Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is a literary mystery which follows two academics, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, who are studying the lives of two fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte respectively. When they discover new evidence that suggests the two poets knew each other and may even have been lovers, Roland and Maud begin working together to uncover the truth. Woven into the story are letters, poems, fairy tales and journal entries, all of which feel like authentic Victorian documents. The significance of these is not always immediately obvious but as Maud and Roland continue to find new clues regarding Ash and LaMotte, things slowly begin to make sense.

Possession is one of those books I feel I should have read long before now but never have, partly because I was afraid it might be too clever and intellectual for me. Now that I’ve finally read it I’m glad I got over my fear of it and decided to give it a try, because it wasn’t quite as difficult to read as I thought it would be and in fact was a very rewarding and enjoyable read. I did find it hard to get into at first and almost gave up a few times throughout the first 200 pages, but somewhere in the middle of the book I found myself becoming completely absorbed in the story and didn’t want to put it down.

I’m not a lover of poetry and was tempted to skip some of the longer poems, but although I did try to read them all I know I didn’t pick up on all the little references and metaphors they contained. I would need to read the whole book again to pick up on everything I missed the first time, but I found it such a challenge to read once I don’t think I’ll want to read it again, at least not in the near future.

I enjoyed following Maud and Roland on their physical journey, first around the North Yorkshire coast and then to Brittany, retracing the steps of Ash and LaMotte. This book made me wish I was also on the trail of an important literary mystery – I think it would be fascinating. It’s intriguing to think that an important part of someone’s life can become lost in the mists of time, and when rediscovered can completely change the way we think about them and their work.

As the book progressed, I had a better understanding of what the title ‘possession’ could mean and the various ways in which it could be interpreted. There’s the obvious interpretation of two people in love, but there’s also an intellectual possession – the possession of information, secrets and ideas. Then there are the physical possessions of the letters and writings, and the dispute over who should actually ‘possess’ them. There’s possession in a spiritual, ghostly sense. And the way we become possessed with the desire for knowledge and the wish to ‘possess’ our subject.

There are so many layers to this book that I would need to write a post twice as long as this one to be able to mention everything. There’s feminist symbolism, natural history, legends and mythology, the Victorian fascination with seances and spiritualists. And in addition to all this, Byatt creates an entire history for both Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, to the extent where they feel as if they could really have existed, as if they were real Victorian poets. I can’t imagine how much work must go into writing a novel like this; it’s very, very impressive and I can understand why it won the Booker Prize in 1990.

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6 thoughts on “Possession by A.S. Byatt

  1. Jessica says:

    I have this one and like you I was putting it off because it looks so intimidating and the endless poems I see when I flick through it doesnt help. I will read this but its good to have warning to push myself through the fist 200 pages or so

    • Helen says:

      It’s definitely worth sticking with as it does take a while to get into (or it did for me, anyway). You could just skim through the poems and still be able to follow the plot, but you probably wouldn’t get as much out of the book if you did that.

  2. Lisa says:

    Great review! I was also amazed by the complete backstories she created for Ash and LaMotte. I work in an archives – not an exciting literary one – and the way she wrote about documents and research really rang true for me.

    • Helen says:

      If I hadn’t known Ash and LaMotte were fictional it would have been easy to think they were real people! And the poems and letters were so authentic too.

  3. Veens says:

    I have been very scared to pick up any books by this author too. But now, I think it is time to give him a try. I am going to add this to my wishlist 🙂 Great review.

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