Book cover
Possession: A Romance
A.S. Byatt

I read this book in print a few weeks ago and knew right away I needed to read it again, so this time I listened to the audio book. (And my wife listened with me.)

In some sense the first time through I was so bowled over by Byatt’s technical perfection that I didn’t write much at all about what the book meant to me. It is such a beautiful story, and it really rewards a second reading. As a small example, the first time through, I was judgmental of Christabel’s behavior toward her cousin in Brittany. But reading it again, knowing more fully what she’s dealing with, I felt only empathy.

Maude too is a character that is wonderful the first time through, and only gets better the second. Seeing her story unfold when you’ve already been gifted her vulnerable insight into self makes every part of her story more deeply felt. And Byatt’s genius is most well articulated in Maude, as she uses the “icy” language of misogynistic hatred of intelligent women in such a subversive, almost beautiful way.

Possession is full of wonderful characterization. I could cite a thousand examples, but perhaps my favorite for its precision and humor is this passage when Maude receives a phone call from the wonderfully dowdy Beatrice Nest:

He was about to say they were not quarrelling, when the telephone rang. The voice was female, trembling, and very agitated.

“I wish to speak to Dr Bailey.”

“This is Maud Bailey, speaking.”

“Yes. Well. Yes. Oh dear. I have thought and thought about whether I should ring you—you may think I am mad, or you may think I am simply bad—or presumptuous—I don’t know—I could only think of you—and I have sat and thought about it all evening and I only see now how late it is to be ringing anyone, I must have lost all sense of time, I should perhaps ring back tomorrow, that might be better only it might be too late, well, not perhaps tomorrow, but very soon, if I’m right—it was only that you seemed concerned, you see, you did seem to care—”

“Please—who is that speaking?”

“Oh dear, yes. I never initiate telephone calls. I am terrified of the telephone. This is Beatrice Nest. On behalf of Ellen Ash. No, not exactly on behalf—except that I do feel—I do feel—that it is for her that I am—”

“What has happened, Dr Nest?”

“I’m sorry. Let me try to settle down and speak clearly. I did try to ring you earlier, Dr Bailey, but there was no answer. I didn’t really expect you to answer this call, either, that is why I am so flustered and taken off my guard. Yes.”

“I do understand.”

“It is about Mortimer Cropper. He has been here—well not here, I’m at home now of course, in Mortlake, but into my room in the Museum, he has been there several times, looking very particularly at certain sections of the journal—”

“About Blanche Glover’s visit?”

“No, no, about the funeral of Randolph Ash. And today he brought young Hildebrand Ash—well he isn’t so young, he’s quite old, and certainly fat, but younger than Lord Ash himself, of course—perhaps you don’t know that Hildebrand Ash will succeed Lord Ash if he dies, when he dies, and he isn’t well, James Blackadder says, he certainly doesn’t answer letters at all—not that I write often, there is no real need, but when I do he doesn’t answer—”

“Dr Nest—”

“I know. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather I rang back tomorrow?”

“No. I mean yes. I am sure. I am consumed with curiosity.”

“I overheard them talking to each other. They believed I had gone—well, out of the room. Dr Bailey, I am absolutely certain that Professor Cropper means to disturb—to dig up—the Ashes. The grave in Hodershall. He and Hildebrand Ash together. He wants to find out what is in the box.”

“What box?” said Maud.

Beatrice Nest, with much circumlocution and breathiness, explained what box.

This exchange is caricature and yet it feels so real. And it makes a throwaway line later about Beatrice making a phone call feel like a real triumph. Beatrice is so thoroughly real that we feel real concern, real surprise, and real empathy. Every character is like this—so deeply imagined, so distinctive in voice, so elegantly drawn that I just can’t get enough of it.

Anyway, I’m gushing. Easily this is one of my favorite books of all time.