Possession (Byatt novel)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Possession: A Romance (1990) is a novel by British writer A. S. Byatt.
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, contrasting the two time periods, as well as echoing similarities and satirising 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 artefacts; and the possession that biographers feel toward their subjects.
The novel was adapted as a feature film by the same name in 2002.
Obscure scholar Roland Michell, researching in the London Library, discovers handwritten drafts of a letter by the 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 Michell 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 romantic lives – neither of which is satisfactory – develop, and they become romantically entwined in an echo of Ash and LaMotte. The stories of the two couples are told in parallel, and include letters and poetry by the poets.
The revelation of an affair between Ash and LaMotte would 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 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 during a year spent in Brittany. LaMotte left the girl with her sister to be raised and passed off as her own. Ash was never informed that he and LaMotte had a child.
As the Great Storm of 1987 strikes England, the interested modern characters come together at Ash's grave, where they intend to exhume documents buried with Ash by his wife, which they believe hold the final key to the mystery. They also uncover a lock of hair. Reading the documents, Maud Bailey 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. Maud is thus heir to the correspondence by the poets. Now that the original letters are in her possession, Roland Michell escapes the potential dire consequences of having stolen the original drafts from the library. He sees an academic career open up before him. Bailey, who has spent her adult life emotionally untouchable, sees possible future happiness with Michell.
In an epilogue, Ash has an encounter with his daughter Maia in the countryside. Maia talks with Ash for a brief time. Ash makes her a crown of flowers, and asks for a lock of her hair. This lock of hair is the one buried with Ash which was discovered by the scholars, who believed it to be LaMotte’s. Thus it is revealed that both the modern and historical characters (and hence the reader), have, for the latter half of the book, misunderstood the significance of one of Ash's key mementoes. Ash asks the girl to give LaMotte a message that he has moved on from their relationship and is happy. After he walks away, Maia returns home, breaks the crown of flowers while playing, and forgets to pass the message on to LaMotte.