Possession by A. S. Byatt, dramatized by Timberlake Wertenbaker

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Woman's Hour Drama on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 19 December 2011 - 6 January 2012
In Timberlake Wertenbaker's dramatization, Possession came across as an academic detective story, in which research assistant Roland Michell (Harry Hadden-Paton) joined forces with academic Maud Bailey (Jemma Redgrave) to track down letters describing a hitherto undiscovered love-affair between Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (James d'Arcy) and Lamotte (Rachael Stirling). That quest begins at the London Library, where Michell pockets two of Ash's letters - which seem at first to be anonymous - and moves northwards, first to the University of Lincoln (where Bailey teaches), and thence to the estate of Sir George (Kenneth Cranham) and Lady Joan (Joanna David), which includes the house where Lamotte used to reside. However Michell and Bailey do have a rival; the American academic Mortimer Cropper (Matthew Marsh), who wants to find every single piece of Ash ephemera and purchase it for his archive in New Mexico.
Wertenbaker's dramatization was severely critical of most academics, who sacrificed all standards of objectivity and scholarship in the vainglorious pursuit of fame. In Matthew Marsh's performance, Cropper came across as a shameless manipulator, who deliberately used social occasions - such as lunch - to wheedle information out of Ash's descendants. He was not really concerned with his subject; rather he wanted to consolidate his reputation as the world's leading authority, as well as the curator of the world's principal archive on the Victorian poet. In his desire to find out more about Ash's affair, Michell steals two letters from the London Library, and then deliberately plays on Lady Joan's generosity so as to be able to look inside Lamotte's house. In Haddon-Paton's performance, Michell came across as supremely indifferent to the feelings of those closest to him, taking little or no notice of his partner Val's (Laura Pyper's) feelings. All he could do was to repeat the off-hand phrase "sorry!" - a word which had no significance for him. Michell's inability to express himself emotionally contrasted starkly with the articulate way in which he talked about his professional interests, both with Bailey and with his employer Professor Blackadder (Bill Paterson).
As their quest unfolded, however, so Michell's and Bailey's feelings began to change. Although concerned with enhancing their reputation, they also began to fall in love with one another, despite their age-difference. At first this was nothing more than shared academic respect (one of them looked at Ash's letters, while the other looked at Lamotte's), but as they warmed to their task, their feelings for one another began to change. Wertenbaker's dramatization contrasted the two academics' affair with that of Ash and Lamotte; whereas the academics mostly talked to one another, Ash and Lamotte communicated their emotions in epistolary form. However their feelings remained much the same: Michell understood he was falling in love with Bailey, while at the same time professing love for Val. Similarly Ash declared his love for Lamotte, while claiming to be in love with his wife. By such means Wertenbaker underlined the continuity of past and present; despite the difference of context, the academic's and the poet's experiences remained the same. This became something of a voyage of self-discovery - especially for Michell, who slowly began to understand that academic status was not the be-all and end-all of one's life. The parallel love-affairs gradually became more significant (which helps to explain why A. S. Byatt called her novel "a romance").
As someone who has spent much of his professional life engaged on similar research tasks, I was fascinated by ways in which Wertenbaker showed how the desire for academic success can become an obsession. This Woman's Hour Drama production was directed by Celia de Wolff.