I had forgotten what a rich, immersive, layered, ornamented book A.S. Byatt’s Possession is. When I was reading it, it seemed… well, not small, but perhaps intimate. This is because so much of it takes place in the intimate confines of letters and journals. Certainly, the geographical stage it occupies is not sprawling. This apparently small story is like a series of nested boxes; the further in you go, the more you find.
Byatt is a master writer, controlling dozens of plot points, theme points, and symbols in Possession. This is a book that scholars will be writing about, and students will be doing senior papers about for years to come.
Today I’m just going to confine myself to the title – Possession. When I first read the book in 1991, I was drawn to the Edward Burn-Jones’s cover (which alludes to a painting in the book) and that title. I thought it referred to swoony sexual ecstasy. That is one meaning of the title, certainly; that sense of being overtaken, possessed, by an infatuation that captures not only your physicality but your imagination.
There is also the “possession” by spirits. Spiritualism plays a role in the story; and even though Roland and Maud are not “possessed” by Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, they do function somewhat as proxies for them, finishing up the unfinished Victorian story. In one beautifully weird and ghostly scene, in a dark, abandoned turret bedroom, Maud appears to “channel” Christabel, reciting a poem (and an eerie little poem it is, too) that contains the clue to the location of the hidden letters.
Dolly ever sleepless
The shreds and relics
Of our lost Love
Which her small fingers
May never move.
In a satirical poem, Mammy Possest, Ash skewers mediums and their tricks, a position that is explained later in the book as stemming not from skepticism but from deep emotional pain.
People can be possessed by darker emotions, too, like greed and jealousy. Jealousy is personified by Blanche Glover, who loves Christabel and tries desperately to hang onto their relationship in spite of the growing conflagration of Ash and LaMotte’s love. Her jealousy ultimately destroys her.
The book, though, is also about possession – ownership. The book starts with Roland, shy, law-abiding Roland, taking possession of – stealing – two unfinished letters that were drafted by Ash. He removes them from the library. While this might not be an actual crime, it is certainly academically unethical, but he can’t stop himself. The legal ownership of the letters is a plot point throughout the book. The sleek and morbid villain, Mortimer Cropper, obsessively collects the possessions of Randolph Henry Ash. He is not interested in the life of the mind (although he did write a book about Ash), he collects the things the poet owned, used, touched. He carries Ash’s pocket-watch and uses it ostentatiously. Cropper is an American, coming from a gleaming modern compound in New Mexico, and has a voracious appetite for the personal effects of the Victorian poet. Two possessions; his personal photocopying machine and his huge Mercedes sedan with the tinted windows, define him. Cropper’s great-grandmother was a spiritualistic medium; Cropper’s mania for collection has the feel of grave-robbing and his compound is described as if it is a sepulcher, containing the bones and relics of ancient saints.
In contrast to this acquisitive American, the American feminist Leonora Stern, who is bigger than life, brash, and aggressive, is not interested in ownership of the letters. She merely wants the ability to read them.
There are other possessions playing important roles in the story; boxes, dolls and jewelry. As the modern day protagonists search for “textual” proof that LaMotte and Ash traveled together in Yorkshire, Byatt deftly places a clue… a jet friendship broach Christabel gave to Blanche.
Ultimately, there is sexual possession; hot, sweet, swoony sexual infatuation; the possession that takes over your mind so that you can’t think of anything except the beloved. There are physical affairs and affairs of the mind. Two love stories play out in Possession. One ends sadly. In the final pages of Possession, the second story is only beginning.