I’m an Appreciationist. Or at least I try to be.
I respected and admired Possession; it took me nearly half the book to become engrossed in the plot and the story, and to really enjoy it. The key is not to think of 19th century novels and expect lifelike, multi-faceted characters, but to accept Possession as a mystery novel and as a novel about literature and academia, particularly the world of critics and biographers.
The central mystery of the story is about the affair between 2 acclaimed 19th century poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte that nobody realised knew each other. 2 modern scholars Roland Michell and Maud Bailey discover it and try to trace back their steps to find the full story. To be frank, I didn’t really care about any of the characters, until Sabine’s journal, but I’ve been intrigued, wanting to know what happens, what Randolph and Christabel do, what hidden truths Roland and Maud uncover, what Blanche Glover tells Randolph’s wife Ellen, what Ellen does, whether there is any greater secret, why Blanche drowns herself, and so on, the way you follow the plot of mystery novels and have a million of questions and want answers.
Roland and Maud are, in a sense, detectives. The plot is more exciting because of their obsession, the possession the biographers feel towards their subjects, and the competition between the biographers. Others chase Roland and Maud as they’re “chasing” Randolph and Christabel.
At the same time, Possession is about literature and literary critics/ biographers. The book is therefore built on a wide range of genres and styles of writing: poetry, letters, journals, biography, literary criticism, and so on—all of which, except the poems, are means of storytelling and drive the plot forward; but the poems are not digressions, in the sense that some stuff in Moby Dick are, but they are the original texts to which the characters refer, in 19th century as well as in modern day, and they also have hidden codes that allow the reader to partake in the detective work. It is impressive, the transition is rather smooth. The prose is still dry for my taste, lacking enthusiasm and rhythm, but A. S. Byatt’s knowledge and other things make up for it as the story goes on. Perhaps the personal factor is also important—I’ve been to Whitby and like jet; I studied literature before; and I write diaries and these days look a bit through them as I sort out stuff for moving (have I mentioned? I am in Oslo at the moment). It is perhaps these things that make me warm to the novel.
(My favourite part of Possession is probably Sabine’s journal, not only because she reveals a shocking secret, but also because of the writing. Sabine makes me care more about Christabel).
I’ve noticed that I’ve been writing more about myself than about the novel.