Possession (Byatt novel)

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This article is about A.S. Byatt novel. For the novel by Elana Johnson, see Possession (Johnson novel).
Possession: A Romance
Possessionbookjacket.jpg
First American edition cover
Author A. S. Byatt
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher Chatto & Windus
Publication date
1990
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 511 pp
ISBN 0-7110-3260-4

Possession: A Romance is a 1990 bestselling novel by British writer A. S. Byatt that also won the 1990 Booker Prize. Written in response to John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman the novel explores the postmodern concerns of that and other similar novels, which are often categorized as historiographic metafiction, a genre that blends approaches from both historical fiction and metafiction.

The novel follows two modern-day academics as they research the paper trail around the previously unknown love life between famous fictional poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Possession is set both in the present day and the Victorian era, pointing out the differences between the two time periods, and satirizing such things as modern academia and mating rituals. The structure of the novel incorporates many different styles, including fictional diary entries, letters and poetry, and uses these styles and other devices to explore the postmodern concerns of the authority of textual narratives. The title Possession highlights many of the major themes in the novel: questions of ownership and independence between lovers; the practice of collecting historically significant cultural artifacts; and the possession that biographers feel toward their subjects.

The novel was adapted as a feature film by the same name in 2002, and a serialized radio play that ran from 2011-2012 on BBC Radio 4. In 2005 Time Magazine included the novel in its list of 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[1] In 2003 the novel was listed on the BBC's survey The Big Read.[2]

Background[edit]

A.S. Byatt purposefully wrote her novel Possession in response to John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969). Lisa Fletcher quotes Byatt from an essay in the latter's nonfiction book, On Histories and Stories:

Fowles has said that the nineteenth–century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first–person mimicry. In 'Possession' I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader’s imaginative entry into the world of the text.[3]

Plot introduction[edit]

The novel concerns the relationship between two fictional Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (whose life and work are loosely based on those of the English poet Robert Browning, or Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose work is more consonant with the themes expressed by Ash, as well as Tennyson's having been poet-laureate to Queen Victoria) and Christabel LaMotte (based on Christina Rossetti),[4] as learned by present-day academics Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Following a trail of clues from various letters and journals, they work to uncover the truth about Ash and LaMotte's history before it is discovered by rival colleagues. Byatt provides extensive letters, poetry and diaries by major characters in addition to the narrative, illuminating the work with poetry attributed to the fictional Ash and LaMotte.

Plot summary[edit]

Obscure scholar Roland Michell, researching in the London Library, discovers handwritten drafts of a letter by the (fictional) eminent Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, which lead him to suspect that the married Ash had a hitherto unknown romance. He secretly takes away the documents - a highly unprofessional act for a scholar - and begins to investigate. The trail leads him to Christabel LaMotte, a minor poet and contemporary of Ash, and to Dr. Maud Bailey, an established modern LaMotte scholar and distant relative of LaMotte. Protective of LaMotte, Bailey is drawn into helping Mitchell with the unfolding mystery. The two scholars find more letters and evidence of a love affair between the poets (with evidence of a holiday together during which - they suspect - the relationship may have been consummated); they become obsessed with discovering the truth. At the same time, their own personal romantic lives - neither of which is satisfactory - develop, and they become entwined in an echo of Ash and LaMotte. The stories of the two couples are told in parallel, with Byatt providing letters and poetry by both of the fictional poets.

The news of such an affair between Ash and LaMotte will make headlines and reputations in academia because of the prominence of the poets, and colleagues of Roland and Maud become competitors in the race to discover the truth, for all manner of motives. Ash's marriage is revealed to have been barren and unconsummated, although he loved and remained devoted to his wife. He and LaMotte had a short, passionate affair; it led to the suicide of LaMotte's companion (and possibly lover), Blanche Glover, and the secret birth of LaMotte's illegitimate daughter after the poet leaves England. LaMotte leaves the girl with her sister to be raised by her and passed off as her own.

As the Great Storm of 1987 strikes England, all the interested modern parties come together in a dramatic scene at Ash's grave, where documents buried with Ash by his wife are believed to hold the final key to the mystery and will be exhumed. Reading them, Maud learns that rather than being related to LaMotte's sister, as she has always believed, she is directly descended from LaMotte and Ash's illegitimate daughter. Bailey thus is heir to the correspondence by the poets. Freed from obscurity and a dead-end relationship, Mitchell remedies the potential professional suicide of stealing the original drafts, and sees an academic career open up before him. Bailey, who has spent her adult life emotionally untouchable, finds her human side and sees possible future happiness with Mitchell. The sad story of Ash and LaMotte, separated by the mores of the day and condemned to secrecy and separation, has a kind of resolution through Bailey and Mitchell, as in a classic comedy.

Reception[edit]

For all its postmodern playfulness, the novel had a highly favourable critical reception and was a bestseller. It was described by American writer Jay Parini in the New York Times as a

"gorgeously written novel. A. S. Byatt is a writer in mid-career whose time has certainly come, because Possession is a tour de force that opens every narrative device of English fiction to inspection without, for a moment, ceasing to delight."[5]

Critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in the New York Times that year after Byatt had received the Booker Prize, noted that what he describes as the "wonderfully extravagant novel" is "pointedly subtitled 'A Romance'."[6] He says it is at once "a detective story" and "an adultery novel."[6]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Adaptations[edit]

The novel was adapted as a 2002 feature film by the same name, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Maud Bailey; Aaron Eckhart as Roland Michell; and Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle as the fictional poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, respectively. The film has considerable differences from the novel as it was developed for a different genre.[8]

The novel was also adapted as a radio play, serialised in 15 parts between 19 December 2011 and 6 January 2012, on BBC Radio 4's 'Woman's Hour.' it featured Jemma Redgrave as Maud, Harry Hadden-Paton as Roland, James D'Arcy as Ash and Rachael Stirling as LaMotte.[9]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "All-Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. 
  2. ^ "BBC - The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 31 October 2012
  3. ^ A.S. Byatt On Histories and Stories (2001), p. 56. qtd in Fletcher 30.
  4. ^ Parini, Jay (21 October 1990). "Unearthing the Secret Lover". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  5. ^ Jay Parini, "Unearthing the Secret Lover", The New York Times, 21 October 1990, accessed 23 January 2014
  6. ^ a b Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Books of The Times; "When There Was Such a Thing as Romantic Love", New York Times, 25 October 1990, accessed 23 January 2014
  7. ^ "2 Novelists Awarded Fiction Prizes in Ireland", The New York Times, October 6, 1990
  8. ^ Zalewski, Daniel (2002-08-18). "FILM; Can Bookish Be Sexy? Yeah, Says Neil LaBute". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-06-03. 
  9. ^ "Woman’s Hour Drama – Possession (Programme Information)". BBC Media Centre. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2013-06-03. 

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bentley, Nick. "A.S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance". In Contemporary British Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 140-48. ISBN 978-0-7486-2420-1.
  • Wells, Lynn K. (Fall 2002). "Corso, Ricorso: Historical Repetition and Cultural Reflection in A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance". MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48 (3): 668–692. doi:10.1353/mfs.2002.0071. 

External links[edit]

Awards
Preceded by
The Remains of the Day
Booker Prize recipient
1990
Succeeded by
The Famished Road