Possession: A Romance

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA.S. Byatt PossessionPossession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

An historical mystery, a bittersweet love story, an exploration of myths and fairytales, a tribute to the power of books, and a beautiful, delicate style of prose all makes A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance an intriguing, rewarding, immensely enjoyable read.

Roland Michell is a research assistant for Professor Blackadder, the self-proclaimed expert on all matters concerning the Victorian poet: Randolph Henry Ash. Whilst thumbing through one of Ash’s old books, Roland uncovers rough drafts of letters, which seem to hint at a secret friendship with an unidentified woman. Since Ash was considered to be a devoted husband who led an exemplary life, this discovery could change everything that’s ever been written about the poet and his work.

His investigation leads him to suspect that Christabel LaMotte (known as “the fairy poet”) is the mystery woman, which in turn guides him to a contemporary expert on the subject: Maud Bailey, the woman’s great, great, great grand-niece. Together they take it upon themselves to secretly look into the matter further, both instinctively feeling that they’re on the verge of an extraordinary discovery… In such a way, the lovers of the past are given another chance in the two people who uncover their story.

To give away more would be to ruin the treasure hunt that follows; safe to say that it involves diary entries, love letters, old mansions, secret exertions to mystery locations, grave digging, a variety of secondary characters that provide help or hindrance, and finally a race to the finish line as competing scholars get wind of what the two are up to. Obviously, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this unraveling of the past’s passionate love story has quite an effect on the scholars, who gradually lose their inhibitions and begin to open up to one another as the story unfolds. Through Randolph and Christabel’s example, the ordinary Maud and Roland are allowed to do something extraordinary and seize their chance at life.

Any scholar or theorist knows the excitement that comes with the thought of a new discovery, point of view, or even idea on how to view their chosen field of study. In many ways Byatt relies on this to convey a somewhat satirical view on scholarship and how one can get so wrapped up in analysis that they lose the focus of why they’re devoting hours of their life to another person’s work, and how literature is often dissected and deconstructed to the point where it loses all meaning, or is simply whittled down to banalities such as gender wars or sexual frustration. As Maud says: “Do you never have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course that everything connects and connects…and it all reduced like boiling jam to human sexuality.” Likewise, Roland and Maud are so constrained by the ideologies of Freud that they’re just as suppressed as anyone in the Victoria era, the two of them longing for “clean, white beds”, free of any meaning or relationships.

And yet it would be quite misleading to say that the story revolves around Roland and Maud, for Possession is all about Randolph and Christabel. In her preface, as a way of explaining why the title is subtitled “A Romance,” Byatt quotes a definition from Nathaniel Byatt: “The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.” That sentiment is this book in a nutshell, for the lovers of the past are far more vivid and real than the contemporary investigators, who cannot help but seem bland in comparison (which is probably intentional, considering that Roland Maud themselves comment on this). They are the tools and mediators through which the Victorian love affair is conveyed.

It is in the portrayal of Randolph and Christabel that Byatt truly excels, mainly because she’s written an entire secondary body of text for them: diary entries, letters, essays, poems, fairytales and other bits and pieces (even a suicide note!) penned not just by the two poets, but their contemporaries as well. The love letters themselves are beautiful: stiff and formal at first, but gradually unfolding to reveal the personalities of those that have written them: Christabel’s secretive and humourous prose, Ash’s sensitive but unmistakably masculine thoughts. It needs to be noted here that a large portion of Possession is made up of these mementoes from the Victorian era, something that may test the casual reader’s patience, but which are so poignantly and accurately written in regards to capturing the time and place from whence they come, that the line between fact and fiction is blurred considerably. I hate to admit it, but Randolph Ash in particularly is inserted so seamlessly into the time period that I originally thought he was a real historical personage.

The love story is heartbreaking and bittersweet, and the significant others of both Randolph and Christabel are treated respectfully and not without mitigating factors of their own. Although there are three important segments of text which take us directly into the life and times of the Victorian characters, most of their story, in all its piecemeal chronology, is conveyed through the evidence that Roland and Maud uncover. There are some breath-taking conceits at work here, mainly concerning the fact that the poems of each lover take on a whole different meaning when one considers the romance between them; for example, when Maud and Roland discover that the exact same line exists in two of their poems as a hidden testament to their love, gone unnoticed by legions of scholars, hidden in plain sight for all to see – I have to say, my eyes pricked with tears.

Though I’ve always loved Byatt’s delicate, beautiful prose, her complex syntax and heavily contextual style certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. Though I’ve read Possession three times in my life, I know I’ve only brushed the surface of meaning at work here, for this is a difficult, cerebral, challenging book and relies on a lot of patience (consider for example the fact that one chapter is made up entirely of Randolph’s poetry). And don’t even get me started on the themes that the surround the titular “possession” – this review is long enough as it is!

Although I concede that not everyone will enjoy this book, sometimes you just have to throw away objectivity and gush about the things you love. For me, Possession is one of these things. What stayed with me the longest was Byatt’s comparison of the bliss and simplicity that comes with seclusion, and the equal bliss but far more complex emotions that come with the passionate madness of love, which in an odd way reflects my own reading experience of this book. In the sheer pleasure of reading, I found that, as a character puts it: “the author writes alone, and the reader reads alone, and they are alone together.”

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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  1. Great review, Rebecca. I love this book; it’s one of my top ten books ever.

  2. This is not only a great review, it is also a great choice for the EDGE. While it is not exactly “time traveling”, I think it fits well with what the EDGE is about. I wouldn’t have thought about this book, you make a good point. All the re-telling of the past is in essence a bit of time traveling, especially because the book presents it in a way that makes it seem as though the past and the present are occurring simultaneously. Thanks for your post!

  3. That, and while there’s no actual “fantasy,” so much of the book is about fantasy. Fairy tales as metaphors.

  4. This is one of my favorite books. I agree that the book is about fantasy. It’s just a wonderful story and Rebecca’s thoughtful review really does it justice.

  5. One of my all time favorites! You’re right–not everyone will enjoy, some will probably hate it, but everyone should try it and find out

  6. Thanks guys; I actually wrote this review so long ago that my memory of it was a little fuzzy – now it’s made me want to read “Possession” all over again!

    For those who have already read it, I remember my English lecturer telling me that some critics disliked the three portions of the book that delved into the past and gave us a first-hand account of what exactly happened in the Victorian era (ie, the state of Randolph and Ellen’s marriage, the meeting between Randolph and Maia), as they felt the entire thing should have been relayed through the letters and diaries, and that Byatt was “cheating” by giving the reader a glimpse into the past. I never really made my mind up on this. I can see their point, but I also thought that Byatt had no real choice but to include these passages, otherwise so much important information would have been impossible to convey.

    Any thoughts…?

  7. To me that felt like a statement, not a cheat; I felt like Byatt was saying “no matter how much we dig into the past, we can’t know every single thing that happened.” Given how many times she seems to say that academia does too much analyzing and dissecting, I think she’s doing that again in the scenes where she shows the past without the filter of Roland and Maud. I think she’s telling academics that even if they find some secret trove of documents, they still don’t know all, and can still miss meaning. The revelations of the Ashes’ love life and of Maia change so many things…and none of the book’s characters will ever know that. (Just the reader.)

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