“I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you. No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.”
Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize, Possession is a tour de force by one of the finest novelists of her generation. Overflowing with ideas and themes, it is a literary detective story, a brilliant historical novel and a moving love story.
While researching the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, Roland Michell makes an extraordinary discovery: a letter written by Ash to an unknown woman with whom he seems enamoured. There is no evidence anywhere for the existence of such a woman, but Roland is determined to find out more. His detective work leads him to minor 19th-century poet and author Christabel LaMotte, and to Dr Maud Bailey, an expert on LaMotte. Together, Roland and Maud embark on a mission to unearth the truth about the relationship between Ash and LaMotte. The more they learn, the more personal and urgent their involvement becomes as they strive to defend their discovery against other interests and their own desires.
Byatt impeccably recreates the Victorian universe of Ash and LaMotte, with convincing and engaging letters, prose and even poetry. She is no less expert in capturing the competitive atmosphere of the academic hothouse that Roland and Maud inhabit. Above all, the novel examines the very concept of possession. The result is a richly detailed and deeply engrossing book that draws the reader into the intertwining fates of the two couples, past and present.
A. S. Byatt’s Possession, the 1990 Booker winner, is a novel that managed to transmute the author’s scholarly knowledge of Victorian literature into a love story (its subtitle is ‘A Romance’) and a kind of detective tale. Roland and Maud, two academics who discover the letters of two Victorian poets and lovers, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, begin with the dull motives of scholars. But the letters re-animate the past for them, and create their own romance. Byatt fabricated a variety of texts from which the past is to be pieced together – not just the dead characters’ letters and journals, but also the poetry and tales which they wrote. In a tradition that the Booker Prize has played a major role in establishing, hers is a deeply literary novel (it includes some wonderful parodies of academic dispute and critical jargon); it is also a gripping story. Allusive and formally elaborate, it still delighted ordinary readers, and exemplified what the forty-year history of the Booker Prize has demonstrated: literary ambition can also provide for the reader’s pleasure.
As taken from, The Booker Effect, by John Mullan.