"The book was thick and black and covered with dust." It is not a coincidence that the first two words of this remarkable novel are, "the book." Possession is a book about books, about the study and love of literature and the intricate obsession with the lives of literary figures shared by academics, historians, and the randomly curious public. It tells the story of a quiet literary scholar, Roland Michell, who finds a lost letter from the great Victorian poet, R.H. Ash, to another famous poet of the day, Christabel LaMotte. As he is an Ash scholar, Roland takes the letter to a LaMotte scholar named Maude Bailey, and together they begin a search to uncover the relationship between the two. It is a discovery that will have repercussions in the academic world and in their own lives. If you tend to lose yourself in second-hand bookstores, are ravenously curious about the lives of the authors whose works you read, or simply love a great romantic mystery, you will love this book, which won the Booker prize, England's highest literary award.
A.S. Byatt is herself a formidable scholar of literature who left a teaching career at London College in 1983 to write full-time. One day while in the British Museum Library, she spotted a well-known Coleridge scholar. It occurred to Byatt that much of what she knew about the Romantic poet had been filtered through the mind of that scholar. She mused about the effect that such a single-minded pursuit must have on a person. "I thought," she said, "it's almost like a case of demonic possession, and I wondered - has she eaten up his life or has he eaten up hers?" She had an idea to write a book about two famous authors and two scholars who study their lives.
Byatt created two fictional poets, loosely based on Robert Browning and Christina Rosetti, named Randolph Henry Ash, and Christabel LaMotte. The marvel of the novel is that Byatt creates not just the poets, but also their poetry. Calling on her extensive knowledge of Victorian literature, she intersperses the narrative with their poetry, prose, tales, and even literary criticism about the works of these fictional characters. It is, to use an over-taxed phrase, a tour de force. The poems are beautiful in their own right. I confess that my first time through this novel I went to my Norton Anthology of English Literature and looked for R.H. Ash. I was frankly amazed that the author could switch from style to style and write such beautiful verse. The third time through the book, I was struck by the way the poetry also illuminates the narrative.
Roland Michell and Maude Bailey, our two protagonists, feel most uncomfortable in a modern setting and turn to the past for answers. As they connect to the lives of the poets through their letters, they find strength within themselves to live meaningful lives. Byatt's genius for metaphor connects the two couples over and over. Notice the use of color: greens for the feminine and grays and blacks for the masculine characters. Cropper wears Ash's watch, Maude wears LaMotte's brooch. Symbols of confinement and release are paired: the glass coffin and the library cubicle, the green Beetle and the serpent Melusine, the short-lived Eden of Yorkshire and Roland's forbidden garden. As the story builds toward its climax, the images pile up, as it were, until everything and everyone meets in one place, in one very cinematic scene, to uncover the truth. Yet, even with all the romantic drama, Byatt never loses contact with books, with the fact that it is through reading and writing that human beings make contact with their finer selves.
Those who write biography or study history know that every life has a story, but also that we can never tell the story exactly as it was. There is no final truth in history, but only interpretation and recreation. We read the journals of our ancestors and wonder what was not said that would have been most enlightening, as we try to extract a vision of their reality from the clues left to us. Roland and Maude, after years of studying these poets, have a deeply personal regard for them and a desire to protect their privacy. When Roland discovers a correspondence between the poets, he knows that a media sensation will ensue in which every personal detail of their lives will be open to exposure. He resents this, yet is drawn by curiosity about them to investigate further, which eventually causes everything to come to light. In a highly readable series of events, Byatt takes us deeper and deeper into these lives, switching from past to present and back to the past. Finally, after all is revealed, Byatt shares one more crucial detail with the reader that is never revealed to the other characters. It is her way of letting us know at the end that the full story of any other life will always be, to some extent, a mystery.