Possession (1990)

by A. S. Byatt

Possession gives the reader two love stories from different centuries: the concealed one of two Victorian poets and the unlooked-for one of two late 20th-century literary scholars who are studying their poetry.

Modern-day Roland Mitchell, working as a research assistant at the British Museum,  comes across handwritten drafts of love letters from 19th-century poet Randolph Henry Ash to an unknown woman who obviously wasn't his wife. Everyone had thought Ash was faithfully married, so revelation of an extramarital relationship would be a bombshell — if Roland could prove it. A possibility for the other woman is lesser-known Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, so Roland seeks out LaMotte expert Maud Bailey. After he overcomes Maud's skepticism, they search in poems, old journals, and letters for evidence that Ash and LaMotte were lovers. The long-ago love isn't the only one the pair discover. They are falling for each other, and while it would seem their relationship has fewer barriers than the earlier pair's, modern-day romance has its own complications.
Possession has elements of mysteries and thrillers, with competing scholars, who figure out that Maud and Roland are on to something big, rushing to beat them to conclusive evidence. But it's a very highbrow detective story, with clues hidden in Ash's and LaMotte's poems, and literary research methods used to unravel them. The poems were written by Byatt, who displays formidable scholarship in this long book, which is revered by many but is not for all. Slow moving and dense with imagery and literary allusions, Possession, a Booker Prizer winner, requires a patient, attentive reader.


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