Possession by AS Byatt
This is my second reading and I enjoyed it soooo much more than the first time when I was impatient at all the pseudo-19th century poetry. I think I liked it better because I paid more (not less) attention to the poetry and was blown away that Byatt could do that—could not only make up two 19th century poets as characters but could write their poetry for them. I also didn’t take the book all that seriously the first time—finding it fun but “unserious”. I obviously didn’t notice that she prefaced it by those great lines about “romance” from Hawthorne’s introduction to The House of the Seven Gables: “When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to had he professed to be writing a novel.” A distinction generally lost in our time, but an important one and one that fits this work perfectly; it does not aim at fidelity to the possible or to the probable, but it does aim at the “truth of the human heart”.
I have always been fascinated by the author who builds a novel (or a romance) out of diverse documents which the characters come across, in this case not only the poems of the two poets, but their letters, a few stories retold from parents, journals of those closely involved—his wife and her lover, critical analysis and biography by scholars, etc. Even some fanciful sections where the author imagines events and feelings on the part of 19th century characters that could not have been known, even through the serendipity of finding the documents that were found. Having read a great deal more of Byatt than when I first read this novel, I see this tendency to weave documents into the story as characteristic of her as a writer, used most effectively in her most recent novel, The Children’s Book.
Possession is about two young academics in the 1980s who form a partnership based on a common interest in the two poets whose romance is discovered accidentally in a letter found in a old book, owned by one of the poets, and currently residing in the London Library. It’s a mystery, with clues that lead to a cache of letters in the turret on a dilapidated estate, to Brittany, back England and a metal box buried by the wife of one of the lovers. The story is a “romance” in both senses of the word: a story about love and passion and a book that’s full of coincidence and improbability in everything except its human joy and tragedy and redemption. And of course the two young academics fall in love too, slowly and as believably as their 19th century counterparts. It’s a tale of academic rivalry too, as the scholars jockey for position around "the find" the original pair can’t keep hidden—academic rivalry that rises to high comedy and even farce.