The joy of being understood, being read by another person and equally understanding and loving that person in return, is explored in all its beauty and pain in A.S. Byatt’s novel, Possession.
Possession has been on my reading list for some time and at last I have spent the past few weeks blissfully submerged in its story.
Possession follows modern-day academics, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, who discover a secret love affair through a series of letters between a celebrated Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash and his lesser-known contemporary, the poetess Christabel LaMotte. The present-day narrative is interweaved with that of Randolph and Christabel, charting their ill-fated romance through letters, poems and diaries, whilst Roland and Maud begin their own love story together. The couple’s investigation of the hitherto undiscovered letters becomes complicated by academic politics and one particular Ash-expert, Professor Cropper, who becomes fixated on possessing Randolph and Christabel’s story.
Possession is a fittingly breathless, all-consuming experience where academic obsession mirrors romantic obsession. As the title suggests the novel deals with the possession of authors’ works, ownership between lovers and self-possession of one’s feelings. In a masterful exposé of readerly greed, you find yourself as eager as the characters to know the secrets between Ash and LaMotte.
Byatt is an awe-inspiringly imaginative writer. Through the guise of Ash and LaMotte she fully embodies the Victorian Poet and writes complex verses covering some of the era’s great themes from medieval myth to evolution and female personhood. Byatt brings the world of Rossetti and Swinburne to vivid life which is a pleasure to read.
The act of reading is fundamental to the novel but so is writing. Byatt plays with meaning and writing in its various forms, from letters to poetry and journals, probing what is that a writer gains from putting pen to paper. Christabel communicates the challenges for 19th century women writers in being taken seriously and having true freedom of expression like male authors. This also draws parallels with Maud and her fellow female professors who are pushed to the fringes of a male-dominated academic sphere. However it is the creation of art which frees Christabel to be herself.
You understood my very phrase- The Life of Language… that the need to set down words- what I see, so – but words too, words mostly- words have been all my life, all my life- this need is like the Spider’s need who carries before her a huge Burden of Silk which she must spin out-213
Perhaps unavoidably the novel then interrogates the relationship between author and reader. Randolph’s wife Ellen Ash is also an intriguing character for this reason. She writes diaries which give her a unique freedom to edit the story of her marriage as she wishes, to the bafflement of the modern day researchers. Writing is at once a public and private experience which can be a tool for autonomy.
I have always found the epistolary novel fascinating and the thought that we as readers like to gaze intrusively upon the lives of characters. Intrusion underlies Possession– Roland often worries that reading Ash’s letters, which were meant for Christabel’s eyes alone, is a kind of transgression.
Randolph and Christabel’s grand love story pulls much focus in the novel, but Maud and Roland’s romance is compelling in its own quieter, understated way. I think what Possession does is to peel back the layers of love between two people to a single common ground. For the beautiful, icy Maud and insecure Roland, their common ground is a shared image of a clean white bed. There is a mutual understanding for each of the couples which needs little explanation, and forms the basis for their love.
This has already become one of my favourite novels.