The basic plot is that two twentieth-century academics, each having a professional interest/obsession in one of two (invented) Victorian poets, discover that the poets (Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash) had a hitherto unknown relationship and work together to uncover the proceedings. In the process, Maud and Roland fall in love themselves. And a whole bunch of other stuff happens. The academic satire was often funny, but also hugely depressing. I had a few moments of "oh surely this is not MY future?!" disbelief.
The narrative shifts. Huge chunks are epistolary, which I skipped, because I'm not into the correspondence of real authors, let alone the fake correspondence of fake authors. (I do want to read Gwen Harwood's letters someday, only because they are often footnoted in her collected poems.) Fake poetry by the fake authors also pops up all over the place, which I usually didn't read because while the bits I did read were okay, I was skeptical of the contrivance and felt that, since A. S. Byatt wrote the poems not just to go with the authors but to fit certain parts of the book, there was no spark of genuine poetic inspiration there. I almost think she would have done better to use two real but slightly obscure poets, invent this relationship between them, and then insert their poetry where it fit. Of course, that wouldn't have worked because the novel is thematically linked by the image of the Melusina myth, and Christabel's poems are full of insect imagery, and all kinds of other things that demonstrate Byatt's complete command over the story.
Besides all this, we have some journal entries, and third-person limited scenes in the twentieth century, but then also third-person limited or even omniscient scenes in the nineteenth century. This put me off, because it didn't seem to fit. Why should the reader learn more than the twentieth-century characters know? For the final powerful scene is one of those, an incident for which no documentary evidence exists. Why and how could we know? But that's part of the point, that the biographer or the critic will never truly know everything about the subject. Some things will always remain hidden.
The lengths people go to in order to find what's hidden can be barbaric, however. The climactic scene involves the exhumation of a grave, and it is such a naked invasion of privacy that I cringed to read it, but the novel satirises all this a bit by having the act accompanied by a melodramatic thunderstorm (the likes of which I have never experienced in England, let me say). But they don't find out everything, for all the close study of journals and letters, the ownership of the authors' possessions, the recreation of journeys. And yet, without them realising it, Maud and Roland's course at times runs parallel to that of Christabel and Ash.
In class we talked about the Melusina myth and the different things it signifies: the fear of female or animal nature, the fear of sleeping with a serpent or wolf at your bed, the question of can you ever really know everything about another person, the (im)possibility of living between two worlds. In Possession there is a sense of women trying to stay hidden, trying to maintain some remnant of a private world that men cannot breach, but they always breach it anyway. The Victorian story is so Victorian, and also reminded me of French Lieutenant's Woman. And it was pleasingly predictable: you don't need to have read many Victorian or Victorian-era stories to know that where there's sex, there's pregnancy! Every single time!
There are many different ways to possess, different ways to get closer to your subject. By the end of the novel it is revealed that Maud is descended from both Christabel and Ash, and Roland says that he can see some of Ash's features in hers, and then they have sex for the first time. So, says I, perhaps he was subconsciously attracted to Maud from the beginning because of this resemblance to Ash? Surely there's some homosocial desire at work here, for it seems to be a pretty big turn-on for him? Um, wow, says the prof and the rest of the class, I never really thought of it that way. So I guess I'm just Weird Like That.
And my own ways of possession? Perhaps it's because most of the texts I study these days have no authors, but I am not drawn to obsession about anyone. *cough* There is no one author of whom I can say that I have read his/her complete works, and/or correspondence or journals. I don't own anyone's watch, or locks of their hair. Aside from visiting graves and sometimes houses, I get close to the authors I idolise by reading their works. Because, in the end, that's what it's about for me. The works, not the person. The author is dead anyway (LOLBarthes) and the work is where the lifeforce is contained.