A Century of Women, A.S. Byatt

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Title: Possession
Author: A.S. Byatt
Published in 1990

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

I don’t even know where to begin with this book. I bought a used copy from Abebooks because it’s on my Round 2 Classics Club list, and I’ve been meaning to reread it. I read it for the first time decades ago, around the time that it won the Booker Prize. I remember really loving it when I first read it, and I loved it even more this time around.

This book is everything I want in a piece of literary fiction. I love Victorian novels anyway – you’ll often find me reading Trollope or Gaskell or one of the Brontes or something by Wilkie Collins (less so Dickens because my relationship with Dickens is complicated) – so reading a book about a pair Victorian poets was already going to be something that would work really well for me.

I also love a well-done dual timeline, although that particular device has gotten to the point where it is sadly overused by people whose writing chops are inadequate to manage it. This one moves back and forth between the Christabel/Randolph Ash timeline and the present with Roland & Maud. I almost always like the historical timeline better, but Byatt’s character development is so good that I enjoyed the present timeline as much as the historical stuff.

Which brings me to the academic literary detective work. That is like some sort of catnip to me. I love it desperately and find it incredibly intriguing. Finding connections between authors, their works, other authors, mining for clues, that’s just so much fun. This book had that in spades.

I also have to just note how incredibly well-done this book is. It is replete with an entire, collateral, body of work of these two poets in what I would call the “evidentiary” portions of the book. The letters, the poems, wow. She spends very little time narrating the lives of Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash and yet, through their letters and poems, they spring off the page in certain ways and yet remain ciphers in others. I absolutely loved this – it felt so real.

The book does start out a bit slow, but the second half is phenomenal. By the end, I couldn’t put it down. The final reveal wasn’t really a surprise – I’d been suspecting something along the lines of the ending for a good chunk of the book (and, of course, I have read it before, although my recollection was dimmed by the passage of time).

Anyway, I absolutely loved this book. I’m half inclined to just open it up at the beginning and read it again, so that I can savor the structure and the clues once more, now that I know where it is all headed. I probably won’t, but I am mentally penciling this book in for a reread in six months or so just for that reason.