A. S. Byatt: Possession (review)

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‘She held his time, she contained his past and his future, both now cramped together, with such ferocity and such gentleness /…/’. (p. 287)

It seems that my go-to theme when talking about A.S. Byatt is that I’m afraid that she is so much more clever and well-read than me that I will not be able to understand her books. I hope this will change now when I’ve not only read two of her books, one of these being Possession, her most well-known work which also won the 1990 Booker Prize – but actually really liked them both.
And there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about Possession. A young literary scholar, Roland Michell, discovers two hidden and unfinished love letters by the great Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. But there’s something different about these poems. They have a completely other feel to them than what Ash normally wrote and so, Roland is intrigued. He snatches the poems from London Library and starts investigating who they were written to.
This turns into quite the literary mystery hunt – during which he is joined by the Christabel LaMotte scholar Maud Bailey when it turns out that the poems were written to Christabel. But no one knew that Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash had a relationship – especially since Randolph Ash were (happily) married. As Roland and Maud dig deeper, they discover a beautiful, albeit very tragic, love story about two people who supplemented each other perfectly and fell in love through letters, yet could never be together.
Of course, Christabel and Randolph’s love story is somewhat paralleled by the contemporary story of Roland and Maud although the stories are vastly different even though Roland and Maud do their best to follow in the footsteps of Christabel and Randolph.
To make this novel even more impressive, Byatt has written the letters between Randolph and Christabel as well poems written by both poets. These poems and letters are convincing and have no contemporary feel to them. They felt so real, in fact, that I had to google to make sure that Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte were not in fact real people. It is such a convincing story that Byatt has written.
Now, of course no story is complete without a villain and in this book, it is a American Randolph Ash scholar who will stop at absolutely nothing to get what he wants. He wants everything that Ash ever owned to be in his or his university’s possession – and he does whatever it takes to achieve that. Academic life is definitely not always boring and predictable!
A character not to be forgotten in this novel, is Ellen Ash, Randolph Ash’s wife – although it seems easy to do, given you have two couples and two love stories, and she’s not a part in either. She shows herself fully towards the end and is just such a fascinating person, especially when we see what lengths she was willing to go to to protect her husband’s heritage and to protect him.
I absolutely loved this book. I was intrigued from beginning to end and just wanted to know what had happened between these two poets, what happened with their letters and why Christabel’s female roommate (or lesbian lover) committed suicide.
Add to this all the interesting thoughts on scholarship, especially the kind of scholarship that centers on just one person. What happens with a scholar who spends his entire life and career focused on the words and thoughts of one famous person? Does he just becomes a filter through which we experience another man’s life? Does his life loose all intrinsic worth and only gain importance through his scholarship? Does he become possessed by the poet in some ways, like Byatt at one point talks about Ash being possessed by Christabel as like a deamon? It’s fascinating to ponder – also the length scholars are willing to go to gain that piece of new knowledge that will not only ensure their career for life but also, maybe even more importantly, satisfy their curiosity.
This is definitely one of those books that shows you how good literature can be. Interesting and fascinating at the same time as it’s clever and intellectual. Extremely well-written and dealing with deep themes like feminism, Victorian poetry, academic scholarship, love. It was an absolute joy to read and I can only – again – regret that I didn’t read this one sooner. It is a book I can see myself rereading many times and because of the depths of it, enjoy it more and more with each reread.

First lines: The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.

  • Title: Possession
  • Author: A. S. Byatt
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 1991
  • Pages: 511 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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13 thoughts on “A. S. Byatt: Possession (review)

  1. Uh oh…our bookish twin powers have collapsed concerning this book. Haha!

    I…didn’t like it as much as you did.

    Maybe it was because I wasn’t in the mood for poetry at the time. Or maybe the Hype Monster did its dirty work and made me expect something a whole lot better. I don’t know.

    • OH NO. I thought this day would never come. Maybe you should read it again😉 And yeah, it does contain A LOT of poetry and you have to read it and pay attention to get what’s going on and if you don’t feel in that mood, yeah, I can see why you wouldn’t like it. But come on – you have too like it!!!

      • Maybe I’ll try rereading it someday when I feel like the poetry won’t be more of an interruption than part of the story.

  2. I’ve had this on my to-read list for a long time, but because I’ve seen the movie I might put it off a bit longer so I can forget what happens. I also almost bought it at a used bookstore this weekend, but didn’t, because the cover of the edition they had there was from the movie. I don’t like the movie covers. I know, picky. Anyway, it’s good to see such a positive review of it!

    • I’m not too much a fan of movie covers either. At least not if I think the movie was bad (I definitely didn’t want a movie cover version of The Hobbit!). As I recall the movie, there’s actually a lot of differences between the movie and the book but it’s been a while since I saw the movie and it wasn’t all clear. I just remembered something as kind of the climax of the movie and it was very early in the book… But I’m not sure if my memory is correct.

  3. It took me two attempts to get into this book mainly because of the poetry which I’m fraud bored me rigid. However, second time round things went better and now it’s one of my favourite books.

  4. Is there a lot of poetry? I am not so good with those. Also, it’s wonderful to know everything is fictional. I always thought those two poets were obscure poets from real life.

    • They are not. They are fragments of Byatt’s imagination😉 But she is so convincing that one thinks they are real. They are inspired by real poets from that time but all the poetry and all the letters are written by Byatt. And yeah, there’s quite a bit of poetry. But it fits in the book.

    • I’ve watched the movie too but I don’t I remember it very much and what I remember seems to be a bit different from the book. I would really like to watch it again soon to better compare them.

  5. Beautiful review, Christina! ‘Possession’ is one of my alltime favourite books. Like you, I got it quite sometime back and I was intimidated by it and postponed reading it. Meanwhile, I shifted houses and cities and kept buying new editions of the book. Finally, I mustered up enough courage and read it. And it was love at first sight and it was wonderful. Now after reading your review, I am tempted to read it again🙂 Out of the minor characters, I liked Blanche Glover, Christabel LaMotte’s friend, very much. What she did in the end had the eerie echo of Virginia Woolf. I also liked Lady Joan Bailey very much – such a sophisticated woman.

    So glad to know that you liked the book, Christina. Totally loved your review🙂

    • Thanks Vishy. I thought of Virginia Woolf too when I read about Blanche Glover and I think Byatt must have too.
      The book is truly a wonderful one and I feel like rereading it whenever I think about it even though I’ve just read it.

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