Book in Focus
Originally published in Great Britain by Chatto and Windus, Limited, London. This edition published by Random House (1990). Hardcover, 560 pages

It is hard to categorize Possession by A. S. Byatt as anything other than a brilliant work of fiction. It is a book unlike any other, mixing bits of the past and the present while also raising important questions about the literary canon as a whole. It was awarded the Booker Prize for fiction in 1990. As shown throughout the book, the term “possession” may signify a variety of different things to various individuals.

We follow the story of two young academics, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, as they investigate the lives of prominent Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Both Roland and Maud are literary scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are currently living in 1980s London. They try to piece together Ash and LaMotte’s story by examining the trail of evidence left in their correspondence and notebooks. After finding a unique connection between the two poets, Roland and Maud mirror the Victorian poets they are studying as they also begin a romantic relationship.

According to the narrative, the characters Ash and LaMotte are portrayed as real-life historical poets from Victorian England who lived throughout the nineteenth century. However, both are imaginary characters; Byatt completely invents all of their literary works only to meet the requirements of the plot. Aside from the fact that the novel has numerous voices and different views, it is also written in both the first and third person, which contributes to its multidimensional character.

Byatt utilizes a range of literary conventions, substituting romantic quest, detective narrative, myth, and fairy tale with other literary devices to aid Maud and Roland in unearthing a concealed connection between the two Victorian poets. The architecture of the novel navigates postmodern inquiries about the authenticity of textual narratives by utilizing fabricated journal entries, letters, and verses and attributing them to the two Victorian entities within the novel.

Possession stands as a modern-day fairy tale retelling, adorned with exquisite prose and interwoven plotlines. This genre-bending masterpiece combines elements of detective fiction, romance, and academic satire, all framed within the enchanting world of fairy tales and mythology. What sets it apart is the meticulous organization and momentum driving Maud and Roland’s literary detective work, elevating it above its genre. While not the easiest read, the rewards of navigating this intricate narrative make it an effort well worth undertaking.

Memorable Quotes

At first he did not identify Maud Bailey, and he himself was not in any way remarkable, so that they were almost the last pair at the wicket gate. She would be hard to miss, if not to recognise. She was tall, tall enough to meet Fergus Wolff’s eyes on the level, much taller than Roland. She was dressed with unusual coherence for an academic, Roland thought, rejecting several other ways of describing her green and white length, a long pine-green tunic over a pine-green skirt, a white silk inside the tunic and long softly white stockings inside long shining green shoes.

Page 44, Possession by A. S. Byatt

Letters, Roland discovered, are a form of narrative that envisages no outcome, no closure. His time was a time of the dominance of narrative theories. Letters tell no story, because they do not know, from line to line, where they are going.

Page 145, Possession by A. S. Byatt

Gloves lie together
Limp and calm
Finger to finger
Palm to palm
With whitest tissue
To embalm

In these quiet cases
White hands creep
With supple stretchings
Out of sleep
Fingers clasp fingers
Troth to keep
—C. LaMotte

Page 332, Possession by A. S. Byatt

Further Reading

What Possessed A.S. Byatt? by Mira Stout, The New York Times

“Possession,” A Reader’s Companion, by Judith Thurman, The New Yorker

False farewells by John Mullan, The Guardian (with spoilers)

Literary Reconsideration: A.S.Byatt’s “Possession” by Vincent Czyz, The Arts Fuse

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