Possession is a quirky novel that splices scenes of the slow-paced love affair of two academic researchers with letters and poems highlighting a much more consuming passion between two Victorian poets. A. S. Byatt has said that she was initially inspired to write Possession by two different impulses.
The first impulse occurred after Byatt had a chance conversation with a Samuel Taylor Coleridge scholar in the basement of the British Museum. Byatt, impressed with the depth of the woman’s knowledge, had wondered if Coleridge himself had “possessed” the woman and compelled her to devote so much of her life to him. The second impulse happened much later, when Byatt was teaching a course on Robert Browning at University College in London. The relationship between Browning and Elizabeth Barrett (later Barrett Browning) was fascinating to her, and she wished she could write an account of the affair that would make it seem as immediate as a modern-day romance. Concerns about the legal aspects of addressing the lives of the Brownings discouraged her briefly, but Byatt could not suppress her desire to write a truly literary romance entirely.
Each of Byatt’s fictional characters is a pastiche of many different Victorian poets; Randolph Henry Ash reminds the reader of poets William Wordsworth, Coleridge, and John Keats. His wife, Ellen Best Ash, is a dutiful domestic like Dorothy Wordsworth and poet Emily Dickinson. His lover, Christabel La Motte, reminds one of writers Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Thematically, the novel analyzes the many ways in which possession (desire) can affect the behavior of otherwise rational men and women. One of the more obvious definitions of unhealthy possession, the concept of obsessively seeking ownership of something, appears early in the novel and becomes a secondary plot that adds urgency to the characters’ actions. The American Ash scholar, Mortimer Cropper, wants to literally possess everything related to the life of his literary hero, Ash. A generous endowment by his university provides the excuse he needs to not only purchase but also steal historical artifacts from unwary owners. Roland Michell and Maud Bailey are painfully aware throughout their time together that their joint investigations must be kept secret lest Cropper discover the documents’ owners and use his considerable wealth to purchase their findings for himself.
The word “possession” has other meanings for Byatt. She examines the obsessive qualities inherent in sexual relationships—the possession of a beloved by a pursuing lover. Fergus Wolff and Leonora Stern provide standard representations of heterosexual and homosexual sexual voracity. However, beyond the idea of sexual possession of the living is Byatt’s idea that one can become obsessed and seek, through reading private letters, poems, and diaries, to vicariously possess even someone who is long dead. James Blackadder, whose sexuality has been sublimated into his all-encompassing career, has substituted research for an actual relationship. Blackadder has been working on his edition of the complete works of Ash since 1951, wanting to possess some basic, inherent truth in his study of Ash’s life and reduce complex problems into predictable facts.
Possession also suggests that a man and a woman can become so emotionally caught up in the development of another couple’s love affair that they themselves fall in love as if possessed by the spirits of the lovers. Roland and Maud share a common disgust with sex and sexuality at the beginning of Possession. Their attachment is, for the most part, based on an unspoken agreement to enjoy each other solely on intellectual and spiritual grounds. Although they are both obsessed with the passion they see in the letters and poems of Ash and La Motte, vicariously living the passionate love affair, they can distance themselves from any uncomfortable feelings by objectifying their pursuit; it is “just” research. On the other hand, it is directly through Roland’s and Maud’s research that they, themselves, fall in love and allow themselves to possess one another.