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The Best of Times

Possession

by A.S. Byatt
Random House, 555 pp., $22.95

Possession, A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel, is brilliant, with all that “brilliance” implies of terse cleverness, remarkable intelligence and learning, and hard, glittering surface, like a tea tray of rich, glazed fruit; it is also charming, with all that “charm” implies of slightly illicit wiles, seductive ease, and pleasure. It is both a considerable feat of literary scholarship and a good read. Like a meticulous doll’s house perfect down to the last detail, with tiny dolls’ shoes covered in tiny seed pearls, and a tiny ship in a bottle on the mantel, it must have required immense cleverness and patience, in which the reader, apart from his enjoyment of the story, takes pleasure as at any feat of human ingenuity. Yet it succeeds finally not because of its artifice so much as because of its sincerity and the relevance of its preoccupations, in the way a Victorian novel does.

The story begins with a purloined letter. Roland Mitchell is a postdoctoral fellow at an English university and a drone in the hive of Professor Black-adder, notable scholar of Randolph Henry Ash, the great (imaginary) Victorian poet. Roland finds between the pages of one of Ash’s books, which he is reading in the London Library, a draft of a warm letter from the proper, married Ash to an unknown lady. Violating every rule of scholarship (and of library use!) Roland pockets the letter—meaning to give it back later—with the idea of tracking down who the lady might be, in hopes of some scoop that might boost his unpromising career. Roland is a good character, the hero or familiar British antihero, a kind of milder Lucky Jim who lives without passion and without prospects. We like him for his haplessness and his good nature; for the American edition, Byatt was asked to enhance his physical attractiveness.

The recipient of Ash’s letter turns out to have been another poet, Christabel LaMotte, a sort of cross between Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. With Maud Bailey, the glamorous scholar who has cornered LaMotte studies, Roland embarks on a biographical chase to find out what was between the two vanished poets. They have a number of predatory rivals on their heels, most amusingly the Americans, lesbian Leonora Stern and Mortimer Cropper, with his limitless bankbook and unscrupulous methods, and his determination to acquire every last Ash artifact for the Standt Collection at Robert Dale Owen University in Harmony City, New Mexico. “Literary critics make natural detectives,” remarks Maud. There are also Blackadder, Beatrice Nest, batty British heirs—a whole array of social types that people the English literary scholarship industry, all of whom might also have come from the small world of David Lodge.

To reconstruct what happened between Ash and LaMotte, Maud and Roland scrutinize their written works. Byatt writes these, too—fairy tales, robust epics in the manner of Browning with dashes of William Morris, every bit as sincere and as boring (“Men do not like epics, whatever they may say,” remarked Poe); and the fey quatrains of LaMotte, every bit as odd as Rossetti’s. But they are not parodies, and that is important. Byatt does write delightful parodies of modern critical works—Roland reads essays with titles like “White Gloves: Blanche Glover: Occluded Lesbian Sexuality in LaMotte,” or “Ariachne’s Broken Woof: Art as Discarded Spinning in the Poems of LaMotte.” In Leonora Stern’s article he reads,

There is a marine and salty female wave-water to be figured which is not, as Venus Anadyomene was, put together out of the crud of male semen scattered on the deep at the moment of the emasculation of Father Time by his Oedipal son,

from which he concludes: “I don’t want to see through her eyes. It isn’t a matter of her gender and my gender. I just don’t.”

The subject, as the punning title suggests, is possession—to be possessed by an enthusiasm and to possess in the material and in the sexual senses. But the theme is the contrast between the Victorian and modern worlds, in matters of sex, womanhood, intellectual life, science, honor, and the implicit superiority of the former. As Victorians were nostalgic for the medieval world, where they liked to think honor, heroism, faith, and love existed, this work celebrates the Victorian age, with its reassuring structures, decent reticences, and solid bourgeois comforts. Byatt’s convincing imitations pay tacit homage to these old values and comparative certitudes.

In contrast to the lives of Christabel and Ash, Roland’s life, that of the modern everyman, is petty, penurious, and squalid. He lives with a cross girl named Val who failed her exams and is unhappy working as a secretary. Their apartment is afflicted with damp; they make love as a way of avoiding quarrels. The love of Ash and LaMotte, which Roland and Maud reconstruct, was passionate, and though tragically doomed by Victorian rules, was a triumph of erotic success, high dedication, and sacrifice. The two had a stolen week together before Ash, as was always foreseen, returned to his dull wife, Ellen, to whom he had written long, serious letters each day of his absence, and the pregnant LaMotte went to France, traditional refuge of morally lapsed English writers. In an amusing reversal of the common belief, it is the Victorians who are instinctively sexual and passionate, while the moderns, disillusioned and revolted by their own sexual lives, long for chastity and simplicity.

You know what Christabel says. “Outside our small safe place flies Mystery.” I feel we’ve done away with that too—And desire, that we look into so carefully—I think all the looking-into has some very odd effects on the desire.

Discarding the usual perception of Victorians as repressed and uninstructed, they see that it was Ash and Christabel who could lead lives of an intensity lost to moderns like themselves. (But all will come right for Roland and Maud once they realize they are “in love.”)

Besides love and sex, other Victorian debates are found to be still lively, among them the conflict between doubt and faith. The erosion of Christian faith began in the nineteenth century and centered on examinations of the historical accuracy of the Bible, the scientific possibility of miracles, the lack of evidence of an afterlife—issues LaMotte and Ash discuss in their letters and in their works, while Roland and Maud have to relearn wonder. Their scholarship, in the beginning petty and opportunistic, constrasts with Ash’s sense that all knowledge—botany, geology—is his for the conquest. For him life is filled with exuberant projects, while the moderns are reduced to carping theory:

Do you never have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course that everything connects and connects—all the time—and I suppose one studies—I study—literature because all these connections seem endlessly exciting and then in some way dangerously powerful…. I mean, all those gloves, a minute ago, we were playing a professional game of hooks and eyes—mediaeval gloves, giants’ gloves. Blanche Glover…and it all reduced like boiling jam to human sexuality. Just as Leonora Stern makes the whole earth read as the female body—and language—all language.

For her considerable tour de force, Byatt received the Booker Prize, Britain’s most lucrative and prestigious prize, for which we have no exact equivalent. The Booker Prize does not usually predict success in America, and although Pale Fire was widely admired, works of such learned density are not often recognized—if indeed we wrote such books. Americans tend to reward romantic books about boats and guns, and it is especially rare for a book that is funny to be taken seriously, any more than in France, which has no tradition of comic seriousness at all.

One might have thought that a book like Possession was destined for a few readers, perhaps readers very like this one, that is, anglophile English majors with an interest in Victorian literature, and even with some experience, like that of the characters in the book, of trying to do biographical research in British attics on literary characters long dead, and with an unsolved literary puzzle in the drawer—surely a small category. Instead, the novel has stayed on American best-seller lists with a persistence usually reserved for thrillers and Danielle Steele, and $500,000 has reportedly been paid for the movie rights.

Perhaps, on second glance, this is not really so surprising, and can be taken as an affirmation of the Victorian novel. Roland has noticed that “coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable.” Of their quest, Maud has said, “I feel taken over by this. I want to know what happened,” and Roland explains “narrative curiosity,” a “primitive desire.” Readers have narrative curiosity too, but can seldom satisfy it. With the splitting off of the mass and highbrow novel audiences at the turn of the century, the reader of “literary,” or “respectable” novels has, often been denied the pleasures of narrative curiosity, while the mass audience has been cheated of ideas, scholarship, and language. A novel like Possession, which is both a mystery and a love story, and is also reassuringly complex and allusive, is a rarity for modern readers as it was not for the Victorians, and by its very success underlines its thematic preoccupation with the superiority of the earlier time. (The Name of the Rose is another such “Victorian” novel.)

This reader’s literary puzzle might well serve to testify to the verisimilitude of Byatt’s depiction of the literary-scholarly world. Twenty years ago, while doing research in England for a biography of the wife of Victorian novelist George Meredith, I came upon the manuscript of a poem in Meredith’s hand, like Ash’s letter placed between the leaves of a book, among the effects of Mrs. Meredith’s lover Henry Wallis, a minor pre-Raphaelite painter. At this time, I knew, Phyllis Bartlett was compiling her edition of Meredith’s collected poems, and like the dutiful Roland, I sent her a xerox of my poem for her edition. The poem was called “The Cloud Confined,” and neatly illustrated a theory I had about Meredith’s poetry, that it was full of odd, quirky, pre-Lawrentian views about sex and health, and secretly preached against Victorian attitudes by giving a pessimistic view of a hostile universe, while it ended each stanza with an optimistic-sounding refrain:

The Cloud Confines

The day is dark and the night To him that would search their
heart;

   No lips of cloud that will part
Nor morning song in the light: Only, gazing alone, To him wild shadows are shown, Deep under deep unknown
And height above unknown height. Still we say as we go,—
Strange to think by the way, Whatever there is to know,
That shall we know one day.’

The Past is over and fled; Named new, we name it the old; Thereof some tale hath been
told,

But no word comes from the dead; Whether at all they be, Or whether as bond or free, Or whether they too were we,
Or by what spell they have sped. Still we say as we go,—
Strange to think by the way, Whatever there is to know,
That shall we know one day.’

What of the heart of hate That beats in thy breast, O
Time?

   Red strife from the furthest prime,
And anguish of fierce debate: War that shatters her slain, And peace that grinds them as
grain,

   And eyes fixed ever in vain
On the pitiless eyes of Fate, Still we say as we go,—
Strange to think by the way, Whatever there is to know,
That shall we know one day.’

What of the heart of love That bleeds in thy breast, O
Man?

   Thy kisses snatched ‘neath the
ban

Of fangs that mock them above; Thy bells prolonged unto knells, Thy hope that a breath dispels, Thy bitter forlorn farewells
And the empty echoes thereof? Still we say as we go,—
Strange to think by the way, Whatever there is to know,
That shall we know one day.’

Shortly after this, while reading the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I came upon this same poem, printed in his collected works. I tried to telephone Phyllis Bartlett to apologize, and hoping to avert its publication, only to learn that she had tragically burned to death when her dressing gown had caught fire—this in itself rather Dickensian. I phoned Yale University Press, where no one seemed interested in my incoherent inquiries, and until recently I have been afraid to look in Bartlett’s The Poems of George Meredith. Luckily it seems not to be there. But certain Byattish mysteries remain: Why is it in Meredith’s hand? Who really wrote it? (Meredith and Rosetti roomed together for a while after the Merediths’ separation.) Most interestingly, why does the manuscript version conclude the last stanza with a different, pessimistic conclusion:

The sky leans dumb on the sea, Aweary with all its wings; And oh! the song the sea sings
Is dark everlastingly. Our past is clean forgit, Our present is and is not, Our future’s a sealed seedplot,
And what betwixt them are we?
   Atoms that nought can sever
From the world-circling will;
To throb at the heart forever, Yet never to know it still.

Along with this manuscript was another, which Professor Bartlett did use, of Meredith’s little poem “Fireside Reverie,” illustrating a lost painting by Wallis. On this MS are two curious doodles by Meredith, of a hairy satyr and a perky lady smoking a long pipe. I like to think the un-Victorian pair below could be Ash and Christabel.

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