In Possession, A.S. Byatt powerfully creates characters so believable that I found myself assuming that the events she writes of really happened, that the feelings described were truly felt, and that the characters actually lived.
For me, Possession‘s strength lies in this powerful creation. While I enjoyed the developing action (it is a literary mystery) and the powerful underlying themes, the story itself was not as fascinating to me as were the basic descriptions and the power of the characterization. They were marvelous: I am in awe of Byatt’s power with words.
Within Possession, Byatt has created two fictional Victorian writers, the prestigious Randolph Henry Ash and the obscure Christabel LaMotte, inserting the incredible poetry and stories, supposedly written by these writers, into the text. I loved the poetry (especially the poem “Swammerdam”) and felt these poets must be real; after all, I was reading their work. Byatt tells the story of the Victorian poets mostly through their own words, in poems, letters, and journals.
But the story of Possession is two-fold, focusing not just on the Victorian happenings but also on modern events. Two modern-day literary research scholars, the low-level Ash researcher Roland Mitchell and LaMotte expert Maud Bailey, uncover evidence that the two Victorians had corresponded. Undertaking a quest to find out the truth of what happened in the 1850s, Roland and Maud become overwhelmed and yet intrigued with their discoveries and seek to hide it from the other scholars. As Roland and Maud discover more about Ash and LaMotte from beyond the grave, they find out about themselves.
Possession is called, in the subtitle, “a romance.” Possession is very sensual and (as a modern novel) it is also sexual. As I read, I kept thinking of this quote from Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor (reviewed here):
When they’re writing about other things, they really mean sex, and when they write about sex, they really mean something else. (p. 144)
So what does Byatt really mean? I think she is sometimes writing about possession of one person by another. But she’s also writing about the possession of ideas and ideals; the possession of self; the possession of information; the possession of words; and, overall, the possession of power through words.
And that last theme is, I believe, Byatt’s own purposes coming through. She’s obviously an incredibly talented writer. As she ponders writers long-since dead, she realizes the power of words, and as she creates poets through their words, she shows us how words can hold us and convince us.
I started reading Possession at Thanksgiving when I had the flu; it was not a good time to read it, and I put off reading it again for two weeks. When I did pick it up again, I was overcome by the power in it. I’d suggest reading it when you can think clearly (the Victorian prose can be a bit dense while in the middle of a flu-induced stupor) and prepare to be overwhelmed by Byatt’s words. It is powerful.
P.S. I mourn the loss of love letters in today’s society. Sigh.
If you have reviewed Possession on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.