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A S Byatt: Possession

What makes Byatt’s novels so interesting is that they work on so many levels. This novel – an excellent case in point – can be seen as a love story, a historical romance, a literary detective story, a satire on academia as well as a first-class novel of ideas. Nominally, it is about the (fictional) 19th century English poet, Randolph Henry Ash, and his (till now) concealed love affair with the less well-known but nevertheless interesting Anglo-Breton writer, Christabel LaMotte. The story is about how a whole cast of characters tracks down this relationship and the effect on all them – for effect there is – of this quest. But Byatt, being who she is, is not content with telling this story, interesting though it might be, in a straightforward narrative. She uses a whole range of literary devices – letters, diaries, poems, direct narrative (both in the 19th and 20th centuries), chunks of a biography, inner thoughts, the whole kit and caboodle.

Roland Mitchell, who might be called the hero, works for Professor Blackadder. (An aside – Byatt has lots of fun with the names, with most of the characters having surnames redolent with meaning – Ash, Bailey, LaMotte, Cropper, Nest, Stern, Glover. The aptly named Maud Bailey says I write about liminality. Thresholds. Bastions. Fortresses., which connects both her name and LaMotte’s.) Mitchell is a researcher for Blackadder who is preparing a definitive version of Ash’s complete works. He accidentally discovers a letter in a book in the London Library which leads him, by various convoluted means, both to Maud Bailey, the almost impregnable fortress, and to the Ash-LaMotte liaison. On the way, a whole host of characters is involved, including the American cheque-book professor and Ash biographer, Morton Cropper (as in come a cropper), Roland’s girlfriend, Val, the American feminist scholar Leonora Stern, Beatrice Nest, editor of the diaries of Ellen Ash (Randolph Ash’s wife) and others as well, of course, as Mr. and Mrs. Ash, Ms. LaMotte and her friend, Blanche Glover.

You can read this as a romance – the Ash-Ash and Ash-LaMotte romances, as well as the Roland-Val and Roland-Maud Bailey romances, which parallel their 19th century counterparts. There are also a couple of vaguely hinted lesbian ones as well. There is also the satire as Byatt takes aim at Americans, particularly the cheque book literary research represented by Cropper, feminists, who see every woman as a lesbian and a victim of men, obsessive researchers, who carry on researching without ever completing their research as well as researchers who are interested in morbid and often boring details, while ignoring the real value of writers – they are all there and more, and targets for Byatt’s pen.

But, like her other works, this is a novel of ideas. As all her characters are intellectuals, what she is most concerned with is how people – particularly the thinking classes – relate their view of the world with real life, particularly but by no means exclusively romance. Marriage and love, money and status, men and women – all come under her scrutiny. If anything comes out on top for her, it would seem to be romantic love – the passionate love but also the long-remembered close attachment – while money, particularly the philosophy that values everything in monetary terms, is clearly the bad guy. She is also concerned, of course, with the nature of literature – the role of the writer, of the critic, of the academic and how literature relates (if it does) to life. In this book, literature and life are clearly linked.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Chatto and Windus