Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

Better late than never, I just finished reading my fifth book for Carl’s RIP Reading Challenge, the challenge that was supposed to be done by the end of October. Now that I’ve read it, I’m not sure how “gothic, scary, moody, or atmospheric” it is. I’d describe it as more Victorian meets Post-Modern, and Victorian wins —maybe.

This tension between Victorian ideals and post-modern cynicism runs through the book because it’s really set in two time periods. A pair of 1980’s academics are investigating a mystery involving a pair of Victorian poets. The world of post-modern academia is shown to be cutthroat, sexually confused, and filled with social and intellectual angst. The Victorian literary world, on the other hand, is depicted as genteel, sexually confused, and filled with religious confusion and doubt. It’s the sexual confusion that’s the common denominator. For instance, witness this conversation between two female/feminist scholars:

Maud: Just at the moment, I’m trying celibacy. I like it. Its only hazard is people who will proselytise for their own way of doing things. You should try it.

Lenora: Oh, I did, for a month, back in the fall. It was great at first. I got to be quite in love with myself, and then I thought I was unhealthily attached to me, and should give myself up. So I found Mary-Lou.

The Victorians aren’t much better, but if I go into the details of their tangled affairs, I’ll give away some of the mystery. So, I’ll let it suffice to say the Victorian poets are no more straightforward and unambiguous about love, sex and marriage than the post-modern academics.

Another theme is that of how over-analysis destroys life. The Victorians analyze their faith and weaken its power to comfort or guide behavior. They also engage in the much more concrete destruction of life as they dissect insects and sea creatures and then use them as images and symbols in their poetry. The modern-day academics feel they must know every detail about the lives of the poets, but realize that in dissecting the biographical materials, they risk destroying the life of the poetry. The most intelligent of them also see that self-analysis, ala Freud, has inhibited the ability of men and women to respond to one another naturally almost to the point of extinguishing the possibility for romance. To the very end, the book explores the tensions between autonomy and commitment, between romantic idealism and hard-headed realism, between fatalistic determinism and individual choice.

Finally, though, it was the mystery that kept me reading. These Victorians and denizens of academia were foreign to me, even though I understood some of their concerns. I was, however, quite interested to find out the answers to various mysteries and questions raised in the course of the novel. In fact, I understood the characters’ obsession with finding out, with knowing the ending to the story, as well as I understood any of the complicated motivations in the novel.

One of the Victorian poets is writing a poem based on the myth of Melusina, a sort of mermaid/water spirit. The words that the other fictional poet writes about the Melusine myth are also true of this novel:

What is so peculiarly marvelous about the Melusina myth, you seem to be saying, is that it is both wild and strange and ghastly and full of the daemonic —and it is at the same time solid as earthly tales —the best of them— are solid— depicting the life of households and the planning of societes, the introduction of husbandry and the love of any mother for her children.

Possession won the Booker Prize in 1990. It was made into a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle, Aaron Eckhart, and Jeremy Northam in 2002. I found the book to be intriguing and mysterious, even if the characters were a bit too tangled up in their post-modern anxieties and inhibitions to be truly sympathetic. If you’re looking for a “literary mystery,” it’s much better, and less gory, than The Dante Club, which was the first of my RIP books.

4 thoughts on “Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

  1. Well, you found a lot more positive things about that book than I did! I shudder just thinking about it. Even the “mystery” couldn’t keep me focused on that book. I had to force myself to pick it up and read each time, as though I were reading it for a class assignment. Ugh!

  2. zia

    I loved Possession, but haven’t been able to slog through any of Byatt’s other novels. At this point, I am predisposed not to like her because she wrote an article (I think it was for the Atlantic Monthly, but could be wrong) about why Harry Potter was so terrible. And I adore HP …

  3. I read this a few years ago. I thought it was okay, but it was definitely a tough literary read. I agree that without the mystery, I might not have plugged through.

    I was amazed at the world she created for these Victorian poets, including their work. It was quite impressive.

  4. Pingback: Semicolon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *