Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is about a couple of young British academics in the 1980s who discover a set of love letters between two (fictional) Victorian poets. The novel tells the story of both the contemporary and 19th century lovers as the scholars investigate. Once the mystery of the letters begins to unravel, the book is hard to put down. It’s a long novel, and dense with language and big ideas, but the urgency of the mystery makes the pages fly by.

Christabel LaMotte, the Victorian lady poet, is by far the book’s most fascinating and mysterious character. I think of her as a slightly more outspoken and direct English version of reclusive Emily Dickinson. Some of her writing style, especially the dashes, elisions, and elaborate metaphors, remind me of Dickinson. She’s a protofeminist who talks about how “The best [response women writers] may hope is–oh, it is excellently done–for a woman” (197).  When she is pregnant out of wedlock, she refuses to play the role of “fallen woman,” holding herself aloof and snarking at a cousin who just wants to help. That attitude seemed startlingly modern to me.

The novel delves into ideas about how love takes away autonomy; both the 19th and 20th century couples are concerned with losing themselves in a relationship. It’s also about the way literature can be fuel for love: LaMotte and Ash fall in love through writing letters, and Maude and Roland through reading their letters. Another topic: interpretations and misinterpretations of literature. Uncovering the affair between LaMotte and Ash sheds new light on all their works, and shows some earlier interpretations–like the idea of LaMotte as a woman with exclusively homosexual desires–to be erroneous. It’s mind-boggling to extend that idea to all the millions of things we readers can never know about the texts we read and their authors, and how that partial information can lead us to make big mistakes in interpretation. 

Professor Cropper, the villain, is a bit of a caricature, an acquisitive American academic determined to buy England’s literary patrimony. Attempts to humanize him in the beginning of the novel, focusing on how he gave his life to the study of another man’s work, and therefore produced nothing original, leading to a pretty meaningless existence, arouse nothing but pity. Is pity a good emotion to feel for a villain? I’m not sure. Once you start to feel that way about him, he becomes virtually powerless, and you know he’ll lose. Having a villain is what gives some urgency to the quest to find the documents and solve the mystery, because the heroes have to gain the rights and publish before he does. And Cropper is the one who does the unthinkable–dig up a grave–to uncover the final piece of the puzzle. Without him, the story would be slower, more wandering, and with a less satisfying, if overly coincidental, ending.

The most impressive thing about the book is the way that Byatt wrote 19th-century-style poetry and prose and interspersed it with the more contemporary story. These sections really read like something that an author of that period might have written, and are dense and expressive enough that they would stand up well to scrutiny in a college lit classroom.

I really enjoyed Possession; it’s a book about readers’ relationships with the authors and texts they love. I guess that makes it meta and explains why it appeals to me. The title’s meaning is multifaceted, applying to ownership of documents, spiritual possession, self-possession, and relationships that possess one with desire, among other ideas. It’s a thinking book, but that doesn’t mean it’s all philosophizing. It’s also mystery and chase and poetry and love story.


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