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Book Review: POSSESSION by A. S. Byatt

PossessionPOSSESSION by A.S. Byatt employs a parallel plot device, in which two modern researchers (Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell) try to find out what (if any) was the relationship between two Victorian poets, Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte in the years 1859 to 1861.

The first time we meet them is in a railway compartment on page 299:

“We are travelling together,” he said. “We decided–you decided–to come. What I do not know is whether you would wish–whether you would choose–to lodge and manage yourself separately from me after his point–or whether–or whether–you would wish to travel as my wife…

“I want to be with you,” she said…She spoke quickly and clearly; but the gloved hands, in their warm kid, turned and turned in his. He said, still in the quiet, dispassionate tone they had so far employed: “You take my breath away. This is generosity–”

“This is necessity.”

“But you are not sad, you are not in doubt, you are not–”

“That doesn’t come into it. This is necessity. You know that.” She turned her face away and looked out, through a stream fine cinders, at the slow fields. “I am afraid, of course. But that seems to be of no real importance. None of the old considerations–none of the old cares–seem to be of any importance. They are not tissue paper, but seem so.”

“You must not regret this, my dear.”

“And you must not speak nonsense. Of course I shall regret. So will you, will you not? But that too, is of no importance at this time.” (299-300)

Victorian In this scene, we are not just limited to the words written down as part of a one-sided conversation that characterizes a letter. We are also given, in A. S. Byatt’s text, additional information that conveys more vividly the emotions. Here, she characterizes Ash’s embarrassment, hesitancy and fear of failure by the rhythms of his speech. He does not speak fluently, he pauses and repeats himself, sometimes changing a word (from ‘we’ to ‘you’, from ‘wish’ to ‘choose’) to acknowledge that Christabel LaMotte isn’t his wife, but an independent being. LaMotte is nervous and somewhat self-deceiving, telling herself and him that staying in his room is a ‘necessity’ rather than a choice. In all other aspects, she employs a steely clear-sightedness, knowing that she is ignoring feelings of guilt and fear and regret in her single-minded determination to have an affair with him. Lastly, she doesn’t hesitate to contradict him. So this is no typical coy Victorian Miss. This is a clear thinking woman making choices, with one dash of self-deception thrown in to make her human.

I loved the way this novel ends. Five stars.

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Monday Craft Tips: Using details to bring characters alive

Although Possession is justly considered to be a literary masterpiece, A. S. Byatt still knows how to tell a good yarn. Who can resist two attempts at a letter from a gentleman to an unknown lady professing undying admiration? lettersEspecially when the young man reading it proceeds to commit professional misconduct by purloining those two sheets of paper:

Dear Madam,

Since our extraordinary conversation I have thought of nothing else. It has not often been given to me as a poet, it is perhaps not often given to human beings to find such ready sympathy, such wit and judgement together. I write with a strong sense of the necessity of continuing our talk, and without premeditation, under the impression that you were indeed as much struck as I was by our quite extraordinary to ask if it would be possible for me to call on  you, perhaps one day next week. I feel, I know with a certainty that cannot be the result of folly or misapprehension, that you and I must speak again. I know you go out in company very little, and was the more fortunate that dear Crabb managed to entice you to his breakfast table… (7)

This is the first time the reader is introduced to Randoph Ash, a Victorian poet, and the woman he admires, Christabel LaMotte, who also writes poetry. In this medium, a letter, we have to infer what these characters are like by examining the text. We are told that Ash is a poet, and indeed we can see this by his large vocabulary (premeditation, misapprehension, entice). His writing is powerful and direct. These two characters met and fell into conversation easily. They had empathy for one another. They were well matched in intelligence. They had a great deal to say to each other, and what they said was significant. The strikethrough is a brilliant touch, showing how anxious Ash is to make a good impression on Miss LaMotte, how he restrains himself from assuming that she sees the conversation in the exact same way, even though he believes she does.

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