Possession is a mesmerizing story, or two stories, steeped in mystery, secrecy and discovery. Set in both the modern world and the Victorian age, Possession tells the parallel stories of characters whose intellectual pursuits bring them together but also spark jealousies alongside great creativity. Byatt’s writing is genius. The detail and creativity, the imagination, she brings to her work is simply breathtaking.
The novel begins in London, circa 1990. Roland is a scholar/academic, living with longtime girlfriend Val in rather dire straits. His field is world renowned and acclaimed Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Much has already been written about the man and his work, notably by Roland’s advisor Blackadder and his nemesis, American scholar Cropper whose deep pockets have ensured that much that is valuable in way of documents has wound up in a US university. Roland has been trying unsuccessfully to find full-time academic work while assisting Blackadder. While searching through an old tome in the library, he finds previously unknown correspondence between Ash and a woman who was not his wife. This is a potentially earth-shattering find that could change RH Ash scholarship and give Roland a career boost. Yet he must tread lightly. He pockets the letters and keeps his secret from Blackadder but realizes he needs help to figure out the relationship between Ash and the woman Christabel LaMotte, a minor Victorian poet. Roland tracks down noted feminist academic Maud Bailey who specializes in LaMotte, and together they try to piece together the complex relationship between the two poets while simultaneously keeping their fellow academics in the dark as to their find, and while working out their own complicated feelings about their work and about each other. As someone who spent a decade in academia, I immediately recognized the types of academics that Byatt describes and the jealousies and animosities that arise amongst them. The pettiness, the turf wars, the devotion of one’s whole life to the study of a particular person and their work, and the insularity of the researcher — Byatt recreates academia perfectly in this novel. Prospective grad students might want to read Possession to get a sense of the dysfunctional world they’ll be entering.
But the story of Roland and Maud’s research is only half of the overall story. Through Byatt’s incredible imagination and stunning writing, we also learn of the short and tragic relationship between eminent poet Randolph Henry Ash and Christable LaMotte, known for her children’s tales and poetry. This is the part of the novel that blows me away. Byatt is a genius. These are fictional characters who seemed so real, I Googled to make sure they hadn’t really existed. Byatt does not simply tell the reader these two are poets and leave it at that; no, she actually writes their poetry! And these poems are not short couplets; they are epic poems dealing with fairy tales and legends. They are amazing to read. Byatt also creates a secret correspondence between these two that moves from professional and intellectual pursuits toward something more intimate. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Ash is married and Christabel lives with a woman named Blanche. The nature of the relationship between Christabel and Blanche is a matter of great interest to Maud and other feminist scholars. Certain assumptions have already been made about that, while amongst Ash scholars, it is taken for granted that the man had only one true love in his life — his wife Ellen. As Roland and Maud chip away at the truth, their professional rivals begin to sense that something is afoot and the race toward discovery begins. Roland and Maud’s secret pursuits will have an impact on their personal relationships with friends and lovers, just as they had for Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte.
The theme of ownership or “possession” runs throughout the novel. Academics want to own ideas and artifacts from the subjects of their study; the first to discover a truth or new tidbit of information becomes a sort of possessor of it. The question of who owns the letters that have passed down from the original correspondents is a matter of some importance, as is the question of whether one has the right to publish private revelations from letters that were meant to be personal. Yet beyond this concept of ownership of things, there is also the possessiveness that can arise within a personal relationship. What does one do when one’s very close friend or spouse or lover begins to take an interest in someone else? Self-possession is an important theme as well; several characters struggle to maintain a sense of independence and privacy, or they build metaphorical walls around themselves for protection. Ultimately there is a struggle here between the desire to possess all the facts and details, to KNOW everything, and the desire to maintain self-possession, to control what is known and what is kept secret.
Possession is the type of novel that could be discussed for an entire semester, easily, in a college lit class. It is the type of novel that one could read multiple times and discover something new each time, and perhaps never really fully understand. Bottom line though is that it’s just a very well told tale that is both intellectual and romantic.