Fittingly, the novel called Possession begins with a theft. Young scholar Roland Michell requests a copy of a book formerly owned by Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, from the safe of the London Library (where it sat between two unrelated books to do with love and sex); when the volume arrives, it’s filled with notes and slips of papers filed between its leaves, texts inserted within the book’s own text. It is, in fact, a model of the structure of Possession. The book turns out to hold two letters hinting at a previously-unsuspected love affair; Roland steals the letter, and sets about trying to uncover the mystery of Ash’s unknown life.
He’s soon led to another Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte, and to contemporary scholar Maud Bailey, a feminist and a descendant of Christabel’s neice. The relationship between Roland and Maud unfolds in parallel with the relationship they uncover between Ash and LaMotte. Just as the poets had to try to find a way to love each other in a society where that was apparently impossible — Ash being a married man — Roland and Maud must uncover the truth about their subjects while keeping their quest secret from the world of jealous scholars around them.
This is a multi-voiced novel; the story of Roland and Maud unfolds in the third person, but is frequently interrupted by the parallel narrative of Ash and LaMotte. Their letters, poems, and diaries, or journals kept by others in which the poets figure, collectively tell a tale which aligns with and occasionally contrasts against the present-day story. This sounds simple, but Byatt is consistently clever in the way she executes this structure. And in the way she allows the two strands to make something new, something different, out of their interplay; the way LaMotte’s fables hint at fantasy, the way the mysterious letters and old houses and potent storms Roland and Maud discover draw the story beyond a parody of a romance novel into something deeper, into whatever it is that romances strive to capture.
There’s something mythic in the book. You can see it in its structure, in the way Roland’s theft of the letters blossoms into a quest. And not a quest for him alone; this is the late twentieth century, and the nominal hero is accompanied by his lady fair every step of the way. This is their joint quest, a conscious reworking of previous stories, a revision of the past. They walk in the footsteps of poets before them; the poets lead them to places they cannot expect (to an act of creation, to a hidden legacy), but they escape the traditions which bound the men and the women of previous times. They make a new myth of their own.
Consider the mythic resonance of names. The characters of Possession are some of the most intensely-named characters you’ll ever meet. Roland Michell recalls, in his first name, Charlemagne’s paladin and Browning’s character, as well as, in his surname, the war-leader of archangels and the French historian Jules Michelet (there’s also an offhand reference to a “Sir Rowland Michaels” who was one of Ash’s pallbearers; the stories interpenetrate). Maud Bailey calls to mind thoughts of Tennyson’s Maud, and of Yeats’s Maud Gonne (while her former lover, Fergus Wolff, calls up thoughts of Yeats’ Irish heroes, and, inevitably, Fenris Wolf who will kill the King of Gods at the end of time); ‘Bailey’ draws us to thoughts of motte-and-bailey castles, which draws us to Christabel LaMotte, whose given name comes from Coleridge. Ash (almost certainly, alas, unrelated to similarly-fictive Victorian poet William Ashbless) wrote poems based on Norse myth, including Ask to Embla, describing the Norse Gods creating man, the male, from an ash tree, which the characters all note is a direct reference to the poet’s own name. The arrogant American scholar Mortimer Cropper has something of the ghoul about him, taking treasures of British poets to his American museum; hence his name, a reference to death and dead seas (morte mer; seas and water are key symbols in the book), and a synonym of the Reaper, appropriate for one associated with the figure of the Ankou. James Blackadder, Roland’s boss and a pre-eminent Ash scholar, works in a basement in the British Museum, like the serpent Satan cast down from heaven, but more like the dragon Nidhogg which lies in the Norse Hel and gnaws at the root of the world-tree.
How far does this go? Seeking LaMotte’s letters, Maud takes Roland to meet relatives who might hold a clue to their whereabouts, members of the squirearchy with a vast crumbling house (in which the scholars will ultimately read long-lost texts while winter howls outside). These relatives are Sir George Bailey, a proud Englishman who resents Cropper taking his country’s heritage away, and who therefore is not only named for England’s patron saint, but is at one point described as a goblin protecting the local woods; and George’s wife, the wheelchair-bound Joan, possibly named for the fabled Pope, but also in her chair a kind of Fisher Queen — Roland’s first act on meeting her is to save her life, in a low-key way, and this good deed opens the door of a quasi-literal castle for him. So the pattern of romance, of chivalry and adventure, turns up in the nominally-disenchanted modern world.
Fiction and fact become related in a host of ways. The poets cast each other and themselves in their poetry, as Ash does with his creation-poem. The scholar-critics recapitulate in their own actions the lives and writings of their poet-forebears, sometimes revising them in the process. Thus: LaMotte wrote a long poem on the subject of Melusine, a fairy woman who, when her mortal husband spied upon her in her bath through a keyhole, turned out to have the nether quarters of a snake; Roland looks through a bathroom keyhole in a house where he and Maud are staying, trying to determine if Maud is within — she is, and opens the door, to his surprise. Or: LaMotte, at one point, makes a voyage to Brittany (historically associated with troubadours and Arthurian romance) for secret reasons, a liminal place, a land half-bound-up in fairy tales; so Roland and Maud, pursuing their own quest, go to Brittany seeking traces of her, and are changed as a result. The actions of the past, of two lovers struggling to connect, are revised for a new era, in large ways and small.
It has to be noted that the book is ferociously intelligent in terms of its awareness of scholarship and of gender issues; by that I mean both that Byatt is able to bring out the real implications of her fictive poets’ texts, and also that she’s able to do so while using and parodying feminist, Lacanian, and post-modern theorising. It fits with much of her previous work, which can be seen as being incidentally an intellectual history of twentieth-century England. Here, the vogue for post-structuralism is both considered and rejected. So Roland rather uncomfortably reads a paper by one of Maud’s colleagues which makes extravagant claims for the way in which LaMotte used water as a symbol of female sexuality; but water is consistently linked with female sexuality in Possession. It’s a clever trick — the perhaps-flawed perception becomes the reality, and again as in much of Byatt’s previous work, this book actively considers the ways we perceive the world, and the way our theories about the world help construct the world we end up inhabiting.
And the novel ultimately comes out against theory. Thus Freudian thought, used cunningly throughout the book, is ultimately dismissed as a myth, a misreading common to our times, an inaccurate apprehension of the world. And, at one significant point, Roland, inspired into poetry (while going into his former landlady’s garden, an odd reversal of Frederica in The Virgin in the Garden), begins to write down a list of concrete nouns, things which cannot be abstracted; we are told that this is the beginning of true poetry, the creative act as escape from criticism.
Unsurprisingly, given its density of theme and allusion, the novel lends itself to close reading. Consider this paragraph, isolated in a section of its own, on page 425, about Roland leaving Brittany: “During his stay he had become addicted to a pale, chilled, slightly sweet pudding called Îles Flottantes, which consisted of a white island of foam floating in a creamy yellow pool of vanilla custard, haunted by the ghost, no more, of sweetness. As he and Maud packed hurriedly, and turned the car toward the Channel, he thought how much he would regret this, how the taste would fade and diminish in his memory.” Why does it get to be marked off on its own? It’s tempting, certainly, to see it as Byatt playing with Proust, revising his famous passage about madeleines; here this is an anticipation of memory to come, and the fading of memory, instead of memory recalled vividly. But it’s also a passage about ghosts — the ghost of sweetness in this case. So ghosts, and the past; these are themes of the book (describing the complexity of the reference to ghosts would require much unpacking of plot; enough to say that LaMotte’s journey to Brittany was surrounded by ghost story, and that Ash wrote a bitter poem about a seance, and that these two things are not unconnected). Moreover, the name Îles Flottantes calls to mind something out of a fable; it also perhaps inverts the image of the drowned city of Is, a Breton legend turned by LaMotte into a poem. This is a fair amount to pack into two sentences about custard.
What I hope to imply with this catalogue of allusions is the sheer richness of the book. In terms of structure, in terms of style, in its character development, in its range of forms, it’s incredibly fertile, endlessly clever. It forces you to slow down, to consider the resonances that pile on top of each other. Consider the many meanings of the title, all of which get explored in the book: possession of a material artifact, possession by the dead (metaphorically or literally), emotional self-possession, possession of a writer by the creative impulse, possession of a lover (metaphorically or carnally).
So what does it all add up to? With all this creative fecundity, what’s the book actually about? To me, Possession is about the search for truth, in art and history and love, and how it is possible and how it is impossible, all at the same time. You have something, and you don’t have it; this is the paradox I find at the heart of the book. Texts can be understood, and not understood, perhaps least of all by their authors; we can find some biographical meaning for a poem, but only if we already know the key (and the autobiographies we compose in our own heads, filled with our own insecurities and arrogances? We cannot know how much we give ourselves away, there). But if we make a real effort with another person, and that other makes a matching effort, then perhaps there can be real understanding, real possession; Roland and Maud share books, exchanging critical philosophies, ideologies, outlooks. Yet, of course, they already share a background, an approach to the world, a critical language. And, as an epilogue makes clear, there are always things we do not know.
Perhaps the point is that this is for the best. The book makes play with riddles (Maud solves a riddle hidden in a poem to find some of the letters, for example), and with the idea of a lover seeing his beloved lady as a riddle to be solved. So LaMotte writes a simple riddle early in her correspondence to Ash; recalling one of Bilbo’s riddles in The Hobbit, the answer (immediately revealed here) is ‘an egg’, an inherently feminine image. The idea, I think, is that a riddle can be solved, but a person cannot. Not finally and absolutely. We cannot, thankfully, possess another in that way. We may not even be able to possess a work of literature, not even if we memorise it; always, there are more connections, more symbols, more meanings to it for us to find. Such, in any case, is the nature of Possession.
- Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.