Possession

( 41 )

Overview

Winner of England's Booker Prize and a literary sensation Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and a triumphant love story. As a pair of young scholars research the lives of two Victorian poets, they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire — from spiritualist sénces to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany. What emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passion and ideas....
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Possession

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Overview

Winner of England's Booker Prize and a literary sensation Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and a triumphant love story. As a pair of young scholars research the lives of two Victorian poets, they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire — from spiritualist sénces to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany. What emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passion and ideas.

Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
Gorgeously written...dazzling.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Two contemporary scholars, each studying one of two Victorian poets, reconstruct their subjects' secret extramarital affair through poems, journal entries, letters and modern scholarly analysis of the period. Publishers Weekly called this Booker Prize-winner ``an ambitious and wholly satisfying work, a nearly perfect novel.''
Library Journal
This Booker Prize-winning novel is a good candidate for an oral reading, and Virginia Leishman performs beautifully. A wonderful mix of poetry and posturing literary criticism, part mystery, part romance, this tale is an entertaining juxtaposition of the 19th and 20th centuries. Leishman's reading emphasizes this contrast as she elegantly modulates poetry and then clips her words in a businesslike manner when reading the 20th-century analyses of 19th-century poetry. Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, scholars of Christabel Lamotte and Randolph Henry Ash, are brought together and to life through the letters, diaries, and poetry of the two poets. Uncertain of their own identities, Bailey and Mitchell can easily lose themselves in the study of literature. We become as involved as the scholars through a judicious sampling of belles lettres and literary criticism, until finally Lamotte and Ash materialize and speak for themselves. The supporting characters are humorous stereotypes that Leishman portrays with various accents and annoying drawls to match their idiosyncrasies. Highly recommended.--Juleigh Muirhead Clark, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Lib., Williamsburg, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The latest novel by the author of Still Life ( LJ 11/15/85) is as sumptuous as brandy-soaked Christmas fruitcake, dense with intrigue, beguiling characters, and a double-edged romance that bridges Victorian England and modern-day academia. At once literary and highly readable, the book boasts a compelling narrative that exposes the real life behind the art of two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, and contrasts their passion for life with that of Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, contemporary scholars who stumble upon romance hidden in dusty papers. This wonderfully written work is highly recommended.-- Linda L. Rome, Mentor, Ohio
The New York Times
Gorgeously written...dazzling.
Los Angeles Times
A masterpiece of wordplay and adventure, a novel that compares with Stendhal and Joyce.
New York Times Books of the Century
[A] very Victorian "romance" of a detective story that satirizes academia but also becomes a concoction in the manner of Jorge Luis Borges.[
From the Publisher
"Byatt is the most formidably equipped of contemporary novelists. . . . The great merit of [her] writing . . . is that it continually engages the reader's mind."—-The Daily Telegraph

"This cerebral extravaganza of a story zigzags with unembarrassed zest across an imaginative terrain bristling with symbolism and symmetries, shimmering with myth and legend, and haunted everywhere by presences of the past. . . . Possession is eloquent about the intense pleasures of reading. And, with sumptuous artistry, it provides a feast of them."—-The Sunday Times (London)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679735908
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/1/1991
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 133,781
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

A. S. Byatt

A. S. Byatt is famed for her short fiction, collected in Sugar and Other Stories, The Matisse Stories, and The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. Her full-length novels include the Booker Prize-winning Possession and the trilogy sequence The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower.

Biography

A. S. Byatt, author of the Booker Prize-winning Possession, is internationally acclaimed as a novelist, short story writer and critic. Her most recent fiction outside this tetralogy is The Biographer's Tale, a novel, and Elementals, a collection of short stories. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1999.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Antonia Susan Drabble Byatt (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      London, England; France
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 24, 1936
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sheffield, England
    1. Education:
      B.A., Newnham College, Cambridge, 1957; graduate study at Bryn Mawr College and Somerville College

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
These things are there. The garden and the tree
The serpent at its root, the fruit of gold
The woman in the shadow of the boughs
The running water and the grassy space.
They are and were there. At the old world's rim,
In the Hesperidean grove, the fruit
Glowed golden on eternal boughs, and there
The dragon Ladon crisped his jewelled crest
Scraped a gold claw and sharped a silver tooth
And dozed and waited through eternity
Until the tricksy hero Herakles
Came to his dispossession and the theft.
--Randolph Henry Ash, from The Garden of Proserpina, 1861
The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow. The librarian handed it to Roland Michell, who was sitting waiting for it in the Reading Room of the London Library. It had been exhumed from Locked Safe no. 5 where it usually stood between Pranks of Priapus and The Grecian Way of Love. It was ten in the morning, one day in September 1986. Roland had the small single table he liked best, behind a square pillar, with the clock over the fireplace nevertheless in full view. To his right was a high sunny window, through which you could see the high green leaves of St. James's Square.
The London Library was Roland's favourite place. It was shabby but civilised, alive with history but inhabited also by living poets and thinkers who could be found squatting on the slotted metal floors of the stacks, or arguing pleasantly at the turning of thestair. Here Carlyle had come, here George Eliot had progressed through the bookshelves. Roland saw her black silk skirts, her velvet trains, sweeping compressed between the Fathers of the Church, and heard her firm foot ring on metal among the German poets. Here Randolph Henry Ash had come, cramming his elastic mind and memory with unconsidered trifles from History and Topography, from the felicitous alphabetical conjunctions of Science
and Miscellaneous--Dancing, Deaf and Dumb, Death, Dentistry, Devil and Demonology, Distribution, Dogs, Domestic Servants, Dreams. In his day, works on Evolution had been catalogued under Pre-Adamite Man. Roland had only recently discovered that the London Library possessed Ash's own copy of Vico's Principj di Scienza Nuova. Ash's books were most regrettably scattered across Europe and America. By far the largest single gathering was of course in the Stant Collection at Robert Dale Owen University in New Mexico, where Mortimer Cropper worked on his monumental edition of the Complete Correspondence of Randolph Henry Ash. That was no problem nowadays, books travelled the aether like light and sound. But it was just possible that Ash's own Vico had marginalia missed even by the indefatigable Cropper. And Roland was looking for sources for Ash's Garden of Proserpina. And there was a pleasure to be had from reading the sentences Ash had read, touched with his fingers, scanned with his eyes.
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 bindings. 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. They appeared to be notes on Vico, written on the backs of book-bills and letters. The librarian observed that it didn't look as though they had been touched before. Their edges, beyond the pages, were dyed soot-black, giving the impression of the borders of mourning cards. They coincided precisely with their present positions, edge of page and edge of stain.
Roland asked if it was in order for him to study these jottings. He gave his credentials; he was part-time research assistant to Professor Blackadder, who had been editing Ash's Complete Works since 1951. The librarian tiptoed away to telephone: whilst he was gone, the dead leaves continued a kind of rustling and shifting, enlivened by their release. Ash had put them there. The librarian came back and said "yes," it was quite in order, as long as Roland was very careful not to disturb the sequence of the interleaved fragments until they had been listed and described. The Librarian would be glad to know of any important discoveries Mr. Michell might make.
All this was over by 10:30. For the next half hour Roland worked haphazardly, moving backwards and forwards in the Vico, half-looking for Proserpina, half-reading Ash's notes, which was not easy, since they were written in various languages, in Ash's annotating hand, which was reduced to a minute near-printing, not immediately identifiable as the same as his more generous poetic or letter-writing hand.
At 11:00 he found what he thought was the relevant passage in Vico. Vico had looked for historical fact in the poetic metaphors of myth and legend; this piecing together was his "new science." His Proserpine was the corn, the origin of commerce and community. Randolph Henry Ash's Proserpine had been seen as a Victorian reflection of religious doubt, a meditation on the myths of Resurrection. Lord Leighton had painted her, distraught and floating, a golden figure in a tunnel of darkness. Blackadder had a belief that she represented, for Randolph Ash, a personification of History itself in its early mythical days. (Ash had also written a poem about Gibbon and one about the Venerable Bede, historians of greatly differing kinds. Blackadder had written an article on R. H. Ash and relative historiography.)
Roland compared Ash's text with the translation, and copied parts onto an index card. He had two boxes of these, tomato-red and an intense grassy green, with springy plastic hinges that popped in the library silence.


Ears of grain were called apples of gold, which must have been the first gold in the world while metallic gold was unknown . . . So the golden apple which Hercules first brought back or gathered from Hesperia must have been grain; and the Gallic Hercules with links of this gold, that issue from his mouth, chains men by the ears: something which will later be discovered as a myth concerning the fields. Hence Hercules remained the Deity to propitiate in order to find treasures, whose god was Dis (identical with Pluto) who carries off Proserpine (another name for Ceres or grain) to the underworld described by the poets, according to whom its first name was Styx, its second the land of the dead, its third the depth of furrows . . . It was of this golden apple that Virgil, most learned in heroic antiquities, made the golden bough Aeneas carries into the Inferno or Underworld.
Randolph Henry Ash's Proserpina, "gold-skinned in the gloom," was also "grain-golden." Also "bound with golden links," which might have been jewellery or chains. Roland wrote neat cross-references under the headings of grain, apples, chain, treasure. Folded into the page of Vico on which the passage appeared was a bill for candles on the back of which Ash had written: "The individual appears for an instant, joins the community of thought, modifies it and dies; but the species, that dies not, reaps the fruit of his ephemeral existence." Roland copied this out and made another card, on which he interrogated himself.
"Query? Is this a quotation or is it Ash himself? Is Proserpina the Species? A very C19 idea. Or is she the individual? When did he put these papers in here? Are they pre- or post-The Origin of Species? Not conclusive anyway--he cd have been interested in Development generally . . ."
That was 11:15. The clock ticked, motes of dust danced in sunlight, Roland meditated on the tiresome and bewitching endlessness of the quest for knowledge. Here he sat, recuperating a dead man's reading, timing his exploration by the library clock and the faint constriction of his belly. (Coffee is not to be had in the London Library.) He would have to show all this new treasure trove to Blackadder, who would be both elated and grumpy, who would anyway be pleased that it was locked away in Safe 5 and not spirited away to Robert Dale Owen University in Harmony City, with so much else. He was reluctant to tell Blackadder. He enjoyed possessing his knowledge on his own. Proserpina was between pages 288 and 289. Under page 300 lay two folded complete sheets of writing paper. Roland opened these delicately. They were both letters in Ash's flowing hand, both headed with his Great Russell Street address and dated June 21st. No year. Both began "Dear Madam," and both were unsigned. One was considerably shorter than the other.
Dear Madam,
Since our extraordinary conversation I have thought of nothing else. It has not often been given to me as a poet, it is perhaps not often given to human beings, to find such ready sympathy, such wit and judgment together. I write with a strong sense of the necessity of continuing our intere talk, and without premeditation, under the impression that you were indeed as much struck as I was by our quite extraordinary to ask if it would be possible for me to call on you, perhaps one day next week. I feel, I know with a certainty that cannot be the result of folly or misapprehension, that you and I must speak again. I know you go out in company very little, and was the more fortunate that dear Crabb managed to entice you to his breakfast table. To think that amongst the babble of undergraduate humour and through all Crabb's well-wrought anecdotes, even including the Bust, we were able to say so much, that was significant, simply to each other. I cannot surely be alone in feeling
The second one ran:
Dear Madam,
Since our pleasant and unexpected conversation I have thought of little else. Is there any way in which it can be resumed, more privately and at more leisure? I know you go out in company very little, and was the more fortunate that dear Crabb managed to entice you to his breakfast table. How much I owe to his continuing good health, that he should feel able and eager, at eighty-two years of age, to entertain poets and undergraduates and mathematical professors and political thinkers so early in the day, and to tell the anecdote of the Bust with his habitual fervour without too much delaying the advent of buttered toast.
Did you not find it as strange as I did, that we should so immediately understand each other so well? For we did understand each other uncommonly well, did we not? Or is this perhaps a product of the over-excited brain of a middle-aged and somewhat disparaged poet, when he finds that his ignored, his arcane, his deviously perspicuous meanings, which he thought not meanings, since no one appeared able to understand them, had after all one clear-eyed and amused reader and judge? What you said of Alexander Selkirk's monologue, the good sense you made of the ramblings of my John Bunyan, your understanding of the passion of I?ez de Castro . . . gruesomely resurrecta . . . but that is enough of my egoistical mutter, and of those of my personae, who are not, as you so rightly remarked, my masks. I would not have you think that I do not recognise the superiority of your own fine ear and finer taste. I am convinced that you must undertake that grand Fairy Topic--you will make something highly strange and original of it. In connection with that, I wonder if you have thought of Vico's history of the primitive races--of his idea that the ancient gods and later heroes are personifications of the fates and aspirations of the people rising in figures from the common mind? Something here might be made of your Fairy's legendary rootedness in veritable castles and genuine agricultural reform--one of the queerest aspects of her story, to a modern mind. But I run on again; assuredly you have determined on your own best ways of presenting the topic, you who are so wise and learned in your retirement.
I cannot but feel, though it may be an illusion induced by the delectable drug of understanding, that you must in some way share my eagerness that further conversation could be mutually profitable that we must meet. I cannot do not think I am can be mistaken in my belief that our meeting was also important interesting to you, and that however much you may value your seclusion.
I know that you came only to honour dear Crabb, at a small informal party, because he had been of assistance to your illustrious Father, and valued his work at a time when it meant a great deal to him. But you did come out, so I may hope that you can be induced to vary your quiet days with.
I am sure you understand.


Roland was first profoundly shocked by these writings, and then, in his scholarly capacity, thrilled. His mind busied itself automatically with dating and placing this unachieved dialogue with an unidentified woman. There was no year on the letters, but they must necessarily come after the publication of Ash's dramatic poems, Gods, Men and Heroes, which had appeared in 1856 and had not, contrary to Ash's hopes and perhaps expectations, found favour with the reviewers, who had declared his verses obscure, his tastes perverse and his people extravagant and improbable. "The Solitary Thoughts of Alexander Selkirk" was one of those poems, the musings of the castaway sailor on his island. So was "The Tinker's Grace," purporting to be Bunyan's prison musings on Divine Grace, and so was Pedro of Portugal's rapt and bizarre declaration of love, in 1356, for the embalmed corpse of his murdered wife, I?ez de Castro, who swayed beside him on his travels, leather-brown and skeletal, crowned with lace and gold circlet, hung about with chains of diamonds and pearls, her bone-fingers fantastically ringed. Ash liked his characters at or over the edge of madness, constructing systems of belief and survival from the fragments of experience available to them. It would be possible, Roland thought, to identify the breakfast party, which must have been one of Crabb Robinson's later efforts to provide stimulating conversation for the students of the new London University.
Crabb Robinson's papers were kept in Dr. Williams's Library in Gordon Square, originally designed as University Hall, supported by Robinson as a place in which lay students could experience collegiate university life. It would, it must, be easy to check in Robinson's diary an occasion on which Ash had breakfasted at 30 Russell Square with a professor of mathematics, a political thinker (Bagehot?) and a reclusive lady who knew about, who wrote, or proposed to write, poetry.
He had no idea who she might be. Christina Rossetti? He thought not. He was not sure that Miss Rossetti would have approved of Ash's theology, or of his sexual psychology. He could not identify the Fairy Topic, either, and this gave him a not uncommon sensation of his own huge ignorance, a grey mist, in which floated or could be discerned odd glimpses of solid objects, odd bits of glitter of domes or shadows of roofs in the gloom.
Had the correspondence continued? If it had, where was it, what jewels of information about Ash's "ignored, arcane, deviously perspicuous meanings" might not be revealed by it? Scholarship might have to reassess all sorts of certainties. On the other hand, had the correspondence ever in fact started? Or had Ash finally floundered in his inability to express his sense of urgency? It was this urgency above all that moved and shocked Roland. He thought he knew Ash fairly well, as well as anyone might know a man whose life seemed to be all in his mind, who lived a quiet and exemplary married life for forty years, whose correspondence was voluminous indeed, but guarded, courteous and not of the most lively. Roland liked that in Randolph Henry Ash. He was excited by the ferocious vitality and darting breadth of reference of the work, and secretly, personally, he was rather pleased that all this had been achieved out of so peaceable, so unruffled a private existence.
He read the letters again. Had a final draft been posted? Or had the impulse died or been rebuffed? Roland was seized by a strange and uncharacteristic impulse of his own. It was suddenly quite impossible to put these living words back into page 300 of Vico and return them to Safe 5. He looked about him: no one was looking: he slipped the letters between the leaves of his own copy of the Oxford Selected Ash, which he was never without. Then he returned to the Vico annotations, transferring the most interesting methodically to his card index, until the clanging bell descended the stairwell, signifying the end of study. He had forgotten about his lunch.
When he left, with his green and tomato boxes heaped on his Selected Ash, they nodded affably from behind the issue desk. They were used to him. There were notices about mutilation of volumes, about theft, with which he quite failed to associate himself. He left the building as usual, his battered and bulging briefcase under his arm. He climbed on a 14 bus in Piccadilly, and went upstairs, clutching his booty. Between Piccadilly and Putney, where he lived in the basement of a decaying Victorian house, he progressed through his usual states of somnolence, sick juddering wakefulness, and increasing worry about Val.


Copyright 1991 by A. S. Byatt
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Introduction

The questions, discussion topics, author biography, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of A. S. Byatt's Possession, a richly layered story of passion, mystery, and scholarship.

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Foreword

1. What is the significance of the novel's title? Do you think it has more than one meaning? What does the concept of "possession" mean to the novel's various characters, both modern and Victorian? How can possession be seen as the theme of the book?

2. Ash is nicknamed "the Great Ventriloquist" but this sobriquet could as easily be applied to Byatt herself. Why does Byatt use poetry to give away so many clues to the story? Are the poems a necessary and integral part of the novel or would it have worked just as well without them? Do you find that the poems in the novel succeed in their own right as poetry?

3. All the characters' names are carefully chosen and layered with meaning. What is the significance behind the following names: Roland Michell, Beatrice Nest, Sir George Bailey, Randolph Ash, Maud Bailey, Christabel LaMotte, Fergus Wolff? (Clues to the last three may be found in the poetry by Tennyson, Yeats, and Coleridge cited below.) Do any other names in the novel seem to you to have special meanings? How do the names help define, or confuse, the relationships between the characters?

4. The scholars in the novel see R. H. Ash as a specifically masculine, Christabel LaMotte as a specifically feminine, type of poet, just as Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti, the poets on whose work Ash's and LaMotte's are loosely based, were considered to be extreme examples of the masculine and feminine in literature. Do you feel that such a classification is valid? What is there about Ash's and LaMotte's diction and subject matter that fulfills our ideas of "masculine" and "feminine"? Do the poets themselves consciously enactmasculine and feminine roles? Do you find that Christabel's poetry is presented as being secondary to Ash's? Or that the work of the two poets is complementary?

5. Ellen Ash wrote her journal as a "defence against, and a bait for, the gathering of ghouls and vultures" [p. 501]. Mortimer Cropper is literally presented as a ghoul, robbing the poet's grave. Beatrice Nest, on the other hand, wishes to preserve Christabel's final letter to Randolph unread. What is the fine line, if any, between a ghoulish intrusion upon the privacy of the dead, and the legitimate claims of scholarship and history? As much as the scholars have discovered, one secret is kept from them at the end and revealed only to the reader. What is that secret and what difference does it make to Roland's future?

6. Freedom and autonomy are highly valued both by Christabel and Maud. What does autonomy mean to each of these characters? In Christabel's day, it was difficult for women to attain such autonomy; is it still difficult, in Maud's? What does autonomy mean to Roland? Why does mutual solitude and even celibacy assume a special importance in his relationship with Maud?

7. The moment of crisis in the poets' lives, 1859, was a significant year, as it saw the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. The theory of natural selection delivered a terrible blow to the Victorians' religious faith and created a climate of uncertainty: "Doubt," says Christabel, "doubt is endemic to our life in this world at this time" [p. 182]. How does Byatt compare this spiritual crisis with that which has befallen Roland and Maud's generation, who are taught to believe that the "self" is illusory [p. 459]?

8. The fluffy Beatrice Nest is scorned by the feminist scholars who crave access to Ellen Ash's journal. Yet in her way Beatrice is as much a victim of "patriarchy" as any of the Victorian women they study. What is the double standard at work among these politically minded young people? Can Beatrice be seen as a "superfluous woman," like Blanche and Val? What, if anything, do these three women have in common?

9. Ash writes "Swammerdam" with a particular reader, Christabel LaMotte, in mind. Is Christabel's influence on Ash evident in the poem, and if so, how and where? How, in the poem, does Ash address his society's preoccupation with science and religion? How does he address his and Christabel's conflicting religious ideas? How does Christabel herself present these ideas in Mélusine?

10. Why is Christabel so affected by Gode's tale of the miller's daughter? What are its parallels with her own life?

11. The fairy Mélusine has, as Christabel points out, "two aspects--an Unnatural Monster--and a most proud and loving and handy woman" [p. 191]. How does Christabel make Mélusine's situation a metaphor for that of the woman poet? Does Christabel herself successfully defy society's strictures against women artists, or does her awareness of the problem cripple her, either professionally or emotionally? At the end of her life she wonders whether she might have been a great poet, as she believes Ash was, if she had kept to her "closed castle" [p. 545]. What do you think?

12. Roland and Maud believe they are taking part in a quest. This is a classic element of medieval and nineteenth-century Romance, of which they are well aware. Aside from the quest, what other elements of Romance can be found in Maud and Roland's story? In Christabel and Randolph's? What other genres are exploited in the novel?

13. When he returns to his flat at the end of the novel, Roland decides there is "no reason why he should not go out into the garden" [p. 514]. What is the emotional significance of his finally entering the garden?

Poems that will enrich your understanding of Possession Robert Browning, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," "My Last Duchess," "Porphyria's Lover," "Caliban Upon Setebos," "Bishop Blougram's Apology," "Mr. Sludge, the 'Medium'," "Andrea del Sarto," and "Fra Lippo Lippi"; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Christabel"; Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress," "The Garden"; Petrarch, Rime Sparse; Christina Rossetti, Poetical Works; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Merlin and Vivien" from Idylls of the King, In Memoriam, "Maud," "Mariana," "The Lady of Shallott"; W.B. Yeats, The Rose.

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, author biography, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of A. S. Byatt's Possession, a richly layered story of passion, mystery, and scholarship.

1. What is the significance of the novel's title? Do you think it has more than one meaning? What does the concept of "possession" mean to the novel's various characters, both modern and Victorian? How can possession be seen as the theme of the book?

2. Ash is nicknamed "the Great Ventriloquist" but this sobriquet could as easily be applied to Byatt herself. Why does Byatt use poetry to give away so many clues to the story? Are the poems a necessary and integral part of the novel or would it have worked just as well without them? Do you find that the poems in the novel succeed in their own right as poetry?

3. All the characters' names are carefully chosen and layered with meaning. What is the significance behind the following names: Roland Michell, Beatrice Nest, Sir George Bailey, Randolph Ash, Maud Bailey, Christabel LaMotte, Fergus Wolff? (Clues to the last three may be found in the poetry by Tennyson, Yeats, and Coleridge cited below.) Do any other names in the novel seem to you to have special meanings? How do the names help define, or confuse, the relationships between the characters?

4. The scholars in the novel see R. H. Ash as a specifically masculine, Christabel LaMotte as a specifically feminine, type of poet, just as Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti, the poets on whose work Ash's and LaMotte's are loosely based, were considered to be extreme examples of the masculine and feminine in literature. Do you feel that such a classification isvalid? What is there about Ash's and LaMotte's diction and subject matter that fulfills our ideas of "masculine" and "feminine"? Do the poets themselves consciously enact masculine and feminine roles? Do you find that Christabel's poetry is presented as being secondary to Ash's? Or that the work of the two poets is complementary?

5. Ellen Ash wrote her journal as a "defence against, and a bait for, the gathering of ghouls and vultures" [p. 501]. Mortimer Cropper is literally presented as a ghoul, robbing the poet's grave. Beatrice Nest, on the other hand, wishes to preserve Christabel's final letter to Randolph unread. What is the fine line, if any, between a ghoulish intrusion upon the privacy of the dead, and the legitimate claims of scholarship and history? As much as the scholars have discovered, one secret is kept from them at the end and revealed only to the reader. What is that secret and what difference does it make to Roland's future?

6. Freedom and autonomy are highly valued both by Christabel and Maud. What does autonomy mean to each of these characters? In Christabel's day, it was difficult for women to attain such autonomy; is it still difficult, in Maud's? What does autonomy mean to Roland? Why does mutual solitude and even celibacy assume a special importance in his relationship with Maud?

7. The moment of crisis in the poets' lives, 1859, was a significant year, as it saw the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. The theory of natural selection delivered a terrible blow to the Victorians' religious faith and created a climate of uncertainty: "Doubt," says Christabel, "doubt is endemic to our life in this world at this time" [p. 182]. How does Byatt compare this spiritual crisis with that which has befallen Roland and Maud's generation, who are taught to believe that the "self" is illusory [p. 459]?

8. The fluffy Beatrice Nest is scorned by the feminist scholars who crave access to Ellen Ash's journal. Yet in her way Beatrice is as much a victim of "patriarchy" as any of the Victorian women they study. What is the double standard at work among these politically minded young people? Can Beatrice be seen as a "superfluous woman," like Blanche and Val? What, if anything, do these three women have in common?

9. Ash writes "Swammerdam" with a particular reader, Christabel LaMotte, in mind. Is Christabel's influence on Ash evident in the poem, and if so, how and where? How, in the poem, does Ash address his society's preoccupation with science and religion? How does he address his and Christabel's conflicting religious ideas? How does Christabel herself present these ideas in Mélusine?

10. Why is Christabel so affected by Gode's tale of the miller's daughter? What are its parallels with her own life?

11. The fairy Mélusine has, as Christabel points out, "two aspects--an Unnatural Monster--and a most proud and loving and handy woman" [p. 191]. How does Christabel make Mélusine's situation a metaphor for that of the woman poet? Does Christabel herself successfully defy society's strictures against women artists, or does her awareness of the problem cripple her, either professionally or emotionally? At the end of her life she wonders whether she might have been a great poet, as she believes Ash was, if she had kept to her "closed castle" [p. 545]. What do you think?

12. Roland and Maud believe they are taking part in a quest. This is a classic element of medieval and nineteenth-century Romance, of which they are well aware. Aside from the quest, what other elements of Romance can be found in Maud and Roland's story? In Christabel and Randolph's? What other genres are exploited in the novel?

13. When he returns to his flat at the end of the novel, Roland decides there is "no reason why he should not go out into the garden" [p. 514]. What is the emotional significance of his finally entering the garden? Poems that will enrich your understanding of Possession Robert Browning, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," "My Last Duchess," "Porphyria's Lover," "Caliban Upon Setebos," "Bishop Blougram's Apology," "Mr. Sludge, the 'Medium'," "Andrea del Sarto," and "Fra Lippo Lippi"; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Christabel"; Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress," "The Garden"; Petrarch, Rime Sparse; Christina Rossetti, Poetical Works; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Merlin and Vivien" from Idylls of the King, In Memoriam, "Maud," "Mariana," "The Lady of Shallott"; W.B. Yeats, The Rose.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 41 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2005

    Excellent!

    I saw the movie first and was so enthralled decided to read the book. I rate both highly. One of few romance novels I've read and truly enjoyed.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2008

    So-So

    I'm not sure that I would have immediately picked this book up on my own if someone hadn't pointed it out to me. Although having to read it for a class doesn't necessarily count as someone pointing it out. I think it's more like, 'you have to.' Aside from that the book is... complicated. Cliche, I know but it's true. This book takes a lot of dedication from the reader and if you're a first timer with the writing style of A.S. Byatt then you're going to have a time of it. I, in particular, am very topsy-turvy when it comes to books. Some times I enjoy slow moving books and other days, when I had to read Possession, I couldn't stand it. As much as the book annoyed me I do honestly see its appeal and after a while it grows on you. For me it was the relationship between Maude and Roland. The entire book I was frustrated with them, then I loved them. Then I hated them. Then I loved them. Then I wanted to shoot them both dead. Then I.... you understand. What's most endearing about Maude and Roland is that after a while you want them to stay in their little perfect bubble and any intrusions 'such as the likes of Leonora or Ferguson' you can't stand it. Is this review ambiguous enough for you? I can neither say that I demand everyone read it nor can I say it's not worth the effort. It's very much a love hate relationship. I'm not particularly moved that I read the book but I'm not bitter about the time I spent reading it.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2005

    A must-read for any lover of literature!

    Possession is an enchanting work by one of England's best contemporary authors. Having studied the works of A.S. Byatt for my undergraduate thesis, this remains my favorite of her works. I love the way Byatt intertwines past and present, and her stories/poems within the main plot are convincing enough to have us believe they were really written by 19th-century authors! While I must admit that her 20th-century characters are given short-shrift in Possession, the love story between Ash and Christabel is truly engaging. It is a novel that can be appreciated at face value or one that can be pored over to uncover the deeper metaphors and meanings the 'stories-within-the-story' possess. I would recommend this to anyone who is looking for a good love story, or who likes reading literature about literature!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2003

    A refreshing yet enticing read

    Normally I do not have time to read anything but textbooks but once I started reading Possession I could not stop until I finished it. It read so smoothly that my anticipation for what would arrive next continued to build through out. I recomemd this book to everyone. I have to say that its uniqueness compared to many novels I have recently read makes it a refreshing read and a favorite of mine.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2002

    A Love Affair with Literature!

    This book takes my breath away. If you love the written word and the English language, with all its capacity and limitations in the full expression of thought, you cannot NOT read this book. You, too, will feel like this book was written FOR YOU. It is a personal gift from the author to all English majors all over the world. If all you're looking for is a plot and character development, the beauties of this book might be lost on you. It has so many more layers. This book professes to be "a novel" but is poetry and short story and critical essay and epistolary novel and diary... It is the fullest achievement of creative endeavor I have ever seen. A. S. Byatt not only gets the telling of a story right, she manufactures an entire reality in the academia of not one but TWO poets who never existed! She not only writes their material but the perceptions and criticisms and literary theory that arise from the fictional generations that afterwards read them. It is truly astounding. Not having pursued a career in academia, I can only imagine how much this book has to say about the world of academics, the lengths to which that world drives its members to go to, let alone what it says about relationships, character development, plot. What I found most surprising about this text was not the story it tells, however richly and magnificently executed, but the sheer force of creative endeavor behind it. It is a lesson in every theory of literature by example. It is the ultimate practice of literary study. It is the very reason that we write...because we can. A. S. Byatt CAN.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2004

    an unusual novel

    This is one of those novels for which the reviews are much better than the book. Still, the book does have a good story line, probably helped along for readers who have seen the movie. The movie handles the mystery much better and shows rather than tells the romance of the 19th century poets. The character of Maud is less abrasive in the book, though Roland Mitchell is clinically depressed and English in the book, not the defiant Californian of the movie. This novel reminded me of Thomas Wolfe not only in that it combines poetry and prose but in that it seeks to include absolutely everything that happened. The poetry is better in Wolfe; the prose better in Byatt. If you like the parallel story of two romances, one present and one past, you'll also like Tears in the Rain (although the movie is much better than the book) and the novel Always, though Always has more action and more suspense.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2003

    I was Possessed

    Thou hast begun a quest for meaning in what pen to paper has brought. So fine a novel be, that one can only hope for more.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2002

    I Love This Book

    This is one my favorite books that I have ever read. I enjoyed the characters and how she entwines the past with the future. It has been a little while since I read the book, but it is still fresh in my mind. I am looking forward to reading it again and for many years down the road. I believe this is a classic in its time!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 3, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Rewards the Effort

    I did ultimately love this book, but it took me over half its length to warm up to it. I enjoy literate love stories, the mixing of genres, literary allusions and pastiches, and this book provides all of the above. This is a literary mystery as well as a contemporary and a historical romance: two contemporary literary scholars, Roland Michell and Maud Baily, fall for each other as they uncover the romance between the two Victorian poets they study, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte.

    I think part of my problem was that Byatt did too well capturing the era's style in her creations of letters and poems by her fictional poets, and I'm no fan of Victorian literature. Much of the poetry, some lengthy, bored me, then I hit a wall about a third of the way through when I reached the chapter of about fifty pages of their correspondence in the style of the era. It was just too tedious reading these characters going into raptures over each other's poetry, and after reading a few letters, I skipped the rest of that chapter, and then started skipping the poems that began the chapters. The book is also studded with diary entires, portions of Mortimer Cropper's biography of Ash, and articles of literary criticism. It's all technically impressive, but for me the poems and letters dragged down the narrative. And Byatt can count one misfire in her otherwise laudatory ability at capturing voices--Cropper is not a convincing American.

    Much of the first 300 pages of the book were a grind, but then after that it became for me more and more of a page-turner, and I stayed up all night to read those last hundred pages. I liked how the tales of past and present intertwined, and I grew to love the characters, the way the many meanings of possession figure in the plot in thought-provoking ways, the lovely prose, and ultimately I got caught up in the interplay of ideas and how they fit into the romances. So if you find yourself wanting to give up (and it crossed my mind at one point), all I can say is I think the book's difficulties are worth pushing through, and if you need to skip that epistolary section or the poems to keep going, I don't think it hurts the narrative to do so--and eventually you may want to go back to those parts. I found the concluding pages moving and the post-script was a lovely grace note. I could see coming back to this book for rereads someday and finding more each time.

    Despite finding aspects and parts of this novel amazing, I can't see giving a full five stars to a book where I slogged through or skipped so much--but what I loved here, I loved. So four it is.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2008

    a reviewer

    I loved the book, but the movie with Gwenyth Paltrow in it was done very poorly. It ruins the book. BEWARE!!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2004

    love and literature

    this is one for anyone who has a genuine love for reading good solid novels with engaging plots, poetry and the lives of poets, and pure unadulterated 'will they or won't they?' romances. byatt has conceived a most beautiful book that links the love of literature with real-life romance. roland miller and maud bailey are two academics who come across a secret relationship between a couple of 19th century poets--one a famously married masogynist and the other a reclusive lesbian. byatt indulges the readers' love of poetry by including poems and letters of the two poets and injects them into the present-day story of roland and moud's love story/investigation. pick this up if you love to read and love to love. it satisfies both the reader's intellectual curiosities and his/her emotional investment.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2001

    An outstanding read

    There is so much in this book. I have read it over and over, and notice more each time. The way that A S Byatt treats her characters and recognises even the smallest details about life and relationships is unparallelled. An intellectual and emotional feast. It just gets better and better.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2001

    A Book For Romantics

    I was entranced by this book. Anyone who loves to get lost in the wonderful world of great literature should read this book. It will move you.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2001

    I Was Possessed

    AS Byatt's creativity in writing this book was outstanding. She managed to break all the rules of genre in literature and put all forms into one novel with a compelling story line, and a wonderful romance. The 'historical' figures of Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash that she created seemed so real that I had to check my facts to reassure myself that they were indeed fictional. It is a deep and challenging read, but absolutely rewarding when finished. A note to anyone who reads this novel: PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION TO THE POETRY AND USE OF COLOR! It may often seem only relevant in painting pictures, but this novel is working on several levels that are tied together as harmoniously as a symphony.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2001

    Great Victorians Brought to Life

    This is book to be savoured by English majors, particularly those of us who have read extentively in the poetry of Tennyson, Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson. It helped to be familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite artists. This describes me, so I felt the book was written for me. It also takes place in the present. There is an attempt to write some of the dialog in 1985 United States jargon, which is jarring but clever. I prefer Byatt to her sister Margaret Drabble, who is also an outstanding British novelist.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2000

    'Possession' Superbly Satisfying

    A.S. Byatt's 'Possession' is one of the most satisfying books I have read in years. It is challenging in the way of a Faulkner novel: she demands the reader's full participation. I enjoyed Byatt's intelligence and wit and came away with a feeling of real intimacy toward her, as if we had shared many long and engaging conversations.What makes the book so possessing is its complexity. It is really a tribute to the whole history of English literature. I can't wait to read another of her works!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2000

    Simply beautiful

    The most beautifully written book I have ever read. Fascinating story and magical poems, like pictures painted by words.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2014

    I just saw the movie and was captivated by it and the story. I

    I just saw the movie and was captivated by it and the story. I am buying the book for my daughter as a birthday gift.




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  • Posted June 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Brilliant!

    Vintage romance and beautifully written of poems of medieval and nineteenth-century times a must add to one's library.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2002

    AN UNDERSTANDING, EMPATHETIC READING

    Virginia Leishman imbues her reading of this Booker Prize-winning novel with understanding and dramatic emphasis as she performs Byatt's fascinating multi level tale of literary scholarship. Two young academicians, Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, are engaged in research projects involving a pair of Victorian writers. They study letters, journals, poems, and track the pair's comings and goings. Roland is hopeful that he will perhaps discover clues in the Victorian author's marginal notes. But, it is Maud who brings to light the romance between the late authors, he who was thought to have been contentedly wed, and she who was believed to have been a rather reclusive spinster. As the story of the romance between their research subjects surfaces, Roland and Maud begin to look more deeply within themselves. 'Possession' is an intense study, an intriguing blend of the cerebral and the physical.

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