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On Possession, by A. S. Byatt

Possession, bluntly labeled as a Romance, is a tremendous undertaking of style, genre and personal ambition by A. S. Byatt. Possession, covers so much, in fact, that it is difficult even to begin an analysis of the entire work. A few of the most outstanding aspects of the story include the romance between Maud Bailey and Roland Michell, the romance between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, Byatt’s writing style, and the bizarre "detective" story which ensues out of academia.

The first noticeable aspect of Possession, is that the main character, Roland Michell, is a died-in-the-wool academic. Perhaps Byatt’s intended audience are people like Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, but whomever reads this story will inevitably find themselves deluged in the world of the fictitious R. H. Ash, Christabel LaMotte and the quest to discover more about their lives. Although the academic pursuit of apparently trivial knowledge is the foundation of Possession,, Byatt’s ability to convincingly create detailed works and her captivating writing style make the story easy to get caught up in. Michell seems a bit boring in the very beginning, but the pursuit of the historical knowledge becomes a fascinating mystery that must be solved. Perhaps it is when Michell steals letters written by Ash that the story develops its "soul" by creating an air of drama, albeit minor. It is ironic that Byatt chose for Michell to "purloin" the letters, given the short story that initiated the detective-fiction genre by Edgar Allen Poe, The Purloined Letter.

An outstanding facet of Possession, is the major attention to literary detail and allusions. Some of the allusions are so subtle as to be missed on first reading. Still, what makes Possession, such a fascinating read, even with its grand number of pages, is that the reader’s mind is stimulated in each passage, verse and letter.

Roland felt a strange pricking at the base of his neck. Through the carved window he saw the wet branches of the evergreens, darker on the dark. And the dim light in the gravel drive.

It is with effective writing like this that Byatt creates the imaginative world for her great literary constructs. Even though the above is an insignificant paragraph in the overall scope of the story, it is beautifully written with simple, descriptive language and imagery. Byatt does, however elevate her writing to higher levels when making important points, or describing pivotal moments in her character’s lives—

They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed.

One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

Byatt writes the vast majority of the story in a style that is, on the surface, very simple, yet at the same moment, fascinatingly rich with metaphor and allusion. Surely, a major advantage of creating these fictitious writers is the benefit of allusion. Byatt is able to make the works fit the story, and not vice versa. Most writers need to struggle to find pertinent literary abstractions, Byatt can simply make up what she needs to fit her plot or scheme.

What is particularly interesting in Possession, is the broad scope of genres that Byatt skillfully combines throughout. Most chapters begins with a fictitious work by Ash or LaMotte, but they are well written and uniquely styled to form the image of these two people, and Byatt is able to write each in different styles that definitely seem to come out of the same time period. Comparing the two, it is obvious that Byatt was careful to craft each in their own vogue—

And is love then more
Than the kick galvanic
Or the thundering roar
Of Ash volcanic
Belched from some crate
Of earth-fire within?
Are we automata
Or Angel-kin?

—R. H. Ash

Compared to the writing of LaMotte—

Gloves lie together
Limp and calm
Finger to finger
Palm to palm
With whitest tissue
To embalm
In these quiet cases
With hands creep
With supple stretchings
Out of sleep
Fingers clasp fingers
Troth to keep

—C. LaMotte

Both writers capture the style of the romantic period, yet each uses language differently, Ash more open and sparse in "his" writing and LaMotte more simplistic and with more obvious patterns of rhyme and rhythm. It is precisely Byatt’s ability to create so many different kinds of writing from the fictitious people that brings life to this otherwise drab pursuit. It is almost as if these people actually exist for her.

Beyond the works of Ash and LaMotte are their letters. Here the story breaks down just a bit because of the extraordinary luck that befalls Roland and Maud, still, the great number of letters is what actually creates Possession,, and it could not exist at all in its present form without them. The letters give a great deal of information, not only to the reader, but to Roland and Maud. The knowledge of the past association of these past lovers is what allows the parallel relationship to come to life for Roland and Maud.

The topic of failed romantic love has been done before, but readers never seem to mind, so long as the situation is fresh. Fresh is an understatement for the backdrop of Possession,. Firstly, Byatt sets up a fanciful world for Maud and Roland, one that allows two relatively boring people to have something of a unique adventure. After all, how often is an undiscovered or undocumented cache of personal letters found in real life? Possession, becomes the academic’s Indiana Jones as the two unlikely lovers take on their quest. With romance, intrigue and just a bit of action, Byatt, like so many times in Possession,, adds dimension to Maud and Roland’s relationship in several ways. First, Roland has Val, his live-in girlfriend, to contend with. Second, they seem to be reliving the past lives of Ash and LaMotte in a fantastic and reincarnate manner. Finally, their circumstances do not allow them to easily shirk off their differences. Val is dealt with easily enough by simply being ignored and forgotten, yet she is mentioned just often enough for the reader to remember her. Although is seems like Maud and Roland will never find a life together, Byatt is sympathetic to the reader’s desire for a "happy" ending, and so the two end up in bed in the next to final chapter, but what really makes this love affair sparkle is the connection to the past, and perhaps this is the major purpose for Byatt to label Possession, a "romance." The surreal quality of the four lovers is unsurpassed in fiction. Although the reader does not find out until nearly the end of the story that Maud is related to LaMotte and Ash, the intertwining of past with present subconsciously plants the idea in the reader’s mind that the four are connected in some "cosmic" way. The details of the affairs illustrate how Byatt views romantic love, but with two different and fatalistic ways. The despairing resolution of Ash’s and LaMotte’s failed lives is portrayed well, even with the overly-convenient "last letter" found in his grave. Still, reading about how Mortimer Cropper goes about retrieving the letter is well worth the suspension of disbelief. The strong images of his blind determination throughout the storm and his eventual humiliation at being caught offer a sort of comic relief to the plot.

Although generally well written, Byatt does seem to lose her muse in some parts of Possession,. This is understandable given the tremendous scope of the story, but she would have done well to give Possession, a few more years to become truly classic. Perhaps the best example is the tirade thrown by Leonora—

"Fuck off," said Leonora. "Fuck off, asshole."

"Oh dear," said Blackadder. "That’s Cropper."

"Well, he’ll have to fuck off. He’s obstructing the gateway," said Leonora magisterially, honking several times with great vigor.

Surely passages like this detract from the overall tone of Possession, and distract from the otherwise beautiful writing. Jacqueline Suzanne and Allen Ginsberg may have made careers out of expletives and seamy characters, but these hardly seem to be appropriate to the obvious talent, drive and imagination of Byatt. Other failures in her writing are the overly long and numerous letters and fairy tales that slow down the reading and annoy even the most ardent fan. Minor plot conveniences also break up the timbre Byatt has worked so hard to create, but these are minor points to pick on, and given the magnitude of her endeavor, they can be forgiven.

A final point to touch on is the manner which Byatt uses her title, Possession,, throughout the story. The word itself pops up numerous times, and the multiple meanings resonate well with the reader after the story is over. The possession of the stolen letters, the possession of the lovers to each other, and many other references make a neatly wrapped up and extended theme for the text. It is obvious that Byatt either had the title in mind from the beginning, or consciously decided on it as a motif. In either case, it works well.

In Possession,, A. S. Byatt has created characters of great depth, and she has given us a reason to love them, hate them and pity them. She creates a fantasy world of 19th century literary splendor and she has created two belletristic figures of such depth that the reader must ask if they are not real. Byatt intertwines her characters and plots so subtly at first that the following crescendos and dénouements resonate with meaning. Her beautiful writing and sense of passion caress and capture the heart and soul. Possession, will, no doubt, become a standard by which future works can aspire to.


Works Cited

Byatt, A. S. Possession, New York: Vintage Books, Div. of Random, 1990


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