Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Possession: A Romance

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, July 30, 2001

All the way from London, he had been violently confused by her real presence in the opposite inaccessible corner. For months he had been possessed by the imagination of her. She had been distant and closed away, a princess in a tower, and his imagination’s work had been all to make her present, all of her, to his mind and senses, the quickness of her and the mystery, the whiteness of her, which was part of her extreme magnetism, and the green look of those piercing or occluded eyes.

Jumping between nineteenth century poets and the twentieth century scholars studying those poets, this is a richly detailed romance and mystery.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
AuthorA.S. Byatt
Length555 pages
Book Rating7

This is the story of four people: Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, two poets of the nineteenth century (Ash wrote “The Garden of Proserpina” in 1861, and LaMotte “The Fairy Melusina” sometime after that), who have an intellectual and then physical affair which is kept secret for a century. And then, in 1986, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey happen upon a letter that leads them deeper and deeper into the mystery of this affair, a mystery which threatens to overturn scholarly assumptions about each poet. Dr. Bailey is one of two experts on Christabel LaMotte; Roland is one of many scholars of R. H. Ash.

Byatt is a lush writer. It if weren’t for the formatting, it would be hard for this layman to tell where the nineteenth century poetry ends and the twentieth century prose begins:

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 Dispossesion and the theft.

The book was thick and black and covered
With dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it
Had been maltreated in its... time. Its Spine
was missing, or, rather, protruded
From amongst the leaves like a bulky marker.

It is September, and so the search goes through a cold and snowy winter, a near-abandoned castle, and a stormy French lighthouse.

This is a literary mystery. There is a clear description of scholarly desire when Roland finds a half-written letter, from Ash to an unidentified woman, a letter which is clearly Ash’s writing but completely different from anything else known about the poet:

He had no idea who she might be. 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.

He is an adventurer in knowledge.

In a story that mirrors Byatt’s own treatment of Christabel, Maud and Roland discuss a fairy tale by Christabel LaMotte, a story of a boy born as half hedgehog. The illustrator, Christabel’s roommate Blanch Glover, is “sorry for the hedgehog. Christabel isn’t. It becomes a very resourceful swineherd, and ends up with a lot of triumphant slaughter and roast pork and crackling. Hard for modern children to stomach who grieve for the Gadarene swine.”

LaMotte lived a somewhat lonely life, and her poetry and herself have become a sort of spokesperson for modern feminism. R. H. Ash lived a somewhat boring life, was a devoted and satisfied husband with a devoted and satisfied wife, and has become somewhat of a romantic embodiment of British culture. Maud and Roland both recognize the possibility, the likelihood, that their discovery will overturn current scholarship on their respective poets. There is, of course, also a small amount of gender-related tension between the two scholars, though this by no means is the main part of the story. The real story is the labyrinthine maze of a past relationship and the twists and turns of the underworld of literary scholarship, something Byatt seems intimately familiar with.

The poetry of the two poets is amazingly well-realized; I personally would have liked to see more of Ash’s work, and more of LaMott’s fantasy/mythic epic.

There are many interesting personalities besides the four main characters; we see most of Ellen Ash, R. H. Ash’s wife, through the eyes of Beatrice Nest, who is working on Ellen’s diary and has been working on Ellen’s diaries for over a decade, much to the chagrin of feminist scholars. And the American scholar Mortimer Cropper, in direct conflict with Roland’s past teacher and employer at the British Museum, Professor James Blackadder. Cropper is obsessed with Ash and rich enough to usually acquire whatever memorabilia turns up that is not already owned by a major museum--and some of which that is.

And in the past, events culminate in a stormy night in Breton, while in the present events culminate in a windy night in a cemetary in London. Throughout the book, the history is intricately detailed, with relatives of the poets placed precisely through time, allowing the two scholars to trace that history backwards to their quarry.

It’s a fascinating story, if you like the richly adjectived style and if you think scholars are adventurers in the literary mist. Reading this made me search out other books by Byatt, and the search has been worthwhile.

A.S. Byatt writes in a style which is reminiscent of nineteenth-century romances, which might be considered to have been appropriate for this book, but she writes everything that way. The danger is that people with no attention span, like myself, can occasionally forget what a sentence is about by the time the sentence ends. And she does occasionally have fun with pronouns:

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 Mitchell, 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.

Oh, it was, was it? The story is basically that of a graduate student who discovers some letters from poet R.H. Ash to an unknown woman, and decides to track it down. The letters are slowly “exhumed”, discovered, and they tell their own story of R.H. Ash and poet Christabel Lamott. It is a fascinating way to tell a story.

There is a bit of a let-down towards the end, where the complex emotions of the nineteenth century poet get traded in for a simple excuse, an excuse which is in my opinion both unnecessary and insulting. But this is otherwise very well written and a joy to read, and I find it hard to condemn it on that point alone. At the beginning of the book, Byatt quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.

One of the other rules of a Romance, I’ve recently read, is that it must have a happy ending. That was undoubtedly a different kind of Romance, but except for one person, the endings are very happy. That, too, need not have been quite so blatant. These are not trivial complaints, but the story is still wonderful to read, and I recommend it.

Possession: A Romance

A.S. Byatt

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

If you enjoyed Possession: A Romance…

For more about gender, you might also be interested in M. Butterfly, The Desert Peach, and The Second Sex.