Book Review : Possession
By A.S Byatt
Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.
(Courtesy of goodreads.com)
Adult Point of View
After reading romances this summer, and being disappointed, I decided to read Possession again. I remember reading and enjoying it quite a bit a few years ago. Now, for the bad news – I haven’t enjoyed it nearly as much as I did originally. Before I remember it being witty and intense, and this time I am slogging through it. There are so many details that aren’t germane to the main characters or the plot. I keep thinking to myself, let’s move it along dearie. I found that I read in small sitting which fit a carpool style schedule, so I get lost in long passages trying to remember who is speaking.
In its defense, there are beautiful descriptions and the poetry guides the reader through the narrative. I thought these description were wholly original and drew up a distinct image.
The librarian fetched a checked duster, and wiped away the dust, a black, thick, tenacious Victorian dust, a dust composed of smoke and fog particles accumulated before the Clean Air acts. Roland undid the bindings. The book sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper, blue, cream, grey, covered with rusty writing, the brown scratches of a steel nib. (p. 5)
His body was long and lean and trim; he had American hips, ready for a neat belt and the faraway ghost of a gunbelt. (p. 105)
I’m taking a little break and will pick it up in a couple of weeks.
Now, that a little more time has passed I was hoping to get back into the rhythm of Possession.
Here is an example of the letters the poets Henry Randolph Ash and Cristabel LaMotte write to each other. Their letters are written with interjecting thoughts within thoughts – with a heavy hand for hyphens – have odd choices of capitalization – most of their letters are italicized – except for emphasis – WHICH MUST BE CAPITALIZED.
Ash writes: “I write in haste – I fear your answer – I know not whether to depart or no – I will stay, for you – unless this small chance you spoke of prove a true possibility.”
Christabel answers: “It is done. BY FIATE. I spoke Thunder – and said – so it shall be – and there will be no questions now – or ever – and to this absolute Proposition I have – like all Tyrants – meek acquiescence.” (p.220)
At this point I have decided it would be a terrible trial to be in love with a poet, terribly shy in person and more interested in letters than a person. The tale of Melusina, or the tail of Melusina, was an interesting poem, though strange, until they dissected it again and again. I’ve always liked the odd, gruesome Grimm Fairy tales and Melusina fits in between myth and a fairy tale.
I have finally arrived at the point where the two professors, Roland and Maud, have been walking the documented path of the poet Ash, as they look for clues that Cristabel was on that journey. Then the scene moves to Ash and Cristabel on this trip. The poets flaunt the Victorian social taboo of sex through their discussions in their poetry and their illicit affair.
The pieces of the puzzle come together for the reader, but the professors, Maud and Roland, are left with vague interpretations of actual evidence. This has been the most interesting part of the novel because of the illumination given to the reader. Sticky situations tend to get stickier, as does the mystery here as the other players seek to discover what covert research Maud and Roland have been conducting. My remaining problem is that this is over half way through the book and I’ve not felt compelled to read and discover more.
It’s always hard to review a book that you remember loving the first time, and have come back to discover that in some way you have outgrown that particular story. I felt the same keen disappointment when I re-read The Flame Trees of Thika by Elsepth Huxley. Part of the problem this time around is that I don’t actually like or relate to the characters. Val and Roland are so unhappy together and there is nothing to bind them together, Maud has been untrue to herself and allowed others to determine who she should be (as witnessed by her hiding and binding her hair), Randolph Ash is an egotistical twit (witness by his poetry and pursuit of Christabel), and Christabel LaMotte and Blanche Glover are both weak, watery characters. I believe my fascination reading Possession the first time centered around the literary devices of letters and poems reflecting reality, as well as the two time periods with a feeling of discovery. Since then I have seen other books do this same time of thing and I don’t see it as intriguing enough to carry the storyline.
As a note, the poets and other characters are all fictional. Because of the letters and Victorian poetry many have thought Henry Randolph Ash and Cristabel LaMotte are historical figures.
I hesitate to even give it stars. I would probably give it 3 stars today and have left it as a sliding scale because I remember loving Possession back in the 1990’s.
After this I’m ready to go read an Anne McCaffrey romance, full of nonsense and predictability.
3-4 out of 5 stars
I recommend The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede.