Reflecting on Possession

Think of this – that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone,
and they were alone with each other

A.S. Byatt

After semester is over I can enjoy the luxury of reading for pleasure again, and the first book I picked up this month was A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I read The Children’s Book in January last year and had been meaning to follow up with Possession ever since. However I’m glad I waited as it was exactly the right time to read it now, tying in both with the creative writing work I did this semester and the reading I have been pursuing on intellectual friendships.

Possession is the story of literary researchers Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, and their discovery of a hidden romance between two Victorian poets. It is epistolary, in part; several chapters are made up of the letters between the poets and the diaries of Victorian women who knew them. Additionally, Byatt includes the poems of these two fictional writers, which display an impressive level of craft on the author’s behalf, as they are beautiful even on their own. I was particularly taken by The Garden of Proserpina (a nod to Swinburne?) and The Fairy Melusine. The alliterative description of The Thirsty Fountain’ is so cold, liquid and green you can almost taste it:

A rounded rock stood low among the curl
Of dim-discerned weeds, whose fronds were stirred
By many little springs that bubbled up
And seeped through coiling strands and stirred the plane
Of the dark water into dimpling life.
The rock was covered with a vivid pelt
Of emerald mosses, maidenhairs and mints
Dabbling dark crowns and sharply-scented stems
Amongst the water’s peaks and freshenings.

I was again overwhelmed by Byatt’s deep familiarity with myth and folklore and her ability to weave both into a text that is entirely realist whilst still satisfying the desire for wonder and magic usually fulfilled by fantasy. She displays her wide reading with name dropping which pleases me, in this instance, because she references obscure writers like Angela Brazil and Walter de la Mare, whose work was once very popular but little known now. Possession is a bookish book, it assumes a familiarity with classical and northern myth, with Victorian literature and art, with Arthurian legend and English folklore. It drops into Latin or French and does not always translate, nor does it explain itself in any way. If it were not set almost entirely within my field of study and interest I would find myself baffled. Fortunately it serves like a chocolate box of all my literary and scholarly pleasures, so I cannot help but enjoy it.

As to the romance, I must admit to some slight disappointment, not owing to tragic conclusions, but because I was deeply interested in the character of Christabel LaMotte. She was written, to begin with, as such an independent, resourceful and determined woman in control of herself and capable of resisting societal and biological pressures, but at the turning point of the narrative she gives in and is drastically weakened for the rest of the book. However, I can acknowledge that Byatt is using Christabel’s ‘fall’ to comment on the place of women in Victorian society, and to parallel the story of Melusine. I do wonder at the choice of title, it could almost have been Obssession instead, for the motivation of almost every character is of that nature.

Possession won the Man Booker Prize in 1990, which I find extraordinary, as it seems such an indulgently esoteric book (and I say this as highest praise.) However I am encouraged by this to read more Booker prize winners, and to to explore mythic allusions within realism in my own work.

Skye M. W.

St. Margaret’s Day, 2015

(image: The Beguiling of Merlin, Edward Burne-Jones)

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