Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Possession" by A.S. Byatt

Year of first publication: 1990
Genre: novel, historical novel, detective novel
Country: UK

There are some books whose success is perfectly understandable: a compelling but altogether simple plot, a love story perhaps and likeable characters. The success of A.S. Byatt’s “Possession”, nonetheless, is unusual: set in the world of academia, with two scholars of 19th-century English poetry as its main protagonists, “Possession” is packed with academic discussions, several-pages-long Victorian poems, not to mention 19th-century letters and journal, so that the present-time narrative space is sensibly restricted. How could the general public, with no interest in literary history, enjoy this? The love story disentangles only at the end of the book and some of the characters are not exactly likable.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, of course, as I dabble in literature myself. “Possession” shows how the scholarship of two famous Victorian poets can considerably change with the discovery of a bundle of love letters. Roland Michell, a diligent if not dull researcher in one of the most revered Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash, finds in an old book an unfinished letter to an unknown woman. After researching in journals and asking several other academics, he discovers that Ash held a correspondence with Christabel LaMotte, a poet worshipped by feminists for her lesbian relationship with a painter, Blance Glover. The scholar starts a compelling quest for more information on this secret love story, in the course of which he meets Professor Maud Bailey, one the main experts on LaMotte’s poetry. The two academics visit her grave and find out they have an affinity that goes beyond their love for literature or Victorian poetry. Yet, they are determined not to fall in love. The author has recently reported that her American editor insisted on saying that it was impossible for two people not to have intercourse for such a long time, seen that they were so clearly attracted one to the other. I found it intriguing and realistic, instead. Roland and Maud’s insecure love story reflects Ash and LaMotte’s relationship and the genius in Byatt’s book is that at a certain point they realize it. They are academics, after all, and their work very often consists in finding connections.  
Christina Rossetti
Balancing many genres – the historical novel, the detective story and the novel of manners – A.S. Byatt’s book is reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”, but it is also a reflection on scholarship, poetry and literary history. The book shows, among other things, how the role of women in academia has changed through centuries. Christabel LaMotte, for instance, is a fictitious nineteenth-century poet who was considered inferior to male authors just because of her sex and is still revered as a great poet only by feminists, like Maud. Her friend and companion Blanche committed suicide in a way reminiscent of Mary Wollstonecraft’s attempt: throwing herself from Putney Bridge, that is. Another great character is Beatrice Nest, a contemporary scholar whose passion for Randolph Henry Ash only resulted in a 25-year-long study of his wife’s dull journals, because it was the only subject she was “allowed” to study at a time, the 1960s, when academia was a world dominated only by men. Women’s studies came after that, but the two worlds remained separated. Maud Bailey, an expert on LaMotte’s poetry, dismisses Ash, one of the most renowned poets of his time, for the male imaginary of his poetry and so does Roland Michell with regards to Christabel LaMotte who wrote about fairies and monsters. It is only by coincidence that they start to talk with each other, finding connections and similarities between their way of thinking.
"Proserpine" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The spirit of women like Dorothy Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft or Judith Shakespeare permeates the novel. They are all women who had brothers or husbands whose work is among the greatest achievements in the literary world, but who could have because authors just as well, or who struggled to become authors but never had the success of their male counterparts. There are in fact many allusions to the great literature that has been written under Queen Victoria’s reign. Personally, I indulged on a kind of game while I was reading the book: is there a model A.S. Byatt followed to create the two poets? I don’t have an answer but Christabel LaMotte I imagine like a pencil sketch of Christina Rossetti or like the women in her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings. As for Ash I don’t have a model in mind, but I think Tennyson and Browning are the poets everyone would think about (incidentally, Tennyson wrote a poem called ‘Maud’ and ‘Christabel’ is  a long poem by Coleridge). 
Possession is naturally - leaving aside the sexual meaning, which also has its importance - what drives Roland and Maud in their quest: they want to possess the authors they study, not their letters and relics, but also their thoughts, their lives, their words. But is it really possible? I’ll add something unpopular to finish: I didn’t particularly like the poems. I found myself skipping them all the time, as the clues were discernible anyway in Roland and Maud’s disquisitions. That's the problem of such a gripping story! Yet, the poems are what makes this novel peculiar: they are an integral part of the work and not a later addition. They are not memorable, in my opinion, but they help building a 19th-century athmosphere around the two characters.

About the author: A.S. Byatt is considered one of the most important living authors in Britain. She was born in  Sheffield, England, in 1936. Her mother was a scholar of Browning and her sister is also a novelist. She wrote, among other things, a quartet of novels inspired by D.H. Lawrence, which inclues "The Virgin in the Garden" (1978) and "Still Life "1985). She is also the author of several collections of short stories, for instance "The Matisse Stories", where each story is inspired by a painting by Matisse. "Possession", her most famous novel, won the Booker Prize and was made into a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow. Her last novel is "The Children's Book" (2009). 


  1. What an excellent discussion. I had not heard of this title, but since it is my favorite genre and set in my favorite era, I will certainly have to give it a look.

  2. So great to read that you did enjoy this book. I must confess that I did struggle with it a bit and I may want to go in for a rereading at a later time. Your review was an eye-opening one. Thanks.

  3. @The Lit Witch: Yes, give it a try. As I wrote in the post, there is a lot of discussion about academical topics, but it's worth reading. I even began to like the Preraphaelites, which I didn't before reading the book!

    @Geosi: I'm glad I have been useful. I can understand the reasons why you put away the book.

  4. il libro mi è piaciuto moltissimo, ma non è l'unico della Byatt: in particolare i racconti sono davvero fantastici.
    Hai visto il film? E' carino, certo nulla in confronto al libro, ma vale la pena di cercarlo. E' con Gwynet Paltrow (Maud) e Aaron Eckhart (Roland), del 2002. Un po' difficilino trovarlo in dvd, forse riesci a vedere qualcosa on line.

  5. Poi, volevo dirti che mi è piaciuto molto il resoconto di Incroci di Civiltà.
    Sono interessanti questi ritratti... molto più che delle descrizioni troppo giornalistiche. Bello! sarei venuta anch'io anche solo per vedere la Byatt, un mito! Però un po' freddina mi sembra...

  6. @Elisa: E' incredibile quante persone abbiano letto questo libro. Leggerò sicuramente qualcos'altro della Byatt. Ora che so che i suoi racconti sono buoni forse opterò per quelli! Il film non l'ho ancora visto, però sono curiosa di vedere come sono riusciti ad adattarlo.
    Grazie! Volevo fare delle fotografie veloci, un po' per mancanza di tempo e un po' perché questa volta non ho preso appunti come di solito faccio. La Byatt sembra una persona che si prende piuttosto sul serio e deve essere molto dedita al lavoro. Alcune delle cose che ha detto tra l'altro le puoi ritrovare nelle sue interviste. Non è stata comunque una perdita di tempo andare all'incontro, non lo è mai!