R98. Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt

Year Published: 1990
Pages: 555

Pairing: poets and/or academics
First Sentence: The book was thick and black and covered with dust.
Climax: This book is far too literary for a simultaneous orgasm and I find to my dismay that I didn't make note of any likely passages to put here instead. -M.R.

Even though it's labelled as a romance right on the cover, I knew this wasn't going to be a "straightforward" romance. I only heard of it via my research into A. S. Byatt for her Board Member Bio. Furthermore, Possession: A Romance includes an epigraph from Hawthorne's preface to The House of the Seven Gables, explaining how a Romance differs from a novel.

Possession includes two actual romances between two couples, but it includes other romances of different kinds as well. It also includes several possessions of different kinds.

Roland Michell is a young scholar of a fictional poet of the Victorian period called Randolph Henry Ash. Roland has finished his PhD semi-recently and is adrift in London without a real job. One day, while investigating an old book belonging to the poet, Roland finds two drafts of a letter written to an unknown woman who had apparently captured the poet's attention. With no previous record of R. H. Ash having been involved in a love affair, Roland goes in search of the woman. This leads him to Maud Bailey, scholar of Christabel LaMotte, also a Victorian poet. Christabel was also not known to have had any love affairs—the historical record indicates she was in a lesbian relationship with one woman.

Maud and Roland's investigation of the mystery of what happened between Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte makes up the majority of the book. We see the romance develop between Ash and LaMotte through their letters, and between Maud and Roland through an exchange of ideas and impressions. Possession includes everything from the letters to journal entries by Christabel's partner Blanche Glover and Randolph's wife Ellen. There are excerpts from the biography of Ash by American scholar Mortimer Cropper (who is the villain of the piece, wanting to acquire everything he can of Ash's, including the letters).

Byatt even includes poems by both Ash and LaMotte, which I find particularly audacious. I have to admit I didn't spend much time thinking about or analyzing the individual poems.

Most tantalizingly, there are a select few instances where Byatt actually dips back into the Victorian era and gives a window into the events as they actually occurred.

Possession is a book that I won't be sure how I feel about until three months or so from now when I see how much it sticks with me. In some ways I really enjoyed it. I love a good epistolary novel and I liked that this included so many different elements from different sources. On the other hand, I sometimes felt like the book was too smart for me, and too interested in lampooning academia instead of developing the relationship between Maud and Roland better. This book is a bit like Foucault's Pendulum, a bit like The Historian and probably has better prose than either of those (though some of Christabel's letters could be a bit headache-inducing). For juggling so many different characters and their individual prose stylings I have to applaud Byatt's ability to mostly distinguish them all.

The book does well with its central premise of exploring different kinds of possession, from romantic love to sexual conquest, but also possession of letters, of intellectual property, and of knowledge. Most of all it seems to me that the book is about self-possession and the desire to have the space and confidence to feel such a thing.

The main reason I'm not sure this will stick with me is that sense of "too smart" I mentioned before. To some degree I felt like I was being held at arm's length, especially from the characters in the present day. So I don't know how I'll feel about this book once the ending (which I loved) fades into the background.  I think I'll definitely be reading more of Byatt's work, in any case.
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This agreed—may we not, in some circumscribed way—briefly, perhaps, probably—though it is Love's Nature to know itself eternal—and in confined spaces too—may we not steal some—I almost wrote small, but it will never be that—some great happiness? We must come to grief and regret anyway—and I for one would rather regret the reality than its phantasm, knowledge than hope, the deed than the hesitation, true life and not mere sickly potentialities. All of which casuistry is only to say, my very dear, come back to the Park, let me touch your hand again, let us walk in our decorous storm together.
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