Possession is a novel that strongly captured my imagination and my heart when I first read it as a teenager. I loved the dense, layered, symbol-filled narrative that neatly weaves together the tale of two Victorian poets and their forbidden love with a group of contemporary academics and their search for groundbreaking evidence of that love.
I read it again a few years later and felt the same swoony admiration for its brilliant use of language and intensely smoldering description of the entanglement between poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. I thought it was crazy romantic.
This time around I didn’t feel the same enchantment, but that’s okay – clear-headedness allowed me to appreciate the utter genius of the novel’s construction and to realize what a feat of creativity Byatt achieved with this entertaining tale of passion and scholarly adventure.
Roland Michell is a young academic who’s specialty is Randolph Henry Ash, a Victorian poet of high esteem. While researching him in the London Library he discovers an unfinished letter Ash composed to a mysterious woman. His curiosity fuelled, he begins a cautious investigation which leads him to Maud Bailey, an expert on the work of a forgotten female poet, Christabel LaMotte. As the evidence accumulates they realize that Ash and LaMotte may have had a relationship and they are excited, yet wary of revealing this knowledge because they aren’t the only scholars who care. A particular scholar from New Mexico, Professor Cropper, is hot on the chase and willing to pay any price to be the first to own the intimate letters the poets exchanged.
As the connection between Ash and LaMotte is rapidly explored, Roland and Maude slowly form a bond with each other and their own love story takes shape.
There are so many themes and elements fizzing around in Possession that it is hard to pinpoint what this novel is really about. It is most certainly a fantastic story, thrilling and suspenseful, yet there are many, many layers to the story that truly intensify the pleasure of reading it. Byatt’s creation of the numerous letters, poems and journal entries that help to tell the story in addition to the narrative is astounding. The poems range from full length epics to Emily Dickinson-style verses and the letters bring the voices of Ash and LaMotte alive in a way that simply reading about them would not.
The main traits I admire in A.S. Byatt’s writing are her ability as a natural storyteller and her ability to make me feel smart. Her books are full of allusions that I only occasionally understand yet she isn’t snobby about it. Her knowledge is inclusive – I think she wants everyone to delight in it.
My re-read of Possession was very satisfying and I’m sure that in another 10 years or so I will be ready for the 4th reading of it – what will I think of it then?