One of the curiosities of 1990 in the publishing world was the popularity of a novel by the British writer A. S. Byatt entitled Possession. In October it was announced that Miss Byatt’s novel (her fourth) had won the Booker Prize, England’s most prestigious literary award. At the same time came news that Miss Byatt had also picked up the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize. Together, the two awards netted the author just a bit under ninety thousand dollars and a good deal of priceless publicity. In this country, the book remained for weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, was universally praised by critics, and occupied a prominent position on just about every roundup of the most distinguished books of the year.
Possession marks a departure from Miss Byatt’s previous novels—The Virgin in the Garden (1978), say, or its sequel, Still Life (1985)—which are big, messy, plot-heavy books, full of somber theoretical reflections on life and art, religion and society. These books owe a clear debt to the fiction of Iris Murdoch (one of Miss Byatt’s nonfiction works is a study of the older novelist entitled Degrees of Freedom) and are, like Miss Murdoch’s novels, absorbing while read but forgettable once they are finished. That a good deal of Still Life takes place at Cambridge is not surprising: the university is clearly a world Miss Byatt knows well, having taught English and American literature at University College, London.
While Possession can be called a university novel as well, it has a distinctly new focus, concentrating less on traditional plotting and more on literary game-playing. Subtitled “A Romance,” the novel takes its epigraph from the preface to The House of the Seven Gables. In writing a romance, Hawthorne noted, the goal is “to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.” The writer of a romance, he continues, “wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel.”
Miss Byatt’s novel assumes latitude galore, especially in the way it attempts to connect a “bygone time” and the “very present.”
Miss Byatt’s novel assumes latitude galore, especially in the way it attempts to connect a “bygone time” and the “very present.” Half the book tells the story of a secret love affair between two well-known British Victorian poets of Miss Byatt’s imagination: Randolph Henry Ash, who bears some resemblance to Robert Browning, and Christabel LaMotte, a demure figure somewhat reminiscent of Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is, in the late 1980s, enjoying a widespread popularity among modern scholars. The other half of the plot concerns a cadre of contemporary academics, each of whom is intent on uncovering the details of the love affair for his or her own professional glory.
“Latitude” of some sort also shows itself in Miss Byatt’s re-creation of the art of her fictional Victorian poets. Not content merely to have her modern scholars rave about its quality (though they do plenty of this), she invents pages and pages of poetry, prose, diaries, and letters by Ash and LaMotte in order to give readers a look at the primary material that has all of her academics gaga over their subjects’ private life.
Many reviewers of Possession have lavishly praised these inventions. The poetry struck Jay Parini in The New York Times Book Review as “highly plausible versions of Browning and Rossetti and ... beautiful poems on their own.” But it must be said that, whatever Miss Byatt’s familiarity with the genre, she is deplorably inept at creating imitations of important Victorian poetry. Here, for example, is a brief quotation from Ash’s 1840 pseudo-epic Ragnarök, a twelve-book poem (mercifully, in this case we are only given four pages) “which some saw as a Christianizing of the Norse myth”:
And these three Ases were the sons of Bor
Who slew the Giant Ymir in his rage
And made of him the elements of earth,
Body and sweat and bones and curly hair,
Made soil and sea and hills and waving trees,
And his grey brains wandered the heavens as clouds.
Christabel LaMotte’s poetry, while no better, generally has at least the virtue of brevity. Here is a representative bit of banality that serves as the introduction to Chapter 8:
All day snow fell
Snow fell all night
My silent lintel
Inside a Creature—
With snowy Feature
Eyes of Light
If Miss Byatt’s intention had been to offer these “poems” as parodies of nineteenth-century literature at its worst, they might perhaps have had some narrative punch. But she presents them unsmilingly, without so much as a hint of irony, as if they were comparable to “Porphyria’s Lover” or “Fra Lippo Lippi.”
The parody in Possession is reserved for easier targets: the contemporary scholars who are squabbling over the literary remains of Ash and LaMotte. The academic treated most kindly—if not unsatirically—by Miss Byatt is her hero, Roland Michell, a twenty-nine-year-old with a doctorate from Prince Albert College in London and a bleak future. (When a teaching job comes up in his department, there are six hundred applications.) Trained in “the post-structuralist deconstruction” of the poetry of Randolph Henry Ash, Roland now finds himself with no hope of employment, and spends his time doing donkey work for his former professor, an expert on Ash named James Blackadder.
Roland is keenly aware that he has missed the chance to reap the benefits of trendy literary scholarship in its heyday: gone is the time when an opportunistic academic could rise to superstardom. Yet against all odds, Roland manages to make a major academic discovery one morning in the Reading Room of the London Library. Leafing through an overlooked copy of Vico from the Ash archives, he discovers two love letters written by Ash and deduces, after some research, that the object of Ash’s illicit devotion must be Christabel LaMotte. For years it had been taken for granted among scholars that Ash was entirely faithful to his devoted wife Ellen, while Christabel thrived in what the feminists had been enthusiastically assuming was a happy lesbian relationship. So Roland’s discovery, which he at first keeps entirely to himself, is decidedly momentous.
But Roland cannot continue for long on his own: he is familiar enough with Ash’s life, but needs more information about La-Motte’s. Rather reluctantly, he forms an alliance with Maud Bailey, a LaMotte expert who is herself an indirect descendant of the poetess. Together the two scholars sift through their combined archives in search of clues; step by step, in an atmosphere of mounting scholarly excitement, they uncover evidence for what turns out to have been a steamy sexual liaison which may or may not have resulted in the birth of an illegitimate child.
Before too long, however, other academics begin suspecting that something is up and scramble to join the chase. This pack of bloodhounds includes Mortimer P. Cropper, Ash’s American biographer and curator of a huge archive of the poet’s artifacts. Cropper drives a long black Mercedes and is known to be both unscrupulous and unbearably pompous;.he is certainly meant to be regarded as a figure of fun, as is dour Professor Blackadder (Roland’s mentor) and his office-mate Beatrice Nest, who has been dispiritedly trying to produce a volume of Ellen Ash’s diary and letters for twenty-five years.
Miss Byatt lavishes most of her satirical attention on Professor Leonora Stern.
Miss Byatt lavishes most of her satirical attention on Professor Leonora Stern, a radical feminist at Tallahassee University who shares with Maud Bailey the distinction of being the world’s foremost expert on Christabel LaMotte. Leonora is “a majestically large woman, in all directions,” who claims both Creole and Indian ancestry. After chucking her first husband, “a happily meticulous New Critic [who] had totally failed to survive Leonora and the cut-throat ideological battles of structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, deconstruction and feminism,” she bore a son to a hippie named Saul Drucker, then left him for an Indian woman professor of anthropology. “After the professor,” notes Miss Byatt, “there had been Marge, Brigitta, Pocahontas and Martina.”
However ridiculous this oh-so-contemporary personal history may appear to be, the most pointed lampooning in Possession is in its characterization of the novel’s hero and heroine, Roland and Maud. Throughout the book we are teased into hoping that, in the process of uncovering the facts of a bygone love affair, Roland and Maud will have their own fling. But this repeatedly fails to happen, on purpose: Miss Byatt’s intention here is to point out the irony in the fact that Ash and LaMotte, a pair of properly repressed Victorians, managed to be a lot sexier than today’s sexually well-informed scholars. Although Roland and Maud are attracted to each other, they are utterly incapable of “any strenuous Romantic self-assertion”:
They were children of a time and culture that mistrusted love, “in love,” romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure. They were theoretically knowing: they knew about phallocracy and penisneid, punctuation, puncturing and penetration, about polymorphous and polysemous perversity, orality, good and bad breasts, clitoral tumescence, vesicle persecution, the fluids, the solids, the metaphors for these, the systems of desire and damage, infantile greed and oppression and transgression, the iconography of the cervix and the imagery of expanding and contracting Body, desired, attacked, consumed, feared.
The most effective aspect of Possession is not its satire of contemporary academic warfare, its literary self-consciousness, or the complexity of its detective-story plot, which ends melodramatically with all the scholars perched over Ash’s grave in a storm, ready to exhume its surprising contents. Nor, finally, is it Miss Byatt’s prodigious (and largely failed) attempts to imitate Victorian literary artifacts. The most effective thing—the only truly memorable thing, in fact—about this novel is its eloquent declaration of a single simple point: that Roland and Maud, highly trained specialists in the very latest theories about sexuality and the ego, do not know the first thing about finding sexual fulfillment for themselves.
And yet the convincing articulation of this very postmodern dilemma is not a satisfactory explanation for the widespread success of Possession. Roland’s and Maud’s is, after all, a most specialized kind of arrested love affair, one which requires a thorough knowledge of semiotics in order for all its ironies to be properly understood. The best that can be said of this novel is that it is a kind of intellectual cult book: instead of possessing the more popular appeal of a novel by David Lodge or Kingsley Amis, both of whom have written brilliantly about the foibles of academics, Miss Byatt’s book has a far more segregated readership. It is hard to imagine, once the wheels of the publicity machine have ground to a halt, that Possession will be regarded as anything other than an outdated literary curio, and a rather overwrought one at that.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 6, on page 77
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com