Possession: A Romance

Maud shivered, as she always shivered, on reading this document.  What had Christabel thought, when she read it?  Where had Christabel been, and why had she gone, and where had Randolph Ash been, between July 1859 and the summer of 1860?  There was no record, Roland said, of Ash not being at home.  He had published nothing during 1860 and had written few letters – those there were, were dated from Bloomsbury, as usual.  LaMotte scholars had never found any satisfactory explanation for Christabel’s apparent absence at the time of Blanche’s death, and had worked on the supposition of a quarrel between the two women.  This quarrel now looked quite different, Maude thought, without becoming clearer.

I finally finished reading Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt.  I’m sorry to say that I never felt truly drawn into the story.  It reminded me of something my mom once said when I was working on my Masters Degree in Comparative Literature.  She said, “I’m not a huge fan of ‘capital L Literature’.  What I want to read is a good story.”  Not that the two are mutually exclusive, and I would argue that the best of ‘capital L Literature’ is great because of the story, not because of the genius of the author.  Reading Possession, I never got sucked in, I was always waiting for the story to have some passion, some caring for the characters, some real drama.  I found it had tenderness toward its characters, and there is real skill in the way that Byatt interweaves diaries, letters, and narrative to tell her story.  But again, I couldn’t make myself care about any of it.

The book starts with a young, frustrated academic, Roland Mitchell, doing some research on his subject, (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Ash.  He comes across some unfinished letters in Ash’s handwriting, tucked amongst the pages of a book in the library.  Impulsively, he tucks the letters into his wallet, rather than alerting the librarian of their existence, or at least tucking them back where they belong.  The letters appear to be to a woman that Ash has just met, and feels a connection to.  He wants to see more of her.  But who is she?  Scholarship on Ash is that he was a faithful husband, happily married to the same woman for over 40 years.  Roland asks around, and ends up entering into a partnership with Maud Bailey, a scholar who studies the life and works of a contemporary of Ash, Christabel LaMotte, the woman for whom Ash’s letter was meant.

Roland and Maud go on a search for the truth, which they are hiding from their contemporaries in LaMotte and Ash studies, hoping to be the ones to break the story to the academic world, which would be a huge feather in their caps, and a great help in their careers as well.  The rest of the book travels between their story and that of LaMotte and Ash, which is told mainly through their letters to one another, through their respective poems, and through diaries written by Ash’s wife and LaMotte’s cousin.  It’s intriguing enough, with plenty of twists and turns and surprises to keep the reader interested.  Unfortunately, for me, Byatt kept her characters at an emotional distance, so while I was slightly interested in finding out what had happened between these Victorian poets 150 years ago, I sort of resented the amount of time and effort that I had to put into the discovery.

Possession won the Man Booker Prize in 1990, so I read it for my Man Booker reading challenge, as well as my Book Awards Challenge.

3 thoughts on “Possession: A Romance

  1. Didn’t you get swept away by the ending? I was amazed at the ending! It took me several tries to get into the book, but once I did I was so hooked. Maybe, some day you’ll pick it up again.

    But, judging from your review, probably not. 😉

  2. Bellezza, I was somewhat swept by the last 100 pages, but the other 450 pages mean that you’re probably right, I probably won’t pick it up again. 😉

  3. Uptight sticky-beet Brit-sorts! Your food is bland and you drive on the wrong side of the road. There. Take that you English writers of emotionally distant characters!

    Still, I’m glad you liked the last 100 pages of the book. 🙂

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