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
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.