That’s right, I have finally read Possession. And I loved it, as everyone predicted I would, though that love was not present from the very start.
For those who have not read Possession, I am very sorry, but I won’t include a plot summary. Not because I am lazy (or well, perhaps that does play a role), but because I don’t know how to summarise this book exactly without veering into possibly spoilery terrain. I don’t think my thoughts below will be spoilery. It’s just that in order to get a proper outline of the plot, without giving it away, there are too many layers to work through in my head, to get back to that initial unknowing state of when I first started reading a few weeks ago. And this is the kind of book where I am sure you will appreciate exploring by yourself, discovering as you go along. All I can say is: please do read it. And don’t feel daunted and intimidated, as I was. Moreover, remember to stick with it for the first 100 pages (I admit, those can be hard), if any of the themes below appeal to you. The book, and the eventual conclusion, will probably be worth it. It more than was, from my point of view.
So yes, Byatt’s prose, not exactly easy. Even though it is absolutely beautiful, reading it was also a bit of an uphill battle for me. I had to tell myself repeatedly that I had committed to actually reading this during the first 100 pages or so. My engagement with the story was moreover complicated by the initial reserve I felt for one of the main characters, Roland Mitchell. Luckily, excited and interesting things started happening, puzzles were waiting to be resolved, other characters entered the scene (yay for Maud Bailey, Christabel La Motte, and Ellen Ash), and academic tensions started to simmer. It did not take more than those 100 pages to hook me, though I admit, the reading was still difficult at times.
Allow me, for I am a little short on time today, to briefly sum up why I ended up loving this novel so so much, despite my initial struggles:
- It is (in part) a novel about academia. Remember how I loved the library and research part in A Discovery of Witches? It’s like that, except, I think, even better. Moreover, it highlights both the beautifully romantic about academic life and research, and the cruel, competitive, and not-so-wonderful side, which I think are both very realistically done;
- Possession highlights the rush, the joy, the curiosity, and the frustrations of not-knowing, in historical research. As you follow two scholars in their quest to find out more, to discover possible connections between two people who haven’t previously been thought of as such before, you get to part of the journey of discovery. The journey that I hope for in my own research. I felt sympathy for Maud and Roland, because like them, discovering some treasure, even a single line in an archive, can have me dancing in my chair (of course, Roland and Maud are a little more sophisticated than me);
- There is all kinds of gender criticism in Possession. It is literally everywhere. In its portrayal of the dismissal of “women’s studies” in academia at large (oh, how I relate!), in the reflections on the lives of Maud and all those other contemporary women (their relationships, the misunderstandings, the mistakes, the presumptions, the casual sexism), but also in the writing of historical women (you find historical women reflecting on their possibilities, making decisions, reflecting on their pasts, missed opportunities, mistakes). It makes it real, it makes it relevant, it made me love Byatt for it;
- History! Oh, so much history! And even the mention of some Dutch history (Swammerdam). By the way, it is not that the mention of my national history makes me swell with patriotism, it’s just a small spark of recognition, the idea that someone bothered to mention a Dutch historical figure, out of all possibilities;
- The (fictional) historical documents contain a lot of reflection on religion. The possible challenges faced by Christianity with the advent of Darwin’s theory, the emergence of spiritualism. Ah yes, (contextualised ideas about) religion + history + gender + good fiction = happy Iris.
- Literary criticism (not that I know much about that, but it was interesting nonetheless), and the personal importance of reading are everywhere.
- And can I add the absolute skill of Byatt to that list? Because if this novel portrays anything, it is her skill, I think. Seemingly seamless, she incorporated all these themes and more. Perhaps even more importantly, she also wrote all the different documents that Maud and Roland trace: the poems, the letters, the diary entries, the academic essays about the poetry. I had to double, no triple, check, if it was right that Byatt wrote it all. But she did. I am in awe.
- I had not expected it at the beginning, but the book also managed to evoke a lot of emotions from me. Those last 100 pages, with all the revelations, the doubts, the feelings, they simply blew me away.
Possession deserved much better than this post by me. Every single one of all of the brief glimpses of thought, or even just brief mentions of themes, noted here, probably deserve a dedicated blog post. And it is not that I do not want to find the time to write it. I would so like to, but my abilities to reflect meaningfully on all of them would probably fall short. And, I know it is a lame excuse, I have an essay deadline approaching. Not wanting to delay on sharing my enthusiasm, I wanted to write this post anyway. Perhaps someday I will reread, and rewrite.
Thanks to Lu and Kim for organising a month-long read along of Possession. Without it, and the participation by other enthusiastic bloggers, I might not have picked this up for another couple of years. And I’m infinitely glad I read it now.
The Children’s Book next?
Other Opinions: Oh so many.