Published in America in 1991, Possession: A Romance follows Roland Michell, a 29-year-old Literature post-doc, from his dreary days in the London Library through a quest of literary significance that would leave most PhD candidates quaking with envy. The novel opens with an act of theft: while researching the fictional Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, Roland manages to pick the right book off the shelves:
It was immediately clear that the book had been undisturbed for a very long time, perhaps even since it had been laid to rest. The librarian fetched a checked duster, and wiped away the dust, a black, thick, tenacious Victorian dust, a dust composed of smoke and fog particles accumulated before the Clean Air acts. Roland undid the blindings. The book sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper, blue, cream, grey, covered with rusty writing, the brown scratches of a steel nib. Roland recognised the handwriting with a shock of excitement.
Tucked inside is something that might change the course of Randolph Henry Ash scholarship—and Roland’s career. Two abandoned attempts at a difficult letter reveal that the married Ash corresponded with another woman about whom he clearly felt curious—she’s a contender for intellectual engagement the likes of which Ash probably never encountered in a Victorian England that pushed marriage, children, and fainting couches, rather than literary and philosophical prowess, on its women.
Not yet wanting to share his discovery with his boss, eminent Ash scholar James Blackadder, Roland pockets the letters. If you’ve ever had to go through the rigamarole of entering and leaving a large research university library with security or donned white gloves to handle a piece of parchment older than America, you’re probably gasping with shock right about now.
After some sleuthing, Roland manages to find a potential match for Ash’s mystery lady: little-known Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, who just so happens to have her own expert at Lincoln University, a feminist scholar with a (shocker) reputation for being a bit of an Ice Queen. Enter Maud Bailey, who manages to intimidate Roland without even trying:
She had a clean, milky skin, unpainted lips, clearcut features, largely composed. She did not smile. She acknowledged him and tried to take his bag, which he refused to allow…She smelled of something ferny and sharp. Roland didn’t like her voice.
Part of me wishes that Maud could have heard Roland’s inner monologue at that moment because she probably would have eviscerated him. Alas.
A natural-born blond beauty, Maud is “hissed and cat-called” by feminists policing the bounds of her professed intellectual interest during a conference—the implication here being that someone who is attractive can’t really also be a rigorous feminist scholar. This petty and somewhat shocking example seems almost laughable until you consider social campaigns like the recent plea to red-carpet reporters at the Oscars and the Golden Globes to #AskHerMore. Or, even more troubling, the contortion-like arguments white pop culture writers will make to disavow the particular feminism of, say, Beyoncé.
Interestingly, Maud’s struggles with the Mean Girls of feminism parallel Christabel LaMotte’s own efforts to lead an intellectually rigorous life outside of the bounds of accepted Victorian mores. LaMotte sets up house with her partner (lesbian subtext very much implied), Blanche Glover, a painter who is rocked by LaMotte’s developing relationship with Ash. Her increasingly disturbed diary entries mention a “wolf at the door” of their domestic arrangement.
In addition to Byatt’s own textual love affair, the novel is an homage to books and the people who love them.
One of the great pleasures of this novel is encountering the numerous diary entries, poems, research notes, letters, biographical criticism, and fairy tales that Byatt creates in an act of literary ventriloquism rivaled only, perhaps, by the likes of David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood. As Byatt introduces each of these new forms into the novel, she leads you ever closer to the mystery of Ash and LaMotte’s forbidden relationship and its devastating consequences. Together, Roland and Maud begin re-writing what each of them have spent their respective careers learning, following their instincts to a crumbling estate where Christabel spent her last days.
In addition to Byatt’s own textual love affair, the novel is an homage to books and the people who love them. From Roland and Maud, young scholars languishing in various states of squalor and intellectual obscurity, to Blackadder and Cropper, members of the old guard who each hunger for different types of literary infamy, to the doomed Victorian lovers, Ash and LaMotte, here are characters that represent all walks of bookish life: the naïve, the ambitious, the vain, curious, devoted, and idealistic. In a brief New York Times profile of Byatt written in 1990, Byatt reveals to the reporter that she was “determined to follow D.H. Lawrence’s advice…’I have to have two couples, which he says is the beginning of any novel.'” Given that Byatt titled her book, Possession: A Romance, we’re supposed to understand these couples to be Ash and LaMotte, Roland and Maud. But I favor a different reading of Byatt’s literary romance and offer a slight revision: Roland and Ash, Maud and LaMotte. Love is in the dust-filled air.