Posted by: Lizzie Ross | July 15, 2011

Academic plots

Possession: A Romance (1990), AS Byatt, 555 pp. 1990 Booker Prize winner

3-lead, 10-bight, doubled

Oooh, I love a complex plot, something like a turk’s-head knot, with mysteries and miscues, but all neatly woven for a strong story. This one, though, has the added fillip of creating an academic arena, complete with original 19th century poetical works & letters, and 20th century criticism & conference papers. I lost count at 20 of the creative and academic voices that crowd this novel.

Roland Michell is a 20th C academic researcher in limbo — no permanent job, no job prospects, but enthralled with Randolph Henry Ash, a prolific 19th C poet and essayist — interested in everything, happily married for 40 years, influential in his time and well into the 20th C. In an academic coup akin to striking oil, Michell unexpectedly finds drafts of a letter written by Ash. The letter hints at a connection to an unknown woman, and Roland tracks her down — Christabel LaMotte, lesbian poet. Now he’s really curious. He hoards his secret for as long as possible, but as soon as he joins forces with someone else (a feminist critic called Maud Bailey), you know the secret is bound to come out. It does, but not in the way you expect. Maud is as secretive as Roland, but their enemies are all around.

The parallels between LaMotte/Ash and Roland/Maud are uncanny — yet Byatt unfolds her plot so carefully that you aren’t aware of this until evidence builds to collapsing point. The academic world that she creates is true to life, with the dog-in-the-manger villains (Mortimer Cropper and Fergus Wolff — such perfect names), the well-meaning drudges, and the department head, along with various colorful characters, including a bi-sexual flamboyant American academic, Leonora Stern. Back-biting, hubris, theft (material and academic), groveling, grave-robbing — all too familiar to anyone who’s spent time working in the world of publish-or-perish.

As they try to unravel the mystery of LaMotte-Ash, Roland and Maud travel to Yorkshire and Brittany. How long will they be able to fend off queries from colleagues who would do anything to get their hands on this academic gold? What are they willing to do — legally and illegally — to protect their discoveries?

And what about LaMotte and Ash themselves? Excerpts from their letters, poems, stories, and journals appear throughout, showing their own participation in betrayals, as well as opposing views on spiritualism and séances, adding another level of meaning to the title. Characters in both centuries are possessed by greed, desire, fear, and hatred, emotions that underlie nearly every decision each character makes.

There are many threads in this novel, but Byatt has woven them all so craftily that you’re never lost, just amazed at how it all can hold together so well. And rooting for the happy ending that the subtitle promises.

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