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Possession (1990) is a bestselling novel by British author A.S. Byatt (1936-present). It centres around two academics researching a previously undiscovered romance between two Victorian poets. The academics fall in love along the way.
Below is a summary of Possession and an exploration of its genre and themes. You will also find tables of key characters and quotes.
A.S. Byatt's Possession follows two love stories, one set in the 1980s and one in the Victorian period. Byatt includes various flashbacks to the Victorian era to facilitate this.
The story opens with the character of Roland Michell, a recently graduated academic, carrying out research in a London library. He is looking at a book once owned by the fictional Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash. In doing this, Roland discovers drafts of love letters in the book. This is quite scandalous, as Ash was thought to have been a happily married man. Roland secretly takes the letters to further investigate who they were addressed to, something he could get into trouble for as a professional academic.
Roland's research leads him to conclude that Christabel LaMotte, another poet of the same era, is the most likely candidate for Roland's lover. This is controversial as many scholars believed LaMotte to be a lesbian. Roland meets with Dr. Maud Bailey, an eminent LaMotte scholar who is distantly related to the poet. Because of Maud's personal link to LaMotte, she agrees to help Roland research this potential relationship further.
The two travel to the village where LaMotte lived. They have a chance encounter with the owner of Seal Court, LaMotte's former home, and manage to procure an invitation to visit. There, Roland and Maud discover a large bundle of letters sent between Ash and LaMotte that detail their developing love. Roland and Maud's theories have been proven correct. They feel the need to keep their discoveries private as many other academics are chasing similar leads. Roland and Maud feel a sense of ownership over, or possession of, the story of Ash and LaMotte.
Roland and Maud receive some information from Leonora Stern, Maud's colleague, that there may be further details on what exactly happened to Ash and LaMotte to be found in France. They travel there and find diary entries by LaMotte's cousin. These detail that LaMotte fell pregnant due to her relationship with Ash but did not want to tell him. She fled to France to deliver her baby and then gave her daughter to her sister to raise as her own. LaMotte kept Ash in the dark about all of this. Roland and Maud now understand why Ash and LaMotte's passionate relationship came to an end.
Upon their return to England, Maud is informed by lawyers that, as a relation of LaMotte, she may be the rightful owner of all letters between LaMotte and Ash. Maud and Roland also discover that Mortimer Cropper, a particularly stubborn and selfish academic, intends to dig up Ash's grave as he believes that further letters may have been buried with him.
Roland, Maud, and a group of their colleagues travel to Ash's grave to prevent Cropper from taking whatever may be there for himself. A letter from LaMotte to Ash is found in the grave along with a lock of hair. LaMotte wished for the letter to be given to Ash by his wife before he died, but this was never done. In it, LaMotte explains that she had given birth to a daughter who had lived happily without knowing her parentage. This letter also reveals that Maud is a direct descendent of LaMotte and will now definitively be the owner of all Ash-LaMotte correspondence.
After everything has ended, Roland and Maud admit that they have fallen in love and begin a relationship together that somewhat mirrors that of Ash and LaMotte. Byatt hints at this growing affection throughout Possession. She also includes a postscript in her novel. This involves a flashback to the Victorian era in which Ash comes across his and LaMotte's daughter as a young girl. She does not know who he is, but he recognises her. Ash asks for a lock of her hair in exchange for a flower crown. This is who the lock of hair in Ash's grave belongs to; everyone had assumed it was LaMotte's. Ash asks his daughter to pass on a message to LaMotte that he is happy now, but the little girl forgets to do it. They never meet again.
Possession fits under the genre of romance.
A romance is a story that revolves around the love between two or more characters. This is often beset by difficulties and may include a love triangle. Famous romances include Sense and Sensibility (1811) by Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1854).
Possession shows two romances develop, between LaMotte and Ash, and between Roland and Maud. Both couples are clearly in love with each other but face various challenges along the way. LaMotte and Ash's relationship faces issues as Ash is already married and is technically committing adultery. However, this does not stop the lovers from being together. What truly drives a wedge between the two is LaMotte falling pregnant. Because they are not married, this is something scandalous that she must hide. There are many tangible and literal barriers to their love.
The growing love between Roland and Maud also struggles at times but for different reasons. Maud is fearful of relationships, owing to previous experiences. She is wary of falling in love, tending to avoid passion generally. As per the title of Byatt's novel, Maud worries that a man will try to possess her. However, she eventually explains this to Roland, allowing them to enter a relationship together.
It's also important that researching one love story creates another. Roland and Maud would not have been brought together if not for their interest in LaMotte and Ash's romance.
Now we will look at key characters in Possession.
|An academic researcher in his late twenties. At the start of Possession, Roland feels trapped in both a dead-end job and a relationship. He worries that he will never find success. Researching LaMotte and Ash's relationship gives him a sense of drive and purpose. It also leads him to discover Maud, a woman he truly loves.
|Struggling. Driven. Meek.
|Maud is a successful academic at the top of her field. She is one of the leading experts on the work of Christabel LaMotte. However, she is less successful in her personal life. Maud has been treated as an object by many men because of her beauty. Therefore, she can be cold and is wary of potential relationships. She gradually becomes more open as she grows closer to Roland, who she eventually falls in love with.
|Successful. Aloof. Intelligent.
|LaMotte was a Victorian poet who did not receive much recognition in her time. But modern feminist scholars, like Maud, have extensively studied her and her work. LaMotte is an intelligent and self-possessed woman. However, she always remains somewhat of a mystery. Byatt shows that there will always be a distance between scholar's interpretations and reality.
|Self-possessed. Strong. Mysterious.
|Randolph Henry Ash
|Ash was also a Victorian poet, but one that gained much more recognition than LaMotte did. Many scholars in Possession regard him as one of the most important poets of his era. He was married to a woman called Ellen Ash but the couple never had children as they never engaged sexually for unspecified reasons. Ash's public reputation was that of a reserved and private Victorian gentleman. His affair with LaMotte reveals him to be a passionate, excitable, and loving man.
|Private. Passionate. Famous.
Below are some key themes in Possession.
The theme of ownership is essential in Byatt's Possession. The title of the novel emphasises this. Byatt is musing on different kinds of ownership, or possession, and how ethical they may or may not be.
Academic ownership is very relevant in this novel. When Roland discovers Ash's love letters, he takes them without informing his academic colleagues. This is considered bad practice. He wants to have ownership over his findings. As he and Maud begin to collaborate on the research to uncover more about LaMotte and Ash's relationship, the two feel possessive and protective over the work being done. They fear other academics accessing the same information. Roland and Maud particularly fear Mortimer Cropper and his work. While they feel possessive over their research because of a love of what they are doing, Cropper wants possession over his research for a sense of power and glory. His aims are disingenuous and selfish.
There is also an element of ownership in the romantic relationships in Possession. Maud and LaMotte share a fear of being possessed by the person they are in a relationship with. Neither want to lose themselves to love as they are confident in themselves and their professions.
Can you identify any other instances of characters trying to claim ownership over something in Possession?
The past is an important theme in Possession. Byatt's novel follows two academics as they investigate a couple that existed approximately a hundred years previous. They uncover a large amount of information that will permanently change scholarship on LaMotte and Ash.
However, Byatt shows that the distance between history and the modern day will always be difficult to breach. In Possession, the characters of LaMotte and Ash are much more mysterious and difficult to analyse, whereas readers get a clear picture of who Roland and Maud are. There are also certain things that the novel's scholars never discover. They all assume that the lock of hair in Ash's grave belongs to LaMotte and that he never learnt the truth about his daughter. However, because of the postscript, readers of Possession know this isn't true. The lock of hair belongs to Ash and LaMotte's daughter who Ash both met and recognised.
Let's look at a selection of important quotes from the novel.
|'In the real world...there was little real connection between them. Maud was a beautiful woman such as [Roland] had no claim to possess. She had a secure job and an international reputation.'
|Roland here is musing on the growing relationship between him and Maud. He seems to consider her a woman he could possess if not for her professional success. This mindset confirms Maud's fears of men wanting to own her.
|'No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.'
|LaMotte writes this line in one of her letters to Ash. This description of love is intense and all-consuming. Byatt shows here how passionate the relationship between the two was.
|'I want to-to—follow the—path. I feel taken over by this. I want to know what happened, and I want it to be me that finds out.'
|Maud says this to Roland with regard to investigating the relationship between LaMotte and Ash. She admits that she has become very invested in the research and cares about it just as much as Roland. This is an unusual show of passion from Maud who tries to remain so withdrawn.
|'There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken of or written of, though it would be wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.'
|Byatt opens the postscript in which Ash meets his daughter with this line. It suggests that there will always be distance between history and those who later analyse it. Some things will remain unknown.
Possession was first published in 1990.
It is about two academics who fall in love while researching a romance that occurred between two Victorian poets.
Ash is a fictional Victorian poet from the novel Possession.
The film Possession (2002) is based on the 1990 book of the same name by A.S. Byatt.
No, LaMotte was fictional.
When was Possession published?
What genre is Possession?
What are two key themes in Possession?
Ownership and the past.
Who did the lock of hair in Ash's grave belong to?
He and LaMotte's daughter.
Why is Maud wary of men and relationships?
Because in the past she has been treated like an object to be owned.
Why is Maud given legal ownership of all of LaMotte and Ash's correspondence?
Because she is their direct descendent.
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