Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

A. S. BYATT – Possession. Chatto & Windus, UK, 1990. Vintage, US, softcover, October 1991. Film: 2002; with Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart; director: Neil LaBute.

   The cover proclaims this a Romance, but only a very patient Romantic would wade through it in search of a fevered embrace. What it is is a Literary Detective Story, cunningly designed and written with a skill that left me quite envious.

   The story spins out from one Roland Michell, a second-rate assistant to the second-greatest authority on Randolph Ash, a (fictitious) Victorian Poet along the lines of Tennyson or Browning. Doing his slow, patient, best to be of help, Michell peruses Ash’s copy of an old book, searching for notes in the margins, when two drafts of a previously unknown letter fall out, from Ash to an unnamed woman, and written with a not-quite-veiled passion that seems to hint at much more.

   Searching various references, Michell identifies the woman as one Christobel LaMotte, a little-known lesbian author of fairy tales and poetry of the times, recently “found” by feminists but still pretty obscure.

   Michell consults the nearest expert on LaMotte, a Professor Maude Bailey, who is distantly related to her. They visit the old Bailey estate, where LaMotte spent her last years, and, through a combination of luck, intelligence, and Michell’s good nature, discover reams of hitherto unsuspected correspondence between Ash and LaMotte. The sort of thing that will require radical re-evaluation among scholars of both their works.

   But, as with any fine detective story, there are hints of more: more clues, more journals, and something much more sinister. There are also added elements of suspense, such as the efforts of rival scholars to “scoop” them, discredit their findings or just buy their sources, Michell’s unraveling private life, and a great deal else.

   Byatt does an incredible job of balancing the unfolding story of the Victorian authors with the ongoing one of Michell and Bailey discovering it and themselves, fleshing out even the minor characters and wrapping the loose ends. And she truly appreciates both elements of her work. There’s the occasional line like “Literary critics make natural detectives … the classic detective story arose from the classic adultery novel….” and some very intelligent insight into the nature of literary study.

   But this is far, far from an academic exercise. Or a conventional love story. Or any ’tec I ever read before. Good enough that although I didn’t care for the ending — it smacks of bad Dickens or typical Keeler — I still enjoyed it.

   I should also add that Byatt writes like a very talented chameleon. Whether it’s paragraphs from dull Ph.D. theses, pages of old correspondence, academic ramblings on abstruse connections, or ersatz Victorian poems — both dry-as-dust and the really engaging ones — she handles each and all with faultless verisimilitude. This is a book by someone who really knows how to write. And read.