In Possession, AS Byatt did not just write a love story and mystery, she wrote poetry, pages and pages of it, in two different voices, for two different fictional Victorian poets. She wrote a novel that, understandably, caught the interest of film makers, but it makes you afraid to see the movie because the story would most certainly be pruned down to the bare essentials required to please an average cinema goer. I have not seen the movie yet. This is a review of the book.
Roland Mitchell is a part time research assistant and an Ash scholar - Ash being a Victorian poet named Randolph Henry Ash. Being one of those people who methodically dissects the meaning behind poetry of long-dead famous poets in the hope of learning more about their inspiration (or other hidden meanings), Roland was working on a routine task of looking up the source for one of Ash's pieces when he makes an interesting discovery. Among the poet's notes, Roland found drafts of two rather intimate letters (the Victorian perception of 'intimate' differs vastly from the modern perception' no trashy romance novel stuff here) written to an unidentified woman, who was clearly not the one he was happily married to.
Shocked and excited, Roland pockets this new piece of information, and does a little research of his own. He traces down a possible recipient through the clues in the letter - another poet by the name of Christabel LaMotte. Roland is then pointed by a colleague to Maud Bailey of Lincoln University, the current expert on LaMotte.
They meet, they talk, and Roland eventually shows Maud the letters. She is intrigued and agrees to help him unravel this mystery. Not only is she the expert on Christabel LaMotte, but Maud is also a descendent of the poetess.
The bulk of their investigation naturally involves reading and analysing a lot of diaries and letters belonging to immediate family and friends of both poets. In the former home of LaMotte, they find the entire correspondence between Ash and LaMotte, sans a few letters that they later discover had been burnt, hidden in a doll's cot. Roland and Maud follows the trail once travelled by Ash, seeing the places that inspired him, while unravelling more and more of his brief, but fiery, affair with LaMotte.
Possession is a two-tiered story. One is of Roland and Maud's intellectual quest, and the other is of Ash and LaMotte. Preceding many chapters were excerpts of their poetry, and a handful of chapters actually consist of epic poetry by either Ash or LaMotte. They are not just there because Byatt was showing off her apparent skill; they also hold nuances of how the affair affected their poetry. If you read this novel without knowing a whit about classical poets, you could be fooled into thinking that Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte were real Victorian poets. I was.
The greatest thing about this novel was that there were no cheap thrills. Nobody got murderously angry, nobody was colourfully killed, and no gloriously graphic sex (there was sex, for those of you who are into that kind of thing, but don't hold your breath). Possession does not have the thrill-a-minute plot and conclusion that you forget after two days. And there's the poetry (if you're into that kind of thing). Don't be fooled by the 'romance' in the title - it is a lot more than that.
Rating: 5 Fairies
Author: AS Byatt
Official Website: http://www.asbyatt.com