What sex was for the Victorians, the Victorians have become for us — a secret vice. Furtively we ogle and envy their shameless middle-class self-assurance, their uninhibited romantic sentiment, their shocking dignity and propriety. And so we buy ornate antiques, watch 8 1/2-hour adaptations of Nicholas Nickleby, read novels such as John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, and this one, which has just won England’s Booker Prize.
The Victorians themselves, running headlong into the future while looking wistfully over their shoulders at the Middle Ages, would understand. Wherever the bull in the china shop we call Progress goes, nostalgia is sure to follow, picking up the pieces (and selling them). Certainly A.S. Byatt understands. Possession is a sometimes dazzling, sometimes dutiful, always authentic- looking collection of imaginary Victorian cultural bric-a-brac — poems, letters, journals — around which she weaves a story of romantic possession, scholarly possession of the past, and scholars possessed by the past.
This is a romance, as the subtitle suggests, but it’s a romance of ideas — darkly intricate Victorian ideas and modern academic assembly-line ideas. The Victorian ideas get the better of it. A young scholar, Roland Michell, discovers unfinished drafts of an ardent letter written by Randolph Henry Ash, an inquisitive eminent Victorian who wrote dramatic monologues in the manner of Robert Browning. Michell deduces that the letter was meant for Christabel LaMotte, a recluse who wrote stark religious lyrics in the manner of Emily Dickinson. LaMotte has lately been canonized by feminists because she lived in what they assume was lesbian bliss with a painter named Blanche Glover. Roland and a haughty feminist scholar named Maud Bailey reluctantly team up and begin to discover that Ash and LaMotte had more going on than a passionate correspondence. Soon the sleuths are off to Brittany to examine a telltale diary, with several rivals hot on their heels.
All would be well that ends well, except that the end pulls in a few hours late. Byatt’s inventions are flawless to a fault — her Victorians are verbose, and finally too much of an authentic thing. But they are vivid, and their passionate curiosity and curious passions are set off against the smug, theory-infested exertions of modern academic literary critics. No one this side of David Lodge (Small World) is more knowing than Byatt about the knowingness of the university postmodernists: ”They were children of a time and culture that mistrusted love…and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure.” ”We question everything except the centrality of sexuality,” says Maud. ”We are so knowing,” says Roland. ”Everything relates to us and so we’re imprisoned in ourselves — we can’t see things.” When Roland and Maud tire of seeing everything and finally get into bed together, they do so without a word, unable to open their mouths for fear that some new withering theory will pop out. Romance triumphs, but these days it’s unspeakable. A-