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.