Friday, July 17, 2009


"Classic" is the best word for A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Published in 1990, this acclaimed novel won the Booker Prize, has been the subject of countless book clubs (including the June Guardian book club), and is so complex and structurally prolix that I find it impossible to classify. On the one hand, it is a post-modern homage to Victorian poetry and intensity of emotions. On the other hand, it is a gorgeously complicated novel that interweaves satire, realism, the poetry and letters of two passionate Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte (created by Byatt), and the more tepid, intriguing love affair of two withdrawn young contemporary scholars, Roland and Maud, as they pursue the poets’ love story through letters, diaries, and a trip to Whitby. In the first half of the book, Roland and Maud, who interpret literature through a scrim of Lacan and Freud, are still hiding their research from other scholars. If I remember correctly, their rivals will soon track them down.

Byatt is a brilliant writer, every sentence carefully crafted, and this novel is more enjoyable on a second reading. The form confused me in the beginning: is it an academic satire, I wondered? I had a sinking feeling that it was heading in the direction of a parody of women’s studies (my own women's studies classes were very good). The scholarly men, though eccentric, seemed more grounded than the women. Even Roland, our diffident, worried, mistaken-for-dull, marginally-employed hero, seemed more sympathetic and vital than the reserved arty-beautiful-yet-spinsterish Maud, who always covers her princess-like blond hair with a scarf or turban. And yet when he begins to know her, this stereotypical female scholar (whom he feared) is revealed as a complicated, compassionate person.

After discovering some uncatalogued letters by Ash to the poet Christabel Lamotte, Roland visits Lincoln University to consult the archives of the library and Maud, a LaMotte scholar. She kindly invites him to a Women’s Studies block (block?) coffeehouse after he has consulted a diary at the library.

“They sat down at a low table in the corner, under a poster for the Campus Creche and facing posters for the Pregnancy Advisory Service - 'A woman has a right to decide about her own body. We put women first' - and a Feminist Revue: 'Come and see the Sorceries, the Vamps, the daughters of Kali and the Fatae Morganae. We’ll make your blood run cold and make you laugh on the Sinister side of your face at Women’s Wit and Wickedness.' The room was largely uninhabited: a group of women in jeans were laughing in the opposite corner, and two girls were in earnest conversation by the window, pink spiky heads leaning together. Maud Bailey’s excessive elegance was even odder in this context. She was a most untouchable woman. Roland discerned in her a rigorous sense of correctness, or justice, which made her trustworthy, but would likely cause her to disapprove of his own behavior about the letters....”

Of course this is Roland’s view of Maud. And we eventually come to know her more fully, to understand her, and to love her, as we do another eccentric woman scholar. (But so far not the Americans. We’ll have to see what happens with them.)

Roland vaguely reminds me of an Orwellian hero. Maybe the bookstore clerk in Keep the Aphidistra Flying? Maud is one of those stereotypical repressed scholars who slowly blooms. The scholars are a dry lot, but not without emotions, and their emotions are affected by their Victorian poets. And they envy the emotions of the Victorians: their own have been ruined by Freud (who now is considered out of date - so maybe the Victorians will come back_.

I appreciate LaMotte's and Ash’s poetry - the first time I doubt that I got much out of it - I simply read because it was an integral but headachey part of the novel. Ash’s poem about Swammerdam, the entomologist, bored me, but it seems quite good now. Has my attitude toward Victorian poetry changed? Is LaMotte really a lost brilliant poet? But confusingly she has been invented by Byatt.) This time I loved it. I also love Ellen Ash’s journal, which has much information about her husband’s perfidy between the lines of her domestic life.

I can also see the inception of Byatt's interest in entomology. Read Angels and Insects.

Well - I’m halfway through - a very good read!


Ellen said...

My favorite parts of the book remain the letters between Ashe and Christabel in the opening phase of the book, and her trip to Brittany (mythic and beautiful). I was so moved too when I go to Ellen Ashe's story.

Had I read the book at age 15 instead of age 50 it would have made a deep and lasting impression on me. As it was, it simply confirmed my love of romance.

I taught it twice so analyzed its structure, imagery, allusions &c&c

Most students found it too complex, but the two times I dared I did have a couple who loved it as I did,



You must know it by heart. Teaching it would be a challenge.

I'm surprised by how popular Possession is with bloggers. in the comments at the Guardian book club blog, people talked about loving this more than the Fredericka Quartet (which is more accessible).

Ellen said...

I haven't gone over to the Guardian section because it would bother me too to see a group read led by an anti-woman readers and books man. God, how can anything get to women if in such private dialoguing they are led astray. People do allow others to frame their understandings.

I don't think Possession is a satire on women's studies. That elevating one theme or character (leonora?) too much and one could say it satirizes Freud a lot and Byatt herself uses Freud. Maybe Byatt is satirizing hersefl self-reflexively. I think it's more in line with Jane Eyre kind of books -- itself strong feminine romance which leaves you thinking and is pleasurable at the same time, meant to entertain and for herself a release for her poetry and knowledge.

I don't admire Byatt as much as I once did because of her recent criticism where she gets on the bandwagon of erasing feminism. Her sister Drabble is better than that.

The poetry of her book is also under attack. It's fine neo-Victorian poetry, but if she's attacked (I think) because this is woman's romance and she a woman and herself jumps on the bandwagon of erasing women's studies and feminism, I guess we might say she asked for this biodegradability (to use Germaine Greer's term).

Remember Jane Austen in NA on how women have to stick up for another and women readers. If we don't defend ourselves as a body, who will?


Ellen said...

Since you brought up the poetry in the volume (some of which I like very much too), I thought you might find this of interest:

"there is a sequel: the letter from A.S. Byatt as Maud Michell-Bailey to Professor Linda K. Hughes which opens the special edition of *Victorian Poetry*, Women Poets 1830- 1894, edited by Professor Hughes (VP 33.1: 1995). Two fragments of poems in holograph by Christabel LaMotte
are included ..."


Mad Housewife said...

Byatt said in an interview that some of the poems have been studied by grad students. She hasn't, to my knowledge, published a book of poetry, but she certainly would be capable.

The Guardian man wasn't EXACTLY anti-woman. He remarked that Byatt's target was women's studies, but then didn't attempt to prove it and actually went on to talk about all the other scholars. He simply threw the comment down and then forgot about it. And I don't remember anyone responding to that. I didn't read all the comments, though. It's confusing, because John Mullan the university prof's blogs are in one place, and then there's a separate blog by a lesser mortal with comments.