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 …
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