Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Challenging Read: Possession by A.S. Byatt

I recently completed Possession by A.S. Byatt (1990) and have mixed feelings about this roller coaster of a book. At nearly 600 pages, there is a lot going on in the present and in the past and so much information that it felt at times like I got bogged down in the story. Then, just as quickly, something would happen that would hold my interest until the next point where it was a bit of a challenge to get through. 

The plot concerns Roland Michell, a scholar and researcher. At the London Library, Roland discovers two letters hidden in a book and believes the letters were penned by the famous Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash to another Victorian poet, Chistabel LaMotte. 

Roland finds himself on the trail to research the relationship of the two poets and takes a trip to the city of Lincoln to meet with Dr. Maud Bailey, herself a Christabel Lamotte scholar and distant relative of Christabel. Initially, Maud takes part in Roland's quest because of her protectiveness of Christabel. She travels with Roland to Yorkshire and then to Brittany to follow in the footsteps of Ash and Christabel. 

In the present day story (1987), Roland and Maud must deal with the cutthroat world of academia. The stakes are high with the implications of what the discovery of evidence of a love affair between Ash and Christabel might mean for someone's career. Academics and scholars soon become competitors as what Roland and Maud have discovered becomes apparent. 

The story of what happens in the past is told through letters, poetry, and journals of various people. The poetry of Ash and Christabel is prominent in the story and reveals clues about their relationship. The journal of Christabel's French cousin tells much and not quite enough about the the mystery surrounding Christabel's trip to France after the end of her affair with Ash. The writing of Ash's wife, Ellen, holds vital clues as to the whereabouts of an unopened letter that holds an important secret. 

In my reading of Possession, I found the present day story to be a little boring compared to Christabel and Ash. Predictably, as Maud and Roland become more obsessed with their quest, they fall in love. 

Also, my problem with the story was that I didn't care for Roland. He lived in a depressing basement flat with a girlfriend he didn't love. His landlady, living in the flat above him, had lots of cats, and the cat urine leaks down and seeps into the ceiling of his flat. Byatt mentions more than once how pervasive the bad smell in Roland's flat. It was distracting when I read about Roland. I kept wondering if his clothes smelled as bad as his flat.

Is spite of Roland, I loved the story of Ash and Christabel, and I loved the ending to Possession. It makes the point that although we may have letters, journals, and possessions of a person and think that these things may tell everything about that person, there are still secrets that remain in the past.

The audio book of Possession helped me get through the book and the long passages of poetry.  Virginia Leishman narrates the book and does a fantastic job. I don't read much poetry, and some of the chapters begin with long passages of poetry. Leishman made this poetry come to life in a way that my own reading of it did not. 

Also, I had a chance to see the film over the weekend. Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle brought real excitement and passion to the Victorian love story as Ash and Christabel. Aaron Eckhardt portrays Roland to Gwenyth Paltrow's Maud Bailey. It seems that the film's screenwriter had the same idea about Roland as I did. Roland's not at all presented as he is in the novel. This Roland is a hunky American scholar whose flat is nice and who has a quirky rich attorney (played by Tom Holland) as his landlord. Otherwise, the film felt true to the book, and I enjoyed it.

Even with the challenges that reading Possession presented, I recommend the book. It's amazing what Byatt did with the two story lines and the poetry, journals and letters from various characters' points of view.

Have you read Possession, listened to the audio book  or seen the film? I'd love to know your thoughts!


  1. Once upon a time, like 10 years ago or more, I tried to read this book. I think I got about a third of the way through it and just could not go on. Can't remember why exactly, but I think it was just a little too poetic for me or something. Maybe it was the cat urine. LOL

    Wondering if the movie would be more to my taste. It would certainly be shorter. :-)

  2. I loved this book when I read it in college -- I was an English major with a special focus on nineteenth century lit, so it was like candy for me -- and reread it recently. I know what you mean about the story from the past being more compelling than the present-day one. But I grew to like both Roland and Maud by the end. I think it would be terrific to hear the poetry read by a really good narrator. I'm not sure my reading does it justice.

  3. Sounds like quite the undertaking. Not only is it a large book, but it has a dual storyline to keep track of. It sounds like a wonderful idea, but I must admit it's not for me. I'm glad you were able to read it and experience it before seeing the film.

  4. I've seen the movie and really like it...mostly because I love all the actors in it. But I never made it through the book.