotional reaction to something I perceive as tautological. I know the poems are an integral part of this book, and as it progressed I stopped reacting negatively to them. In a book about poets, which celebrates the different styles of writing to such an extent, it would have been wrong to omit them.
Of other forms, I counted the short story, the personal letter (of course), the less personal letter, diaries, biographical studies of an author, psychoanalytical feminist studies of texts, and of course the controlling and analysing narrator which I have now come to expect from Byatt. The more I read, the more I appreciated the variety in writing styles and how they forced me to all the while see the narrative from a different perspective (as change of style inevitably involved the introduction of new information as well).
I was also fascinated by the continual references to spiritualism. It ties in with the problem of trying to access the author, which I see as the central problem of the book: when the author is dead (figuratively and actually), the motif of spiritualism becomes a very telling one. It makes Cropper and Leonora Stern (both, but him especially) analogous to the table-rappers, ties them to the presumption of speaking on behalf of someone absent.
There is more to say on this, but I don't want to spoil the book for anyone. The development of the narrative(s) is a central part of the experience. I will say that Byatt has now gained my confidence. This means I will probably look up more books by her, hoping that I have not already read her two best ones.
The novel unfolds the budding romance of two couples: Historians Maud and Roland team together to uncover the never-before discovered liaison between their two favorite authors: LaMotte and Ash, respectively. The narration takes frequent flashbacks through the letters and diaries of the Victorian characters. The discovered affair is a blockbuster, and the historians must do all they can to solicit information without giving away their knowledge to rivals. Ash, a celebrated writer, was known as a devoted husband, while LaMotte, who was lesser-known, was the darling of students of lesbian writing due to her live-in relationship with Blanche, a struggling painter. The novel goes through themes of passion, and the consequences of acting upon those feelings.
An interesting part of the novel deals with modern Feminism. Maud laments that to be taken seriously as a feminist, she must downplay her looks. She notes that it angers her colleagues when her long blond hair is worn down. Thus, she affects a cold persona that is her trademark. Her relationship with Roland eventually draws her out of her hard shell and gives her confidence that her own intelligence makes her a valid historian, as well as a feminist. Another feminist issue is the troubled Christabel LaMotte/Blanche Glover relationship. The two, or at least Blanche, sought the relationship as a haven away from the world of men, to prove that women could be independent. Being the Victorian Age, lesbianism was not something to be spoken of publicly, so students of LaMotte gathered the nature of the relationship through inferred clues in the women's domestic habits and Blanche's diary. Yet, it appears that Christabel had a love affair with a man, a fellow writer who she found a kindred spirit with, much to the devastation of Blanche. Blanche's actions as a spurned lover may open the novel to criticism, but each character's actions must stand on their own, and not be judged upon stereotypes. She is a tragic character, a product of the Victorian barriers on poor, rejected women determined to retain their dignity. Love, in this novel, seems to be a driving force that cannot be stopped even when the characters know it's wrong. Ash loved his wife, yet he allowed himself to love another woman. Christabel deceived Blanche about her relationship with Ash. Yet, it does seem like lesbians get a bad rap in the novel. Besides Blanche's failed "experiment," as she called it in her diary, one of Maud's colleagues, a bisexual, makes almost grotesque overtures to seduce her. Yet we can't say that Christabel and Ash's relationship was superior to that of Christabel and Blanche. Christabel's heterosexual relationship does not end happily, either. We are not privy to Christabel's private feelings during happier times with Blanche, though that might have been provided if the novel was about them. Ultimately, the novel is about the dangerous nature of love, how it comes by surprise and takes possession of of your heart, and drives you into action when, until before, you thought you were asleep. It's this powerful brand of love that transcends sexuality and morality that can lead one into euphoria and devastate.
This novel is not for light reading -- the Victorian excerpts can run tedious at times, especially for those who fell asleep in English class. While the main characters are well-rounded, the side characters are a bit farcical at times, perhaps a little jibe at the rabidness of academia. The tragedy of Blanche may cause bad feelings for some readers, but Ellen Ash, the devoted wife, is also tragic in her stoic determination to remain blind and untouched. Ultimately, the reader must resolve the heated passion between the writers, and the sadness of their significant others. It is not to be treated like a "bodice ripper," but a serious discussion on the nature of love.
READ THE POETRY, PEOPLE! What's the matter with everyone?? They're actually rather good, they are full of plot clues, and, duh, they're a key part of the novel you're reading. I mean what is going on here? Do people really hate poetry so much that they're skipping a few pages of it in the middle of a story? If you try that shit with Hamlet you're going to miss half the play. Or is this part of some weird trend? Perhaps you hold your hands over your ears when the Rolling Stones switch to 12/8 time, or fast-forward through all the Frank Sivero scenes in Goodfellas? Or is it literally just verse? I mean, you know there are books out there which are all poetry, right? What's the matter, do you have a rhyme allergy? Too much alliteration brings on your irritable bowel syndrome? What's going on??
Oh, I give up.
PS the actual book is excellent.
Then, about a third of the way into the book, I realized I didn't want to put it down. I was completely possessed myself, with the need to get to the end of the story. Of Ash and LaMotte's story, of Roland and Maud's story. In this way, I became a part of the story, no different from the characters in the urge to follow the narrative, to find meaning.
Byatt has written a book about books, and a book about readers, and a book about obsession. In doing this, she has written a book that seems to me, as a reader, to really be about what it is to be human.
Byatt employs several creative devices to develop the characters and tell the story. Ash and LaMotte's relationship is reconstructed primarily through artifacts (letters, journals) obtained by Roland and Maud. Byatt "reproduces" them in their entirety so the reader feels like part of the research team. The romantic storyline also unfolds from several points of view, with each person having only a partial picture. The reader can see it all. And as the Victorian mystery is solved, the lives of present-day characters become increasingly interconnected. Byatt concludes the novel by tying up several threads and adding a quite satisfying postscript.
Possession is subtitled "A Romance", but actually it is two romances, as well as a mystery and (in a quiet, academic sort of a way) an adventure story. For the first part of the book, the 19th-century romance is told indirectly through letters and diaries, forming a kind of epistolary novel-within-a-novel which is gradually discovered by the 20th-century characters, as they also gradually discover the nature of their own relationships. The effectiveness of this indirectness is such that, when the narrative viewpoint shifted at the beginning of chapter 15, I was initially disappointed. However, the author's narrative led me on, and persuaded me that there is a benefit to the reader in knowing the tale as the later characters cannot know it. By the time I was about 60 pages from the end, I was tempted to abandon my measured reading in short instalments and simply gallop to the end. The final climax is quite exciting, and the resolution satisfying.
This is a book that will undoubtedly need reading again and again. Not least among the reasons for this is the need to assimilate the embedded poetry (which, probably like most readers on a first reading, I rather skimmed over). It is an extraordinary feat of almost Tolkienian magnitude to feign the work of not one but two fictional Victorian poets (one almost Tennysonian in grandeur, the other bringing echoes of Emily Dickinson), and to do so at considerable length, with verse which makes symbolic and thematic allusion to the novel's plot as well as to relevant strands of 19th-century philosophy and mythography. (Incidentally, Byatt has made me want to investigate the writings of Vico.) This exploration of the 19th-century mind is is accompanied by (partly but not wholly) satirical references to the similar obsessions of the 20th-century intellectual world, especially feminist thought and its attempts to grapple with the assumptions and prejudices of 19th-century literature. As I write, it also occurs to me that a reading of the letters of Abelard and Heloise might usefully inform a re-reading of the novel. I look forward to revisiting this book.
My feelings about this book fluctuated as I read it.
First, it is subtitled "A Romance" in a knowing literary way - it has quests and damsels and knights, of a sort. Certainly the tension of the story lies in the relationship between two pairs of people. It has a really good first chapter which involves you in the world, making it seem appealing and compelling, and it also appealed to my love of poetry and the Life of Letters. However, the prevailing mood, particularly of the modern framing story, is not necessarily what I would call romantic.
In fact, I was sometimes troubled by the story of the modern scholars, the ones who uncover a previously unknown set of letters between two Victorian poets. Particularly at the beginning of the book there was a feeling of having missed the great years of arts and sciences, of love, of life. The first third of the book could have been titled Why One Should Never Enter English Academia; the stench of constriction, poverty, boredom, and cat pee was dispiriting. The 19th century poets are much more alive than either of our modern protagonists - a problem not entirely rectified by the end of the book.
On the other hand, the second half of the book turns it around fairly well. Byatt shakes up her cast of characters and recombines them in interesting ways. The last chapters have a refreshing feeling of renewal and new beginnings.
Byatt writes feelingly and well (and maybe a little too much) about the absurdities of literary criticism. Some parts of the book do feel a little calculated or dated, e.g. the supremacy of gender theory and women's studies.
On the other hand, her 19th century letters and poems are very 'period', she develops the writers' two distinct voices with precision, and some of their poems aren't bad, either. On the other hand, do you really feel like reading three hundred lines of pastiche Victorian poetry before you're allowed to read the next chapter? You'd be surprised.
Most of all, the plot is compelling. It's a literary mystery, and if it's awfully convenient that new journals and letters with pieces of the puzzle keep being discovered, well so be it. As a whole it led me on to the last page in fascination and enjoyment.
I love the cover. Rossetti's "Beguiling of Merlin" is perfect, visually and thematically. Also, I imagine I'm alone in this, but I found something powerfully familiar about Merlin's features; I eventually realised that one of the Dragonlance series' cover artists had used them as a basis for Raistlin's. Ha!
Not so. It is a romance, yes, in several senses, but also a solid mystery, a suspense-filled quest, a vivid tale of memorable characters and deep secrets, and a thoroughly satisfying intellectual adventure.
Among the entangled and entangling threads of this masterwork are such transcendent themes as loss and betrayal, guilt and redemption, passion and its aftermath, art in life and life in art, the universality and truth of myth, and, perhaps above all, the meaning of possession in all its many senses.
It is also about literary scholarship, the drama and peril of life in academe, the biographer's art, identity, the fusing of researcher with his or her subject matter, and, most especially, voice. One of the principal characters is known as the Great Ventriloquist for his ability to assume the personas of his chosen subjects and speak in their voices through his poetry. Byatt herself performs this feat with stunning adeptness as she fabricates literary works, correspondence, journals, and point-of-view scenes in distinctly different character voices, styles, and degrees of intimacy. The awareness of audience as an informing presence is everywhere, sometimes explicitly, and pointedly reveals how the envisioned reader participates in the author's act of creation.
The compositions of the nineteenth-century characters are not merely showcases of Byatt's command of language, genre, character, and voice. The poetry is an intrinsic part of the novel (unlike Tolkien's exhausting verses, which can all be skipped) and is a remarkable feat in itself. Byatt's masterly revelation of her long-dead characters' personal histories, piece by piece, allows the reader to experience in the poems something of the same flashes of comprehension and sense of discovery as do the scholarly twentieth-century characters themselves while unraveling the mysteries of their subjects.
This novel more than rewards the investment of reading it. It demands much of the reader and gives back still more. I can only marvel at the mind that created it. I have to give this one five stars; nothing less would do for this monumental work.
We meet the poets of the past, and snatch their precious secrets from hidey-holes and graves. Despite our distance from them, Ash and LaMotte are so very real, so fragile and so great, the essence, masculine and feminine, of the nineteenth century. And here is Byatt’s feat. She wrote every stitch of their work herself. Though very much their own persons, these two are meant to be the embodiment of their age, and have as much to say about our idealization of the past figures that we build our knowledge upon as about themselves.
More than a romance, although it can certainly be enjoyed that way, the key to the book’s layered meanings is its title. In Byatt’s new introduction, she explains that the idea of the novel came to her while she was contemplating a literary scholar, wondering if the scholar’s subject possessed the scholar, or the reverse. Of course, both are true, as is every extrapolation thereof we can become dizzy contemplating.
Possession has the dearth and architecture of a 19th century novel. Byatt has a gift for character voice, each point of view unmistakable, every world within world breathing history and charm. Wise, kind, and full of a kind of intimate detail any scholar or bibliophile would appreciate, this is a sensory treasure.
The romance follows two modern-day academics as they research the paper trail around the previously unknown love life between famous fictional poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Possession is set both in the present day and the Victorian era, pointing out the differences between the two time periods, and satirizing such things as modern academia and mating rituals. The structure of the novel incorporates many different styles, including fictional diary entries, letters and poetry, and uses these styles and other devices to explore the postmodern concerns of the authority of textual narratives. The title Possession highlights many of the major themes in the novel: questions of ownership and independence between lovers; the practice of collecting historically significant cultural artifacts; and the possession that biographers feel toward their subjects.
The romance concerns the relationship between two fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (whose life and work are loosely based on those of the English poet Robert Browning, or Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose work is more consonant with the themes expressed by Ash, as well as Tennyson's having been poet-laureate to Queen Victoria) and Christabel LaMotte (based on Christina Rossetti (although LaMotte is presented as much less well-known poet than was Rosetti) as learned by present-day academics Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey. Following a trail of clues from various letters and journals, they work to uncover the truth about Ash and LaMotte's history before it is discovered by rival colleagues. Byatt provides extensive letters, poetry and diaries by major characters in addition to the narrative, illuminating the work with poetry attributed to the fictional Ash and LaMotte. I enjoyed the many references to literary and philosophical sources and themes that the author interpolates within the narrative. One favorite theme of mine is reading which is explored near the end of the novel:
"It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, or drinking, or looking on, or sex. Novels . . . do not habitually elaborate on the equally intense pleasure of reading. There are obvious reasons for this, the most obvious being the regressive nature of the pleasure, a mise-en-abime even, where words draw attention to power and delight of words, and so ad infinitum, thus making the imaginative experience something papery and dry, narcissistic and yet disagreeably distanced, without the immediacy of sexual moisture or the scented garnet glow of good burgundy. And yet, natures such as Roland's are at their most alert and heady when reading is violently yet steadily alive." (pp 510-11)
Written in response to John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman the novel explores the postmodern concerns of that and other similar novels, which are often categorized as historiographic meta fiction, a genre that blends approaches from both historical fiction and meta fiction. Byatt wrote elsewhere that "Fowles has said that the nineteenth–century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first–person mimicry. In 'Possession' I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader’s imaginative entry into the world of the text."
This is only one of the many ways that Byatt keeps the novel (romance) interesting for the reader. The combination of mystery, romance, and literary references made this an engaging and delightful book that become progressively more interesting as I read toward its unexpectedly exciting denouement.
This is a book about books, and people who love them.
An engrossing, challenging read with many rewards for the intellectually adventurous reader.
Byatt presents a non-linear plot through narrative, poetry, fairy tales, letters and diaries.
This striking description of a Victorian era story applies to her own writing in "Possession":
"It is like a huge, intricately embroidered tapestry in a shadowed stone hall, on which all sorts of strange birds and beasts and elves and demons creep in and out of thickets of thorny trees and occasional blossoming glades. Fine patches of gold stand out in the gloom, sunlight and starlight, the sparkle of jewels or human hair or serpents' scales. Firelight flickers, fountains catch light. All the elements are in perpetual motion, fire consuming, water running, air alive and the earth turning..."
Major themes include the nature of being a writer, feminism, creationism vs. evolution, mythology as a reflection of human ego, literary criticism and the role of scholars and biographers, etc.
( Yes, the scope is huge and a majestic undertaking! )
There is a lot to sink your teeth into, and this is a book to be savored. Don't skip the poetry and flowery Victorian passages. They may be challenging but offer striking intellectual rewards.
My copy is full of underlined passages for further reflection or investigation.
How do I write a review worthy of such a breathtaking book? How do I write a review explaining the beauty of this book without giving anything away?
I will try.
For NaNoWriMo last November, I wrote a story about a man who moves into an old house. While renovating, he discovers old letters and journals from a time long ago. These documents provided leads into old, mysterious deaths and a disappearance of a family.
My point: I love stories like these. Huge secrets that leave small clues scattered into various places. Long-lost letters; famous poems. It's like a puzzle or maze. Turn the right corner and you will be rewarded beyond anything you could have comprehended.
Possession started out slow. The first hundred pages or so were basically a set-up for what was to come. Afterward, the story moved slow, but not in a boring way. It was like each beautiful secret was being slowly, graciously unveiled, as if hesitant to show us. We were met with poems and short stories, which some readers seem to skip, as if it hinders the flow of the story. These documents are the story. It gives us the thought that these two fictional poets were actually real. These writings give them life, breath, a voice. Why skip a part of a book? What's the rush?
If you're someone who easily gets impatient and just wants to 'get to the point', then do not waste your eyes here. If you can't sit and watch a beautiful story slowly unfold, Possession is not for you, and that is sad.
Example: For one chapter all there is is the correspondence between these two poets: Ash and LaMotte. It's over forty-five pages of letters. This was my favorite part. To see a relationship grow in words. The early letters starting out with civility moving slowly towards friendship and then slowly to love when we see sentiments like 'My dear' and 'Yours always'. It was gorgeous. It was exquisite. It makes me miss the beauty of letter writing. A great art form that has slowly died out.
My reaction when I was finished was me staring straight ahead, focusing on nothing, breathless and fighting back small tears. The last two chapters were hauntingly sad. I can't even form words to describe it.
The modern day story was good. It wasn't paper thin or unsatisfying, but of course, my mind was eager for the story of the past.
Read Possession if you're looking for a story that when you reach the end, you will be rewarded. You will feel that your journey was not in vain.
If I could, I would give this novel 10 stars. Five stars just does not seem like enough.
Things change, one afternoon, when lo and behold, Roland stumbles across a piece of Ash’s past that will send his colleagues and competitors into a whirlwind chase for the glory of bragging rights and the hope of historically charged romance.
Though the book is well written and incredibly layered, there was depth lacking, for me at least. Despite weighing in at over 550 pages, it seemed a little bit rushed. It might have been better served to have been played out in a series or, at least, two books.
That said, I obviously would have read more of it, had there been more to read.
I enjoyed the characters a great deal and was not bothered by the three-dimensional, noir-like villains (they actualy made me smile, a lot). The true beauty was not in present day (well, 1990′s present day) character development but in the evolution of the characters not shown: Ash and his literary correspondent as the subjects of the academic artifacts.
Of course, as any fine writer accomplishes, Byatt succeeds in at least some transfer of life altering change from the subject of study to those doing the study. The book watches those wandering in the badlands of rejected academia come around to the spark they once had. It also sees several lives, formerly entrenched in walled confinements of emotionally devoid solitude open up to receive love through unexpected paths.
Over all, I think it was a fine read if not as fleshed out as it could have been and has encouraged me to read a little bit more of Byatt’s work, down the road. It has also given me a bit of a different view regarding the wide variety picked for Booker winners, each year as Finkler and The Sea differ greatly from Possession.
Byatt is a master of the language and plot. This is a dense work in every good sense of that word. It is not necessarily a hard read, but it is demanding, and rewards the effort.
I think part of my problem was that Byatt did too well capturing the era's style in her creations of letters and poems by her fictional poets, and I'm no fan of Victorian literature. Much of the poetry, some lengthy, bored me, then I hit a wall about a third of the way through when I reached the chapter of about fifty pages of their correspondence in the style of the era. It was just too tedious reading these characters going into raptures over each other's poetry, and after reading a few letters, I skipped the rest of that chapter, and then started skipping the poems that began the chapters. The book is also studded with diary entires, portions of Mortimer Cropper's biography of Ash, and articles of literary criticism. It's all technically impressive, but for me the poems and letters dragged down the narrative. And Byatt can count one misfire in her otherwise laudatory ability at capturing voices--Cropper is not a convincing American. (Among other things, his writings include words like "whilst" and "candy floss" an American wouldn't use, and though I could suppose Byatt meant it as an affectation of his, her irritating insistence on describing him in terms of American stereotypes--gunslinger more than once--tends to belie that. Her other American character, Leonora Stern, was more successful.)
Much of the first 300 pages of the book were a grind, but then after that it became for me more and more of a page-turner, and I stayed up all night to read those last hundred pages. I liked how the tales of past and present intertwined, and I grew to love the characters, the way the many meanings of possession figure in the plot in thought-provoking ways, the lovely prose, and ultimately I got caught up in the interplay of ideas and how they fit into the romances. So if you find yourself wanting to give up (and it crossed my mind at one point), all I can say is I think the book's difficulties are worth pushing through, and if you need to skip that epistolary section or the poems to keep going, I don't think it hurts the narrative to do so--and eventually you may want to go back to those parts. I found the concluding pages moving and the post-script was a lovely grace note. I could see coming back to this book for rereads someday and finding more each time.
Despite finding aspects and parts of this novel amazing, I can't see giving a full five stars to a book where I slogged through or skipped so much--but what I loved here, I loved. So four it is.
Because if there's one thing to appreciate in Possession, it's what a dazzling architecture of plot and meta-artifacts Byatt has constructed here. The base of the novel is a close third-person narration that gives us the viewpoints of 1980s scholars Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, as well as glimpses of their colleagues and academic rivals. There are also similar, less frequent chapters narrating the experiences of these scholars' Victorian subjects: Randolph Henry Ash (whose psychological, character-driven blank verse and ardent love-letter-writing abilities recall Robert Browning) and Christabel LaMotte (a bisexual mystic with Elizabeth Barrett's reclusiveness and Emily Dickinson's fondness for em-dashes). Layered on top of this, we have conversations with and about other Ash and LaMotte scholars; letters between Ash and LaMotte, among others; drafts of yet more letters that were never sent; several journal fragments, one of them quite long; written first-hand accounts by third parties of incidents involving one or both of the poets; excerpts from a fictional and self-important Ash biography (complete with quoted material from real-life Victorians); a long passage from an equally self-important piece of feminist criticism on LaMotte; contemporary newspaper cuttings relevant to the poets' lives; and, of course, a generous helping of both poets' actual work, both prose and verse.
All of which is crafted by Byatt with a pitch-perfect ear for a wide variety of both Victorian and late-twentieth-century styles of expression. Neither period is monolithic for Byatt; her American feminist critics write differently than her good-old-boy British critics, and her Victorian characters are writing in different modes from one another, and in different modes from their younger selves as they age. I particularly like how carefully Byatt develops Ash's and LaMotte's different poetic styles, and the way, as the secrets of their lives are revealed, she allows the reader to see how those two styles influenced one another. From the Browning-like Ash (although this passage is more Miltonic, but it's one of my favorites):
Then Ask stepped forward on the printless shore;
And touched the woman's hand, who clasped fast his.
Speechless they walked away along the line
Of the sea's roaring, in their listening ears.
Behind them, first upon the level sand
A line of darkening prints, filling with salt,
First traces in the world, of life and time
And love, and mortal hope, and vanishing.
And from the Dickensian LaMotte:
All day snow fell
Snow fell all night
My silent lintel
Inside a Creature—
With snowy Feature
Eyes of Light
What's even more to Byatt's credit is that she is able to use these imitative powers to evoke so many different effects: sometimes she elicits snickers and guffaws with her spot-on parody of academic puffery, and other times her characters' distinct voices evoke pathos, respect, or anger on the part of the reader. Possession is far from a heartless book, as some metafiction can be—if its cleverness is always present, it adds in a satisfying amount of emotional insight and compassion. I ended up caring about all four protagonists very much, and even feeling a sense of amused attachment to the bevy of more ridiculous academics surrounding Maud and Roland. Ash's wife Ellen, late in the novel, became one of the most affecting characters, and someone with a surprising amount of depth.
So too, Byatt's intellectualism isn't just a clever display: she has important things to say about personal and social influence, and the way societies affect individuals. I thought the dynamics of oppression were particularly interesting in Possession: we so often think of Victorians, particularly Victorian women, as living in a sexually repressive atmosphere, and Byatt's novel certainly doesn't deny this. For one character in particular, the lack of what we now call "sex education" has tragic results, and another must choose between artistic autonomy and sexual fulfillment. But Byatt spends perhaps more time examining the ways in which late-twentieth-century Brits are also sexually oppressed—not by the Victorian injunction never to talk about sex, but by the modern, Freudian idea that we should ALWAYS be talking about it, that nothing else so merits our attention.
Roland laid aside Leonora Stern['s book on LaMotte] with a small sigh. He had a vision of the land they were to explore, covered with sucking human orifices and knotted human body-hair. He did not like this vision, and yet, a child of his time, found it compelling, somehow guaranteed to be significant, as a geological survey of the oolite would not be. Sexuality was like thick smoked glass; everything took on the same blurred tint through it. He could not imagine a pool with stones and water.
And Maud, a few pages earlier:
"I agree, Dr. Nest. In fact I do agree. The whole of our scholarship—the whole of our thought—we question everything except the centrality of sexuality—Unfortunately feminism can hardly avoid privileging such matters. I sometimes wish I had embarked on geology myself."
It's Roland's and Maud's inescapable self-consciousness, with regard to sexuality and also with regard to narrative tropes, that oppresses them. In one passage, they marvel together at their subjects' ability to take themselves seriously—the educated postmodernist has been trained to such a suspicion of ideas like "romantic love" and "the autonomous self" that the result is sometimes a kind of paralysis, an inability to feel or express anything sincere or admit that anything is meaningful. In another passage, toward the end of the book, Roland speculates that the narrative encapsulating him is changing from a "quest"/"romance" to a "chase," which are all equally valid traditions and all of which he remains unable to take quite seriously. What's needed, Byatt seems to argue, is some middle ground between the earnest double-standard of Victorianism and Romanticism, and the facetious over-analysis of Postmodernism. Given that Roland's and Maud's very NAMES recall Shakespeare/Browning and Tennyson, the reader will perhaps realize this before they do. Nevertheless, their journey is satisfying both on a superficial, "find out what happens in the mystery" level, and on a more lasting, thought-provoking plane. I look forward to revisiting it in the future, when I'm in a truly novelistic mood.
I have to confess that I was fooled. I had never heard of the two Victorian poets featured in the novel - not so surprising, I guess. So I went to wikipedia and did a search and found out they were fictional. Not only did Byatt create the modern characters, but the historical ones as well, including writing their poetry and prose. A remarkable achievement.
For me, I enjoyed the “detective side” of Possession. I was on the edge of my seat when Roland and Maud combined forces to determine if fictional poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, were in love with each other. Roland first discovered drafts of letters in Ash’s archives, which led him to Maud, an expert in LaMotte’s poetry. They continued to search through letters, replicate Ash’s holidays and comb through archives to find the connection between these contemporary poets – all while trying to hide their possible discovery from more well-known and wealthier scholars.
I respected Byatt’s ability to replicate Victorian prose. We learned about Ash and LaMotte only through their poetry and letters. She had to create all of this – and it was a lot – which I thought was a remarkable task.
My main complaint about Possession,though, is the overabundance (in my opinion) of Victorian prose that you have to sift through. I am not a fan of Victorian prose, so this is a personal bias. I handled the letters, but when it came to pages of poetry, I found myself skipping ahead.
This book has piqued my interest in the movie, but other than that, it’s a book that I can now check off my list. I don’t regret reading Possession, but I am glad to move on to books that better suit my reading tastes.
The first example comes only a few pages into the story when a postgraduate researcher uncovers some letters which hint at a secret relationship between the Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. He steals them and also hides his discovery from his boss. Instead he teams up with another academic Maud Bailey, who has devoted years to dissecting LaMotte’s work. Together they embark on a quest to discover the truth, piecing the story together from a vast array of sources, including letters, journal entries and field trips to Yorkshire and France.
But they are not the only ones in pursuit. From across the Atlantic come Professor Leonora Stern, an avid feminist who is possessed by LaMotte’s supposed lesbian tendencies and Mortimer Cropper, a scholar-collector who is hell-bent on acquiring everything once owned by Ash and shipping it to the USA. In the background there is Cropper’s arch rival Professor James Blackadder, editor of Ash’s Complete Works who is determined to preserve all of Ash’s work in England. Ranged against them all is the determination of Ash’s widow to preserve her husband’s secret. What ensues is a cross between the tradition of the romance adventure with its battle between good and bad and the tradition of a mystery story where the characters have to follow a trail of clues to find the solution.
Byatt skillfully weaves these (or to use Byatt’s own description of ‘a piece of knitting’) into two parallel stories. The painful Victorian love story of Ash and LaMotte, retold through their poems and letters, has its counterpoint in the present-day story of Mitchell and Bailey, whose academic partnership slowly grows into love. Their stories are intertwined so objects from one era reappear in the other — a Victorian jet brooch that Maud wears for example — and the two pairs of lovers share similar behaviours; so Roland’s admiration for Maud’s hair parallels Ash’s fascination with LaMotte’s tresses.
Byatt’s versatility as a writer is evident in the multiple narrative styles found in Possession. She wrote all the poems herself, a task which required her to adopt different voices and styles for each of her Victorian poets – so successful was she that many readers apparently believed Ash and La Motte were real. Her publishers were not so convinced, fearing that readers would find the the inclusion of so many poems too intrusive and a distraction from the mystery story.
I didn’t find them distracting so much as tedious. I’m not a fan of poetry which relies on my knowledge of myths and legends, nor do I enjoy poems which use over-blown language. Both Ash and LaMotte were guilty on both counts – many of their poems were just so dire I skipped them. Nor did I appreciate the long, and frankly often very tedious, passages in the letters between these two poets in which they discussed layers of meaning in Nordic myths. If this is how writers in their era talked to each other, I can’t imagine I’d enjoy spending much time in their company. Was Byatt making fun of them in the same way she ridiculed the academic world for its dogged pursuit of apparently trivial knowledge? I still wasn’t sure by the time I finished reading.
I can’t say that reading Possession was a deeply enjoyable experience. I admired Byatt’s command of language and her ability to tell a story but never felt her contemporary characters came alive in the same way as the Victorians did or that the inclusion of so much poetry really enhanced the book.
I have always tended to quote Possession as one of my favorite books, but... Do you find that every so often you re-read a favorite and feel like this is probably the last time you're going to read it? Well, it was like that. I just didn't get that luminous glow from Byatt's writing that I always have in the past, although naturally I admire her brilliance and especially the ability to write original poetry in two different styles that come across as absolutely true to the period.
This is a dual time period story, of two academics with a really bad record as far as relationships are concerned exploring the relationship between two Victorian poets. The possession of the title refers, in typically Byattian metaphysics, to possessive love, to possession of the truth, to physical possession of the objects the poets have left behind them. The story proceeds through both narrative and document, Byatt being quite capable of inventing an entire world of materials (letters, poetry, disquisitions and stories) to build such a convincing reality that you could almost find yourself looking up Randolph Henry Ash on the internet. After writing those words I tried that very thing, and found that he and Christabel have many fans--they have, in fact, a weird kind of ongoing life in virtual reality, which speaks volumes for Byatt's ability to bring an utterly convincing nineteenth century world into being.
And yet...perhaps it's because my allegiance is shifting to Hilary Mantel with her shiny dialogue and pithy, short bits of narrative that I now find Possession just a touch staid and dated, a ghost of my earnest, classics-reading youth. The bloom is off the rose, the fizz is off the champagne, and while I'll always remember Randolph, Christabel, Roland and Maud with fondness I may now leave them to new readers and move on. They're starting to feel like a shell that's become too tight for me and needs to be shed. Alas for a brilliant book, but reading is, as Dorothy L. Sayers pointed out, part of our growth as people and if we are to grow, we need to expect loyalties to change.
It's the Victorians that cause the hard work, though. Much of the novel is epistolary, with long sequences of prolix prose of the sort that poets given to letter-writing - and in Victorian times it would be hard to avoid the letter as a form - might well produce. We also get extensive selections of their poetry, as well as somewhat smaller doses of the 20th-century academics writing about their 19th century subjects and diary entries from both eras. The text isn't all easy reading, and it isn't meant to be. But it gets easier as it goes on and the story begins to pull so much that one reads through anything to uncover its next layer.
"Possession" is very much a literary and literate novel. Many writing styles are imitated, including such fine shades of difference as those between different academic writing styles (feminist literary theory vs what one might call dead-white-male literary theory, for instance.) It all feels real; the novel would fail if it didn't. This includes some very particular efforts, such as the multiple drafts of a particular letter which effectively start all the stories going.
The present-day story is in many respects a campus comic novel. The stylistic variations are reminiscent of those used by David Lodge in "Changing Places" (although not as clearly signalled in the text) and there are hints of "Small World" as well, particularly the explicit declaration of the forms of Romance, Quest and the like. Byatt's Mortimer Cropper could well be a colleague of Morris Zapp, although it's difficult to imagine one department accommodating both their egos. Yet unlike Lodge, the campus novel here is almost incidental at times.
The end result is a thrilling page-turner by the end and also deeply moving. Few novels have left me with such a mixture of joy and sadness at their ends. Highly recommended.