PossessionPossession by A.S. Byatt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was embarrassed when this book came for me through inter-library loan. The problem is that it’s been made into a movie (which I have not yet seen) and I got the movie-cover version. So I have Gwyneth Paltrow looking moody in one corner while some unshaven guy stares at her, and down in the other corner I have two fuzzy Victorian lovers doing fuzzy Victorian love stuff. Plus, it doesn’t help that Byatt subtitled the work “A Romance.”

So much for subtlety.

This is a romance. It is about people falling in love, both in modern times and in the mid-eighteen hundreds. But for me, it was also (and maybe mainly) about scholars, about the people who spend their careers trying to get inside the minds of individuals from the past through their writings. Anyone who has done historical research will resonate with this on some level.

The book’s two main characters are modern day literary scholars who stumble upon previously unknown correspondence between their relative scholarly subjects, two Victorian poets. What follows quickly becomes an absorbing story of these two scholars trying to put together clues through these letters as well as hints in journals and the published poems of both (and of course ultimately falling in love themselves). One of the strengths of this work is that it shows both the appeal and power as well as the pitfalls of literary analysis: the meanings of the poems throughout the book change as the scholars discover new information and connections between their two poets.

Possession does a great job illustrating what historical or literary scholarship can look like, how people would find it compelling to try to piece together past lives through a person’s published and unpublished writings. The excitement they feel in finding something previously unknown about the poets and the ramifications it will have on their fields of scholarship is spot on. This is action and drama for historians. This is what we find exciting. The burgeoning relationship between the two protagonists is nice as well, but it’s almost secondary. This is a story about the letters, about the chase, about finding out what happened and who people really were. Why did they write these poems? What were their influences? What shaped their thoughts and language? I suppose on some level this is similar to The Da Vinci Code though done with more skill, knowledge, and a great deal more believability and style.

Another aspect that Byatt lays out nicely is the characters themselves and the academic realities that accrue around specific research programs or schools of thought. The secondary characters are almost livelier than the two main characters: the acquisitive, flamboyant collector, the careful, ponderous researcher—even some of the caricatures about British versus American scholarship—these all ring true. I know people like this. I know how letter collections work and what can happen when the ins and outs of copyright and possession (one possible meaning for the title) come into play. Again, spot on.

I should have had more patience with the poetry, journal entries, and letters that Byatt uses to form the mosaic of this tale. For the most part, this is how we get a window into the unknown Victorian romance our heroes are putting together. But I admit I did a lot of skimming through this, trying to—perhaps as the fictional scholars were themselves—get out the nuggets of real information and hurrying to where the plot got going again. And I was truly disappointed when Byatt reverted to actual flashbacks to give us all the exact details of the culmination of the Victorian love affair, so we would know that it did not indeed remain unrequited. To me, that felt like cheating. I wanted to be constrained to what the heroes themselves knew. I didn’t want the benefits of an omniscient narrator here.

Byatt’s Victorian characters are fictional, as far as I know, but they inhabit a real Victorian world and rub shoulders with actual historical characters. They lived in a real world. This allowed Byatt in the course of the story to offer real insights into the minds of historical actors. One highlight of this work, an illustration of the power of this form of writing for making the period come to life, is in the spiritualism episode. The Victorian couple has been parted for years, but our scholar heroes unearth evidence that they met again at a séance at the home of a Victorian medium much later. Byatt uses this episode to show why spiritualism—table-knockings, séances, attempts to contact the spirits of the dead, etc.—had such a resonance for a period paradoxically known for its scientific outlook. People like the astronomer William Huggins, the chemist William Crookes, and the physicist Oliver Lodge gave these activities serious consideration.

Byatt first shows the account of a skeptic who interrupted the happening of a séance and felt he had confirmed that it was all charlatanism. But then she also reproduces the account of the medium herself, explaining the events in materialistic terms (recall that this age of auras and emanations was the same period seeing the first detailed studies of electricity and magnetism). For her, there was a completely logical and consistent explanation for why only those acclimated or prepared could observe spiritual effects. The observer himself altered the state of the experiment. It’s a relatively minor part of the plot, but it’s powerful in that it removes the reader– at least momentarily– from the privileged position of viewing a “discounted” science in hindsight.

Possession is intellectual, exciting, and rewarding. It gives a glimpse into two rich worlds: that of scholarly pursuit and the Victorian literary age. And it’s about people falling in love in different periods and cultures. This alone—and I’m only realizing this now—provided one of the book’s most poignant messages: the past is indeed a foreign country. Men and women are going to have affairs, but pairs of affairs separated by one hundred and fifty years can be as different as, well, the face of Gwyneth Paltrow and the fuzzy form of a half-glimpsed Victorian poetess.

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