The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt.
Roland Mitchell, a post-doctoral student who exists on the fringes of the academic world, is an unlikely hero for a novel of intrigue and romance. At the start of A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession, this lackadaisical scholar operates in the shadow of his mentor, Professor James Blackadder, and seems destined to live a quiet and insignificant life as a third-tier academic. Yet Mitchell soon discovers — surprise! — that when it comes to deceit, intrigue and scandal, professors could give espionage agents a run for their money.
Okay, maybe you’re not surprised. But don’t send me the details — take them up with the university ombudsman.
In any event, Mitchell stumbles upon two previously unknown letters that have been hidden away in a library for decades, and seem to hint at a secret romance in the life of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Mitchell should alert the library, or at a minimum tell his mentor, a famous Ash scholar. But instead he pockets the documents, and begins his own private investigation into their possible implications.
This story unfolds along familiar lines. Mitchell tries to solve the mystery of Ash’s possible romantic entanglements, but also gets caught up in a love story of his own. We have seen this before, in Hollywood movies and genre fiction. Yet A.S. Byatt takes this simple premise, and builds remarkable superstructures on top of it. Her novel is a masterpiece of interweaving narratives and contrasting styles. In Possession, nothing moves forward in a straight-forward fashion, and every clue and turning point comes embedded in its own appropriate “text.”
Our tale quickly branches out into several complicated plots. The mystery of poet Ash seems to intertwine with the life of Christabel LaMotte, the likely recipient of his love letters. This discovery not only threatens to rewrite LaMotte’s biography, but also to create politicking and rivalry among modern-day scholars. Byatt is especially good at showing how revisions in a Victorian biography can stir up turbulence among professors many decades later. One of her most salient sub-themes (among many that populate this rich novel) is her incisive take on the pettiness and pretentiousness, the turf wars and antagonisms, of scholarly circles.