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.
But the most masterful aspect of the plot is the superimposition of the two love stories, the 20th century one involving Mitchell and his accomplice Dr. Maud Bailey, a famous LaMotte scholar, and the 19th century romance between Ash and LaMotte. The contrast is not just one of couples, but also social mores, etiquette and gender roles. Byatt is in complete control as she juxtaposes the pacing and complications of these side-by-side stories. We have seen this tackled before — John Fowles did something similar in his brilliant The French Lieutenant’s Woman — but even with precedents, the difficulty of merging plots from past and present should not be underestimated. The overall effect is a dizzying sense of a Victorian romance being swallowed whole by a post-modern novel.
The architectonics of this plot would be enough on their own to set Possession apart from your typical love story. But the style of the writing is even more impressive than the twists and turns of the narrative. Byatt is forced to adopt a wide range of writing styles during the course of Possession. She needs to write poetry that could plausibly come from the pen of a famous 19th century poet. She needs to mimic Victorian prose and epistolary styles. She also needs to be conversant with the language of modern academic criticism. Moreover, she must subsume all of these under the authorial tone of today’s fiction, while being sensitive to the genre expectations that are invariably raised by romance and mystery tales. Above all, she needs to push her story ahead while constantly shifting between these various styles.
To pull all these together so flawlessly is a tremendous achievement for A.S. Byatt. Her success is virtuosic, yet it is never showy. A marked seriousness, an unsullied respect for literary decorum, permeates this novel from start to finish.
The essence of many post-modern novels is to play around with the conventions of various literary genres, creating delightful hodge-podges and surprising juxtapositions. But too often these efforts collapse into mere playfulness and gamesmanship. Possession has this same multilayered resonance, but Byatt never gets caught up in the flashiness of her textual juggling, and every move she makes contributes to a holistic effect. The result is a novel that many will study, but still more will simply admire and enjoy.