The Booker-winning Possession is such great fun. It is a multi-layered, literary detective romance, tracing the efforts of a pair of literary scholars, the hitherto middling Roland Michell and the prickly Maud Bailey, as they discover in the mid-1980s the love letters of two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, as well as other journals and correspondence previously unknown or unstudied that unearth a great love story that re-writes the books on the two poets’ respective oeuvres. Along the way, Michell and Bailey develop a relationship of their own, which has symmetries with the poets’ (Maud is a distant relation of LaMotte, and Michell discovers that he wants to be a poet rather than a scholar), but which is, nonetheless, a modern romance when compared to that of the Victorians’. In their wake, Roland and Maud drag along a bevy of competing scholars, who all have reputations to protect or extend, including the obsessive US-based Ash fanatic, Mortimer Cropper, and his staid English counterpart, Professor Blackadder – for whom Roland works. And there is so much fun along the way, with Byatt sending up all manner of scholarly ‘types’. The whole novel is one great pastiche of academia.
The quest all kicks off when Roland finds the unfished drafts of a letter he wrote to Christabel after first meeting her, where they discussed her ‘fairy project’. The drafts show Roland a side of Ash never before seen: impulsive, rash, taken over by emotion, and his interest is piqued. They are found inside one of Ash’s old books, now in the London Library.
But the letters aren’t addressed to anyone and it is only after a little digging that he discovers to whom they were intended for. So begins the chase to discover what form of relationship these two poets had. He contacts Maud and they are away. They travel to the house where LaMotte died, a grand old country estate near Lincoln, where Sir George and his poorly wife still live. After Roland saves the old lady’s life, the two are invited to dinner and therein discover, thanks to Maud, the correspondence, hidden with the dolls.
Now the chase begins in earnest, to see what is in the letters, to see how much they are worth – both financially and culturally – and to get there ahead of the other scholars who quickly pick up the scent.
When he finds the unfinished draft letters, Roland feels that he has some form or ‘possession’ of them and sneaks them out of the library and keeps their discovery hidden from Blackadder. This is the first of several uses of the word ‘possession’ throughout the book, though it is never overdone. Both Roland and Maud feel possessive toward their discovery. Sir George feels his own ownership of the letters given they were discovered in his house. Cropper has an obsessive form of possession toward anything and everything of Ash’s, including buying many artefacts that Ash used in his lifetime; when we first meet him he ‘writes’ in his mind an autobiography of his childhood which is in essence a litany of things his family owed. The whole theme is who owns what when it comes to the private lives of famous literary figures.
But the question of possession is also a much more personal one. Roland questions the possessiveness in his own relationship with Val, while Christabel also refers to possession in one of her letters to Ash, stating [p160-1]: “a voracious Worm with many legs which we have been wholly unable to identify and which is Possessed of a Restless Demon…”, and we of course think she is referring to her also unidentified self as much as the poor worm. Her work begins to suffer – she is smothered by Ash – and so too her friendship with Blanche Glover, her housemate.
When Ash describes the arrival of Spring to her in one of his letters, we see other dark omens, [p181-2]:
There were hosts of black ravens, very busy and important, striding about and stabbing at the roots of things with their blue-black triangular beaks. And larks rising, and spiders throwing out their gleaming geometrical Traps and staggering butterflies and unevenly speeding blue darts of the dragonflies. And a kestrel riding the air-currents with superlative ease with its gaze concentrated on the bright earth.
When was there so much death in a passage about the life of Spring? And if she is the worm, then what chance does she have with all those carnivores ready to Trap and devour her?
Even Ash recognises the power he has over her, thinking on their trip to Yorkshire, [p279]:
He would teach her that she was not his possession, he would show her she was free, he would see her flash her wings.
He asks her whether she regrets going with him on the trip, whether she regrets it all, and she replies, [p284]:
No. This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere.
What a perfect summation of her feelings.
One of the interesting – and much talked about – elements in Possession is the creation of the Victorian poets’ letters and journals and specifically poetry – that brings them to life in a way that gives further clues to the depth of their bond. The journals of Blanche as well as family members in France add more and more depth and intrigue as out detectives follow the trail of the relationship, from letters to what seems like a joint holiday to Yorkshire, and the aftermath – what happened to precipitate the returning of Christabel’s letters? And we get to read the poetry of each as well and see the way their relationship affected their work, even to the point where each use the same line in their own poems. Christabel’s references to burning and ‘ash’ can now be seen in a new light, too, what with her love for Ash. Some critics have said that Byatt’s efforts at creating authentic Victorian poetry falls way short, for it is too busy trying to include clues that us detectives can spot, rather than being poetry for its own sake. In one of the letters, Ash writes, [p132]:
What makes me a Poet, and not a novelist – is to do with the singing of the language itself. For the difference between poets and novelists is this – that the former write for the life of the language – and the latter write for the betterment of the world.
What then, are we to make of Byatt who shows attempts to be both?! Whether or not her poetry it is up to the standard of real-life Victorians, it all adds to the fun in my view, and there are some memorable images in them.
Of course, what’s fun for us is not necessarily fun for some of the characters in the book. Ash is a married man, and believes that he can love two women at the same time. In a way, Roland has two bites at the apple, too, although he realises that his long-standing relationship with his current partner, Val, isn’t working and extricates himself from it before we see whether the slightly tangential relationship with Maud has any legs or not. Unfortunately for our Victorian lovers, their tryst is not so harmless – as all those dark portents suggest.
The way things resolve is lovely in the way it includes some very Victorian-authentic coincidences!
The Guardian Bookclub has a discussion on Possession here.
Possession by AS Byatt
Source: the bookshelf rainbow