"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poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte (created by Byatt), and the more tepid, intriguing love affair of two withdrawn young contemporary scholars, Roland and Maud, as they pursue the poets’ love story through letters, diaries, and a trip to Whitby.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!