I have to confess, I’m more than a little bit tired this morning. The best kind of tired though: the one where you’ve been up half the night to finish a novel. I couldn’t do it though; I finished the last twenty pages in the sunshine this morning.
A.S. Byatt’s Possession begins as Roland Michell, an obscure academic, and scholar of the fictional poet Randolph Henry Ash, discovers a letter written by Ash to another, after some research he assumes with letter cannot have been addressed to his wife, but to a contemporary of his, the poet Christabel LaMotte. The discovery leads to Maud Bailey, a fellow scholar and LaMotte expert. The pair’s explorations lead them to a chain of deceptions, travels and meetings that begin to mirror the romance between the poets one-hundred-and-fifty years earlier.
Part mystery-detective, part thriller, part romance novel, the multifaceted ‘Possession’ is referred to countless times throughout and refers to not only the two central romances but to the concept of possession of knowledge, possession of love and people.
‘ “An odd phrase, “by heart,” he would add, as though poems were stored in the bloodstream.’
The novel draws any literature lover in from the beginning, particularly those with affection for anything Victorian: Byatt manages to bring in two fictional poets, Ash and LaMotte (based upon Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti respectively) into the literary canon and makes them seem indispensable and complex without drawing too much from their stimuli.
For anyone who has ever studied literature this book is a delight, the back-stabbing, political world of academics is captured in its entirety by Byatt, the scholars are
the exact mix of eccentric and possessed you might find in any modern-day Russell Group. The novel follows two narrative arcs, one that has already happened in the nineteenth century and one that unfolds around the flashbacks. As the stories intertwine the novel m
oves between prose, letters and poetry – Byatt is an astonishing poetess as well as a prolific and knowledgeable writer. The epic poem that intertwines through every chapter will have every reader enchanted.
However, there are times when the novel’s complexity seems somewhat self-gratifying and a little pretentious, but I think this mingles well with the world of poetry and
academics. For this reason a warning: you will need your dictionary on hand every other page of the novel, such is ferocity of Byatt’s ever expanding vocabulary that even though the most esteemed wordsmith may have trouble deciphering her prose’s exact meaning.
Possession captures the spirit of both ages very well, delving deep into repressed Victorian passions and the selfish pursuits of the twentieth century. If you want to read something absorbing and complex read this, you won’t be disappointed – just don’t forget that dictionary.