So only twenty-two years behind everyone else, but finally I have read Possession by A.S.Byatt.
I still think the cover from my original hardback edition is the finest.
Bought for me as Christmas present by the Tinker and my mum back in the days when they would buy me the Booker Prize winner each year, so Christmas 1990. Children would have been nine, seven and five, and I would have just started back as a caseload health visitor after doing my own 'trial-by-terry-towelling-nappy' practical experience ...no wonder it's taken me two decades to get around to it.
Fortunately I adore the cover art, The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones, because it is appearing on several other books that are in my eyeline at the moment..
Fiona MacCarthy's biography of Edward Burne-Jones, The Last Pre-Raphaelite... the next biography on my reading list, along with a book that has just arrived from Yale and which I may read before the biography for some context, Reading the Pre-Raphaelites by Tim Barringer. This latter a sumptuously illustrated journey through the lives and art of the Brotherhood, tracing both the history of the movement as well as examining all the tensions at play within the pictures.
The Beguiling of Merlin, painted in 1874 is a massive work at 6' 1" x 3' 8" (1.86 x 1.11m for the metrically minded) depicting a French medieval version of the Arthurian legend in which the wizard Merlin is lulled to sleep in a hawthorn tree by his pupil Nimue. Tim Barringer elaborates on the sense of imprisonment and the image of the 'wicked woman dominating a helpless man' whilst Fiona McCarthy, also looking at this painting, points out that the model used by Edward Burne-Jones was his favoured muse Maria Zambaco. Burne-Jones had succumbed to Maria's enchantments and was apparently well aware of the significance of this work in his own life.
Translate all that into Possession and the analogies have poured into my mind as I think about the book in the weeks since I have finished it.
I'm not sure there can be an original thought to be had twenty-two years on for a book that must have sold in its millions..my copy, bought just two months after the Booker win, was already a fifth impression, but lack of original thought has never stopped me yet, so I'll just have to plough on with some imagination, and in case you are one of the handful who haven't read Possession here are a few starters for ten, and if you have read it please do add your own suggestions in comments...
- The book is an exploration and investigation of the lives and work of two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, by two latter day academics, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey.The chance find of some previously unknown letters in a file at the London Library leads Roland to Maud, and the pair of them embark on a sort of grail quest for the truth about a possible relationship that may or may not have existed between the poets....there that's the barest bones of 511 pages condensed into a few lines.
- A.S.Byatt herself says that it is fine for readers to skip passages in books, and I know plenty of people who have read Possession minus the poetry and still loved the book. I decided that, despite my aversion to long italicized passages in books (they make my brain glaze over) I would read every word of each one, very slowly if necessary, and closing the book to think about them afterwards if necessary too, and I did. To say they add value to the book is an understatement and I can quite see why ASB felt slightly queasy when her U.S. publisher said they would have to go. ASB refused and it's not hard to see why.
- The poems hold many clues, but also, this being ASB, many resonances to a hugely diverse range of topics. I was constantly thinking about Robert Browning, whose poetic ghost most definitely inhabits these pages, as does that of Coleridge. Tennyson stalks the corridors too and there are resounding echoes of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rosesetti and doubtless countless others that I have missed on this first reading, but which I will find next time and the time after because...
- This is a book you may want to read again, and perhaps even again.
- You know when you sit in the hairdressers, and you are looking like a drowned rat waiting for your 'stylist' to pitch out of that coffee room round the back, and you'd really rather not see yourself in one mirror let alone more mirrors than you can count, yet there you are cruelly faced with an infinite number of your bedraggled likenesses staring back at you... well this book is like a series of very clever mirrors, stories within stories that reflect each other like prisms, revealing angles and colours and difference about each other yet all emanating from one source. And as a reader I was dancing around catching the glints and gleams from Possession as they darted around in my mind and I have been ever since ...and I loved it.
- Thinking about the connotations of the title will keep you awake at night. Possession in all its guises, from the possession of history, questions of ownership of letters and archives, possession of a subject by a researcher, people possessed by words, by envy, by greed, possession of knowledge and the need to hold onto it, possession of each other, of happiness and then there are all those thorny issues about the possession of truth...oh yes, don't expect to sleep for thinking about it all.
- On the subject of thinking, apart from the fact you will lie awake thinking about the title, you will also be shopping in Morrisons/Waitrose/ Tescos/ Sainsburys when suddenly yet another really clever connection between the names, or connections between the Victorian and the latter day plot will slap you like a wet kipper right between the eyes. LaMotte, Bailey, Cropper (you can go to town on that one...harvesting the artefacts like a combine...does he 'come a cropper' ) Randolph Ash and all the Yggradisl mythology about the ash tree and the world tree, and Tray the dog and Browning's poem, and Christabel and Coleridge and the cottage called Bethany (why) and lots of references to Ragnorak, the twilight of the Gods... and then all the fairy tale connections, and surely loads of Garden of Eden analogies. Then what about those green shoes... the green shoes thing will plague you until you make the connection. Yes don't expect to remember why you were in the shop in the first place, better write a list first.
- If like me you weren't listening when the Norse mythology lesson came up at school then you might feel the lack. Once I had recovered from blaming the teachers and realised that actually I could have sorted this for myself in the intervening years I did suddenly want to know about it all... Yggradisl et al, and then I found myself wandering off into the land of the Breton fairy tale of Melusine...and then...and then... I expect to be wandering for weeks.
- Choose a nice bookmark. I unwittingly chose a postcard I had brought back from the recent William Morris exhibition at Temple Place, Pomona by William Morris & Edward Burne Jones, and I couldn't have chosen better.
In the end I was starting to read meaning into the bookmark and when Pomona finally got a mention I was beside myself.
- There is a moment in the book which encapsulates what a writer can do for a reader and I really hope this happens for you as it happened for me...
'Think of this - that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone, and they were alone with each other...Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark...'
Yes, I have been Possessed, my Byattification proceeds.