Sometimes I think that A. S. Byatt’s greatest appeal to me as a writer is the gorgeousness of her descriptions and her (related) ability to supply all the materials required for the reader to imagine a scene of great natural beauty. Consider, for example, this lavish and perhaps extraneous but – for an urbanite who has always hankered to revel in the Prince Edward Island described by L. M. Montgomery – wholly enjoyable paragraph, which was in the Postscript to Possession, no less:

There was a meadow full of young hay, and all the summer flowers in great abundance Blue cornflowers, scarlet poppies, gold buttercups, a veil of speedwells, an intricate carpet of daisies where the grass was shorter, scabious, yellow snapdragons, bacon and egg plant, pale milkmaids, purple heartsease, scarlet pimpernel and white shepherd’s purse, and round this field a high bordering hedge of Queen Anne’s lace and foxgloves, and above that dogroses, palely shining in a thorny hedge, honeysuckle all creamy and sweet0smelling, rambling threads of bryony and the dark stars of deadly nightly. It was abundant, it seemed as though it must go on shining forever. The grasses had an enamelled gloss and were connected by diamond-threads of light. The larks sang, and the thrushes, and the blackbirds, sweet and clear, and there were butterflies everywhere, blue, sulphur, copper, and fragile white, dipping from flower to flower, from clover to vetch to larkspur, seeing their own guiding visions of invisible violet pentagrams and spiralling coils of petal-light.

But it’s not fair to suggest that Dame Byatt is good for lovely prose and nothing else, since she is also full of intelligent and perspicacious observations on numerous favourite themes of hers, including literature and the academia. Possession exhibits this, and manages to cover plenty of other subjects big and small even while the story develops through the masterful use of all sorts of narrative methods. People who are impatient to find out ‘what happens next’ might skip the chapter that comprises solely an extended correspondence between two Victorian poets, to their peril. They’d be missing out on a whole lot of interesting ideas, not to mention the delightful repartee and growing fascination between (a) man and (a) woman. (They can skip the poetry without much loss, though.)

Excerpt from a letter from Randolph Henry Ash to Christabel LaMotte:

… I must tell you that I have been in some distress to think that my poem had occasioned doubt in you. A secure faith – a true prayerfulness – is a beautiful and a true thing – however we must nowadays construe it – and not to be disturbed by the meanderings and queryings of the finite brain of R. H. Ash or any other puzzled student of our Century. Ragnarök was written in all honesty in the days when I did not myself question Biblical certainties – or the faith handed down by my fathers and theirs before them. It was read differently by some […] and I was at the time startled and surprised that my Poem should have been construed as any kind of infidelity – for I meant it rather as a reassertion of the Universal Truth of the living presence of Allfather (under whatever Name) and of the hope of Resurrection from whatever whelming disaster in whatever form. When Odin, disguised as the Wanderer, Gangrader, in my Poem, asks the Giant Wafthrudnir what was the word whispered by the Father of the gods in the ear of his dead son, Baldur on his funeral pyre – the young man I was – most devoutly – meant the word to be – Resurrection. And he, that young poet, who is and is not myself, saw no difficulty in supposing that the dead Norse God of Light might prefigure – or figure – the dead Son of the God Who is the Father of Christendom. But, as you perceived, this is a two-handed engine, a slicing weapon that cuts both ways, this of figuration – to say that the Truth of the Tale is in the meaning, that the Tale but symbolizes an eternal verity, is one step on the road to the parity of all tales… And the existence of the same Truths in all Religions is a great argument both for and against the paramount Truthfulness of One.

Excerpt from a letter from C. LaMotte to R. H. Ash:

I do not say but there must be – and is – some essential difference between the Scope and Power of men and [women’s] own limited consciousness and possibly weaker apprehension. But I do maintain, as stoutly, that the delimitations are at present, all wrongly drawn – We are not mere candleholders to virtuous thoughts – mere chalices of Purity – we think and feel, aye and read – which seems not to shock you in us, in me, though I have concealed from many the extent of my – vicarious – knowledge of human vagaries.

That last bit about female self-censorship of opinions/knowledge is, sadly, all too familiar. Even today!!

Gosh, what long excerpts. (I’m guessing that the only place in which quotation at such length is appropriate is literary criticism; if this was meant to be a book review, it would surely have met with the instruction to edit.) And certainly the entire novel has quite substantial heft. However, this is one of the joys of Possession: the leisureliness and narrative manner of Byatt’s prose allows for some pretty tough ideas and characterization to be contained in an altogether relaxing read. It’s plenty impressive too as a post-modernist achievement, and probably quite deserving of its 1990 Booker Prize.

Still, it is because I don’t share her favourite themes that I don’t consider Byatt one of my favourite authors. I’ve always been unconsciously and consciously concerned about the exploration of ethics, and more recently have become very fond of humour in the stuff that I read/watch; as far as I can tell these are limited in Byatt’s novels. They are, at the least, quite limited in Possession. Nevertheless, it’s excellent fun to read and reread: literate (duh), awash with beauty, and completely escapist.

I watched the film adaptation too: as a fan, I felt compelled to, although I know quite well that the film can never quite live up to the book. But the storyline on the literary detectives was distorted by the very unfortunate decision to change the originally working-class Brit Roland into a hunky-but-nice-and-intelligent American played by Aaron Eckhart (the better to contrast, I suppose, with the classic chilly Englishwoman Maud played by ironically-not-English-at-all Gwyneth Paltrow). And Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle (both of whom being actors I like and respect tremendously) simply weren’t given much to work with in their roles as the Victorian pair. In short: while the main plot was preserved, the focus and tone of the film was completely divergent from that of the book. (Isn’t it always the case? See Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, shudder.) Which sort of misses the whole point of Possession.