Possession

A. S. Byatt, Possession (1990)

What it’s about: London, England, 1986. Roland Mitchell, a meek and disaffected academic, discovers two handwritten letters in the London Library, written by the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash to an unknown woman. Roland steals the letters and undertakes further research, concluding that the letters were written to Christobel LaMotte, an Anglo-French poet and fairytale author. Roland meets Maud Bailey, a feminist academic and expert on LaMotte, to whom she is distantly related. Though initially wary and skeptical of Roland, Maud agrees to help him, aware that a relationship between Ash and LaMotte would be a major discovery, disrupting received notions of Ash as a happily married man and of LaMotte as a lesbian. Roland and Maud agree to keep their findings secret from other scholars, including Roland’s employer James Blackadder; Beatrice Nest, a forlorn academic and keeper of the diaries of Ash’s wife Ellen; the omnisexual Leonora Stern, Maud’s friend and former lover; and especially Mortimer Cropper, a chilly aesthete who aggressively pursues any discoveries concerning Ash. Roland and Maud visit Seal Court, LaMotte’s former home, where Maud finds a stash of hidden letters between Ash and LaMotte, confirming their romantic attraction. They then travel to Yorkshire, retracing a visit Ash made in 1859, finding evidence in Ash and LaMotte’s writings that they had travelled together. (Scenes set in the narrative past confirm that Ash and LaMotte had gone to Yorkshire and become lovers there). Following a tip-off from Leonora, Maud and Roland travel to Brittany, where they discover a diary written by LaMotte’s cousin Sabine, confirming that LaMotte had fled to France and given birth to a child. Meanwhile, Cropper, Blackadder and Stern piece together the story, and pursue the pair from France to England. Cropper makes contact with the heir of Ash’s estate, and persuades him to break open Ash’s grave and retrieve a box of secret letters, which takes place during the Great Storm of 1987. Maud and Roland, now supported by Leonora, Beatrice and James Blackadder, confront Cropper at the gravesite and persuade him to hand over the box. It contains an unopened letter from LaMotte to Ash, prompted by his imminent death, admitting that she gave birth to a daughter, Maia (May) Bailey, who has been raised by her sister. (Another scene set in the past shows Ellen Ash at her husband’s bedside, aware of the affair, but deciding not to show him LaMotte’s letter). Lawyers confirm that Maud, as the descendant of both poets, is the legal owner of all the letters and documents, and can publish them. Roland’s circumstances are transformed when he receives three job offers for teaching posts overseas. He and Maud admit their love for each other, and fall into bed together, finally consummating their relationship. The novel ends with a scene of the elderly Ash meeting May in a field, asking for a lock of her hair, and giving her a message to take to her ‘aunt’ Christobel; the child runs off to play with her brothers and forgets to deliver the message.

Why it’s a classic: Published in 1990 to a storm of rapturous reviews and a number of international awards, including the Booker Prize, Possession was that most rare of novels: a critically acclaimed work with an immaculate literary pedigree, that was also a huge critical and popular success. Despite its potentially dowdy setting, in the moth-eaten world of literary academia, it pulses with wit and energy, and is filled nearly to overflowing with ideas about love, art, death, writing, relationships, morality and the inescapable allure of the past. The pleasures of reading Possession are manifold: it’s an engrossing literary mystery, a love letter to the greats of Victorian literature, a razor-sharp campus comedy, a pair of interlocking love stories, and a precise psychological examination of human desire. Neil LaBute made a critically panned 2002 film version, unwisely sexing up Roland and Maud, who were played by the eerily Aryan team of Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow, though Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle do rather better as Ash and LaMotte, evincing a passion that feels authentic to Byatt’s writing.

The title “possession” gives some clue as to the satisfyingly deep and complex layers of Byatt’s story. We begin with Roland, who shares a first name with the hero of Robert Browning’s epic poem, but is unsure of his own quest, only that he has a desire – to possess the letters he finds, and in doing so, to find something of himself. His grim basement flat in Putney, overlooking a gated garden with fruit that he he forbidden to pick (a wonderfully Victorian image), speaks to his lack of agency in his own life. His spiritual pair is Maud (again, named for an epic poem by Tennyson), whose beauty has drawn others to try and possess her (including Roland’s friend, the predatory academic Fergus Wolff), leading her to retreat into a cool formalism and hide her hair behind turbans. Both become obsessed with the possibility of the Ash-LaMotte relationship, and try to possess their knowledge, protecting it from avaricious outsiders, like knights of the Holy Grail. Much of the pleasure of the story springs from Roland’s and Maud’s attempts to suppress their mutual attraction. By comparison, Ash and LaMotte are the opposite of their prim Victorian reputations, falling passionately in love, and voraciously celebrating each other’s minds and bodies. (“I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you,” Christobel writes to Ash. “No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.”) Even after they choose to release each other from bonds of possession, their desires consume them and their loved ones. Blanche, LaMotte’s live-in companion and lover, kills herself in despair over LaMotte’s disappearance, while Ellen Ash makes a secret pact to possess the secret of the affair forever. There are other forms of possession, too – Cropper’s fetishistic attachment to Ash’s fob watch and illicit photocopying of his letters; and legal arguments over who owns the Ash-LaMotte correspondence. A Victorian-era seance, in which Ash exposes a medium who claims to be possessed by a lost child, plays a key part in the story. Byatt plays and replays the scene several times, until it is revealed Ash is the one possessed – by his love for Isobel and his desire to know the fate of their child.

Byatt’s dual narrative demonstrates, wittily and movingly, that human nature is characterised by a desire to possess the dead. Roland’s desire for the letter, Maud’s quest for the truth about her ancestress and Cropper’s unscrupulous acquisition of Ash’s memorabilia are contemporary manifestations of Ash collecting fossils in Yorkshire, Ellen Ash burning her husband’s letters, and LaMotte reworking fairy tales from her Breton childhood, a liminal space in which the living continually slip into the world of the dead. Like John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Byatt gives us happy and unhappy endings: the secret of the Ash-LaMotte love affair is revealed, the villain Cropper is vanquished, and the hero Roland, newly ennobled by offers of work, finally earns the love of Maud. But we’re also reminded, via narrative incisions that reveal what really happened between Ash and LaMotte, that not all of the past is so easily discoverable. We learn more of the truth than Roland and Maud discover, but our knowledge is bittersweet, since it’s inextricably connected to pain and loss. The final scene, where Ash meets his daughter, is a heartbreaking reminder of the transience of love and the cruelty of fate and missed opportunities.

Appropriately for a book about writers, Possession is in itself a stunning work of literature. Byatt recreates the Victorian age with uncanny precision, and even produces long tracts of poetry and fairy tales in the voices of her fictional poets. Ash is a fusion of Tennyson and Browning, with flashes of the post-Darwinian despair of Matthew Arnold. LaMotte’s poetry channels the off-kilter rhymes of Christina Rossetti (especially Goblin Market) and the spare declamatory style and eccentric punctuation of Emily Dickinson. Their poetry becomes an elaborate riddle for the reader, laden with echoes of the secret relationship, and possibly containing clues about what we don’t yet know.

Byatt is keenly aware that human sensibility is shaped by and through narrative. Just as Ash and LaMotte are constrained by the morality of their time, finding fuller expression of their desires through their writing, so Roland and Maud are rendered powerless to act under the weight of late-20th century preoccupations with sexuality and identity politics. Byatt gently pokes fun at the shifting fashions of literary academia – Roland, Blackadder and Beatrice’s austere 1950s-style textual scholarship appears rather drab next to Maud and Leonora’s politicised feminism and Fergus’ chic and dizzyingly incomprehensible post-structuralist theory. “Coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable,” Roland muses. Eventually, he and Maud  find their way through the postmodern inhibitions of their age, and learn to understand the pleasures of love, which “combs the appearances of the world… out of a random tangle and into a coherent plot“. We too take immense pleasure in their journey, wrought by the brilliance of Byatt’s storytelling.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet of all the flowers in an English meadow in June. I can’t overstate how much I adore this book. True confession: this isn’t “one of the classics I didn’t get around to” in earlier life. I first read Possession 23 years ago, at the end of a rather underwhelming final year of my English Lit degree. Like many undergraduates who’d ploughed their way (or skimmed, in my case) through Middlemarch, and Bleak House, I was bored with Victorian literature, and wanted to read something sexy and trashy. Thank God for the now-forgotten friend who lent me her copy of Possession, which I burned through in a couple of days, laughing, crying and staying up half the night, desperate to see how the mystery would end. It single-handedly reaffirmed for me why literature was worth studying, and that the last four years of my life hadn’t been a waste of time. I remembered very little of the plot, other than the intense pleasure I’d had reading it.

Returning to it nearly a quarter of a century later. I was much more attuned this time to  Ash and LaMotte – their delight in and admiration for each other’s intelligence, their awareness of their good fortune in finding one’s soulmate, and their anguish at having to part to protect their respective relationships. I was also impressed by Byatt’s characterisations of women as complex, contradictory, sometimes unlikeable but always fully-rounded characters: Christobel, who presents fearsome self-control until she allows herself to become invaded by Ash; Sabine, whose hatred of Christobel “seems to come from outside myself and takes possession of me, like some great bird fixing its hooked beak in me“; and especially Ellen Ash, a woman terrified of sex who insists on a celibate marriage, accepts her husband’s infidelity, and edits her own diaries to throw future biographers off the track. It takes some experience of love, loss, jealousy and disappointment to fully appreciate the currents of feeling that pulse through Possession. It’s notable that there is little to no mention of children or parenthood in the book, despite the lost child who forms the final piece of the mystery. I don’t think this is coincidental – it’s a book written for grown-ups, and chronicles what it is to find one’s way through adult life.

Like the Victorian poets who she emulates so beautifully, Byatt is intensely attuned to the pleasures of the physical world. The comfort of a custard pudding, the fuzz of an apricot, the play of light on a beach in Brittany and the glistening of a silver pin in a lock of hair are all lovingly described and held up for our delectation like a feast. She’s also one of the greatest describers of clothing as shorthand for the personality of the wearer. The entrance of Leonora Stern, bedecked in “barbaric but obviously costly necklaces of amber lumps and varied egg-shapes“, her “thick black waving hair, worn shoulder-length and alive with natural oils” decorated by “a yellow silk bandeau, a half-tribute to the Indian bands of her hippy days at the end of the Sixties“, is one of the most vivid and funny character sketches in modern literature. These details ground Possession in a tactile and wholly believable reality that allows her to get away with the insane number of coincidences in her plot, and the carefully-structured symmetries of her double narrative. As a consequence, Possession is a book that you devour like an over-ripe fruit, enjoying its sensory delights while knowing that it’s still going to be good for you.

In a letter to Ellen, composed while he is gathering fossils in Yorkshire (and shagging Christobel), Ash writes: “I should like to write something so perfectly fashioned that it should still be contemplated as those stone-impressed creatures are, after so long a time. Though I feel our durance on this earth may not equal theirs.” Ash (and Byatt, his creator) are right about the transience of human life, but my sense is that Possession will live on long after Byatt – or I – have reverted to dust, as a perfectly fashioned book about what it is to be human.

I cried again when I finished Possession, not just at the melancholy beauty of the love story, but because I realised that it and I have grown old together. Possession describes a pre-digital world of academic scholarship – dusty libraries, index cards, microfilm, hand-written notes, people queuing impatiently outside telephone boxes to make private phone calls – that I recall from my student days, but which no longer exists. The “modern” 1980s sequences are now a time capsule from a past world that will eventually be forgotten, then rediscovered, studied and half-remembered. This too shall pass, Byatt’s novel says, in the most lovely and reassuring of ways. What counts is how we choose to live, and if and how we choose to love.

Quotable Quote: “Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark—readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.”

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