Monday, June 17, 2013

Possession: A Romance

1990, 1991 Vintage International edition
A. S. Byatt
Possession: A Romance
Bought newish for $12.00
Worn paperback

Like Fowle's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), this contrasts moderns with Victorians, but the approach and results are different.  Roland and Maud, two literary scholars, each devoted to a Victorian poet, in 1986 and '87 trace the connection-- intellectual and romantic-- between their poets, themselves connecting intellectually and then romantically.  Although this is definitely a novel ("romance" in Hawthorne's sense), I'm using the "epistolary," "literary criticism," and "poetry" tags because Byatt creates not just poems but all sorts of texts (and subtexts) that are convincingly real.  (As you know, I generally don't like poetry but I do like it when Christabel LaMotte writes like Emily Dickinson.)  The book is a celebration of not just writing but reading, and reading into, which means it's often joyful but can get bogged down.  At times, especially early on, I was tempted to give this an A-, but while it's an impressive and frequently fun book, it just doesn't quite make it to the top tier.  (By now, I'm pretty much convinced I'll never give out an A, certainly no A+.)

For the most part, Byatt presents her Victorians just through their writing, although there are times when she shows them directly.  However, she doesn't get as close as Fowle did.  When we see characters riding the train, Byatt isn't curled up into a corner of the compartment, as he was.  Like many of her characters, she's more aloof.  The book is about both passion (possession in many senses, including spiritual) and its avoidance, and times when celibacy is the more "romantic" choice.  (Even whether or not to read something is a very important choice, more important than sexual choices sometimes.)  One reason I loathed the 2002 movie is that Roland, who appeals to Maud partly because he's not "forceful," was changed into a brash American.  It's better to have an ice queen's melting be more paradoxical.  Also, in the book it's much clearer why Maud seems like an ice queen, because we see the nature of her recent involvements with a man and a woman, both of whom overwhelmed her.

When I first read the book, the ending surprised me but it fit.  I'm generally writing these reviews as if you don't mind spoilers, but I really do need to say don't read further if you haven't read the book but plan to. 


LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash go away together for a week in Yorkshire, in early to mid-June 1859.  As near as we can tell, it's the only time they have sex.  (He's married, she has a live-in girlfriend.)  Cleaning up after their first time (possibly her first time with a man), he finds blood on his thighs.  He doesn't talk to her about it.  Has he deflowered her?  Does she have her period?  Some other reason?  We never find out.

She has a baby sometime between mid-April and early May.  The baby, who's raised by LaMotte's sister, is named Maia, implying the later month.  But wait a minute, even mid-April is at least ten months after she had sex with RHA.  The big reveal at the end of the novel is that Maud is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of both poets.  But is she?  What if LaMotte had an affair with another man?  (My money's on Crabb, the only other male friend she has.)  It's like there's a whole other subtext to the book, one that Byatt isn't aware of, or sneakily pretends isn't there!

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