1990 – “Possession” by AS Byatt

Possession by AS Byatt is a Booker Prize winning novel and a literary novel in more ways than one. It’s a hefty volume too and I took quite a long time to read it – it was a book that I could easily put aside and was sometimes reluctant to pick up again.

The story involves two academics – Maud and Roland. Maud is an expert on a minor poet and writer Christine La Motte and Roland is mainly unemployed but has a long term interest in a major poet Randolph Ash. Both of them make their living researching and writing about their respective Victorian authors. When Roland asks for a previously unread volume in the Ash archive he finds a half written letter from the poet to an unnamed person expressing his admiration for her and his wish to meet her again. He purloins this letter and, following research, he discovers that it has been written to Christine La Motte. Academics had never before linked the two poets and he realises that he has the opportunity to write something new that will make his career but that he needs help to do this from an expert on La Motte so he makes contact with Maud who is also a distant relative of the poet.

Roland and Maud find additional letters which have been hidden and which describe a growing relationship between the two authors. Further research leads them to France where they find a diary telling them more of the story. They examine La Motte’s diary and then look for clues in the writings of both authors. Although they try to keep their research hidden it comes to the attention of other academics and an American who collects literary artefacts and wants the letters for his university archives. Some of the researchers want to use the evidence that is unearthed to further their own career and some to back up their views about literary criticism or feminism. Meanwhile, Roland and Maud find themselves drawn together and their life begins to mirror that of the two poets.

The author presents this story as a narrative both in the present day and in the era of the poets. She also writes poetry for both of them, diary entries for various writers, letters between the two and extracts from academic texts about poetry. The book is littered with this “evidence” for the lives of La Motte and Ash. I have to admire the writer for this way of telling her story although I must confess to having skipped through several pages of the poetry. The narrative also looks at the work of both poets which was heavily derived from mythology and French folklore so folk tales are included. There are a lot of references to real life writers and their works, both British and European.

I found this all a bit too much to be comfortable. It became obvious that I didn’t have the wide range of reading that the author has so some of the references escaped me. I am not a literary critic so the way that texts were analysed didn’t mean a huge amount to me. I found the pages of poetry to be tedious, especially when I realised that they didn’t add anything to the story but were there to establish the poets as more “real”. Sometimes getting to the actual story meant reading material which didn’t always seem to drive the plot forward and which could be seen, if one was unkind, as the author demonstrating her range of writing styles for the sake of it.

The actual plot of this book is buried beneath the additional material and the literary allusions which aren’t needed to drive the story. This means that the poetry and other writings in different styles which are included seem unnecessary to the storytelling. I suspect that as I am not a literary critic and haven’t read widely in the classics, mythology, folklore and poetry this book is not aimed at me and I don’t have the knowledge and background to appreciate it fully. I thought that there was an interesting story here but that it was obscured for me by the way in which the book was written.

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