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Possession Paperback – October 1, 1991
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"Literary critics make natural detectives," says Maud Bailey, heroine of a mystery where the clues lurk in university libraries, old letters, and dusty journals. Together with Roland Michell, a fellow academic and accidental sleuth, Maud discovers a love affair between the two Victorian writers the pair has dedicated their lives to studying: Randolph Ash, a literary great long assumed to be a devoted and faithful husband, and Christabel La Motte, a lesser-known "fairy poetess" and chaste spinster. At first, Roland and Maud's discovery threatens only to alter the direction of their research, but as they unearth the truth about the long-forgotten romance, their involvement becomes increasingly urgent and personal. Desperately concealing their purpose from competing researchers, they embark on a journey that pulls each of them from solitude and loneliness, challenges the most basic assumptions they hold about themselves, and uncovers their unique entitlement to the secret of Ash and La Motte's passion.
Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize--the U.K.'s highest literary award--Possession is a gripping and compulsively readable novel. A.S. Byatt exquisitely renders a setting rich in detail and texture. Her lush imagery weaves together the dual worlds that appear throughout the novel--the worlds of the mind and the senses, of male and female, of darkness and light, of truth and imagination--into an enchanted and unforgettable tale of love and intrigue. --Lisa Whipple
From Publishers Weekly
Two contemporary scholars, each studying one of two Victorian poets, reconstruct their subjects' secret extramarital affair through poems, journal entries, letters and modern scholarly analysis of the period. PW called this Booker Prize winner "an ambitious and wholly satisfying work, a nearly perfect novel."
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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You’ll enjoy “Possession” if you
• Like reading about the Victorians
• Enjoy poetry (but see below)
• Enjoy satire about academic life
• Appreciate meticulous, well-rendered detail
• Don’t mind an intricate story that moves between past and present, with stops for (fictional) journal entries and poems
You won’t enjoy “Possession” if you
• Dislike poetry of any sort
• Aren’t much interested in academic wrangles over dusty journals and old letters tied with ribbons
• Have no interest in Victorian sexual mores, religious searching, and self-abnegation
• Want a story that moves sequentially, in straightforward fashion
The novel’s main characters, the 19th century lovers and poets R. H. Ash and Christabel Lamotte, are fictional, as is their “poetry,” all of it invented by A.S. Byatt. The latter is a tour de force---pages and pages of poems, some in the manner of Browning (Ash) and some more like Dickinson (LaMotte). You can slide over this if it’s not to your taste, since the clues to the novel’s mystery can be found in the prose, as well. However, reading even part of it will carry you back into this century.
The poets, in a wonderful kind of mirroring, have their 20th century counterparts in two academics, both specialists in the period: Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. The tenderness they begin to feel for one another is almost secondary to the tenderness they feel for Ash and Lamotte and for the words of these poets, which are their legacy. Despite all of the chasing down of literary clues, hidden letters, cryptic journal references, and evocative heirlooms in the novel, “Possession” makes clear that the real possession (and passion) lies in the act of reading.
Whether I enjoyed it or not is something of an enigma.
The story is split into two different ages – that of the Victorian poets, Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, and that of the modern-day researchers, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Roland is studying the work of Ash, and Maud that of LaMotte. Their paths cross when Roland tries to investigate a reference he found to a meeting between Ash and LaMotte that suggests there was a liaison between the two.
The book contains a great deal of poetry written by Ash and LaMotte in Victorian style (as they are fictional characters, it is all written by the author, Byatt). I found the poetry difficult to follow and tedious to read and I started to skip it, and then realised that I could do so without losing anything of the story.
The narrative switches between the developing relationship of Ash and LaMotte and the investigative efforts of Roland and Maud. The current day part of the book also relates the rivalry between researchers in different universities and parts of the world and shows up petty jealousies and possessiveness.
Apart from the poetry that heralds the change in era, the Victorian times are written about with a formality that distinguishes them from the modern 20th century parts. Byatt’s change in voice and her swathes of poetry are testament to her tremendous ability with the English language. I found the Victorian era passages to be more believable and enjoyable to read (excluding the poetry), rather than the modern times which felt simple and lacking in character. Perhaps that is what Ms Byatt sought to achieve.
One thing I found fascinating was that this was written before email and Google and so their research efforts were arduous compared to how easily we would do things in this internet era.
My assessment of this story is that it was enjoyable if I left out large parts of it. So there is the enigma. Can one be said to have enjoyed a book if one ignored a large part of it?
I’m sure the Booker prize was awarded for Ms Byatt’s dexterity with the language and the intricacy of the content.