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Possession. A.S.Byatt Prepared by Cecilia Liu. A. S. Byatt. English novelist Antonia Susan Byatt has been described as a "postmodern Victorian."
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Possession A.S.Byatt Prepared by Cecilia Liu
A. S. Byatt • English novelist Antonia Susan Byatt has been described as a "postmodern Victorian." • Educated at York and at Newnham College, Cambridge. She taught at the Central School of Art and Design and was Senior Lecturer in English and American Literature at University College, London, before returning to full-time writing in 1983. A distinguished critic as well as a novelist, she was appointed a C.B.E. in 1990.
A. S. Byatt • Her novel Possession won the Booker Prize and Irish Times/Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize in 1990. Her other fiction includes Babel Tower, Angels and Insects, and The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. Her critical works include Degrees of Freedom, a study of the novels of Iris Murdoch, and Passions of the Mind (selected essays).
“Fictional Realism”: Parallel Narrations • The reader as character • Two literary historians --Roland Michell and Maud Baily • Two Victorian poets' relationship -- Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte • Christabel & Maud • Randolph & Roland • Randolph & Ellen Roland & Val • Christabel & Blanche Maud & Leonora
Mirror-games and Plot-coils • the modern day plot • the plot of the Victorian poets • the two modern day literature historians unearth the secret passion between Ash and LaMotte, their own lives begin more and more to mirror the plot of the Ash/LaMotte correspondence.
Posession and Seeing Double • Possession is a work of double vision, telling a story within a story, as well as being in itself a book about books. • Byatt thus refers in her work to three non-intersecting worlds—that of the reader reading the book, that of Roland and Maud researching Ash, and that of Ash falling in love with Miss Lamotte—asking us, even if only implicitly, to find the parallels between them. • Scholarship and art
Solitude and Secrecy • A journey of discovery • Solitude plays a substantial role not only between Roland and Maud,Ash and LaMotte. • the connections between various documents and characters suggest that isolation and solitude which is often desired by Christabel and Roland is difficult to obtain and maintain. (Ch 11, 196; Ch12, 215)
"Follow the Path:" obsessive investigation • Maud and Roland spontaneously decide to recreate Ash and LaMotte's trip to Yorkshire. • They "follow the path" (238) of the Victorian poets in three ways. They retrace the steps of Ash and LaMotte's trip, intentionally, and, when they visit a place called Boggle Hole, unintentionally. They continue along the trail of clues that suggests an affair between the poets. And Maud and Ronald move closer to a romance as brash as that between Ash and LaMotte.
Gold and Green: The Colors of Beauty and Desire • Maud Bailey: a serious scholar dedicated to the study, particularly from a feminist perspective, of the fictional poetess Christabel LaMotte. • Roland Michell, a literary scholar and the protagonist of Possession, discovers that Randolph Henry Ash, the poet of his interest. • Roland & Maud’s first meeting (38-39)
"An Empty Clean Bed : " Whiteness, Desire and Fear • Whiteness signifies both purity and desire, a paradox the novel both struggles with and values. • Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, find a common desire in the absence of desire: the image of a clean, empty white bed. [Ch14, 267]
Possession and The Lady of Shalott • LaMotte compares herself to the Lady of Shalott in Chapter 10 (187) • The Lady of Shalott sits perpetually with her back turned to the world, weaving the reflections of the outside world she sees in her mirror. Becoming "half sick of shadows" the Lady of Shalott "left the web, left the loom" and embarks upon a journey into the world. But going out into the world proves poisonous, and as she floats "down to Camelot," the Lady dies. (As a poem coming out of Victorian England, her death speaks what might happen to the angel in the house if it decides to spread its wings.)
'I am Half-Sick of Shadows' The Lady of Shalott, painted by John William WaterhouseThe Lady of Shalottwas a favorite subject of many Pre-Raphaelite artists. Written by Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalottis a story where passion for life evokes death. The the poor Lady of Shallot is cursed to never look directly out of her window. She may, however, view the world by looking into a mirror. Image:http://www.nouveaunet.com/prbpassion/med1.cfm
In her passion, she forgets the curse and looks down toward Camelot to catch a glimpse of Lancelot. The mirror cracks and the curse comes upon her. • The Lady of Shalott goes down to the riverside and finds a boat. She unties the boat and lies down. As she floats down the river toward Camelot, she sings a song. Her blood freezes to her cold death.
Possession and Aurora Leigh • Similarly, in the first part of Aurora Leigh, Aurora insists on being left alone to her writing, and cannot be bothered with her suitor, Romney Leigh. She does not, however, maintain this conviction, and in the end of the lengthy poem believes in the power of love as much as the power of her own writing. In this particular letter written by LaMotte, she seems to regard Ash, and the outside world entire, as a threat to her poetry. Yet in Possession, like in Aurora Leigh and The Lady of Shalott, LaMotte does not remain shut up, but continues a correspondence and relationship with Ash.
Aurora Leigh (1856) • A novel-poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) • Aurora: "the dawn" • It describes Aurora's successful rebellion against her conventional Victorian English childhood; to travel in Italy, find love, and pursue her career as a writer. • She rejects her cousin, Romney Leigh, in favor of her own vocation as a poet. Romney then decides to marry a lower-class woman, Marian Earle. • But Marian is sent away to France. Trapped and raped, she becomes pregnant. She and her child are later rescued by Aurora. The three set up a home together in Italy, where Romney later appears.
Aurora Leigh (1856) • He had been blinded by an accident and has become somewhat softened by experience. Meanwhile, Aurora has learned the value of love from living with Marian and her child. She marries Romney in a new spirit of modest self-effacement. While not giving up poetry, she will write in service to the ideas of her husband. • Browning closes with a compromise between the artist's drive for self-expression and the Victorian wife's role of submissive service. • Source: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/english/English151W-03/auroraleigh.htm
Aurora Leigh‘s Dismissal of Romney- (The Tryst)by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) Oil on canvas (1860) Tate Gallery • The subject of this picture is taken from Elizabeth Barret Browning's poem Aurora Leigh, which was first published in 1856. The scene depicted is the moment at which Aurora, who aspires to be a poet, is courted with a marriage proposal by her cousin Romney. Rejecting his offer she proclaims her own `vocation'. • Image: http://freespace.virgin.net/k.peart/Victorian/hugheslove.htm
Christabel as Melusina • In French mythology, Melusina, or Melusine, was a water-sprite related to the Dames Blanches (the white ladies). The Melusina legend became extremely popular during the middle-ages, especially in the northern regions of France. In the early 1500s, Jean d'Arras, a French historian, received orders from the Duke of Berry to record all the information he could gather on Melusina. Jean d'Arras spent a number of years researching and collecting material for his major work, Chronique de Melusine. Much of his research was indebted to William de Portenach's previous chronicles on the history of Melusina. • Source: http://www2.sjsu.edu/depts/jwss.old/possession/fr-essay.html
The Framework of the Melusina Myth • According to Baring-Gould, the structure or the framework of the Melusina story is based on a mythical archetype involving mortal men and supernatural women. The general framework can be broken down as such: • A mortal man falls in love with a woman of supernatural contest. • She consents to live with him, subject to one condition. • He breaks the vow and loses her. • He seeks her, and a) recovers her; or b) never recovers her. • The Melusina myth fits this model with one exception: Raymond never recovers Melusina.
Melusina (33, 116-17, 333): In Breton mythology, a lamia, one of the legendary White Women (Dames Blanches), having the upper body of a human female and the lower body of a serpent. Magically masking her true form, Melusina married the wandering knight Raimondin under the prohibition that he never view her on Saturdays. Raimondin broke the taboo and witnessed his wife bathing in her snake-form. He confronted her and she fled after transforming herself into a dragon. In later myths, this same dragon became a harbinger of doom for the Bretonnian nobility, haunting castles wherein someone was doomed to die. • Christabel LaMotte's “The Fairy Melusine” (Ch 16, 289-98)
http://www.lincolnshirelife.co.uk/PAGES/BACK_OCT_2002/POSS.html No Discernible Trace • Love letters, poetry, journal entries, and other written forms further the story along throughout the novel to its very end.
Critiques of Romantic Inspiration in the Poetic Form • Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Victorian novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, A.S. Byatt addresses the role of the poet, using references both to the nature of love and the essence of creative inspiration itself, in her work, Possession.
Utilizing the context of letters between a renowned 19th century poet and his lover, a lesser known female poet, Byatt examines the substance of poetry in a non-poetic form. As a modern author, Byatt places this narrative in the Victorian time period in order to legitimize a critique of Victorian notions of poetry, artistic philosophies that are espoused in Barrett Browning's work.
Idea of poetry as an expression of generalized love • Ash depicts the contemporary trend of viewing poetic inspiration as originating from the state of general human love, where all-encompassing passion is "masked" by the particular intercourse of a lover and his love. [Ch8, 132]
In his critique of the forms of poetry in his time, Randolph Henry Ash presents Christabel with a divergent notion of the relationship between love and poetry and additionally, suggests that love is in and of itself a less admirable form of inspiration than another type of human relationship, the rapport of friendship
A Critique of the Victorian Omission of Sexuality • In her depiction of the Victorian past, Byatt recognizes Victorian culture's elision of all discourse surrounding sexuality. Byatt depicts Victorian marriage--represented by the poet Randolph Ash and his wife Ellen--in the same way a Victorian would have represented it, as evacuated of sexuality. Yet one of Byatt‘s projects in Possession is to examine the sexual act in Victorian marriage. [458-59, 460]
Marriage between Randolph and Ellen • characterized by its lack of sexual intimacy • Ellen: the sexual act is a brutal experience, incompatible with marriage. Marriage, according to Ellen Ash's construction of it, is frightening, close to a master-slave relationship. • typical Victorian notions of female sexuality and marriage.
A critique on the utility of modern theories of sexuality • In contrast to the Victorians‘ omission of discourse concerning sexuality is the twentieth-century’s hyper-theorization and discussion of it. Maud and Roland recognize this as they search for clues together.  • Byatt: twentieth-century fascination with sexuality and sexual theorizing is equally limited. • critiquing both the Victorian system, with its omission of sexuality, and the modern one, with its intense analysis of sexuality.
Imperialism—Cultural and Otherwise—in Possession • Possession engages in various questions of ownership: Who is entitled to Roland's initial discovery and its aftermath? What does it mean to possess another person in a romantic relationship? Do Roland and Maud have a right to enter Mrs. Irving's so-called private garden in their own backyard? and so forth.
Cultural Imperialism • One of the most important issues throughout the novel is the idea of cultural imperialism, as Leonora Stern and others term it, and the disputes which arise over whether the correspondence should remain in Britain based on the fact that its authors were British. (Ch 20, 403-4)
References • A. S. Byatt's Possession http://www2.sjsu.edu/depts/jwss.old/possession/ • Byatt, A. S. Possession: A Romance. London: Vintage, 1991. • Color and Identity in A. S. Byatt’s Possession by Stephen Dondershin http://www2.sjsu.edu/depts/jwss.old/possession/fr-essay.html • Aurora Leigh (1856) http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/english/English151W-03/auroraleigh.htm • MELUSINA myth: Origins of Christabel LaMotte's "The Fairy Melusine" http://www2.sjsu.edu/depts/jwss.old/possession/fr-essay.html