At the very outset of the rich and delightful Possession: A Romance author A.S. Byatt employs quotes from two unimpeachable sources, Hawthorne and Browning. She uses Hawthorne to allude to a definition of a narrative romance, which he claims requires “a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he [the writer] would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.” The poetic quote from Browning concludes: “‘How many lies did it require to make/The portly truth you here present us with?’”
Ms. Byatt employs a wide variety of forms as she tells her “portly truth.” Set in the late 1980s (it was published in 1990), her main framework contains the story of two British scholars, Maud and Roland, who specialize in two different 19th Century British poets. They discover an astounding and game-changing correspondence between their two favorites (both fictional) – no one thought they had had anything to do with each other. Our generous author discloses the remarkable letters, goes back in time to tell the story of the two poets, and eventually supplies a kind of closure that I certainly did not see coming. She mixes in academic jealousy and competition, some skullduggery, and even though the book runs more than 540 pages, its sustained pace is remarkable.
The title itself is fodder for the author’s full and playful treatment: can two people possess each other? Can anyone possess correspondence between two strangers from the previous century? What demons or vapors possess people in fits of passion? What do academic theories possess which makes them so compelling to their adherents? Wry answers are hinted at here, some made much more plainly than others. I found that the whole works exceedingly well.
Possession engages you on many levels. If you’re at all interested in academic study of poetry, or of narrative art in general, Ms. Byatt serves up plenty of meat for you, some of it extremely mocking and funny. If you want to experience two thrown-together young people, who try navigate their feelings and tentative hopes, this is for you. If you want to experience some remarkable letters between two exceedingly literate and thoughtful people, and some very tasty Victorian-style poetry, (all Ms. Byatt’s own compositions) this is the place to be.
Possession: A Romance serves up multifarious forms of fun, and does it with an elegant, free-flowing panache. I urge you to take it up. I enjoyed my time with it thoroughly.