Monday, January 24, 2011


Today I finished POSSESSION by A.S. Byatt and the more I think about the book, the more I cherish it. It's richly imagined, and richly written and involves many characters who are all likable and recognizable, if not always (though they are often) lovable.

The subtitle "A Romance" may imply a love story, which it is in part--it follows academics Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, who fall for each other while on the trail of a love affair between the two Victorian poets they study respectively. But it's so much more than that. It's also about the love of language and poetry, the love of writing and creating art, the love you may feel for a particular time and place, for solitude, for learning. Well, you get the idea.

A warning: the beginning can be off-putting. There are poems by each Victorian poet, letters, excerpts from scholarly works by certain characters. There's also a wide cast of characters, all of whom get their time in the spotlight. The result of all this, is that you can't get into a quick reading rhythm. I think it's important to know this going in. Take breaks. Read at your leisure. The plot picks up in a natural way, eventually.

Byatt knows she doesn't have to pull any tricks to keep you reading. Every word and character is a piece of mosaic and Byatt has the pattern all worked out. Trust me, it's worth a little effort for the piece of art you can step back and admire at the end.

The ending, too, is pitch-perfect. When I finished this book I had no thoughts of, "I wish she had done this differently." Instead, I thought, "It's so sad that this happened but I was so happy about this other thing."

And perhaps the highest praise of all: When I finished POSSESSION, I felt like it was all real and true and that the story had always been there, waiting to be told.


moonrat said...

Bravo!! This is EXACTLY how I felt. Thank you for writing the review I didn't get around to writing.

JenniferWriter said...

Well thank you for recommending the book!

After Sarah Waters and A.S. Byatt, I think I need to review something a little lower brow--re: trashier--for this blog!!

PS my word verification says "glectio" and my brain immediately went, "gelato???" Bad sign?

moonrat said...

Mmm, gelato...

moonrat said...

ok, more seriously, and SPOILER ALERT for anyone reading the comments--

you've mentioned here that you found the ending sad. I actually found the ending strangely uplifting; like, it all ended much more happily than I thought it possibly could. So I'd love to hear your elaboration on your feelings. I wonder if the same details just struck us differently, and if yes, I wonder why...

Also, since you and I were talking specifically about women/writers/monsters, I was wondering if you had any take-home about Christabel as writer/monster vis a vis Sabine's diary entry, the way Christabel lives her life after she arrives in France, and what becomes of Sabine (as both a writer and a woman).

I think it's sad and unfeminist of me that at the end of the book I have slightly sourer feelings toward Christabel LaMotte than I do toward Randolph Ash, and I can't help but wonder why, since they both screwed their respective partners over.

Oh, which brings us to the partners: do you have thoughts about Ellen (Henry's wife) and/or Blanche, how they finished their respective lives, etc? And I guess the question is was the betrayal worth the cost? I mean, you could pump that question for "is art worth the sacrifice of relationships or people?" but you could also make an argument that the LaMotte/Ash relationship wasn't about the creation of art at all.

Jane Steen said...

Great review. On Moonrat's comment, I see the LaMotte/Ash relationship as the assertion of the man and woman behind the artists, and a study of how this affected their respective work. I think this is hinted at by their names, which could be perceived as sexual references (the phallic ash--the name is derived from the Old English for spear--and take a look at pictures of motte-and-bailey fortifications for the rest of the image!) Byatt always has fun with names, and I hope y'all noticed Bagendby - there is almost always a Lord of the Rings reference hiding somewhere in her books.

That's what I love about Possession - it's deep but accessible on all sorts of levels. I always get a giggle over the whole business of possessing literary manuscripts - could you imagine people fighting over your own?

I also like the movie of the book, because I have a soft spot for Jeremy Northam who's a great "costume" actor and yummy in an ordinary-bloke sort of way.

Jennifer Ambrose said...

Jane, thanks for that insight into Byatt! I love that she plays with names and is a Tolkien fan. More reasons to love her.

Moonrat, I loved the postscript, but what I found sad was the way Cristabel's life played out. It was very real of Byatt to have C's daughter hate her, but it hurt to think about that. Her life was so sad while Ash just kept plodding along in his marriage. It made me angry with him. And with Ellen, though I could understand why she acted the way she did. I would have probably burned the letter if I was in her place.

I was frustrated with Cristabel at the end, especially when she was in France, but could see why she was acting that way. She was so hurt and frustrated. You could make the argument that because of the restrictions on women at the time, she was transformed into a monster in the end. She does refer to herself as a witch several times, with bitterness. Interestingly, this was when she was able to produce her best work.

Once again, I'm struck by the idea that a woman writer (writing being masculine), does not make a good mother. Obviously modern women writers have proven this false but I still find it unsettling.

Jennifer Ambrose said...

Oh and Moonrat, in regards to whether or not the betrayal of Ellen and Blanche was worth it, that's a tough question.

I think for Blanche, she didn't necessarily have a claim on Cristabel. For Ellen, however, they were married, yet the marriage was apparently unconsummated which puts into questions the validity of the marriage at all. Even Ellen thinks to herself that Cristabel was more Ash's wife in some ways than she was.

I do think the romance was worth the betrayal, but I'm a romantic. And since both C and Ash produced arguably their best work after and because of their relationship, we don't have to choose between art and relationships, I think.

Jane Steen said...

Tons of stuff going on here about if we can ever possess each other (Blanche and Ellen are both possessive about their respective loves) and if we can ever possess a written work even if we have written it.

I even think that Cristabel's attitude towards her child is mixed up with this idea - as an unmarried woman could she have ever really possessed her child in any meaningful way? Giving her up was what allowed the daughter a "good" life, and having her daughter (who did not know she was Cristabel's daughter) dislike her was the sacrifice she made. As modern readers we want Cristabel to keep the child, but Byatt is running true to Victorian morality rather than ours.

Incidentally, by being fostered May then passes from a position on the outside of society (the "motte") to a secure position on the inside (the "bailey"). Reading Byatt is like getting drunk on words and ideas.

moonrat said...

God, I wish I didn't have to work today. This discussion is so interesting. I'm going to have to check back in later to say all the things I'm thinking about.

But to start--Jane, just thanks in general for all your comments here--all things I didn't think about.

Jennifer, I feel like maybe I had a much stronger reaction to Blanche's being betrayed than Ellen's (opposite of your reaction, it seems). Maybe that's why I'm so angry at Cristabel? To a degree it feels like she threw Blanche away. On the other hand, it isn't Cristabel's fault that Blanche loved her. Nevertheless. It also is.

JenniferWriter said...

I second moonrat's thoughts about Jane. So many great comments! I love the concept of whether or not a writer can truly possess their own work.

This is the beauty of this book: there are so many layers and not everything is perfectly wrapped up, it's open to discussion.

Something to add about Cristabel, she does end up having a closer relationship with her grandson, it seems. So there is some consolation in that.

Moonrat, about Blanche. She seemed so possessive to me, which I didn't like. However, the nature of their relationship is vague. There seems to be some physical relationship, but whether or not Cristabel felt it was more than that is unclear.

Jenny said...

My friend thought for years that Randolph Henry Ash was a real poet. I mentioned something about the fictional poets in Possession, and my friend said "But Ash was real." So I definitely agree about Byatt's ability to make the story feel real.

moonrat said...

Jenny--that's awesome. I love it. (I actually had to look the poets up to convince myself that Byatt had made the whole thing up.)

JenniferWriter said...

Randolph Henry Ash was an inspired name choice. It just sounds so solid, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

Do You know where I can find some information about Possession's setting (place, time, social enviroment) Plesae help me, thats my mail: