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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Possession by A.S. Byatt

I first read Possession in the midst of law school finals, and it quite possibly saved my sanity. It is a gorgeous novel -- a literary mystery (but no murderous albino monks! No petty thugs working for unseen billionaires!), a romance (two, really), and a meditation on the power of literature. Writing exerts a strong force here, and Byatt nails not only the exhilaration words can inspire, but the obsession too. And so Roland steals a newly discovered letter because he can't bear to have others read it too, and he and Maud hide their research, trying to keep Ash's and Cristabel's secret as long as possible. Cropper devotes a lifetime and a fortune to acquiring every word written by Ash, every object he touched, every scrap with any connection to him. Beatrice spends decades editing Ellen's journals, because she is afraid to release them to the wilds of modern academia. Blackadder does all he can to make sure Ash's papers stay in England, because Americans don't have a right to him. And Leonore does not want to relinquish the view of Cristabel she and her "sister-feminists" have held all these years.

Earlier this week Alexa Alfer's and Amy J. Edwards de Campos's A.S. Byatt: Critical Storytelling, which includes an essay on Possession, crossed my desk, so of course I neglected my job long enough to read it. Page 103 contains a passage which, in turn, cites Chris Walsh's "Postmodern Reflections: A.S. Byatt's Possession" (from Richard Todd's and Luisa Flora's Theme Parks, Rainforests and Sprouting Wastelands: European Essays on Theory and Performance in Contemporary British Fiction), which describes the novel as "'a celebration of reading' and rejection of restrictive critical readings." The first phrase in particular describes exactly how I feel about Possession. It is a reminder that regardless of all the lit crit theories out there, a fundamental part of reading novels is the sheer pleasure we take in the words and story.

That pleasure was still there when I read it again. But this time I was also struck by the role of women in the novel. Byatt has stated time and again that she is opposed to Feminist Theory, yet she cannot help but notice the limitations placed on women deliberately or inadvertently, and it is reflected in the female characters. A theme running through the book is that of agency, of the traditional role for women as muse or helpmeet and the efforts by some to become something else. Ellen is the prototypical helpmeet, who devotes herself entirely to her husband to support him and his writing, and is dismissed by modern feminist critics as not being worthy of attention. It is Beatrice, a modern scholar dismissed by male critics for being female and by female critics for being frumpy and old-fashioned, who sees the wit in Ellen, the caginess, the subversion of people's expectations of her. Passages from Ellen's diaries and scenes told from her perspective show that she embraced her role, even if it was assumed for troubling reasons, and she took control of the way she would be perceived.

Cristabel, the obvious contrast to Ellen, rejects the path she took, and carefully cultivates a quiet life with a female companion that gives her the freedom to write. And then she meets Ash, who loves her not for her beauty or gentleness, but for her mind -- and even more, not for her understanding of his works or her ability to be his muse, but for her own writing, her status as a creator of art. Cristabel is wary, not just because Ash is married, but because she sees that even with a man who is so supportive, Victorian life and culture, and just the fact of being married, would tear her away from her writing and reduce it to a hobby. Cristabel would not allow herself to be sucked into Ash's life for more than a brief period, and made tremendous sacrifices to retain her freedom.

This tension is echoed in the lives of the modern characters. Maud keeps herself tightly closed and cool, figuratively and literally (she hides her blonde hair from the world), because she perceived as being too beautiful to be a scholar. Beatrice is all but irrelevant, invisible to the scholarly world around her. But it is Val who is worst off, and the most frustrating. She has had her own hopes dashed by living in Roland's shadow, by not being good enough to do what he does. She takes a series of unfulfilling temp jobs to pay the bills, and watches as the men around her gain some measure of success. And yet . . . it is the 1980s, and she no longer has to be like that. She can search for a career that would fulfill her. She can find satisfaction in her work for paying the bills, and find fulfillment elsewhere -- in art, books, writing. She can leave Roland, because whatever love she felt for him is long gone. But she stays, and she takes on the role of the female martyr (almost as if she enjoys the role), and allows bitterness to consume her. In this sense, she fails where Ellen and Cristabel succeeded -- they chose their roles, accepted the sacrifices and consequences, and found some genuine satisfaction in what they did. Which is not to say that their lives were not heavy with suffering and doubt, or that a more egalitarian culture would have allowed them more happiness, more choices. But they did what they could, and took responsibility for their lives. Maud, too, ends the book navigating a way for her to be both a woman and a scholar. Val, however, never displays any agency, and instead gets swept up in the life of another man (albeit one that makes her happy).

I've only touched a fraction of what's in Possession. The text itself is a literary feat, composed of different narrators, journals, letters, stories, and poems of almost every nineteenth-century style. It's a post-modern work that reads like a genre novel (no wonder I love it), it's a skeptical look at contemporary critical approaches, it's a parody of academic life. It's one of my most favorite books.

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