Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Length: 605 pages
About: Young scholars investigate Victorian poets
Style: 3rd person, letters, poems and documents
Where: England, France, Iceland
When: 1980s and mid 19th century
Maud Bailey is a scholar researching the life and work of her distant relative, a little known 19th-century poet named Christabel LaMotte. Roland Mitchell is looking into an obscure moment in the
life of another Victorian poet, the celebrated Randolph Henry Ash. Together, the two uncover a dark secret in Ash’s life: though apparently happily married, he conducted a torrid affair with LaMotte
that has never before come to light. As Maud and Roland dig into the facts, they also find themselves falling in love.
It was immediately clear that the book had been undisturbed for a very long time, perhaps even since it had been laid to rest. The librarian fetched a checked duster, and wiped away the dust, a
black, thick, tenacious Victorian dust, a dust composed of smoke and fog particles accumulated before the Clean Air Acts. Roland undid the bindings. The book sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf
after leaf of faded paper, blue, cream, grey, covered with rusty writing, the brown scratches of a steel nib. Roland recognised the handwriting with a shock of excitement. They appeared to be notes
on Vico, written on the backs of book-bills and letters. The librarian observed that it didn't look as though they had been touched before. Their edges, beyond the pages, were dyed soot-black, giving
the impression of the borders of mourning cards. They coincided precisely with their present positions, edge of page and edge of stain.
I won't be so churlish as to give away the end, but a plenitude of surprises awaits the reader of this 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.
The New York Times, Jay Parini 21st October 1990 for full review click
Not so good:
These wordy Victorian outpourings are (of course) reflected back, in a modern narrative that is every bit as baggy and rich as those that the best Victorians used to trot out. Byatt luxuriates in
long digressions and ornate descriptions. This is a book where it's impossible for a character to simply photocopy something. He first has to let the machine warm up, and then: "in the dim and hum of
the extractor fan he took out the two letters and read them again. Then he spread them face down, to be scryed on the black glass …" and so on for half a page more.
Occasionally such excesses can be frustrating. They seem to get in the way of the story. But even this obstruction, after a while, takes on a purpose. One of Byatt's other big themes relates to
"narrative greed" – the desire to rush to a conclusion and find out "the secret". This habit of pulling us on with one hand while doing everything she can to divert and distract with the other
naturally feeds into that. She also tantalises with the possibility that these apparent obstacles will contain vital clues and hints …
The Guardian Book Club , Sam Jordison 19th June 2009 for full review click
About the author
A. S. Byatt was born in Yorkshire in 1936. She attended a Quaker school in York, and went on to study at Cambridge. In 1972 she became a full-time lecturer. She taught at the Central School of Art
& Design, and was Senior Lecturer in English at University College, London, before becoming a full-time writer in 1983. A S Byatt was appointed CBE in 1990 and DBE in