Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

It is two weeks into February and the blog desperately needs to be fed. It also happens to be Valentine’s Day, so I’m going to seize the moment and write a post about one of my favourite literary love stories. I have never been much fond of the romance novel. I like subtle romance weaved into fiction of other genres more than books solely dedicated to it.
But sifting through my old posts last night, I realized I have tried reading and ended up loving quite a few romances, well, quite a few by my standards. Possession by A.S. Byatt is a book I loved but never wrote about on my blog. It is a book that I believe would appeal to people who, like me, don’t usually read love stories. (In all honesty, I don’t know what justice this haphazard review does to the book, it’s been so long since I properly read it, but to sum up my thoughts – read the book, it’s worth your time.)

They say that women change: ’tis so: but you
Are ever-constant in your changefulness,
Like that still thread of falling river, one
From source to last embrace in the still pool
Ever-renewed and ever-moving on
From first to last a myriad water-drops
And you—I love you for it—are the force
That moves and holds the form. 

— R. H. ASH, Ask to Embla, XIII

I think I read Possession two years ago and every part of me knows I’ll appreciate it so much more today. I read some of my favourite sections of the book yesterday, and they sufficed to make me swoon and want to gush about it. If I had to describe this book in one word, I’d call it dazzling. 

Possession is the story of two literary academicians uncovering a secret affair between a couple of Victorian poets. Byatt has woven an intricate love story between the poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, which gradually unfolds through surviving letters, allusions in their works to each other, and the undying memories of times spent together. Meanwhile, in the present, we see the cold distant Maud Bailey immersed in a fairytale romance that brings her closer to her fellow scholar, Roland Mitchell.

The book has a lot to say about identity, by looking at the intangible self in a relationship. LaMotte is like the moth forever in a jar, forever helplessly owned by circumstance, and beautiful Maud fights every instinct to let her guard down, almost throttled by the fear of becoming someone’s possession. For Ash who may perhaps have failed his lover, Roland finds redemption. On the surface, Possession is a tragic romance, but in its glinting moments, it is a wise and hopeful rumination on relationships. The book is about more than the lovers; etching a quiet romance between a poet and his art, the academician and his scholarship, and a delicate love affair between the past and the present.

They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed. One night they fell asleep, side by side… He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

The style of this book is breathtaking and the pages ooze literary charm. Byatt is smart and she knows how to trap the reader in her magic. A word I find apt for her writing is thick, for being laden with meaning, perhaps. Possession is not a book you can read at one go, you have to slowly swim through it, there are moments when it’s almost a struggle and yet mysteriously, not a word seems superfluous.
R.H. Ash: We can be quiet together, and pretend – since it is only the beginning – that we have all the time in the world.”
C. LaMotte: And every day we shall have less. And then none.”
R. H. Ash: Would you rather, therefore, have had nothing at all?”
C. LaMotte: No. This is where I have always been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere.”

Which is one love story you think everyone must read? And if you’ve read this book, I’d love to know what you make of it. Happy Valentine’s Day, and of course, happy reading!

9 thoughts on “Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt”

  1. What a beautiful review! I have fond memories of reading this book a few years ago – I had a long commute then and boy did I read!
    I thought it was a complicated book and definitely not one to be swallowed in a rush – more like picked apart bit by bit and tasted. At times it felt a bit to academic (those long poems!) but I do appreciate the style and the story overall. I was also quite surprised to discover I never wrote a review for it (and I was convinced I did). I did, however, wrote a short poem inspired by it.
    Sophisticated, that's how I would call the novel.
    I remember passages from the book – especially the one where the two poets went on their first holiday together posing as husband and wife.
    I love the quotes you have shared.


  2. I forgot to answer your question: Don Juan by Josef Toman is the one love story I think everyone should read, especially if they like historical fiction. It's my all-time favorite book and is out of print but English translations can still be found on the net. I wrote a short review on my blog, but I didn't do the book justice. I hope to read it again this year.


  3. I loved Possession! I thought it was a beautiful story. As for must-read love stories, I guess I'd name the obvious ones: King Arthur stories, Romeo and Juliet, Robin Hood, Wuthering Heights….


  4. Beautiful review, Priya! 'Possession' is one of my favourite books and I hope to read it again one of these days. Maud Bailey is one of my favourite literary characters. My favourite love stories are these – 'First Love' by Ivan Turgenev, 'In the Gloaming' by Alice Elliott Dark, 'Yours' by Mary Robison and 'Letter to the Lady of the House' by Richard Bausch. The first one is a novella and the rest are short stories.


  5. Delia – I kept having to back and forth when I read the poems, but I found Christabel LaMotte's The Fairy Melusine startlingly beautiful this time around. I always find most difficult to do justice in my reviews to books I really love, which may be why I never wrote about this. Thanks for recommending Don Juan, I'll stop by your blog for your short review of it. And I would also love to read your poem!

    Divers and Sundry – I'm afraid the obvious are ones I haven't read, except Romeo and Juliet. I would love to read the King Arthur stories and Robin Hood though, just the idea is charming.

    Vishy – Thank you! I googled my way to your review of the book and I am stunned. I'll be happy if my review has managed to capture even half the things yours has. I especially love the passages you've quoted. Also thanks for the many recommendations, I can't wait to read each of the stories.


  6. Priya – I hope you get to read Don Juan, it's one of the most beautiful books I have read. As for the poem, it's private for now but maybe I will write a story around it one day. 🙂


  7. Delia – I hope you do. You know, I can imagine being inspired to write by this book because Christabel's advice to her cousin was the reason I've since kept a fairly regular journal of some sort… if you do get around to writing the story, you can count on me to read it! 🙂


  8. Ok, you and everyone else here convinced me that I need to read this. I'm a sucker for a good romance and considering my fondness for poetry, this seems like the kind of novel that would be right up my alley. Those quotes you posted are beautiful…


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