At its heart, the story is simple. Two modern day scholars (Roland and Maud), experts in the works of fictitious Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte respectively, uncover a hitherto unknown connection between the two that leads them on a quest to unravel the mystery of their relationship. By means of journals, letters and poems written by Ash, LaMotte and various loved ones, Roland and Maud uncover a Romance complete with love, regret, bitterness and tragedy. Playing counterpoint to the story of those long-dead, is a tale of modern literary academia, obsession and 1980s feminism.
As a whole the novel is a thorough exploration of every meaning of "possession": possession of knowledge and artifact, possession of women by men, possession of the living by the dead. Because of the different media used to tell the story, the overall effect is a richly textured tapestry of prose & poetry, quest & chase, mystery, romance, fairy tale and academic theory. Each chapter adds a new layer of complexity and depth.
I read this book twice effectively: once in the conventional manner, plus I listened to an audio recording in conjunction. The former allowed me to fully appreciate the construction of the novel -- how the diary entries, letters, poems etc were used and presented, plus there was the possibility to skip forward and back at will. This last was almost essential for me, because it allowed cross-referencing and re-reading, which in a novel of this complexity was beneficial.
The audio book, on the other hand, presented the narrative in a contextual manner as the reader placed emphasis and interpretation on the words. This was a wonderful bonus for someone who doesn't read poetry. It also allowed me to experience the novel by immersion, rather than ploughing through the words and concentrating on constructing the story in my head. I believe I appreciated the poetry in particular a lot more via the audio experience.
It's not a fast-paced book. Because so much of the information is gleaned from diaries and letters, there's a lot of ground covered that is not directly relevant to the plot, but which all helps to build the overall texture. And then there are the poems, which one might be tempted to skip, but which actually complement and reflect the main narrative and create the atmosphere. I find myself in awe of Byatt's vision and skill in conceptualising and then achieving such a grand epic.
I was a little disappointed in the role coincidence plays, particularly in the last third of the book. Roland and Maud initially make fabulous progress in uncovering information; after starting with the drafts of letters Roland finds by accident, they use logic and existing information to piece together clues that lead them to discover the hiding place of a stack of letters between Ash and LaMotte. And then they follow their trail on a trip to Yorkshire, again using deduction and textual references in the poets' works.
But after that, coincidence steps in, as a French scholar pipes up with information about LaMotte's presence in Brittany in the year directly following the Yorkshire trip. Without this convenient discovery of a cousin's journal, just at the right moment, an important part of the story would have gone undiscovered. Moreover, in the final scenes, a box is uncovered that holds 'all the answers', effectively rendering much that has gone before irrelevant. I suppose the question is whether the box would have been retrieved had not everything happened . . . possibly all that was needed was the original discovery of the letters.
On the other hand, you could argue that this novel is about the journey of Roland and Maud, rather than the destination. Both are characters who value solitude, and find a connection in this and their need to know the truth about Ash and LaMotte's relationship. Roland's gentleness cracks Maud's 'icily regular, splendidly null' defences. Roland, meanwhile, finds his own sense of self-worth. They have an oddly platonic relationship (until the final chapter) and seem to value the wait.I could go on. There's so much to say, so many things that could be touched upon. But I will stop here while my thoughts are still general. I feel as though I could write a piece on each of the eight or so major characters in this novel -- they are so interesting and rich. But I would end up revealing plot points, which I've tried to avoid here.
However, I will touch upon the movie briefly before finishing. When I first saw it, I loved the movie of Possession. It is a delicious blend of romance and mystery. What it lacks is the wonderful texture and atmosphere of the book. The plot is fairly close, although from necessity some of the characters were dropped, but the poetry and language of the letters and journals is largely gone. Inevitable of course, but it does make me appreciate the book even more, and it will probably be a while before I truly love the movie again. Probably the most annoying difference for me was the change in Roland's character. Surely as the central character he should have been retained intact? But they changed him from a gentle, under-confident and timid Englishman into a confident and somewhat brash American. In hindsight, I don't buy the movie Roland as a scholar. Anyway, it's still worth a watch.