Author of four previous novels, A. S. Byatt was known primarily as acclaimed novelist Margaret Drabble’s older sister before Possession won the Booker Prize, Great Britain’s most prestigious literary award, as well as the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction award. Byatt’s earlier novels, The Shadow of a Sun (1964), The Game (1967), The Virgin in the Garden (1978), and Still Lfe (1985), received favorable reviews for their insights into the domestic lives of middle-class Britons. They have also been criticized for being too difficult and too verbose, with a narrating sensibility too willing to intrude and explain. Possession, an ingenious blend of history, literary criticism, mystery, and gothic romance, fortunately has none of these flaws.
Roland Mitchell is a twenty-nine-year-old Ph.D. in English literature who, having been unable to obtain a teaching position, works for his mentor, James Blackadder, who is editing the poems of the Victorian Randolph Henry Ash in a basement room of the British Museum known as the Ash Factory. Doing research at the London Library, Roland stumbles upon the drafts of two letters Ash wrote to an unknown woman. He steals the letters and keeps their existence secret from Blackadder. Ash is thought to have had a happy forty-four-year marriage to his devoted Ellen. The possibility of adultery will alter the poet’s image and invite reinterpretation of his works.
Further research identifies the woman as the poet Christabel LaMotte, relatively unappreciated during her lifetime but recently embraced by feminist literary critics. The discovery will also change LaMotte scholarship, since she is thought to have been a lesbian, having lived with the painter Blanche Glover until the latter’s mysterious suicide. Roland takes his find to the leading British expert on Christabel, Maud Bailey, who runs the Women’s Resource Centre in Lincoln and is descended from Christabel ’5 sister.
At Seal Court, the Bailey family estate where Christabel lived with her sister’s family after Blanche’s death, Maud and Roland discover the complete Ash-LaMotte correspondence. The letters appear to be the property of the current resident of Seal Court, the hostile, suspicious, and rather seedy Sir George Bailey. Only because Roland is kind to the wheelchair-bound Lady Joan Bailey are they even allowed onto the estate. Roland and Maud decide to keep what they know from Blackadder and from the leading American authorities on the poets, the flamboyant lesbian Leonora Stern and the crudely acquisitive Mortimer Cropper. They want to find out as much as they can about the Ash-Christabel relationship before making it public. Roland is daunted by the beautiful but austere Maud, uncertain if she is his partner or opponent.
Roland and Maud learn that the jealous Blanche stole some of Ash’s letters to Christabel, destroyed them, and informed Ellen Ash of the affair. Maud’s former lover Fergus Wolff, another Ash scholar, finds out about the letters and tells Blackadder, Cropper, and Roland’s unhappy lover, Val, who has been supporting him for years. Cropper offers Sir George a large sum for the letters, and Sir George accuses Maud of deceit.
A clue leads the critic-detectives to Brittany, where they read the journal kept by Christabel’s young French cousin Sabine de Kercoz, in 18594860, when Christabel sought sanctuary with Sabine and her father, Raoul. It gradually becomes clear to Sabine that Christabel is pregnant, but the poet never acknowledges this fact. When she disappears for several days and then returns without an infant, Raoul is unable to discover the child’s fate. Twenty-eight years after her pregnancy, Christabel writes to the dying Ash about their child, but Ellen, to whom he had confessed his affair years earlier, will not let him read the letter and buries it with him.
Cropper reveals the letters’ existence, and a national debate begins over their import and the need to keep them in England. Cropper and Rildebrand Ash, last of the Ash line, decide to dig up the poet’s grave and solve the last piece of the mystery. After finding the box containing the letter, Cropper and Ash are almost killed in a storm. As the storm ends, they are confronted by the other Ash-LaMotte scholars. Maud is given the honor of reading the letter, which reveals that the child, Maia, also known as May, lived and was reared as the daughter of Christabel’s sister, making her Maud’s great-great- great-grandmother. Maud and Roland finally confess their love.
Byatt’s method of presenting her twin stories is as noteworthy as the other elements of Possession. She has created not only Christabel and Ash but their works as well. Her narrative consists of the modern story told from several points of view, flashbacks to the nineteenth century, the poems (some rather extensive) and letters of Christabel and Ash, Christabel’s prose fables, the journals of Ellen, Blanche, and Sabine (the latter the most stylish and enthralling of the narratives), Blanche’s suicide note, and commentaries by others on the works of the Victorian writers. These commentaries include those by fictional characters as well as those of real-life writers such as Algernon Charles Swinburne and F R. Leavis.
The most admirable of Byatt’s many achievements is her ability to create a distinctive voice and...
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