This is from the most popular Amazon review of the book: “It’s pretty hard not to be impressed with this thing, with its amazing scholarship and spectacular writing. […] [S]o much so that you almost feel you have to genuflect before it every time you pick it up.” I don’t remotely agree.
While ‘Possession’ is certainly impressive in some respects, it is clearly deficient in others. Let me start with the glaring insult to Americans. The ridiculously obvious villain in this book is Mortimer Cropper. Take a look at his name. ‘Mort’ is death (mortician, mortuary) and ‘crop’ as a verb means to cut; in short he’s the Grim Reaper. In the first scene in which Cropper appears, Byatt demonstrates how little use she has for subtlety: he is wearing a “Black silk dressing gown,” over “Black silk pyjamas,” “mole-Black slippers,” and he “pushed down on a switch on his Black box.” (Capital “Bs” mine.) He had “American hips, ready for … the faraway ghost of a gunbelt.” (American hips? There’s her minor, separate, pot-shot at American gun laws.) Morty drinks Black coffee, and in case you are a dense American reader and still don’t get it, “His car was a long black Mercedes … a swift funereal car.” So there’s Cropper, death driving a hearse. [pp 104-109]
That’s not the insult. The insult is that Cropper, backed by tons of American money, is busy buying up all the “relics” of fictitious Victorian poet Randolph Ash as though the material items that belonged to Ash were more important than the poetry he wrote. This is Byatt’s way of saying Americans are not very bright (Cropper is a scholar don’t forget) and easily mistake the image for the thing itself, are so dazzled by gold foil wrapping they forget to analyze the contents of the box. It’s a clumsy perpetuation of a stereotype—one that Kazuo Ishiguro brilliantly and subtly annihilated in THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. Byatt’s hero, lowly Roland Mitchell, says at least twice how he’s not interested in Ash’s personal belongings, just in what Ash wrote. One just wants to reach into the book and pat him on the head. (And, yes, he’s associated with the color white—just like any good guy.)
To be sure, Cropper’s Scottish counterpart, James Blackadder (a double-sided name I’ll let you ponder for yourselves) doesn’t come off particularly favorably, but he’s the under-funded underdog against the rich American who doesn’t even know how to properly value the poetry to which he’s dedicated a lifetime of study. And while both men have subsumed their identities under Ash’s, have devoted their lives to someone else’s work rather than producing original work of their own, Cropper is clearly the more reprehensible of the two: “Maud decided she intuited …” notice the clunkiness of the phrase by the way … does Maud really need to decide to intuit? How about: Maud intuited “something terrible about Cropper’s imagination …. He had a peculiarly vicious version of reverse hagiography” [note the cheap repetition of the letter V]: “the desire to cut his subject down to size.” Precisely what ‘crop’ means, of course.
Do I want to “genuflect” in front of this text? Hardly. While Byatt does an admirable job with recreating Victorian letters and Victorian poems—really first rate—the actual story suffers. There are so many poems, so many letters the narrative never gains much momentum. Every time you think the story is going to go somewhere, she throws a 10-page poem at you or 20 pages of letters. They bog the story down interminably.
Another pitfall: Byatt seems to think that it would be clever if the modern characters recreated the situation of the characters they are researching. Unfortunately, about 1000 authors before her have also thought this would be clever. Maud is Christabel Lamotte; Roland is Ash; Roland’s girlfriend Val stands in for Mrs. Ash while Leonora doubles as Christabel’s girlfriend (and there’s an incident in which Roland peeps through the keyhole of a bathroom door to see if Maud is in there, recreating the most famous scene from Lamotte’s most famous poem. Maud is wearing a dragon kimono, meant to conjure up the reptilian Melusina of the poem). This doubling might have worked if it actually *meant* something, if it contributed something conceptually to the novel, but, other than helping out with the title. it seems nothing more than an affinity for symmetry—however artificial.
You also get tired of being pummeled with green in association with Maud: When we first encounter her “green and white length,” in which the modifying phrase should be hyphenated, she’s wearing “a long pine-green tunic over a pine-green skirt” and “long shining green shoes.” [p. 44] On top of this there are green scarves, green headdresses, green dresses, green pillows, green sheets, a green blanket, and her green car. There is such a thing as overdoing it: “[T]he bathroom was a chill Green grassy place, glittering with cleanness, huge dark Green stoppered jars on water-Green thick glass shelves, a floor tiled in glass tiles …” [capital Gs mine]. Tiled in tiles? She couldn’t come up with “covered in glass tiles” or something similar? Oh, and “Green-trellised towels” in case you don’t get that she’s the Queen of Green. (p. 63) She’s the green of spring, she’s Demeter or the Earth Mother, she’s life while Mortimer Cropper is death. The reader is similarly pounded with green words when Lamotte is described: “the pale sap-green of vegetable life, “green shadows in green tresses of young hay,” “her eyes were green, glass-green, malachite green, the cloudy green of seawater …” [p. 302] If it weren’t so overdone, it might be worthwhile.
As for the “spectacular writing,” it’s all reserved for the Victorian recreations. There’s nothing particularly impressive about the sentences that convey the contemporary story; there’s a lot to be desired in fact. Here’s an example: “A very small woman appeared …. She wore a large apron covered with purple and grey florets, over a skinny black jumper. She had a small hard, brown-skinned face under white hair drawn into a bun.” A very unimaginative piling up of simple adjectives: colors, small (twice!), large, and that’s about it. The writing is workmanlike, competent, but hardly better.
Or “The librarian fetched a checked duster, and wiped away the dust, a black, thick, tenacious Victorian dust, a dust composed of smoke and fog particles accumulated before the Clean Air Acts.” [p. 5] Do we really need this repetition of dust? We certainly don’t need the comma after “duster,” which is just mispunctuation. Don’t we call black dust “composed of smoke particles” soot? (And fog is not composed of anything solid; it’s water vapor.) This is just unnecessary hyperbole and repetition.
In spite of the fact that Byatt throws Freud and Lacan into the novel, in spite of the fact that it’s set in academia, giving her the freedom to wallop us with an interesting theory or two, Byatt gives us little more than a few tired lines discounting penis envy. All these professors and textual critics and not a single interesting idea that I could find in this novel. It is mainly an exercise in contrivance—albeit expertly executed contrivance.
So Byatt has done well forging a believable pair of poets from the 19th century but failed to give us realistic counterparts. She excels at imitation but, like her villains, has nothing original to convey.