Having read a collection of short stories by A.S. Byatt, I was already a fan. However, it was for the work of director Neil Labute that I went to see the movie, "Possession", and only then did I realize it was based on what is purported to be Byatt's most important work. I wondered what could make LaBute leave his sardonic field of original screenwriting and adapt this book to a screenplay...and I must say, with some sadness, that his film was only adequate. However, as he must have, I found the plot was truly unique and the concept of possession so interwoven in each character, amazing. And then, the relationship between the two 19th century poets was so moving, I decided to tackle the novel.
It is exquisite.
First, Byatt, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, discards the concept of a "novel" and subtitles it, "A Romance". Whether she realized it or not, this would result in many "romance novel" readers trying to tackle her 1990 masterpiece, only to discard it as "too long and boring". But Byatt persisted in the classification of a "romance" after taking the meaning of the prose of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote:
"When a writer calls his work a Romance....while as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart -- has fairly a right to present that under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer's own choosing."
Here, Byatt boldly invents two 19th century writers. Stunningly, she juxtaposes their existence with real writers of the period...Lord Tennyson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Christina Rossetti, Crabb Robinson, etc. She creates long passages of their work, both prose and poetry (some of it epic) and their letters to each other. It is if she gets inside of their heads and has written, disembodied, as each in the language and the culture of the times. Moreover, she instills their work with passages that clarify what was the mystery of their romance. Passages that only become clear when modern day scholars discover the romance, and can attribute the commonality and beauty in each of their works to their love for one another. Most readers will assume that Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, really existed, and will only realize they are fictional after checking search engines carefully!
Many others have outlined the plotting here - the parallel story of two modern-day scholars following an inexact trail of evidence they unearth, to document a love story that takes the literary world by storm. Both the modern day and the Victorian romance are between participants (Maud and Roland in this century, Ash and Christabel in the 19th) who are somewhat aloof from the world, imbued by their studies and crafts, and content with solitary existences...almost afraid to give themselves to another in a relationship. Byatt skillfully uses dialogue, the content of letters and poems, and symbolism...the dissection of sea creatures by Ash on his journeys, the stark yearning for the "solitary, empty white bed" that Maud and Roland both desire.
The very creation of this work, which won the UK's Booker prize in 1990, and the lasting regard with which it is held, will make it a classic. So, too, will the richness of Byatt's writing and research, and the thrill of the mystery that surrounds Ash and Christabel...and how it is finally solved by the modern day seekers. It is compelling in its second half, beautiful, though somewhat difficult to read in its first. If you must skim the letters and poems in your first read, be sure to read them carefully when you finally pick up the book again (and you will!) because elements of mystery, relationship, manners and morals will all reveal themselves to you, enhancing the story. Think, too, on the layers and layers of "possession" or obsessiveness that are shown by both major and well-sketched minor characters in both time periods of the book.
A timeless book, with some sardonic wit that pokes fun at academic society, the somewhat boorish mannerisms of Americans abroad, and the clash between the world and the feminist movement...this is a gem, to be treasured and kept on bookshelves forever.
Highly recommended for serious readers.