What to say about A. S. Byatt’s Possession? Even after half a dozen reads the ending always leaves me breathless and I felt like I couldn’t start this post until I had just sat with it a few days. Possession is one of my desert-island books, an annual November re-read. Every time I come back to it I find something new. Every time I come back to it there is some previously-unseen strand to trace, some fresh insight, and a deepening enjoyment of Byatt’s brilliant writing and intricate plot.
The book is subtitled not “A Novel,” but “A Romance.” The distinction is not that this is a “romance novel” — although there are, it must be admitted, multiple romantic plots — but rather that Byatt is writing in the tradition of Romanticism. The novel carries two epigraphs, the first of which is a quotation from Samuel Hawthorne on this very distinction:
When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former — 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 truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation . . . The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Preface to The House of the Seven Gables)
This last sentence, in fact, offers the interpretive key to what Byatt is doing in Possession. It carries two interlinked plot-lines, one set in the mid 1980s, and the other in the late 1850s. In the 80s, postgraduate Roland Mitchell is toiling away in academia, working on the Victorian-era poet Randolph Henry Ash when he discovers two unknown drafts of a letter to an unnamed woman. These letters are urgent, excited, and Roland determines to track down, if he can, the woman to whom they were addressed to find out whether the final draft was ever sent, and what happened then. His research leads him to the Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, and in his own timeline, to the beautiful LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey (herself LaMotte’s great-great-great niece). Together, they follow both literary and physical leads in an effort to solve the various mysteries of the Ash-LaMotte connection. Interwoven with all this is a narrative set in the late 1850s, following Ash and LaMotte themselves and including long excerpts from their poetry. The novel is a pastiche, rather than a straight narrative, and includes poetry, epistolary correspondence, and diary entries, as well as straight narrative.
That’s the bare bones of the plot, and it would be interesting enough on its own, but Byatt really shines in her pitch-perfect historical ventriloquism. Christabel LaMotte sounds like a British Emily Dickinson; Randolph Ash totally believable in the mode of Wordsworth or Coleridge; Christabel’s cousin Sabine a real, breathless young Frenchwoman dying to escape her solitude for a fashionable life of letters. And then there are the contemporary characters: Roland and Maud, Roland’s resentful and perpetually disappointed girlfriend Val, the American contingent of Mortimer Cropper and Leonora Stern, the dry scotch presence of James Blackadder and flustered, frustrated Beatrice Nest — all ring true in their own voices and actions.
Beyond that, Byatt weaves so many thematic threads and parallels between the two stories that I have trouble keeping track of them, and on every re-read I (seem to) encounter another for the first time. A major theme is that of biography: what it can and can’t account for, the way biographer and subject can seem to possess (or be possessed by) each other, its status as a kind of figurative grave-robbing. There is the power of the written word to conceal or reveal, and its consequent limitations (if it wasn’t written down, did it really happen?). There are questions of faith vs. myth, especially in the 1850s storyline as its characters grapple with the Enlightenment, the aftermath of The Origin of Species, and the like. There are resurrection themes, women-as-spiders, archetypal characters and lives, the strengths and limitations of Freudian readings of texts, academic competition, academia vs. media, and — yes — actual grave robbing (though I will not tell you whose, or by whom). It is such an astonishingly dense text — not just in its length, but in the sheer amount that Byatt is doing. And I say this knowing that there is still much that is obscure to me.
One of these obscurities — for me — is Byatt’s use of colour. She is very deliberate in her descriptions, detailing shape, colour, and line with as much precision as the written word allows, and giving particular attention to what her characters are wearing. I can see that she’s doing something with this, but I am not a visual thinker and the meaning eludes me. But I was drawn, this reading, to notice the repetition of green and gold together; there is green and gold all throughout Ash’s poem In the Garden of Proserpina, both Maude and Christabel are golden-haired and dress in green, and so on. There is something being conveyed about brightness and freshness, but also the mysterious and closed-off. I wish I understood better what her use of colour signifies.
Perhaps it will come to me when I read Possession again next November. I will be reading it next November; I suspect that I will be reading it for the rest of my life.