‘Owning’ the Past: Possession (1990), by A. S. Byatt

Possession ByattIf you wish to trace, dear reader,
The history recounted in prose,
By esteemed A. S. Byatt
From the start to the close,
Heed my warnings, which here I give:
Beware of SPOILERS, beware of those
That would seek to ruin a book
To lessen their own woes.

Beware of – currents – swirling swift –
And postmodernist – angst – that creates a rift
Beware of – bees – that sting –
But most of all, beware of bad poetry, of which I write far too much.

Having spent the better half of the last six years in and around universities, I can tell you that they are fascinating, absorbing places, filled with wild ideas and interesting people. But this doesn’t mean that the lives of literary scholars make for a good novel. I’ve spent a great deal of time in literature departments, libraries, and archives, but even I wouldn’t want to read a five-hundred-page novel about them. But then came A. S. Byatt’s Possession, bringing with it a great deal of acclaim and the promise of a really juicy (fake) literary mystery.

Hold on to your hats, people, because somehow the stakes in this novel seem incredibly high, despite the fact that they revolve around the lives of two fake Victorian poets. Possession begins with Roland Mitchell, contemporary scholar of the work of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, and thorn in my side for five hundred pages. (In case you’re wondering, no, I did not like Roland one bit.) Roland finds some letters tucked up in an old book that once belonged to Ash, and respectful student of literature and frequent library-user that he is, promptly filches them. The letters are addressed to an unnamed lady, and with a little bit of research on the pilfered letters Roland discovers that the lady in question is Christabel LaMotte, a Victorian poet and ancestor of Maud Bailey, who is a literary scholar working in the North of England. Well, you can imagine what happens next. Car chases! Clandestine meetings! Mysterious drownings of fellow scholars!

Okay, none of this actually happens. In fact, nothing terribly exciting happens at all in this novel, apart from the last chapter or two, unless you happen to be incredibly interested in the ins and outs of historical research. What’s that? You are? Well, then, grab your briefcase, and on we go!

Yes, through a great deal of very detailed research, Maud and Roland discover that the two Victorian poets had a secret affair. ‘Shock! Gasp! The Scandal! What an unexpected twist!’ cries absolutely nobody. Over the course of five hundred pages, interspersed with poetry, letters, and other documents relating to the pair, Roland and Maud try to discover how the affair ended. If you love Victorian literature, Byatt’s meticulously written faux-Victorian poems will delight. If, like me, you have a bit more of a complicated, love-hate relationship with the Victorians… well, you’ll feel exactly like you always do after reading three hundred pages’ worth of Victorian sentimentalising. Tread with caution.

The imitation-Victorian poetry may tread on the side of tedious at times, but it’s essential for grasping the issues at the heart of this novel. And there are some particularly interesting ones. Despite the seemingly lacklustre plot, this novel engages with some very tricky questions about history, writing, and memory. One of the biggest themes is, somewhat unimaginatively, right there in the title of the book: Possession. The novel engages with all kinds of aspects of possession and ownership, particularly as they relate to relationships between human beings, and relationships between human beings and objects.

The story begins with Roland swiping Ash’s letters from the London Library (cheeky bastard!). Why? Well, because he’s an insufferable arse, that’s why. But also because he feels, in some way, as though he has the right to. Like the other characters in the novel, particularly the collector and historian Mortimer Cropper, Roland feels a particular possessiveness towards the physical traces of Randolph Henry Ash. The various characters’ relationships with the historical documents and objects that they work with, and in some cases collect, are complex and at times worryingly border on the obsessional. Objects are incredibly important, mostly for the traces of history that they are perceived to contain; but possessing objects is just the first stage in a larger project to ‘own’ the past, both one’s own and those of others.

Musei Wormiani

Collecting and ‘owning’ the past is an old hobby – but is it really that simple? (Image Source)

Then we have the idea of being ‘possessed’ in a spiritual or psychological sense, an idea which ties in with the frequent references to Victorian spiritualism (and if you’ve never heard about the Victorians’ spooky obsession with the ‘spirit world’, you’re in for a treat, because it’s one of the maddest and most intriguing obsessions of the nineteenth century). All the scholars in this story are ‘possessed’ by a fascination and/or compulsion to explore the works or lives of particular people: the American Mortimer Cropper, along with Roland and Professor Blackadder, are interested in Ash, while the feminist scholars are fascinated by LaMotte and her poetry about female identity. Beatrice Nest is absorbed with the diaries of Ellen Ash, the poet’s wife, and has developed a strangely protective attitude towards this long-dead figure. The plot is concerned with the way that Roland and Maud become completely taken over, ‘possessed’, by their quest to uncover the truth about Ash and LaMotte’s relationship. And it all begins because Roland, in a moment of sheer madness, swipes a bunch of letters from the London Library. Was he ‘possessed’ by some kind of momentary madness?

Victorian Ghostly Photo

Spooky, right? Spiritualism was all the rage in the nineteenth century. (Image Source)

What all these examples of ‘possession’ suggest is that these moments of obsession have in some way effaced the characters’ identities. Roland and Maud, in following the footsteps of LaMotte and Ash, unwittingly end up mimicking their predecessors’ relationship, as they eventually bond over scholarship, travel, and the poetry of the two Victorian lovers. They’re not the only ones; an obsession with the past proves unhealthy for other characters too:

History, writing, infect after a time a man’s sense of himself, and Mortimer Cropper, fluently documenting every last item of the days of Randolph Henry Ash, his goings-out and his comings-in, his dinner engagements, his walking-tours, […] had naturally perhaps felt his own identity at times, at the very best times, as insubstantial, leached into this matter-of-writing, stuff-of-record.

(Chapter VI)

Finally, there’s the question of ‘truth’ and the extent to which we can ‘possess’ it. Roland’s theft of the letters in Chapter I, and the possessiveness he and Maud feel towards the story of LaMotte and Ash, forces us to wonder about the extent to which our life stories, and our histories, really belong to us. What right does Roland have to steal the letters? Whose property are they, these personal missives, now that the people who wrote them are gone? The long mystery about Ash and LaMotte that gradually surfaces throughout the novel leaves you with some very worrying questions about who has the right to decide which aspects of an individual’s life count as ‘history’ for public consumption, and what, if anything, should be forgotten.

Although the love story between Ash and LaMotte sheds a completely new light on the poetry of both writers, it also tugs at some very human, and very painful experiences, some of which were perhaps better forgotten. This may be why Ellen Ash is the only person to get a whole chapter written from her point of view, whereas none of the other Victorian characters appear except in documents and traces of history (apart from the final chapter, but more on that below). Assuming this chapter is ‘real’, and does recount the movements of Ellen on the night before her husband’s funeral, we’re given an uncomfortable glimpse into her private pain, a pain which can never be fully articulated in the sterile process of assembling history.

This leads me on to the conclusion of the story: the scene where Ash meets his daughter, Maia. Does the reader ‘possess’ the real truth of the story with this final, unexpected conclusion to the novel? Certainly the characters don’t. The tale doesn’t appear to be documented – of the two witnesses, Ash doesn’t write about it, and the little girl forgets the entire episode. The scene (if it’s ‘true’, that is) therefore shows those places where history, documentation, and memory break down. Trying to reconstruct a fleeting past from documentary evidence is always doomed to be an incomplete endeavour. The scholars assume that the lock of hair belonged to the mother, rather than the child, because that is what they were expecting to find: having assembled a great love-story (doomed, no less – all the best ones are), the hair is presumed to speak to Ash’s lifelong devotion to his lover, rather than his fleeting taste of long-desired fatherhood. The subtitle of the novel (‘A Romance’) now threatens to become rather ironic, if it wasn’t already, thanks to the rather lacklustre relationship between Maud and Mr. Roland Dreary, least appealing male lead ever.

So the book actually seems to be tapping into some very postmodern concerns, despite its seemingly realist style. Although you could read this as a straight Victorian love story and literary mystery, I personally think that the contemporary issues Possession raises about the limits of history are far too compelling to ignore. Writing about the past, as it turns out, is almost always really writing about ourselves.

Rating: 4 Stars

4 Stars

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6 thoughts on “‘Owning’ the Past: Possession (1990), by A. S. Byatt

  1. “Writing about the past, as it turns out, is almost always really writing about ourselves.” This is one of the best, if not the best concluding summative line in all the reviews I’ve read, so good that I wish I’d written it myself! I’ve only read a couple of Byatts (this, awkwardly, not one of them, for shame) and you remind me of how much I’ve yet to enjoy.

  2. I think this is the only A.S. Byatt book I’ve read and I loved everything about it (other than the poetry too if I remember right). I enjoyed the movie as well. I really should try more of her work too.

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