In my final year of school, I began studying literary criticism under the guidance of an ardent feminist. She was going through menopause at the time, and would, constantly and violently, dab at her head with a towel.
I adored her. But whenever we delved too far into feminist theories, I hastily attempted to change the conversation into, arguably, less crazy territories. Like psychoanalysis.
“Oh, Ilona,” she would sigh, “you still have so much to learn, I promise.”
You’re probably wondering why you’ve been privy to this fascinating insight. The answer to your unspoken question, is A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance. You see, most of my time in class was spent reading a book, followed by a significantly longer and more aggravating period of time in which I would analyse said book. Often, to the death.
A.S. Byatt, on the other hand, was cunning. She decided that she wasn’t going to have pesky academics subverting the meaning of her stories. So, she came up with a plan. A plan to end all plans. A plan for world domination.
This plan, this marvellous, marvellous plan … was to write a book made especially for analysing. A book that came pre-packaged with literary theories and plenty of in-book examples to illustrate these theories. Gasp!
Possession was a ridiculously self-conscious book – it was rife with symbolism; teeming with paragraphs upon paragraphs of character studies that needn’t have been included, but were just to provide fodder for academic papers; and, not so much nods, as cheerleading routines, to every feminist theory that exists.
The result was that reading the book was astoundingly similar to being beaten over the head by an irate feminist.
I mean, if we had really wanted more on How Women Throughout History Were Marginalised, we would had just turned to the whimperings of Jane Eyre, amongst others.
And the bloody annoying thing was that this plan worked – Byatt won two awards for Possession. Although I’m pretty sure she should have been disqualified, for cheating.
Anyway, the plot: London in the 80’s, and Roland Mitchells, an incredibly dreary junior academic, was unhealthily obsessed with studying a Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash. Upon discovering an unfinished love letter by the poet, Roland attempted to find the intended recipient Ash’s amorous charms, or lack thereof. The intended recipient was, of course, another poet herself, Christabel LaMotte. Roland teamed up with Maud Bailey, an academic obsessed with LaMotte, to uncover the super secret love affair between the poets and, as you guessed, the two academics managed to fall in love with each other.
Naww! How romantic! you would have initially said. Except then, you would have remembered that all four characters were remarkably unlikable, and would have immediately set about plotting their fitting demise at the hands of Vogon poetry (although you could only have thought of that if you had read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
I’ll give A.S. Byatt this: the plot unfolded impressively. Possession was a mixture of narrative, poetry, poetry analysis (vomit), letters, and diaries. The aim, I’m sure, would have been to encourage the reader to share in the discovery of a literary mystery. This would have been pretty exciting, and all that, except that A.S. Byatt concentrated more on creating a self-reflexive book chock full of scholarly stuff. Really, if she hadn’t been so concerned about literary analysis, then maybe I would have enjoyed Possession. Cough.
* Disclaimer: If you had never studied literary criticism or literature, then you would have, most likely, rather enjoyed the book; notwithstanding the possible side effect of believing all academics to be creepy and weird.