Skip to main content

"Possession: A Romance" by A.S. Byatt

I attempted to read Possession my junior year of college. It was a whim: it was a large, appropriately dusty, tome of a book whose Pre-Raphelite front cover appealed to my sometime attraction to Victoriana. It was far too literary for me then; Byatt’s prose is capable of holding one at a distance and freezing one out. As part of my resolution to read all winners of the Man-Booker Prize, I decided to try again.

The novel centers on two twentieth-century literary scholars, Roland Michell and Dr. Maud Bailey, who uncover a secret romance between two relatively obscure Victorian poets (their academic specialties), Randolph Henry Ash and Christobel LaMotte. Trying to stay one step ahead of unscrupulous scholars and academic rivals, Roland and Maud find the seductive call of curiosity a stronger force than responsible, methodical scholarship. The lust for discovery and the poets’ paraphernalia cause the quest for truth to be conducted in secrecy and care. Though originally an awkward couple – Roland a passive, hesitant modern male and Maud a beautiful but frigid feminist – as they trace the development of Ash and LaMotte’s relationship, the protagonists find themselves similarly drawn together.

Possession is an overwhelming, exhaustive literary masterpiece. Part novel, part poetry anthology, part literary criticism, and part biography, the book is salted liberally with myth, mysticism, folk tales, legends, biology, questions of religion, science, feminism, sexuality, semiotics, metaphorical allusions, and poetry. Byatt’s strengths lie on her exhaustive knowledge and thorough research, and her own impeccable poetry. She has a gift for calling Tennyson, Browning, Dickinson and Rossetti to mind in the work of her fictitious poets, sprinkling epigrams and stanzas from their respective works throughout her novel. Byatt shows herself to be the mistress of the modern novel, as well as master of hyper-intelligent prose, dialogue and evocative epic poetry.


I’d recommend this book to anyone who misses the library, the English classroom, and invigorating literary discussions during the summer months.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each e…

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo t…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…