As anyone who has read her previous novels, including ''Shadow of a Sun,'' or her stories or her critical studies knows, the British writer A. S. Byatt is a gifted observer, able to discern the exact but minor details that bring whole worlds into being. ''Possession'' begins in 1986 in the Reading Room of the London Library, where Roland Mitchell - a postdoctoral research assistant at London University and the novel's hero of sorts - is rummaging through an old book that once belonged to the man he worships: Randolph Henry Ash, a famous Victorian poet and obvious stand-in for Robert Browning.
''The book,'' Ms. Byatt writes, ''was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or, rather, protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.''
As it happens, out of this dusty old book pop two unsigned letters written in Ash's unmistakable hand. It is Roland Mitchell's total absorption in the world of Randolph Henry Ash that enables him to grasp at once the potential value of the letters, which reveal a hitherto unknown, and clearly affectionate, attachment between Ash and a woman not his wife. Thus begins an unlikely but dazzling quest for what literary critics and historians once, with unfounded confidence, referred to as the Truth.
Along the path, Mitchell, an old-fashioned scholar, falls in love with Maud Bailey, a feminist academic, but he cannot trust anything so out of date as a ''self'' that falls in love. Ms. Byatt writes: ''Roland had learned to see himself, theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems, all loosely connected. He had been trained to see his idea of his 'self' as an illusion, to be replaced by a discontinuous machinery and electrical message-network of various desires, ideological beliefs and responses, language-forms and hormones and pheromones.''
The consequences of this highly improbable self-view are devastating, as it turns out. Mitchell has been living in a damp basement flat in London with a feckless woman by the name of Val, and what they call their ''relationship'' is distinctly uninspired. They eat and sleep together in a low-keyed, almost mournful way that neither especially likes.
The pace of everything in Mitchell's life picks up, however, when he (almost inadvertently) begins a mad, intensely private search for the truth concerning the mysterious letters, which he has secretly tucked into his wallet. An ingenious literary detective, he soon discovers that the letters were sent to another poet, Christabel LaMotte - whose life is based on Christina Rossetti. If a connection exists between Ash and LaMotte, Mitchell will have stumbled onto a major discovery that could rescue his academic career as well as make a big dent in the field of Victorian poetry studies.
Dr. Maud Bailey, the leading LaMotte scholar, lives ''on the outskirts of Lincoln'' and spends her time writing articles about ''liminality'' in the poems of LaMotte, who (it so happens) is her distant ancestor. In what becomes the most charming part of the story, Mitchell and Bailey steal away to a magnificent country house, not far from Lincoln, where LaMotte lived most of her life in seclusion. The house, and its current master, Sir George Bailey, who seems to have walked right out of the pages of P. G. Wodehouse into a novel by David Lodge, are summoned with consummate wit and parodic skill.
As ''Possession'' progresses, it seems less and less like the usual satire about academia and more like something by Jorge Luis Borges. The most dazzling aspect of ''Possession'' is Ms. Byatt's canny invention of letters, poems and diaries from the 19th century. She quotes whole vast poems by Ash and LaMotte, several of which struck me, anyway, as highly plausible versions of Browning and Rossetti and are beautiful poems on their own. The painful and quintessentially Victorian love story of Ash and LaMotte is retold in their ''own'' words, offering an ironic counterpoint to the contemporary story of Mitchell and Bailey, who both eventually do fall into something like ''love.''
Then, as the narrative moves from Quest to Chase (as Mitchell himself puts it), the novel intensifies. It so happens that Mitchell and Bailey are not the only scholars with a vested interest in the Ash-LaMotte story. There is Professor Leonora Stern, a heavyset lesbian from the United States who is possessed by LaMotte's romantic attachment to a woman called Blanche Glover. And there is Professor James Blackadder - a Dickensian figure who has been editing Ash's Complete Works in ''what was known as Blackadder's Ash Factory'' since 1951 and is Mitchell's dour mentor. Blackadder's archopponent is Mortimer Cropper, an American scholar entrepreneur, devilishly caricatured by Ms. Byatt as a cross between Leon Edel and Liberace. Cropper's greatest desire is to possess everything that once belonged to Ash, including a metal box buried in the poet's grave that - Cropper suspects - contains a Big Secret.
All the interested parties converge in an archetypal Sussex churchyard on an archetypal dark and stormy night. And the Big Secret is, finally, divulged. It's a supremely Dickensian one, as it were, that plays wittily with the convention of coincidence. I won't be so churlish as to give away the end, but a plenitude of surprises awaits the reader of this gorgeously written novel. A. S. Byatt is a writer in mid-career whose time has certainly come, because ''Possession'' is a tour de force that opens every narrative device of English fiction to inspection without, for a moment, ceasing to delight.
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