Randolph Henry Ash is thought to have been a dour, humorless Victorian gentleman and Christabel LaMotte to have lived isolated from the world with her friend Blanche Glover. Finding that their placid lives were interrupted by a passionate affair leads to a reinterpretation of their poetry and a dispute over the ownership of their love letters discovered by scholars Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Roland and Maud spend months traveling about England and France assembling the scattered pieces of the puzzle. Their own romantic relationship develops even more slowly than that of their predecessors.

In her fifth novel, Byatt does not simply create Ash and Christabel but their poems and letters, the journals of several people close to them, and commentaries of modern critics. POSSESSION offers an ironic view of the past in the tradition of John Fowles’ THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN; a romance with strongly gothic elements; a detective story; and a serious exploration of the hold of the past on the present.

Byatt comments on a myriad of subjects including feminism, sexuality, the nature of literary criticism and biography, infighting among English and American academics, the decline of the English gentry, and the landscape of Yorkshire. The novel’s title refers to the efforts of literary scholars to possess their subjects, including any artifacts relating to them; the sexual passion that leads one person to be possessed by another; and the impossibility of anyone truly possessing another person. POSSESSION, which won the most prestigious...

(The entire section is 638 words.)