I first read this book around 20 years ago, and I loved it then. Reading it now, and knowing the ending, I enjoyed it even more.
But . . . .
It wasn't as perfect this time around as the first. The diminution of my enjoyment wasn't due to knowing the ending but rather to knowing more -- much more -- about late 20th century literary criticism, especially late 20th century feminist literary criticism.
My undergraduate degree is in Women's Studies. I had just gone back to college in 1998, and bought this book in the fall of that year or the spring of 1999. At that point, I knew only enough about fem lit crit to be dangerous, but not enough to understand a lot of the nuances in Possession.
The writing is magnificent, and the plot intriguing. Major spoilers ahead.
Scholar Roland Michell discovers a hitherto unknown draft of a letter by [fictitious] Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash to an unknown woman. Michell's research leads him to believe the letter was intended to go to another [fictitious] Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte. Roland enlists the aid of Maud Bailey, another scholar of Victorian poets whose specialty is LaMotte. They embark on a quest to find out if Ash and LaMotte had any connection, literary or otherwise.
Their first major discovery is a cache of letters between the two Victorians, letters that establish a connection and hint very strongly at an affair. But they have no conclusive evidence, so now the quest takes on another aspect.
Despite their best efforts at secrecy, they can't keep all their knowledge from the outside world, particularly the very close world of scholars whose specialties are Ash and LaMotte.
Mortimer Cropper is the very wealthy, very arrogant American who keeps buying up everything related to Ash he can get his hands on, legally or otherwise, to stash in his precious Stant Collection at [fictitious] Robert Dale Owen University in Harmony City, New Mexico. (For some fun, see https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Trivia/Possession)
Leonora Stern is another American, flamboyant, blatantly sexual, but sincerely interested in Christabel LaMotte. Stern is more or less friends with Maud Bailey.
Beatrice Nest is a kind of pathetic, put-upon, insecure creature, who jealously guards her speciality, which is the diary of Randolph Ash's wife, Ellen. Nest has been editing the diary/diaries her entire academic career. She's nowhere near done.
Fergus Wolff is the handsome, sexy scholar who is a kind of rival, kind of friend to Roland. Wolff once had an affair with Maud Bailey; she withdrew emotionally afterward.
James Blackadder is Roland's boss. Blackadder is a foremost authority on Randolph Henry Ash in England; he just wishes he had Cropper's money to acquire all the goodies and keep them on their native soil.
Val (I've forgotten her last name!) is Roland's long-time girlfriend, flatmate, fuck buddy, and financial support, since he doesn't make much as a part-time tutor and researcher. They sort of love each other, but they sort of don't, but both of them have a sense of obligation to each other.
Those are the main characters, and there are a few others who play important roles.
Most authors can give their various characters distinctive voices and personalities, but Byatt has taken it one gigantic step further. She has included scads and scads of [fictitious] source material: Ash's poetry, LaMotte's poetry, their letters, Ellen Ash's diary, Blanche Glover's suicide note, LaMotte's cousin's diary (though not in the original French), excerpts from Cropper's published works, excerpts from discarded drafts of Blackadder's academic work, and more.
As Roland and Maud make one discovery after another, taking protective possession of their new-found knowledge, this reader was usually half a step ahead of them, sometimes more.
Once you know that Ash and LaMotte had an affair and broke it off suddely, then apparently never had any contact again for almost 30 years, and there's no obvious explanation, well, the obvious presumption is . . . obvious. So the nystery of why LaMotte left England to spend approximately a year with cousins in Brittany is hardly a mystery: She was pregnant.
Despite their best attempts at secrecy, Roland and Maud know that they and their discoveries going to be . . . discovered. Sure enough, Mortimer Cropper is hot on their trail in his big black Mercedes and his fat wad of cash.
And that's where Possession lost its perfect rating.
There are references to a box that Ellen Ash buried with Randolph, a box that may contain documents relative to the "mystery" of Randolph and Christabel. The box wasn't opened when Ellen herself was buried a few years later, but now Cropper wants to know what's in it. He petitions to have the grave opened, but there are legal difficulties, so he arranges to dig up the grave, in a remote country churchyard, in dead (pun intended) of night and steal the box. He utilizes Randolph Henry Ash's heir (via another branch of the family, as Randolph and Ellen had no children) to provide some dubious legal cover.
And that's what I meant by the resemblance to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. All these main characters, and a few minor ones, converge on the country churchyard. Cropper is foiled, the box is recovered and opened, and a few more secrets are revealed.
But it seemed so silly. It seemed there could have been a more believable method of obtaining the box than anyone thinking they could dig up an almost 100-year-old grave, remove the box, then put everything back the way it was and no one would notice. It was just too eye-rollingly dumb.
There was another reason why I just can't give this book a perfect rating: Byatt too often broke the fourth wall and did it too clumsily.
It's one thing to have an omniscient third-person viewpoint. It's another thing entirely for the third-person narrator to even indirectly address the reader. "But So-and-so didn't know that yet and wouldn't learn the truth for some time to come." That sort of thing. There were only a couple instances, but they were a couple too many. Byatt had created this almost flawless world of Victorian literature and culture and history as well as its 20th century scholars, then destroyed it with these odd little stage asides.
The worst, however, was
After most of the important revelations have been made, there's one more: Ellen Ash's apparent abhorrence of sex. This information is revealed only to the reader, not to any of the other characters. Both Ash and his wife took this secret with them to their graves and left no evidence of it. I'm not sure why Byatt included it; it added nothing substantive to the story. If it was justification for Ash's physical affair with LaMotte, it didn't work, at least not for me. He continued, even during and after the affair, to profess his love for his wife. Did it matter that she was "frigid"? Could not her failure to conceive have been sufficient motivation for him? Could not just human longing and attraction have been enough?
I saw in Byatt's depiction of Ellen's revulsion a reflection of the John Ruskin and Euphemia Gray marriage, which ended somewhat differently, in that they had the marriage annulled and Effie went on to a happy and rewarding -- eight children -- marriage with John Everett Millais. What I didn't see was the necessity for it. Had the information been revealed to Maud and Roland, it would have made a big difference. Keeping it only for the reader created a distance from the text that make me uncomfortable.
Possession is a terrific novel, definitely worthy of the 1990 Booker Prize. But it's not an easy novel to fully appreciate.
According to Wikipedia --
A. S. Byatt, in part, wrote Possession in response to John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969). In an essay in Byatt's nonfiction book, On Histories and Stories, she wrote:
Fowles has said that the nineteenth-century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first-person mimicry. In 'Possession' I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader's imaginative entry into the world of the text.
While her intention may have been to heighten the reader's imaginative entry into the text, I found it just the opposite. It reminded me even more firmly that I as a reader was completely outside the text, outside the action, outside the characters' whose stories were being told -- Randolph and Christabel, Roland and Maud.
Also for that reason, I took exception to the plot point that Ash never knew of Christabel's child.
Ellen knew -- because Christabel's companion and unconfirmed lover Blanche Glover had told her so. And Christabel herself had given Ellen a letter to give to Ash with all the particulars, though Ellen never did so. The one encounter between Ash and LaMotte after the affair and after the child's birth -- at a seance that Ash disrupted -- revealed to him that there had been a child, though not whether it still lived or not.
The final scene of the book
is an encounter between Ash and the child herself, though supposedly he does not know who she is. But he claims he knows her mother, and he knows very well where he is. So he asks for a lock of her hair, which she then braids and gives him to put in his watch. Her hair, like Christabel's and like Maud Bailey's, is distinctive, so distinctive that Ash must have known.
Though it's already been established that Maud Bailey is herself the descendant of that child, the assumption remains that Ash himself never knew.
I think he did.