This morning I’ve been reading the final sections of A.S. Byatt’s “Possession”. Wonderful, edge-of-the-seat ending with an incredible combination of deep satisfaction and equally deep continued yearning. [Also midnight grave-robbing, huge Act-of-God storm scenes, and the bad guys getting foiled by the fortitude and heroic actions of intrepid PhD Scholars and Librarians, motivated by Love of Learning and dedication to high ideals – great stuff!]. A true Romance, in the deeper sense of that term. The full title is “Possession: A Romance”. Right after the title page there’s an intriguing epigraph defining the term from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface to “The House of the Seven Gables”. Here it is:
“When a writer call his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experiences. The former – while as work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart – has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation. … The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.”
This has great resonance for me. I consider myself a Romantic person, in the larger sense of 19th century Romanticism, which I still don’t fully understand, but to which I nevertheless feel deeply connected. There’s a great deal about Roland Mitchell, one of the principal characters in Possession, that connects closely with my own experience and, in some cases, with what my experience could have been if life had taken a slightly different course. Here’s a passage about how Roland's mother extracts for him a decent education from the English school system by sheer brute force and will. Roland, like me, was born in 1956 and, also like me …
“He thought of himself as a latecomer. He had arrived too late for things that were still in the air but vanished, the whole ferment and brightness and journeyings and youth of the 1960s, the blissful dawn of what he and his contemporaries saw as a pretty blank day. Through the psychedelic years he was a schoolboy in a depressed Lancashire cotton town, untouched alike by Liverpool noise and
I love the image of the disappointed mother scratching and clawing for a real education for her son. Roland eventually becomes an accomplished Poet Professor, in addition to a noted scholar of Randolph Henry Ash and, in some sense, Ash’s chosen vehicle for the revelation of the truth about Ash and Lamotte, a role that could only be played by a scholar of great erudition and broad understanding.