Book Review - Possession by A.S. Byatt

by Erin on November 28, 2011

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Possession book cover

Possession book cover

I first read Possession many years ago. Recently, I noticed it sitting on top of a neglected pile of books. Immediately I was drawn to it once again. Indeed, the striking image that adorns the cover was what initially attracted me (yes, it’s true - sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover). My copy features a detail of The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. You see, I have a weakness for Pre-Raphaelite paintings. And The Beguiling of Merlin is just one of those intriguing images that invites the viewer in for a closer inspection.

Now to the actual review. To begin, let me clarify something. Possession is not a book about mythology, or even art. It is, instead, a novel that contains elements of myth, fairy tale, and legend, all woven seamlessly into the story. And what exactly is the story? So happy you asked! The premise is straightforward - I’d summarize it as a mystery involving a pair of purloined letters. Basically, an academic discovers these intriguing notes hidden in the pages of a long neglected book while engaged in some routine research. Our academic, who is named Roland Michell, decides to keep the previously undiscovered letters for himself. Very naughty Roland. In his defense, the academic feels that the “living words” he uncovered cannot be consigned once again to dust and oblivion. And with this simple, subversive act, the story starts.

So what could be so compelling that a meek scholar would be willing to risk his reputation - not to mention his entire career in academia - by stealing a couple of dusty old letters? It’s quite simple. These letters contain the scandalous suggestion of the urgency of a budding relationship between a respectable married man and some unnamed unmarried woman. Remember, the letters date to the Victorian era. A time when the strict code of morality ruled the lives of the inhabitants of the British Isles.

It is through reading the letters that we experience the developing relationship between the Victorian poets who wrote them. Correspondences… Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. These characters are pure fiction. However, it is most likely that they are loosely based on real historical figures. The evolving relationship between poets Ash and LaMotte is echoed in the growing bond between scholars Michell and Bailey.

I did already allude to the myth, fairy tale, and legend in the book, didn’t I? Well, the mythological details are the main reason I decided to include a review of Possession here at Mythography. So let’s give you something to whet your appetite. Here is a poem called The Garden of Proserpina, attributed to the fictional Randolph Henry Ash:

“These things are there. The garden and the tree
The serpent at its root, the fruit of gold
The woman in the shadow of the boughs
The running water and the grassy space.
They are and were there. At the old world’s rim,
In the Hesperidean grove, the fruit
Glowed golden on eternal boughs, and there
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 dispossession and the theft.”

There are also references to Celtic (specifically Breton) and Norse mythology scattered tantalizingly throughout the book. Melusina, the lost city of Ys, and Ragnarök, are just some of the subjects that form subplots in the story.

In addition to the multitude of mythological references, Possession also features elements of mystery, adventure, and of course, romance. The subtitle of the book is after all “A Romance” (it’s certainly no Twilight series. For which I am thankful. One is enough). The relationships that develop throughout the course of the book are rich, complex, and ultimately satisfying.

Oh, I should at least mention that Possession is the work of A.S. Byatt. She’s written some other noteworthy novels and short story collections, including Angels & Insects and The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. Both of which I’ve read. However, as I am fond of saying, that is a tale for another day.

I invite you to read Possession. Try your local library. Or read more about it on And if you do read it, please share your thoughts here. Happy reading!

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