Review – Possession by A.S. Byatt
When a writer dies, should their private lives die with them? Or should they become the possessions of academics and enthusiasts, to be collected, catalogued and analysed like laboratory specimens. Possession in all its manifestations — physical, spiritual, emotional — is the focus of A S Byatt’s 1990 Booker winning novel. The more you read it, the more forms of possession become apparent: legal ownership of correspondence and creative work; obsession with words; control of one’s history; exertion of influence; emotional disturbance.
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.
13 thoughts on “Review – Possession by A.S. Byatt”
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This is another one I read in college, and I remember getting about 50 pages in and being so confused that I had to start over, keeping a map of characters. There were SO MANY. And most names never appeared more than once!
I dont remember having an issue with that – it was the poetry that irritated me. Way too much of second rate ‘Victorian’ poetry
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I had two abortive attempts to read this before finally finishing it when it was chosen for our book group. I only managed that by leaving out the poems. I had the same problem with the intrusive prose narratives in The Children’s Book, which otherwise I really loved. I have to say that I came to appreciate Byatt more through discussion Possession with people who really do love her work but I’m still not convinced she’s for me.
I suspect a fair proportion of the book club members will likewise find the poetry a turn off. I’m hoping at least a few people will have enjoyed it otherwise it will be a short discussion. I know the book reviewers in the serious newspapers thought it was wonderful and I’ve seen reviews by ordinary readers that were also very keen on it so maybe there will be one of them in the group so I can appreciate it more as you did through the discussion
I read this when it first came out.I remember being swept away by it. Your review brings me back to that reading experience. (Good review) I don’t think I minded the poems, but then I love poetry. However, I don’t remember being wowed by them either. The romance and the mystery are what drew me in. I think the dazzling cross-genre writing — romance, mystery, poetry, analysis — was also more unusual at the time.
You’ve just reminded me that I meant to say in the post that this was a re-read. like you I read it not long after it was published. I remember reading it but never recalled that it had so much of the poetry in it. So probably I also enjoyed the mystery/romance aspect more than anything else. I’m reading it now for my book club so will be interesting to hear what others have to say on it.
We feel the same about the contemporary characters being flat. I was going to axe this with a lower rating because of those poems, but the ending hit me hard (the last letter and the last page).
The ending was quite poignant wasn’t it? Actually I thought the beginning and the end the strongest parts