This one time in the comments, totally apropos of nothing, the frighteningly-witty CJ was all, You HAVE to read Possession. I do not ignore those kinds of imperatives from those kinds of people, so I read Possession. Friends! Fellow-nerds! Closet-romantics! This is the book for you. Plus, everyone’s all Blah blah blah Possession these days, so I feel terribly current.
So, there’s this guy who’s one of the foremost scholars studying the poetry of Randolph Henry Ash, which isn’t saying much because Randolph Henry Ash, people. Even if he were real, he’d be as interesting as mushy peas. ANYway, this guy (let’s call him Roland, both because that is his name and because it will make this review easier) finds some old letter-drafts written by Ash to some mysterious woman. NEVER-BEFORE-FOUND-LETTERS! A boring historian’s dream.
So he turns over some stones and figures that these letters were written to one Christabel LaMotte, fake-poet lesbian extraordinnaire who, in light of aforementioned letter (and aftermentioned collection of letters), MAY NOT HAVE BEEN A LESBIAN! At least, not wholly. H’anyvays, one of the foremost LaMotte scholars is the icily beautiful Maud Bailey. Betwixt the two of them, Maud and Roland uncover a whole slew of never-before-found-letters (blatant lurrrrve-letters this time) and set off on a quest to uncover the whole of Ash and LaMotte’s illicit relationship (Ash was married, LaMotte was shacked up with a ‘living companion,’ and this was Victorian England).
Because all the spoils of war go to the first-finder, Maud and Roland take great pains to conceal their loot from their various cohorts. It’s like watching a high-speed chase in nerdbookhistorian.s.l.o.w.m.o.t.i.o.n. In fact, the whole book is in slow motion! But it’s rich and thick and powerful and each chapter is headed by a (fake) poem written by one of the (fake) poets (most of which, I will confess, I didn’t read, but which I’m sure add a whole eighth layer of depth to the story which I missed). The whole thing is quite literary and fabulous, and Byatt has that old-fashioned skill of balancing subjects and predicates and clauses to create long, accomplished sentences, so that one tends to feel a bit victorious when coming to a full-stop.
I read half of this thing over Christmas holidays, but then there were parties and packing and cleaning, and we were literally skittering from morning til night, and all of a sudden I realized that we were moving the next day, and that I would have to return the book to the library HALF-UNREAD! This has only ever happened to me once, with disastrous results.* I wasn’t able until weeks later to pick it up from the library in Victoria, and it is a testament to the story that I’d forgotten nothing, and was able to pick up the thread of narrative as soon as I’d found (thereabouts) the place that I’d left off.
So read it! It is a long and slow ride, but the scenery is worth it.
*One time, I’d taken The Old Curiosity Shoppe out of the library, and had read up until the wealthy benefactor had almost found poverty-stricken Little Nell and her grandpa, and then it was due back at the library and I was all, What happened to Little Nell!? Did the benefactor find her in time? For various reasons that I forget (probably I was moving again), I didn’t get my hands on the book until almost a year later, only to find that no, the wealthy benefactor had not gotten to Little Nell in time, and she had only just died. I forget what happens in the rest of the book, because I was so depressed.