Possession: A Romance

Written by A.S. Byatt
Review by Helene Williams

Reissued to accompany the film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart, Possession is a must-read for those who missed it the first time around, and a must re-read for everyone else. Underemployed English Ph.D. graduate Roland Michell chances upon several drafts of what looks like a love letter, at least given its writer, the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, to a little-known poetess, Christabel LaMotte. With a brilliant mix of academia, mystery, and history, Byatt draws readers in to her many layered-tale.

Byatt’s descriptions of Victorian life are dead on. The narrative moves far and fast as Roland and Maud try to discover the truth behind Ash’s and LaMotte’s epistolary relationship without arousing the interest, or the ire, of their present-day colleagues and competitors. Soon, however, the only boundaries being respected are those between Maud and Roland, while moneyed collector Mortimer Cropper, strident feminist scholar Leonora Sterne, and the dusty scholars in the aptly-named “Ash factory” vie for the documents and the truth of the matter. The connections between the contemporary researchers and the actions of the subjects of the research are realistic and never suffer from an overdose of coincidence. Byatt’s world is a tour de force of narrative, poetry, history, and academic criticism. This edition has an introduction by Byatt, which provides her perspective on the tale and its evolution from the germ of an idea to completed novel.