A. S. Byatt’s Possession
If I had read A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession without having had British Literature, a lot of the novel’s meaning, analogies, and literary mystery would have been lost to me.The entire book seems one big reference back to something we’ve learned or read this May term. The first few lines of chapter one are poetry attributed to Randolph Henry Ash, which Byatt wrote herself. Already in those few lines I hear echoes of class, lines written in flowery Pre-Raphaelite tradition. “The serpent at its root, the fruit of gold /At the old world’s rim, /In the Hesperidean grove, the fruit /Glowed golden on eternal boughs, and there /The dragon Ladon crisped his jewelled (sic) crest.” Because of class, I was able to pick up on this poetry tradition right away. This story within a story is strengthened by Byatt’s ability to write Victorians accurately. Until I read some of the reviews, I thought Byatt’s Victorian characters were actual historical literary figures, when actually they are fictitious, and their journals, letters, and poetry are written by Byatt.
The action of the book takes place in two periods. The two main characters, Roland and Maud, are literary scholars living in the 1980’s. Their love story is shared and played out by the diaries, poetry, and correspondence of two poets and lovers from the 1860’s-Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte.Although the book is modern fiction, much of it is a Victorian novel as well. Possession is characteristic of Byatt’s love for intertextuality and imbedded texts.Possession is also an example of several literary genres, all written into one book. At various times it gives evidence of poetry, mythology, a romance novel, a detective story, a fairy tale, journals and diaries, and scholarly writings.
There are several themes in Possession that tie this book to earlier texts that we have read. Individual versus group identity, feminism, sexuality and the link between present and past are themes that Byatt deals with in her novel. Interestingly, Byatt expresses many of these themes using symbolic color imagery, a technique that makes her writing reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite style.
According to Byatt, the “struggle of the individual to discover and then live out her own identity, an identity etched out only with enormous effort and determination” is a major theme running through many of her novels, especially this one. The title itself brings out the first questions of identity-Possession. Who possesses whom? Does he possess her, or does she possess him? Are they owning and possessing their literary history, or does it possess them?
Individual identity is lost in the way the book is written. Many times, the reader cannot tell one couple from the other-who is reading Ash’s poetry, kissing, running away on a honeymoon of sorts, and making love? Is it Roland and Maud, or is she suddenly writing about Christabel and Ash again? Throughout the book, Byatt often makes these switches in characters between scenes without telling the reader. The effect is that the narrative is essentially no different for each couple living in different time periods. The same love story that defines Christabel and Ash in the 1860’s also describes Roland and Maud in the 1980’s.
In Victorian tradition, it was the man who “owned” the woman, his wife. Yet in this modern Victorian work, that becomes twisted. When Ash attempts to “claim” Christabel on page 308 by holding her and making love to her, the act of possession is switched around. He is trying figuratively to grasp her, and “she was liquid moving through his grasping fingers, as though she was waves of the sea rising all round him.” He tries to take her all in, to know her, and her womanhood eludes him, as personality always will. Byatt’s message seems to be that a personality cannot be taken or possessed by someone else, that individuality always remains, even in Victorian situations of female oppression and domination by males. This interwovenness and connection between the two couples through themes and situations, serves also to connect the past to the present, the Victorian to the Post-modern.
Feminism is an important aspect in each time period of the novel. Maud is a modern feminist, attempting to balance her identity as a woman with her identity as an academic scholar, and Christabel was trying to overcome her femininity by living as a recluse with another woman before she met R. H. Ash. Similarly, Maud is a withdrawn person, wary of men, and distrustful. Christabel is doing what many women of her time were doing, that is, struggling for masculine freedom in a world that was very limited for a woman. Maud is doing what many women today are attempting to do, that is, trying to reconcile and accept her femininity in an academic, typically male, environment. Byatt played up this feminist view of literature and society by choosing to base Christabel’s poetry (which Byatt wrote) on the strongly feminist poetry of Emily Dickinson, rather than on the softer voice of Christina Rossetti.
Another character, Roland’s old girlfriend Val, is anything but a feminist portrayal. She seems to serve as a balance and takes on a typical, subservient, Victorian woman’s role, even though she is a modern woman. She takes a job as a typist, even though she is a university scholar, constantly berates her job and herself as “menial,” and her thesis essay entitled “Male Ventriloquism: The Women of Randolph Henry Ash is discredited and attributed to a male writer. Val and the decrepit Victorian house where she and Roland share an apartment represent oppressive Victorian society, while Roland and Maud are living the more liberated version.
Sexuality is another issue that connects the two time periods. On page 6, there is a passage on R.H. Ash’s poem representing Proserpina, an ideal Greek woman, as “gold-skinned in the gloomgrain goldenand bound with golden links.” This is an example of idealized fertility and sexuality in Victorian women. It represents sexuality as something that can be conquered and possessed, like gold or grain. The suppression of sexuality in the Victorian era is a theme throughout the book, in both time periods, as is the sexual freedom that both couples eventually reach. The traces of sexuality in Victorian society have to be searched for and uncovered in Possession. There are hints of lesbianism, expressed by LaMotte’s retreat from society and setting up house with another woman. Ash and LaMotte’s love affair is hidden, in their own day and to the modern scholars, who have to dig through journals, poetry, and letters left by the two Victorian lovers to uncover it.Even Maud’s hair is symbolic, and ties her to Victorian society. She wears it covered with a scarf, symbolic of repressed Victorian sexuality.
The juxtaposition and link between the past and the present is a very significant aspect of Byatt’s novel. The storyline keeps shifting from the 1860’s to the present, and the characters are very similar. It is often difficult to tell which couple Byatt is writing about in any given situation, because their romances are so similar. The way this romantic narrative fits both couples and time periods seems to suggest that not so much has changed, and romance from one time to another is not so different as we thought. The characters mix the old and the new; Maud wears a brooch once belonging to Christabel, and another Ash scholar, Mortimer Cropper, carries Ash’s pocket watch. In the end of the novel, the last love letter written by Christabel enables Maud to finally enjoy the value of love in the present, and give her trust to Roland. The cyclical time frame of the novel provides an interesting contrast to the normal, stifling, linear time frame of typical literature and everyday life.
The way Byatt expresses many of these themes through her symbolic use of color is significant. Byatt paints with words, making her reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites. She gives color descriptions for her characters, painting the women such as LaMotte and Christabel in gold and green description, while persons whose characters are flat and never well-developed, such as Paola the secretary, are described in colorless terms. Paola has “long, colourless hair bound in a rubber band” huge mothlike glasses, and “dusty grey pads” for fingertips. Her lack of color sets her off from the beginning as a very flat character.