Possession: A Romance


A.S. Byatt's Possession was my last attempt to rouse myself out of my current fiction funk with ever-more-appealing....well, fiction. Based on the glowing reviews and candy-like (for me) subject matter, I knew that if any novel could rouse me from my late-summer malaise, it would be this one: a literary mystery centering around two modern scholars of Victorian literature researching a newly-unearthed connection between the two poets in whose work they respectively specialize. Appealingly larded with real-world literary references and metafictional artifacts-within-stories-within-novels, Possession is the kind of novel that inspires me to put everything on hold in order to devour great chunks of it while sipping tea under a blanket. Sadly for me, in this particular instance what I really needed was a good dose of nonfiction, and it turns out that not even metafictional Victoriana was an acceptable substitute. The first 350 pages of Possession were therefore a bit of a slog for me, even as I could tell I would normally be falling head-over-heels for everything Byatt was up to. When I returned to polish off the final 150 pages (after an investigative book-length essay and half a memoir) I fell fully in love with Byatt's tome at last, laughing, crying, underlining and generally carrying on. I come away from this first foray convinced that I must re-read Possession, not only in order to extend my newfound love to the entire volume, but because this is the kind of novel that begs to be re-read, to identify all the carefully-plotted details and previously-unknown implications right from the beginning.

Because if there's one thing to appreciate in Possession, it's what a dazzling architecture of plot and meta-artifacts Byatt has constructed here. The base of the novel is a close third-person narration that gives us the viewpoints of 1980s scholars Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, as well as glimpses of their colleagues and academic rivals. There are also similar, less frequent chapters narrating the experiences of these scholars' Victorian subjects: Randolph Henry Ash (whose psychological, character-driven blank verse and ardent love-letter-writing abilities recall Robert Browning) and Christabel LaMotte (a bisexual mystic with Elizabeth Barrett's reclusiveness and Emily Dickinson's fondness for em-dashes). Layered on top of this, we have conversations with and about other Ash and LaMotte scholars; letters between Ash and LaMotte, among others; drafts of yet more letters that were never sent; several journal fragments, one of them quite long; written first-hand accounts by third parties of incidents involving one or both of the poets; excerpts from a fictional and self-important Ash biography (complete with quoted material from real-life Victorians); a long passage from an equally self-important piece of feminist criticism on LaMotte; contemporary newspaper cuttings relevant to the poets' lives; and, of course, a generous helping of both poets' actual work, both prose and verse.

All of which is crafted by Byatt with a pitch-perfect ear for a wide variety of both Victorian and late-twentieth-century styles of expression. Neither period is monolithic for Byatt; her American feminist critics write differently than her good-old-boy British critics, and her Victorian characters are writing in different modes from one another, and in different modes from their younger selves as they age. I particularly like how carefully Byatt develops Ash's and LaMotte's different poetic styles, and the way, as the secrets of their lives are revealed, she allows the reader to see how those two styles influenced one another. From the Browning-like Ash (although this passage is more Miltonic, but it's one of my favorites):

Then Ask stepped forward on the printless shore;
And touched the woman's hand, who clasped fast his.
Speechless they walked away along the line
Of the sea's roaring, in their listening ears.
Behind them, first upon the level sand
A line of darkening prints, filling with salt,
First traces in the world, of life and time
And love, and mortal hope, and vanishing.

And from the Dickensian LaMotte:

All day snow fell
Snow fell all night
My silent lintel
Silted white
Inside a Creature—
With snowy Feature
Eyes of Light

What's even more to Byatt's credit is that she is able to use these imitative powers to evoke so many different effects: sometimes she elicits snickers and guffaws with her spot-on parody of academic puffery, and other times her characters' distinct voices evoke pathos, respect, or anger on the part of the reader. Possession is far from a heartless book, as some metafiction can be—if its cleverness is always present, it adds in a satisfying amount of emotional insight and compassion. I ended up caring about all four protagonists very much, and even feeling a sense of amused attachment to the bevy of more ridiculous academics surrounding Maud and Roland. Ash's wife Ellen, late in the novel, became one of the most affecting characters, and someone with a surprising amount of depth.

So too, Byatt's intellectualism isn't just a clever display: she has important things to say about personal and social influence, and the way societies affect individuals. I thought the dynamics of oppression were particularly interesting in Possession: we so often think of Victorians, particularly Victorian women, as living in a sexually repressive atmosphere, and Byatt's novel certainly doesn't deny this. For one character in particular, the lack of what we now call "sex education" has tragic results, and another must choose between artistic autonomy and sexual fulfillment. But Byatt spends perhaps more time examining the ways in which late-twentieth-century Brits are also sexually oppressed—not by the Victorian injunction never to talk about sex, but by the modern, Freudian idea that we should ALWAYS be talking about it, that nothing else so merits our attention.

Roland laid aside Leonora Stern['s book on LaMotte] with a small sigh. He had a vision of the land they were to explore, covered with sucking human orifices and knotted human body-hair. He did not like this vision, and yet, a child of his time, found it compelling, somehow guaranteed to be significant, as a geological survey of the oolite would not be. Sexuality was like thick smoked glass; everything took on the same blurred tint through it. He could not imagine a pool with stones and water.

And Maud, a few pages earlier:

"I agree, Dr. Nest. In fact I do agree. The whole of our scholarship—the whole of our thought—we question everything except the centrality of sexuality—Unfortunately feminism can hardly avoid privileging such matters. I sometimes wish I had embarked on geology myself."

It's Roland's and Maud's inescapable self-consciousness, with regard to sexuality and also with regard to narrative tropes, that oppresses them. In one passage, they marvel together at their subjects' ability to take themselves seriously—the educated postmodernist has been trained to such a suspicion of ideas like "romantic love" and "the autonomous self" that the result is sometimes a kind of paralysis, an inability to feel or express anything sincere or admit that anything is meaningful. In another passage, toward the end of the book, Roland speculates that the narrative encapsulating him is changing from a "quest"/"romance" to a "chase," which are all equally valid traditions and all of which he remains unable to take quite seriously. What's needed, Byatt seems to argue, is some middle ground between the earnest double-standard of Victorianism and Romanticism, and the facetious over-analysis of Postmodernism. Given that Roland's and Maud's very NAMES recall Shakespeare/Browning and Tennyson, the reader will perhaps realize this before they do. Nevertheless, their journey is satisfying both on a superficial, "find out what happens in the mystery" level, and on a more lasting, thought-provoking plane. I look forward to revisiting it in the future, when I'm in a truly novelistic mood.


Possession was my fourth book for the Women Unbound Challenge.


  • Emily, I think this might be the first post in a long time to convince me that I might actually enjoy Byatt's schtick. Considering you're in kind of a fiction funk, well done! Loved the references to the mystery AND the metafiction aspects here, and the fact that the different voices were so convincing is naturally promising as well. In other words, thanks for sharing!

  • Your review reminded me of just how much I enjoyed Possession - not read it in a couple of years. Have you tried the Children's Book? I had similar feelings about it - a bit heavy going at the start until you became familiar with the way the story was being told, and then absolutely fantastic. I hope Byatt gets the Nobel eventually.

  • Really intrigued by the fiction funk, friend. Wondering where that comes from and where it ends. Never having experienced that reading malaise, I am super curious.

    Byatt is one of my favorite authors and would have thought, as did you, that Possession would have snapped the funk. Especially appreciate your use of the words "pitch perfect" here. Byatt is masterful when it comes to character development and dialogue. Subtle. Comprehensive in that I always think that she knows each of the characters she writes even more completely than we can guess at as readers. Confident. Precise.

    Some years back, there was a questionable computer program called Gender Genie (you can still find it on the web) that claimed to be able to determine the gender of an author from a writing sample. Lots of fun and more frequently accurate than not but based upon only a few components of gender differences in written expression like the use of definite articles. Byatt tests out "Butch" (I have heard they have since changed the language - go figure). Found this interesting because the test results to me were more an indicator of precision than gender. Ad precision was somehow equated with maleness. So that takes off to a whole other conversation so sorry to ramble. Stopping...

  • Great review Emily. Glad this book kicked you back into gear in the end. Now I feel quite compelled to finally try Byatt out. :)

  • Lovely review. I read Possession last year in the fall, in bed next to an open window, breathing in crisp October air, and it was perfect. (although I do admit to skipping a few of the longer poetry bits!) I've thought of rereading all of it this fall and will probably take it off the shelf now, after reading this. I also loved the calmer relationship that Maud and Roland come to have and the image of the white bed. Possession also introduced me to the poetry of Robert Graves, that short poem of his that Val quotes about falling snow... I've got to find it again!

  • I read Possession quite a few years ago and loved it, and would love to fall in love with it again! You are right that this book cries out for rereading ... one of these days I'll be in the mood.

  • Richard: I wonder whether you would like it or not. I think your appreciation of self-referential meta stuff would be battling it out with your dislike of British Victorian lit. I'd be curious about your reaction, in any case, and thanks for the nice words. :-)

    Lyndsey: I haven't read The Childrens' Book (or anything else by Byatt), but now I definitely want to pick it up. I've heard mixed reviews from the blogosphere, but it seems from reading them that the things people dislike about it (too much historical background, for example) are elements I tend to like in fiction. So my hopes are high!

  • Frances: I don't remember if this specific funk has hit me before, but I am prone to very specific reading moods from time to time, and it just does no good to try to break them except by reading the thing I'm in the mood for! Luckily they usually taper off after I've read three or four examples of whatever literary mode I'm craving - in this case, reportage, memoirs, essays and bios. But I did end up loving Byatt and definitely plan to pick up more of her work. "Comprehensive" is definitely the word! And that's so funny about the gender-picker; my pride always hopes that such things will mis-identify me. ;-)

    Sarah: I'm betting you would love this one! It would even fit into your fallish mood, so one of these New England autumns might be a great time to pick it up.

  • Carolyn: It's such a perfect autumnal read, isn't it? And I agree, I really liked Roland and Maud's relationship. I liked Byatt's acknowledgment of the pleasures and rewards of spending time alone, too.

    Dorothy: I bet the re-read will be super-satisfying - all those details we didn't pick up on the first time around will suddenly appear.

  • Yay! I was almost afraid to read this, because I love Byatt. :) I'd definitely say Possession stands up to multiple readings, and the audio version is quite good (despite a couple unfortunate British-narrator-doing-American-accent bits).

  • I love the excerpts you chose. There's so much to notice and discuss in this book -- I agree it would be ideal for a re-read.

    Thoughts have been going through my head about all the long 'primary' documents and how they affect the reader, and whether Byatt is somehow including us in her parody...

    And all the various narratives and postmodern modes of analysis melt away in the actual physical way the present repeats the past, in flesh and blood, like a poem was somehow written in DNA...

    Brilliant, anyway! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • You very nicely touch on all the things that make Possession such a marvelous read. Have you read Byatt's Biographer's Tale? I can see you liking that one very much too. Her book on essays On Histories and Stories is really good and if I recall correctly she talks a bit about Possession in one of the essays.

  • Eva: Haha, I know what you mean - I dread hearing my favorite books get panned. :-) I ended up loving Byatt, though, & look forward to diving into the rest of her catalog.

    Marieke: Oh yeah, that's an interesting point about whether Byatt is poking fun at us as readers as well. I struggled to quite pin down her attitude toward postmodernism - on one hand she's obviously criticizing our modern hyper-self-awareness, but on the other hand she herself has written a very postmodern book! She's slippery like that. Anyway, it was fun that our posts on this went up around the same time. :-)

    Stefanie: Possession was my first Byatt, but I'm now eager to explore her work further, so thanks for the tip on Biographer's Tale. Have you read The Children's Book? I've heard such mixed reviews, but I'm still eager to give it a go (when my mood returns to fiction, that is).

  • When I read this, I finished and enjoyed it but thought of the beginning as rather a slog as well. In the past 18 months, though, it's become quite a favorite in my mind. The way she created it! Wow. So I'm definitely needing to reread it. What wonderful thoughts you share here.

  • This was perfect timing, you wrote this post the day before I managed to sit down and read the last 50 pages. I'm selfishly glad you weren't in the mood for fiction, because we started reading it at almost the same time too.

    I stumbled across The Children's Book a while back, and read it because of the cover art...and totally loved it, and then the internet told me that Possession was supposed to be her best book, and so that's what motivated me to pick it up. I'm really really looking forward to reading what you have to say about that one too, so do go pick it up :)

    This is totally not the style of book I usually read, and I don't have your background in literature, so it is really cool to see all the stuff in this book that I totally missed. But even without the background I could still appreciate what Byatt was doing with the excerpts of Ash & LaMotte's work - and with Cropper & Stern. It was really neat, and kind of hilarious.

    The things which really fascinated me (I'm a PhD student in the physical sciences) was the incredible effect that the internet has had on research over the last 30 years. They have to write each other letters. No one is carrying around a cell phone. Photo-copies are somewhat novel. It is plausible to drop out of contact for a couple weeks. It also really let me appreciate just how much understanding a person's background could allow you to reinterpret what they have written. I guess I had understood this intellectually before, and seen a few interesting examples...but I had never really had it so beautifully illustrated before.

    Also, I think Byatt is an absolute genius at writing endings to stories.

  • I have not yet read The Children's Book but it is on my radar and I mean to get to it sometime along with several other Byatt novels I have not yet had the pleasure to read.

  • Rebecca: It really is an impressive feat, isn't it? I definitely look forward to a re-read.

    Wendy: YES, that's such an interesting point about the progress of technology and how it's changed our lives. I don't know if you're following Mad Men or not, but I had that same thought during a part when one of the characters in that show just goes MIA in California for a while, and everyone at his office is like "I wonder where Don is. Oh well, I guess he'll be back." It makes me a little nostalgic, actually, for a time when it was acceptable for people to be out of contact for two seconds without provoking panicked cell phone calls. BUT ANYWAY, I'm getting a bit off topic...glad you loved Possession, and also The Children's Book - I'm looking forward to reading that one!

    Stefanie: Maybe when we both get around to The Children's Book we can compare notes. :-)

  • For a while, I was in between about Possession. Some parts I really loved, others not so much. But then on hindsight, it stuck and I think a keeper. I doubt Richard would like it though. Lol.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography