(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In September of 1986, twenty-nine-year-old Roland Michell is sitting in the basement of the London Library examining a book owned by Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Roland’s job is to provide research material on Ash for his adviser, Dr. James Blackadder, but his dissertation is on Ash’s poems and he is hopeful of finding out something new about Ash. Roland is a part-time research assistant funded by Blackadder’s Ash Factory, but is unhappy with his meager earnings and his unsatisfying personal life. Opening the book of poems, Roland sees two letters fall out, revealing the first clues in a mystery that will change Roland’s life.

Roland, intimately familiar with all the known details of Ash’s life, is immediately drawn to the letters, which are addressed to an unknown woman. The subject matter of the letters is completely foreign to Roland, who sees not only that they have never been published but also, more important, that they have never even been seen by anyone other than Ash. The letters present the literary opportunity of a lifetime.

Ash had written love poetry, and he often wrote about romantic love. A woman named Embla was Ash’s muse and the inspiration for much of his work. Ash scholars have debated fiercely who Embla really was. The conventional nature of Ash’s life seems to suggest that Embla was a figment of his imagination; the only woman in Ash’s life was his wife, Ellen, but the fierce love described in Ash’s poetry did not fit their tepid marital devotion. For Roland, the letters suggest that Embla was a real woman. He decides, not without some twinges of guilt, to take the letters and research their meaning himself.

Roland returns home to the dingy basement apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, Val, and wonders if he will ever escape from its fetid reek of failure and cat urine. Although Roland and Val had fallen in love over romantic poems and heady critical debates, the harsh reality of academic life—the A-Levels and Firsts—exposed a troubling insecurity in Val. While Roland does well in his studies, Val, paradoxically, falters. The final blow comes when she fails her final exams. She takes a job as a secretary, but her financial support of Roland comes with a price: He must not only tolerate her disappointment with her life but also her ridicule of his inability to do better. He tells her now about the letters, but Val is completely disinterested in Roland’s find.

Initial research on the setting described in Ash’s letters leads Roland to tentatively identify Embla as Christabel La Motte, a poet and a contemporary of Ash. Roland is unfamiliar with La Motte’s life or works, but he happens to run into a colleague, Fergus Wolff, who advises him to consult with Dr. Maud Bailey. Maud is not only a...

(The entire section is 1144 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ironically, Byatt’s most popular novel, Possession is also the one most deeply imbued with literary scholarship, even if the world of belles lettres provides setting and motivation rather than metaphor and imagery. Possession is also the novel that most fully displays Byatt’s impressive stylistic range in a virtuoso performance that combines narrative genres, including romance, detective, and crime fiction with poetic imitations of Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti, as well as journals, diaries, and letters in voices ranging from Scottish to American.

The idea of possession dominates the novel from the first chapter, as Roland Michell, an academic struggling to churn out an interpretation of obscure Victorian poet Randolph Ash for James Blackadder’s “Ash Factory,” stumbles upon a letter in the British National Library and decides to pocket it. Blackadder himself has charted out his own intellectual territory in the basement of the British Museum, where he has effectively imprisoned any scholar who would study Randolph Ash under his purported advisement, a convenient position from which he can monitor their publications. His American counterpart, Leonora Stern, has staked a similar claim for Ash contemporary Christabel LaMotte. Fellow American Mortimer P. Cropper fancies himself an Ash scholar, having written his biography, but proceeds as though knowledge were a commodity, available to the highest bidder.

Possessed in one way or another by each of these forceful personalities, Maud Bailey, director of the Women’s Resource Center and herself an established LaMotte scholar, resists the giving of herself, fearful of having to abandon her identity. Intellectually, Bailey has chosen a corner of the world where she can work collaboratively with other like-minded scholars, outside of the competition on which Blackadder and others appear to thrive. Approached sexually by both Leonora Stern and Roland Michell, she holds their desires at bay even as she...

(The entire section is 821 words.)