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Possession: A Romance


Possession: A Romance Cover

ISBN13: 9780679735908
ISBN10: 0679735909
Condition: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

1. What is the significance of the novel's title? Do you think it has more than one meaning? What does the concept of "possession" mean to the novel's various characters, both modern and Victorian? How can possession be seen as the theme of the book?

2. Ash is nicknamed "the Great Ventriloquist" but this sobriquet could as easily be applied to Byatt herself. Why does Byatt use poetry to give away so many clues to the story? Are the poems a necessary and integral part of the novel or would it have worked just as well without them? Do you find that the poems in the novel succeed in their own right as poetry?

3. All the characters' names are carefully chosen and layered with meaning. What is the significance behind the following names: Roland Michell, Beatrice Nest, Sir George Bailey, Randolph Ash, Maud Bailey, Christabel LaMotte, Fergus Wolff? (Clues to the last three may be found in the poetry by Tennyson, Yeats, and Coleridge cited below.) Do any other names in the novel seem to you to have special meanings? How do the names help define, or confuse, the relationships between the characters?

4. The scholars in the novel see R. H. Ash as a specifically masculine, Christabel LaMotte as a specifically feminine, type of poet, just as Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti, the poets on whose work Ash's and LaMotte's are loosely based, were considered to be extreme examples of the masculine and feminine in literature. Do you feel that such a classification is valid? What is there about Ash's and LaMotte's diction and subject matter that fulfills our ideas of "masculine" and "feminine"? Do the poets themselves consciously enact masculine and feminine roles? Do you find that Christabel's poetry is presented as being secondary to Ash's? Or that the work of the two poets is complementary?

5. Ellen Ash wrote her journal as a "defence against, and a bait for, the gathering of ghouls and vultures" [p. 501]. Mortimer Cropper is literally presented as a ghoul, robbing the poet's grave. Beatrice Nest, on the other hand, wishes to preserve Christabel's final letter to Randolph unread. What is the fine line, if any, between a ghoulish intrusion upon the privacy of the dead, and the legitimate claims of scholarship and history? As much as the scholars have discovered, one secret is kept from them at the end and revealed only to the reader. What is that secret and what difference does it make to Roland's future?

6. Freedom and autonomy are highly valued both by Christabel and Maud. What does autonomy mean to each of these characters? In Christabel's day, it was difficult for women to attain such autonomy; is it still difficult, in Maud's? What does autonomy mean to Roland? Why does mutual solitude and even celibacy assume a special importance in his relationship with Maud?

7. The moment of crisis in the poets' lives, 1859, was a significant year, as it saw the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. The theory of natural selection delivered a terrible blow to the Victorians' religious faith and created a climate of uncertainty: "Doubt," says Christabel, "doubt is endemic to our life in this world at this time" [p. 182]. How does Byatt compare this spiritual crisis with that which has befallen Roland and Maud's generation, who are taught to believe that the "self" is illusory [p. 459]?

8. The fluffy Beatrice Nest is scorned by the feminist scholars who crave access to Ellen Ash's journal. Yet in her way Beatrice is as much a victim of "patriarchy" as any of the Victorian women they study. What is the double standard at work among these politically minded young people? Can Beatrice be seen as a "superfluous woman," like Blanche and Val? What, if anything, do these three women have in common?

9. Ash writes "Swammerdam" with a particular reader, Christabel LaMotte, in mind. Is Christabel's influence on Ash evident in the poem, and if so, how and where? How, in the poem, does Ash address his society's preoccupation with science and religion? How does he address his and Christabel's conflicting religious ideas? How does Christabel herself present these ideas in Mélusine?

10. Why is Christabel so affected by Gode's tale of the miller's daughter? What are its parallels with her own life?

11. The fairy Mélusine has, as Christabel points out, "two aspects--an Unnatural Monster--and a most proud and loving and handy woman" [p. 191]. How does Christabel make Mélusine's situation a metaphor for that of the woman poet? Does Christabel herself successfully defy society's strictures against women artists, or does her awareness of the problem cripple her, either professionally or emotionally? At the end of her life she wonders whether she might have been a great poet, as she believes Ash was, if she had kept to her "closed castle" [p. 545]. What do you think?

12. Roland and Maud believe they are taking part in a quest. This is a classic element of medieval and nineteenth-century Romance, of which they are well aware. Aside from the quest, what other elements of Romance can be found in Maud and Roland's story? In Christabel and Randolph's? What other genres are exploited in the novel?

13. When he returns to his flat at the end of the novel, Roland decides there is "no reason why he should not go out into the garden" [p. 514]. What is the emotional significance of his finally entering the garden? Poems that will enrich your understanding of Possession Robert Browning, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," "My Last Duchess," "Porphyria's Lover," "Caliban Upon Setebos," "Bishop Blougram's Apology," "Mr. Sludge, the 'Medium'," "Andrea del Sarto," and "Fra Lippo Lippi"; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Christabel"; Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress," "The Garden"; Petrarch, Rime Sparse; Christina Rossetti, Poetical Works; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Merlin and Vivien" from Idylls of the King, In Memoriam, "Maud," "Mariana," "The Lady of Shallott"; W.B. Yeats, The Rose.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 7 comments:

valgal, January 1, 2012 (view all comments by valgal)
Byatt, as usual, creates a whole world of fully developed characters. Though they are at odds with each other, the reader comes to love them all. But the most astonishing feature of the book is the writer's tour de force in producing so many different voices and writing styles, letters, poetry and prose, ostensibly written by the various characters in the book. By the end, you want to read the books that are excerpted, but, darn! they aren't real...Luckily, it sounds like Ragnarok, her next tome, might be one of them. Can't wait!
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Trudy, February 1, 2010 (view all comments by Trudy)
Byatt is amazing. She has not only created unforgettable modern-day characters in her deft satire of academia, she has created writings in the voices of two fictional eminent Victorians. Each of story's many layers has a unique flavor, and their mingling results in a most delectable concoction.
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Mombilatta Windowshade, January 8, 2010 (view all comments by Mombilatta Windowshade)
Layers of discovery, the book reads like poetry in many ways. It is my all time favorite book.
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Product Details

Byatt, A.S.
Vintage Books USA
New York :
Collectors and collecting
Romance - General
Movie-TV Tie-In
Love stories
Poets, English
Literary historians
Poets, English -- Fiction.
England Fiction.
Literature-A to Z
fiction;romance;historical fiction;novel;poetry;literature;england;british;academia;booker prize;20th century;victorian;mystery;historical;literary fiction;love;19th century;poets;contemporary;contemporary fiction;british literature;literary;english;booke
fiction;romance;historical fiction;novel;poetry;literature;england;british;academia;booker prize;mystery;victorian;20th century;historical;literary fiction;love;19th century;poets;contemporary fiction;contemporary;british literature;literary;english;histo
fiction;romance;historical fiction;novel;poetry;literature;england;british;academia;booker prize;20th century;mystery;victorian;historical;literary fiction;love;19th century;poets;contemporary fiction;contemporary;british literature;literary;english;histo
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage International
Series Volume:
no. 683
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
28 x 13.4 x 4.6 in 24.1 lb

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Possession: A Romance Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$4.95 In Stock
Product details 576 pages Vintage - English 9780679735908 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Byatt's use of language is lyrical and poignant. It drips from the pages like honey from a lover's tongue....Possession is the sheer essence of Byatt's work. She weaves the tale of a pair of literary scholars studying the lives of two Victorian poets. As the research progresses, their lives become more intertwined along with their interest and love of the work and, of course, each other. But, this is not your average romance. I remember the first time I came upon this book. I contemplated the subject matter without overwhelming enthusiasm. However, after reading a few chapters I became engrossed. It's not what she's writing about, but how she writes it.

"Review" by , "Gorgeously written ... dazzling ... a tour de force."
"Review" by , "What a book! This is a novel for every taste.... An altogether magical performance."
"Review" by , "A masterpiece of wordplay and adventure, a novel that compares with Stendhal and Joyce."
"Review" by , "A genuine winner ... original and unforgettable."
"Review" by , "The most dazzling novel of the year."
"Synopsis" by , National Bestseller


Winner of England’s Booker Prize and the literary sensation of the year, Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas. 

An exhilarating novel of wit and romance, an intellectual mystery, and a triumphant love story. This tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets became a huge bookseller favorite, and then on to national bestellerdom.

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