Possession by AS Byatt [A Review]

AS Byatt’s Possession won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1990. It is a highly complex and considered novel that combines mystery, conflict, romance and tragedy with more than a whiff of satire and self-awareness.

Roland Michel is an underemployed academic whose specialty is the work of a Victorian poet named Randolf Henry Ash. Despite his extensive education, a career as an expert in an obscure Victorian poet is far from lucrative and Roland works as a dishwasher when he isn’t researching or tutoring and is otherwise financially reliant on his girlfriend, Val, as he has been for years while he earned his post-graduate diplomas. A further major hinderance to his career is the fact that despite being an English poet, the largest collection of Ash’s work is held by Dale Owen University in New Mexico, whose Professor, Mortimer Cropper, is the world’s leading authority on Ash. Cropper is also a trustee for the trust that funds the department where Roland works under Professor Blackadder.

One September day in 1986, 29 year old Roland goes to the London Library to find a copy of Principi di Scienza Nuova by the Italian philosophy Vico. The book had once been owned by Ash and Roland is hoping to find sources for one of Ash’s poems. But turning over the pages of the book Roland discovers two draft letters by Ash to an unnamed woman. Their content seems far out of character from what Roland knows about Ash. Shocked and excited by the discovery, Roland does something out of character himself and steals the letters.

Roland soon identifies a potential suspect for who the letters were addressed to – a Miss Christabel LaMotte; a writer of poems with religious themes, children’s books and a certain ‘unreadable’ epic called The Fairy Melusina. Asking around, Roland learns that LaMotte has a following among feminist scholars who admire her epic and have their own interpretations of it. Roland is also reminded of the disdain such feminist academics have for Ash, some of whom speculate that credit for his work actually belongs to his wife Ellen.

Roland travels to see Dr Maude Bailey, an expert on LaMotte and a distant relative hers, but she is very incredulous towards his theory. Committed to the feminist interpretation of these writers, Bailey strongly doubts LaMotte and Ash would have had much in common.

‘That doesn’t sound very probable. I wouldn’t have thought his poems would appeal to her. All that cosmic masculinity. That nasty anti-feminist poem about the medium, what was it, Mummy Possest? All that ponderous obfuscation. Everything she wasn’t.’

But she admits that what Roland has found is intriguing and encourages him to pursue it further. Taking up Maude’s invitation to visit LaMotte’s grave, they have a chance encounter with Joan and George Bailey, an elderly couple related to LaMotte who still live in the same estate where LaMotte once lived. Invited to tea, George offers to show Roland and Maude LaMotte’s old room in a wing of the house that has been shut for decades. Barely containing their excitement at a room full of potential treasures, Roland is unnerved by the somewhat creepy sight of dolls in the old room. Maude recites from memory a poem by LaMotte about the dolls which contains the suggestion that they hide a secret. Removing the dolls, Maude finds a parcel. Unwrapping it they discover letters from Ash to LaMotte.

Never have I felt such a concentration of my whole Being – on one object, in one place, at one time – a blessed eternity of momentariness that went on forever, it seemed. I felt you call me, though your voice said something different, something about the rainbow spectrum – but the whole of you, the depth of you called to me and I had to answer – and not with words – this wordless call. Now is this only my madness? With you in my arms (I tremble as I remember it to write it) I was sure it was not.

But George by now has become very defensive, protective and threatening. He wants to do his own research and thinking and find other advice on what to do next. Roland and Maude, knowing the value of the letters, knowing the Bailey’s financial stress evidenced by the state of their neglected mansion, fear that the letters will inevitably find their way to Cropper who will make George an offer he can’t refuse.

Roland and Maude continue their investigations regardless but the possibility of keeping their discoveries to themselves until they understand what they mean grows increasingly remote. They need to seek out other experts, such as on Ash’s wife Ellen. Cropper and Blackadder will be on their heels before too long and other academics from their past choose this moment re-enter their lives further complicating matters.

In parallel with this expedition of discovery and a tense race to be first to uncover the truth, is the historical story of the growing relationship between the married Ash and LaMotte, who had chosen a life of self-sufficiency with another woman, each devoted to their art. As the reader follows the academics trying to uncover the truth of the historical relationships, between the married and the unmarried, between the heterosexual and the possibly bisexual or lesbian, there is the equally messy relationships developing between the searching academics.

Possession, which won the 1990 Booker Prize, is one of the more complex books I have read amongst Booker Prize winners and nominees. In Possession, AS Byatt has not only written a novel with several voices and perspectives, which switch from first to third person. There is also the structure of a stories within stories, and, since some of the characters are also writers, Byatt has also written their writings – letters, fiction, essays and poetry – for the reader to read and interpret. The characters are quite complex as well. I particularly found Maude to be fascinating – so stern, elegant, cold, intimidating, yet blushes at the slightest embarrassment. All of this contributes to a story that is ultimately quite tragic and affecting.

One way to interpret Possession is to say that it is a novel about the academic world and it raises a number of questions on this front. The competition to make an original discovery is fierce. Competition provides a number of advantages to academia, such as creating an environment of scrutiny that allows the work of best quality to flourish and the problematic ones to be diminished. But one questions whether that ideal can be met if the competitive field is unequal because of differences in funding or access. The novel also probes the dangers of self-interest that academics face to their commitment to the truth. If an academic has built their career on a particular stance what would they do if contradictory facts were discovered?

This letter posed and shelved a moral problem: when and how much was it wise and honourable to tell Leonora about the discovery? She would not particularly like it. She did not like R.H. Ash. Still less would she like being put in the position of not having known about it, if she continued to write confident papers on Christabel’s sexuality. She would feel betrayed and sisterhood would be betrayed.

Byatt was an academic herself and you could also question whether Possession is not also satirising the academic world. The over-reading and over-analysing of literature and other texts can reach a stage where the conclusions reached seem comical and extravagant against the rather plain evidence. Discovering facts about the private lives of obscure, long-dead, literary figures from the past would also hardly be world-changing. Reading the novel, the story can be gripping, but stepping outside the novel, and seeing a small cast of characters giving enormous devotion and import to discoveries that will matter to few other than themselves can’t help but provoke the inevitable questions that are often raised about the utility of the humanities. This larger view does not diminish Possession. It is owing to the skill of the author that the reader finds themselves invested in the mystery despite whatever satire we may later find on reflection.

‘Literary critics make natural detectives,’ said Maud.

You may wonder, as I did, why the novel is named Possession, but ‘possession’ slowly emerges as the key theme of the novel. While these academics race each other to make a new discovery or an original interpretation, the question of possession is repeatedly entered into the reader’s mind. Who ‘owns’ the past, a discovery, an interpretation? Each academic seems to inhabit their area of expertise as if it is their own property and guard it possessively. When such expertise, and a potentially lucrative career, is strongly tied to access to physical property – notes, books and letters in this instance – the question of ‘possession’ emerges again.

‘I don’t know anything about money. Perhaps we should tell Blackadder. Perhaps they ought to be in the British Library. They must be some sort of national heritage.’

‘They’re love letters.’

What, if anything, is owed to the talents who produced the works these academics have based their careers on? When such talents are long gone, what claim, if any, do their descendants have? Reading Possession we see the Bailey’s in their rundown mansion with little of their family’s former wealth remaining trying to squeeze a little more out from the discovery of a private possession belonging to a relative they hardly took an interest in previously. Cropper, in contrast, is enjoying living in the prime of wealth built by previous generations, but with no less of an air of privilege and entitlement. We wonder how much of Cropper’s academic prestige is due to his ability and achievements and how much simply due to his monopoly of access to key materials.

I wondered, while reading Possession, if it was not just satirising academia but one school of academia – feminist literary criticism – in particular. Some of the characters seem to tend to view their field through a lens of gender and to be more guilty than others of over-analysing and over-interpreting, reaching conclusions that may say more of their worldviews than anything the original author or text intended.

And what surfaces of the earth do we women choose to celebrate, who have appeared typically in phallocentric texts as a penetrable hole, inviting or abhorrent, surrounded by, fringed with – something? Women writers and painters are seen to have created their own significantly evasive landscapes, with features that deceive or elude the penetrating gaze, tactile landscapes which do not privilege the dominant stare. The heroine takes pleasure in a world which is both bare and not pushy, which has small hillocks and rises, with tufts of scrub and gently prominent rocky parts which disguise sloping declivities, hidden clefts, not one but a multitude of hidden holes and openings through which life-giving waters bubble and enter reciprocally.

Elaine Showalter, described as a ‘founder of feminist literacy criticism’ in American academia, in a 1998 essay titled ‘The English Women’s Novel, Killed by Feminism’, describes how the study of literature by women writers from a feminist perspective has affected the work of women writers, citing Possession as an example:

Byatt dedicated Possession to her friend, Isobel Armstrong, professor of English at Birkbeck College and a distinguished scholar and critic of Victorian women’s poetry. An academic herself, Byatt has so thoroughly absorbed feminist critical history of Victorian women’s writing that she invents a whole canon of it in a brilliant literary tour de force.

Not only does she create a pantheon of remarkable Victorian women poets and writers – and compose all their poetry, letters, stories and journals – she also imagines, reproduces and satirises the feminist literary criticism written about them by British, American and French female academics.

Possession is explicitly about the battle for ownership of British literature between English and American scholars, traditional and feminist critics. But it is implicitly a statement that Byatt’s imaginative possession of her literary heritage makes criticism superfluous, redundant and absurd. When fiction so anticipates and exceeds criticism, we have come to the end of an era.

There were a few things I did not enjoy while reading Possession. The main one was how slow it got at times. As much as the mystery at the core of the story engaged me, I did not wish to have to read and interpret the works of these fictional Victorian poets and writers for myself. Some passages, excerpts and entire chapters in Possession were very painful, boring and slow, at least to me. It may be tempting, once you’ve finished the novel, to go back and read some of these passages to see how they might be interpreted differently now that you know the ending, but given how I felt reading them the first time it would be an exercise that feels more like homework than fun. Another thing that irked me at times were how, more than once in the novel, key discoveries are made at very convenient times. But that aspect may be par for the course for mystery plots like these.

The slowness at times of Possession stands in sharp contrast to the thing I liked most about reading it – it is otherwise unputdownable. The mystery and the race to uncover the truth of the plot is as engrossing as many a less-well-written page-turner. Which makes those parts where we turn away from the main plot, and the pace slows down, all the more frustrating. All that being said, you can’t help appreciating the skill and imagination to not only write an engrossing historical mystery novel, but to incorporate fictional writers and their writings and the larger themes of the novel.

Possession is the 12th Booker Prize winner I have read and, in terms of how much I enjoyed it, I would place it somewhere in the middle of that list. While I certainly enjoyed much of it, I probably did not enjoy it as much as Life of Pi by Yann Martel or The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. But I certainly enjoyed it more than Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending or Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. At times it would keep me up and at others it would put me to sleep. It is the desire of many readers to read novels that are both entertaining and have literary merit. In Possession, AS Byatt shows she can do both, but not at the same time often enough.

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