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Possession by A.S. Byatt
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Possession (original 1990; edition 1991)

by A.S. Byatt

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Title:Possession
Authors:A.S. Byatt
Info:Vintage (1991), Paperback, 576 pages
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Possession by A. S. Byatt (1990)

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1990s (13)
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The novel Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt is a spin on a frame story. In the 1980s in England Roland Michell, a young aspiring scholar devoted to the life of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, finds the beginnings of a passionate letter to an unknown woman. He sets out to find the recipient of this letter and comes in contact with Dr. Maud Bailey, a prominent scholar of the feminist poet Christabel LaMotte. After teaming up they discover a series of letters between the two poets, hidden in the bedroom of Christabel’s family home. Determined that this will change the face of their fields of scholarship as they know it, they embark on a race to find the whole of this affair. Maud is seriously concerned—Christabel was presumed to be a reclusive lesbian feminist poet yet here is evidence that she had a love affair with Ash, who was long and presumably happily married to Ellen Ash. She has a difficult time reconciling the previous and widely accepted view of Christabel with this new image she discovers. Soon, however, this project of Roland and Maud’s becomes a race as other scholars of the two poets and of Ellen Ash become aware of the letters and their significance to scholarship. What ensues is a competition amongst academics which ends in a shocking and tragic discovery.
A notable feature of the book is its use of letters and poems—a section in the middle of the novel was about 40 pages of beautifully written correspondence between Ash and Christabel. Additionally, there is a poem by one of the two poets at the beginning of each chapter and there are some chapters dedicated entirely to a longer poem by one of them. While a few of these poems seemed irrelevant, many of them connected directly to the plot and it was really neat to be able to see how the poet’s work reflected what was happening in their lives. Finally, there were various diary entries from people who were somewhat related to the plot—Ellen Ash and a cousin of Christabel. All of these “primary sources” really enhanced the work. While the story was really neat, I don’t think that it would have been nearly as much of a success had it not contained these.
Throughout the novel, Byatt switches between the modern-day story and the Victorian story and at times it is difficult to distinguish the difference. This was something that I really enjoyed—it really helped show the parallel between the Victorian Era and the 1980s. While one would presume that they were almost polar opposites, the love stories contained in each and some other aspects were very similar. It was weird to see how Ash and Roland were parallels, as were Maud and Christabel. While certainly their times were different, their stories were very similar. This really brought out a theme about how while times change, a lot remains the same.
Anther idea that was strongly reflected in the work was the idea of feminism. Christabel was a feminist for her time, trying to live alone in a world where women were property of their men. Instead of following the norm, she tries to live apart from society with another woman, and to keep possession of her own life. Whether this worked for her or not is debatable. Certainly it worked for awhile, however, she ultimately is not able to stay that way. Whether this was because feminism in the Victorian Era is unattainable or because she sacrificed her freedom to have a chance with Ash is up to interpretation. I prefer to interpret it as the latter, thus giving it a more hopeful tone, especially because Maud is such a strong parallel. The novel ends before we have a good idea of what becomes of Maud and Roland. I like to believe that she was either able to stay as she was before she met him, a strong woman academic, or else she continued their relationship because she felt that it was worth the sacrifice. It really depends upon your interpretation of whether or not Christabel lived the life she wanted that determines what will become of Maud after the story’s close.
This idea of feminism is one that is important to A.S. Byatt, who is a feminist herself. Having grown up in the radical times of the 1960s, she feeds off of the ideas of the times in several of her works, especially this one.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It took quite a while to get in to—it probably wasn’t until page 200 of 550 that I really liked it, however, I literally could not put this book down for the last 100 pages. Though I was a little skeptical at first because I have previously read Byatt’s The Children’s Book and absolutely loved it, and this was so different in the story and even the style. However, I really liked this work and I would definitely recommend it. This novel was well thought out, beautifully written, and had a lot deeper meaning than many of the more modern books that I have found.
( )
  serogers02 | Jun 10, 2017 |
POSSESSION begins with an instant mental labyrinth.

It continues inspired, clever, and erudite, though soon incredibly boring with no characters to connect with.

Quotable: simple, like "My pen is reluctant."
And so many more, and yet, "...so it drags..." with much of the poetry and letters being skipped just to finally get to the end. ( )
  m.belljackson | Jun 1, 2017 |
Amazing recreation of 'voice' from the 19th c. Hand to believe that the letters weren't actually written by the characters living in Victorian England. Surprising twists in the romantic.plot. Some very admirable prose passages. Admitting that I skipped most of the poetry chapters to savor later on their own, as they didn't obscure or promote the plot. My only quibble is with the rather sophomoric ending, which was a bit like the Famous Five or Scooby Doo come to the rescue. It was Incongruous and didn't fit with the generally abstract themes (language, symbolism, literary criticism, etc.) and the serious tenor of the rest of book. Still it was a book that enriches you -- at the very least your vocabulary. ( )
  amaraki | May 16, 2017 |
I wanted to like this book, but I couldn't. If I read it at a different time in my life I might have felt different, particularly given that just a couple of months ago I read [b:The Stranger's Child|7552716|The Stranger's Child |Alan Hollinghurst|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1304729778s/7552716.jpg|9850206] which provides an interesting contrast. I suppose one of my problems was also that I've read and rather treasure [b:The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett|355867|The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barret Barrett 1845-1846 Vol I (1899)|Robert Browning|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347637125s/355867.jpg|2037848], and have always liked the fact that Robert Browning was unsuccessful and younger than EBB, who was the more established poet. So the Browning-cum-Tennyson figure of Ash and the diminished ersatz Christina Rossetti of LaMotte left a bad taste in my mouth. This obviously posed a fundamental problem in enjoying the book as it is essentially the premise. More than this, the letters read so slowly for me, and took away from the pace of the novel.

The scholarly and post-modern discussions between Maud and Roland felt familiar to me given my recent background, and I could certainly relate to the thrill of new finds, the temptation of making projections about the private lives of your subject, and the post-modern questions of love, identity, and narrative. But I feel that could have been dealt with in two hundred pages rather than five.

What frustrated me more than anything was Byatt providing the flashback narrative for Ash and LaMotte, which she introduced more than halfway through the book. It was such a disappointment. I didn't want to know anything that Maud and Roland didn't know. I didn't want the empirical authorial verification of events. It felt like cheating somehow. And it's where my comparison with [b:The Stranger's Child|7552716|The Stranger's Child |Alan Hollinghurst|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1304729778s/7552716.jpg|9850206] comes in most strongly. In Hollinghurst's book we have another case of scholars trying to piece together the life (& scandals) surrounding a deceased writer, but where much of the evidence has been deliberately destroyed due to reigning social mores. But Hollinghurst begins with that objective narrative so that the reader knows what the researchers who come later do not. This completely changes how we read the novel and makes for quite a different message about the impossibility of accuracy and authenticity in biography. He never fully satisfies the biographical desire for the "complete picture," and rather suggests that the more time that passes on, the more we will lose. Here everything is tied up too neatly. They find all of the evidence (with one omission... what became of Blanche's paintings? But that smacks of being overlooked rather than purposefully unfinished.), and the fact that Maud is a descendent of both Ash and LaMotte is just too neat (as well as too obvious from an early stage). The only thing more sickeningly neat is that Ash sees and knows his daughter, again in a flashback narrative moment.

This was an ambitious novel, but very slow and hampered by the distance between the reader and the characters (80s timeframe), when it is all about feeling close to the narrative of others. ( )
1 vote likecymbeline | Apr 1, 2017 |
"He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase." There, the berlinartparasites money shot. ( )
  ZoneSeek | Mar 3, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 208 (next | show all)
This is a romance, as the subtitle suggests, but it's a romance of ideas — darkly intricate Victorian ideas and modern academic assembly-line ideas. The Victorian ideas get the better of it.
 
Shrewd, even cutting in its satire about how literary values become as obsessive as romantic love, in the end, “Possession” celebrates the variety of ways the books we possess come to possess us as readers.
 
I won't be so churlish as to give away the end, but a plenitude of surprises awaits the reader of this gorgeously written novel. A. S. Byatt is a writer in mid-career whose time has certainly come, because ''Possession'' is a tour de force that opens every narrative device of English fiction to inspection without, for a moment, ceasing to delight.
added by stephmo | editNew York Times, Jay Parini (Oct 21, 1990)
 

» Add other authors (22 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Byatt, A. S.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Alfsen, MereteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Alopaeus, MarjaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Baardman, GerdaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dugdale, RowenaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Galuzzi, FaustoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johansen, KnutTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lameris, MarianTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lehto, LeeviTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leishman, VirginiaReadersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nadotti, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nyqvist, SannaAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Polvinen, MerjaAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Walz, MelanieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
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
Dedication
For Isobel Armstrong
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The book was thick and black and covered with dust.
Quotations
The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. It spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow. … it had been exhumed from …
... the awesome Flamborough Head, where so many have met terrible deaths, in the race of water and the powerful currents - which you can almost see and hear, chuckling beneath the slap of the high waves ... The cliffs are chalky-white and carved and faceted and sliced by the elements into fantastic shapes ... One stands out to sea - raising an impotent or menacing stump -
Whitby ... a sloping town, crowding down in picturesque alleys or yards and flight after flight of stone stairs to the water - a terraced town ... The shop-fronts were old and full of romance.... There were several jewellers specialising in jet.
The Boggle Hole is a cove tucked beneath cliffs, where a beck runs down across the sand to the sea, from an old mill. They walked down through flowering lanes.... A peculiarity of that beach is the proliferation of large rounded stones which lie about ... These stones are not uniform in colour or size ...
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
"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.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679735909, Paperback)

"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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:57 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

As a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets uncover their letters, journals, & poems, & trace their movements from London to Yorkshire-and from spiritualist seances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany-an extraordinary counterpoint of passions & ideas emerges. An exhilarating novel of wit and romance, an intellectual mystery, and a triumphant love story. This tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets became a huge bookseller favorite, and then on to national bestellerdom. Winner of England's Booker Prize, a coast-to-coast bestseller, and the literary sensation of the year, Possession is a novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and a triumphant love story. Revolving around a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets, Byatt creates a haunting counterpoint of passion and ideas.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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