Possession by A.S. Byatt

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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.

Other Reviews:

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Reviewed on December 30, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I actually looked the poets up on Wikipedia to try and scour more information on them; it’s only when nothing showed up that I realised LaMotte and Ash were fictional!

  • This is my absolute favorite book ever.  Oddly, my husband and I had a letter relationship for the first few months we knew each other, very intimate but not romantic (or so we thought) until we met each other in person.  It was very much like the story of the poets.  We even went through a crash after we finally got together, one that nearly destroyed us.  Reading Possession for the first time was eerie for me, because I recognized the nuances.  To me, this book is about a love that cannot exist in the world.  It’s about an intimacy that is MORE than romance, deeper than romance, but cannot do anything but collide into romance.  After I read it the first time, I couldn’t look at it again for four years for fear of destroying my initial impression.  No book has ever touched me so deeply.

    I reviewed this on 5-squared a little earlier this year.  http://5-squared.blogspot.com/2008/09/possession-by-as-byatt.html

  • Ladytink, *gasp* blasphemy! I absolutely hate movies of wonderful books. This will certainly be one. The book is a literary mystery; you can’t have a literary mystery on a movie screen! It may be an interesting movie, but I can’t imagine it is anything like the book: the poems, love letters, and diaries were integral to the book meaning what it means.

    Tuesday, me too! I couldn’t believe they weren’t real.

    Amanda, awesome love story! I agree, this book was powerful. It didn’t speak to me on a subtle level and somehow I can’t say it was a favorite (maybe it was the flu-induced stupor for the first 150 pages) but I really enjoyed it. I may reread it some day.

  • haha, I’m glad you liked the review.  I reread through it and said “??? That’s what I wrote? I didn’t say a word about WHY I liked the book!” I’d written up a previous review on the book on myspace, back in 2006, and included my personal thought there, and I think I just didn’t want to repeat myself, haha.

  • Thanks for the review.  A friend of mine suggested this book years ago.  I actually had a copy of it but never read it.  I guess the time wasn’t right.  I think maybe I’m ready to read it.

    As for the loss of love of letters today–isn’t that partly why we book bloggers exist?  To keep that going?  Sort of like those Medieval monks who copied the great works of literature, etc during the “Dark Ages.”

  • Amanda, but your passion made why you liked the book obvious!

    blacklin, I can’t really see blogging as love letters: I’m talking about love letters like in this book; they’re great.

    Trish, I hope you enjoy it!

  • Only discovered this comment from Rebecca today..I read the book some years ago, and I must say it was one of the best I ever had the pleasure of reading..It is so good that it’s a pity the plot and the final outcome are published by those who are writing about it..sorry, this is the kind of creation one has to read without knowing what’s going to happen. Even if Ash and LaMotte are said not to have existed, I know they did..

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