Possession by AS Byatt
Vintage Classics, £7.99
Fri 9 Jul 2010
oland Michell gave his credentials; part-time research assistant to Professor Blackadder, who had been editing the Complete Works of the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash since 1951. In return, the librarian handed over one of Ash's volumes and Roland retreated to one of the dustier recesses of the London Library. On opening the book, he found two sheets of paper.
Dear Madam, Since our unexpected conversation at Crabb's breakfast table, I have thought of little else but English myth and dull literary allusion, of interest to no one but writers who take themselves far too seriously. We must speak again.
Very interesting, thought Roland. It cannot be Miss Byatt to whom Ash addressed this correspondence, for though the sentiments may fit, post-modernism was not a trait associated with Byatt and other Victorians. He placed the letters in his jacket pocket and went home.
"Did you have another boring day?" inquired the nondescript Val of her equally nondescript partner. To have called them lovers would have spoken of a depth of emotion not to be found in this book.
"Indeed I did," Roland replied. "And you?"
"Oh yes. Working for a solicitor is most satisfactorily dreary."
"It is perhaps unfortunate that all of us present day characters should have been made into two-dimensional academic stereotypes," said Professor Blackadder as Roland entered his office.
"That would certainly explain why no one ever mentions you have the same name as Rowan Atkinson's character in the television comedy series," Roland answered.
"Good Lord," AS Byatt exclaimed. "What's a television?"
Roland knew it was incumbent on him to inform the professor of his find, yet he chose to keep it to himself, electing instead to seek out the more superficial help of Fergus Wolf, the blond departmental Love God.
"Um, I was wondering if you could give me a hand," enquired Roland. "It seems that Ash may have met a woman at one of Crabb's salons. It can only have been the little-known poet, Christabel La Motte. Do you know anything about her?"
"Not a lot. Except I shagged Maud Bailey, the only academic specialising on her work, at a Lacanian conference on Feminist Semiotics in Victorian Poetry. She was a bit of a goer – ooh er, know what I mean. Everyone thought she was a lezzer, just like Christabel."
Deep in the temperature-controlled vault of the Randolph Henry Ash Centre at the University of American Caricature, Professor Martin Cropper let out an evil laugh. "Mwa-ha-ha. By hook or by crook, I shall own every Ash artefact come what may."
Roland knocked gently on the door of the Women's Studies department at Lincoln University. "Come in to my garden," said Maud, tucking her blonde hair into a head scarf in case she may be thought attractive. "So what do you think of Christabel's poetry?"
"At the risk of simplyfing the scansion / It reads a bit like Emily Dickinson," said Roland.
"Bravo," cried AS Byatt from afar, admiring her own genius.
"Excellent," said Maud. "Now it so happens I am conveniently distantly related to the La Mottes, so perhaps you might accompany me to Seal Court, where Christabel lived out her final years in solitude. Though I doubt we shall gain access, as the present owners, Sir George and Lady Joan Bailey are extremely unfriendly."
"Thank you for preventing my wheelchair from o'er turning," said Lady Joan. "However can I repay you?"
"You could let us have a rummage around for some correspondence," replied Roland. "But where to start looking?"
"Remember the lines from Mesulina," Maud exclaimed. "'For those who come searching, long after I'm dead / I've hidden the letters under the bed.'" They raced upstairs. There they were; a host of golden epistles!
My dear, The fire of Prometheus blazes deep within me, Your friend Randolph.
My dear, It is quite awkward what with my house mate, Blanche Glover, and all that, Your friend Christabel.
My dear, Hyperion's blessings fall on Albion / As my poems drone on and on / Pray read my epic Swammerdam / And let me pierce your bearded clam, Your ardent friend, Randolph.
My dear, The wonders of your verse /Would be greater if more terse. But I'll meet you anyway, Love Christabel.
My dear, I don't know why you suddenly want all your letters back and for me to contact you no more, but I shall do as you say, Yours RH Ash.
"Gosh," gasped Maud. "Scholars will have to rethink the history of Victorian Romantic poetry. It appears Ash was not devotedly uxorious to his wife Ellen and that Christabel may not have been a lesbian feminist icon.
"See the parallels in Ash's and Christabel's poems. In Ash, we find: 'Like ancient varnish runs deep / In darkest dales of tangled bushes and in Christabel, An ash I take into my mouth / As soon as I am north of Louth'. Ash did not go alone unto Yorkshire as we thought! This is why Blanche committed suicide! Perhaps we will turn up some more documents if we look hard.
"Count on it," smiled AS Byatt, "for I cannot resist showing off my ventriloquist talents."
The Journal of RH Ash. By Apollo's swollen Penisneid! Awoke to find Christabel's blood on my thighs. Perhaps Blanche does not have a dildo after all. Now Christabel has fled, wither I know not.
The Secret Diary of Ellen Ash, aged 43 and three-quarters. Randolph has come back from Yorkshire. He went with that bint but I'm not going to say another word as he's come back without her.
The Even More Secret diary of Sabine, aged 17 and two-thirds. Zut alors, ma cousine Anglaise Christabel 'as cerm to stay wiz us. She is vair obviously pregnant. Mais non! She has disparue and come back wizout ze bebe.
"It is so exciting to be on this literary trail with you," said Maud, "especially as you aren't interested in the grubby sex thing."
"Good God, no," exclaimed Roland. "Literary marginalia are far more stimulating."
"But if you fancied a bunk-up, you could have one."
"As long as we can still read poetry to one another."
"There's no time for that. AS Byatt has wasted so much time showing off her erudition, we're going to have wrap the book up in an 80-page Harry Potter romp."
Roland returned to his flat to see Val. "I'm sorry it didn't work out with you," he said, "I've been a bit Possessed."
"Don't worry," Val replied. "I've hooked up with a solicitor who coincidentally just happens to be handling the gripping issue of who keeps the letters. Hurry, there's not a moment to lose. Mortimer Cropper is plotting to illegally exhume Ash's body and retrieve the missing items Ellen placed in her coffin."
"Mwa-ha-ha, soon everything will be mine," cried Cropper, as a gothic storm broke and a yew tree pinned him to the ground.
"Not so fast," said Maud, Roland, Blackadder, Val and the Coincidental Solicitor, as they discovered a last letter from Christabel that Ellen had concealed. "I kept the baby and she's being brought up by my sis. Don't worry she's not being made to read your ghastly poetry, love and kisses C."
"So you are a direct descendant of Christabel, Maud," everyone gasped. "Then the letters are legally yours."
"Thrice darn it," snarled Cropper.
"Gosh," said Roland, "I've been offered a new job. Which is quite nice. Perhaps we should do the sex thing a bit more."
Randolph Ash rolled in his grave. "For what it's worth, I did know about my daughter, but Christabel never got my message. Hey ho, some events vanish without trace." But by then, no one was listening so no one would ever know.