Love and betrayal. Living history, rife with passion and scandal. Mysteries hidden and unravelled: these form the heart of A.S. Byatt’s complex, achingly lovely, incredibly intelligent Possession. An illicit romance between two Victorian poets, and the affair’s wide-ranging consequences, remains hidden for over a century until, in modern-day England, two scholars who specialize in the works of these poets stumble onto their secret. And that secret threatens to cause just as much of a mess in 1990 as it did in the 1800s.
The eminent Randolph Henry Ash and the obscure Christabel Lamotte should barely have crossed paths, let alone conducted a dizzying affair that shook social mores and ruined lives. And how could it have stayed hidden all these years? Ash expert Roland Michell and Lamotte expert Maud Bailey go on the hunt for clues to better understand the mysterious letters Roland has discovered. But the stakes are upped monumentally when others join the chase, and when Roland’s and Maud’s very reputations could be disgraced.
From séances, theosophy, and faerie lore to the constraints imposed by imperialism, paternalism, and social class, A.S. Byatt creates a mesmerizing mystery and a sweeping love story. Told not just in third-person narrative but also through letters, diaries, and the works of the poets themselves, Byatt shows a chameleon-like ability to embody different voices in different media. This book is also at once a critique of modern academia and of notions of progress in both the Victorian and modern eras; it is an examination of femininity and masculinity and sexuality, of power and oppression, and, of course, it is about possession: of an object, of knowledge, of a lover, of a secret.
Possession is one of my all-time favourite novels. I read it at a time when I was trying to decide if I wanted to continue my graduate studies or enter the real world and pursue a job in publishing (you can tell which choice I made, I’m sure!). It resonated so strongly with me in so many ways. It is such a complex, deeply researched, well-told story that it demands further readings. Much has been written in academic circles about Possession, and I’m not going to write a PhD dissertation on it, or discuss things like “the gaze” or rereading the book through a Habermasian lens. Rather, I want to take an armchair but in-depth look at this book for the joy of reading it and to understand it better: I want to examine its plot, its themes, and its history, and to look at what Byatt is telling us through her work, without getting bogged down in jargon (or, the really fun thing about writing readalongs like this, worrying about grade!).
A new post will go up each Wednesday. Each post will begin with a synopsis of the chapters under consideration and continue with a discussion of themes, symbols, theories, questions, and anything else that springs to mind about that section. I welcome and encourage comments and discussion!
Want a copy? Possession is published by Vintage. Pick your copy up at the Random House website (in Canada; for US readers, go here), Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, Indigo.ca, and fine independent bookstores everywhere. I’ve divided the book into twelve roughly equal parts. Each week I’ll look at between one and three chapters, depending on their length.
Click here for a full list of links to readalong posts. Let’s get reading!
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