Habitable Worlds and Literary Voices: A.S. Byatt’s Possession as Self-Conscious Realism – Merja Polvinen

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 3, 2004

Literary Studies

© 2004 Merja Polvinen





Merja Polvinen



In a 1979 essay on realism in contemporary British fiction, A.S. Byatt writes about the seemingly self-contradictory attitude portrayed in many novels to the ontological status of fiction. Works by authors such as Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson reveal, she argues, “a formal need to comment on their fictiveness combined with a strong sense of the value of a habitable imagined world” (Passions of the Mind 181). Writing about her own short story “Sugar” she identifies a similar attitude in herself: “. . . what Proust taught me . . . was that it was possible for a text to be supremely mimetic, ‘true to life’ in the Balzacien sense, and at the same time to think about form, its own formation, about perceiving and inventing the world” (Passions of the Mind 22-23). If these two quotations provide us a sense of her aims as a writer, a further comment clarifies her opinion of the ethical responsibilities of the reader:

Modern criticism is powerful and imposes its own narratives and priorities on the writings it uses as raw material, source, or jumping-off point. It may be interested in feminist, or Lacanian, or marxist, or post-colonial narratives and vocabularies. Or it may play forcefully with the words of the writer, interjecting its own punning meanings. . . . Such secondary cleverness distresses both the reader and the writer in me. As an innocent reader I learned to listen, again and again, to texts until they had revealed their whole shape, their articulation, the rhythms of their ideas and feelings. (On Histories and Stories 45-46)

In this passage texts appear simultaneously as abstract shapes and as speaking voices; things which manifest a rhythm and a pattern of thought. Taken together, these three comments serve to illustrate Byatt’s view of the nature of narrative fiction: that it is both a world which its reader can enter and a voice which its reader should listen, even while both author and reader are also perfectly conscious of the conventions of the imaginative process in which they partake. In her critical writings Byatt has formulated a “self-conscious realism” (Passions of the Mind 4), in which she attempts to balance formal and ontological self-consciousness with a belief in the fictional world created by the literary work. In this article I discuss Byatt’s 1990 novel Possession: A Romance as a realisation of Byatt’s theories on self-conscious realism, and in doing so I hope to clarify some of the ambiguities of the novel’s ontological position.


For that purpose, I shall treat Byatt’s fiction and her critical writings as expressions in two different genres of a single vision of the nature of literature. This approach does beg the question of how fair it is to read a novel simply as a repository of an author’s theoretical position. However, so prevalent are the connections between Byatt’s novels and her theoretical writing that the intertextual references and metaphorical structures she discusses in an essay very soon appear in her next piece of fiction, or vice versa.1 Though aware of the many different foci that a reader may concentrate on in reading Possession, my interest lies in the way it is a novel about abstract ideas at least as much as it is about experiences and emotions, and thus ignoring the novel’s intellectual context, expressed in the author’s critical essays, would feel contrived.

The plot of Possession traces an illicit love affair between two fictitious Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Their story is gradually revealed in a narrative which follows the research of two twentieth-century literary scholars, the Ash expert Roland Michell, and Maud Bailey, an authority on LaMotte. The novel portrays various kinds of possession: material, spiritual and sexual. Most importantly, the readers depicted in the novel are driven to possess the texts they read in the sense of comprehending them, while at the same time they find themselves channelling the voices of those texts. These two kinds of textual possession, when combined with the desire to experience “a habitable imagined world,” form the intuitive and emotional base of Byatt’s view of literature, on which the intellectual structures of her novels are built.


Much has been written about Byatt’s novel from the point of view of its presentation of postmodern literary scholarship (Lundén), the marginalised voices of Victorian women (Todd) and the nature of postmodern desire (Jeffers). Susanne Becker draws attention to the gothic elements in the novel, and her point that Byatt is taking a step away from postmodernism is well worth making. Becker’s view is also shared by Ivana Djordjevic, whose article examines many of the allusions and symbols in Byatt’s novel, particularly her use of Giambattista Vico. Christian Gutleben, on the other hand, has seen Possession as an instance of a strong tendency in contemporary British fiction to use the Victorian age for a setting for ambiguous attitudes to the relationship between fiction and reality, a tendency which he sees as a “step back” towards tradition (Nostalgic Postmodernism 10). In Possession Byatt has certainly utilised aspects of nineteenth-century realism, but combines them with the metafictional techniques of postmodernism, thus creating a re-invigorated view of realism as the literary form which makes it possible for readers to encounter both a believable fictional world and abstract structures of ideas and metaphors.

Self-Conscious World-Making

In her essay “People in Paper Houses: Attitudes to ‘Realism’ and ‘Experiment’ in English Postwar Fiction” Byatt discusses how some writers of the 1960s and 1970s abandoned nineteenth-century realism because they believed it to be a “convention now leading novelists into bad faith” (Passions of the Mind 165). In the essay she looks for a synthesis between the two traditions of realism and experiment, and locates it in a realism spiced with both a formal imagination and a curiosity concerning the real objects of the world. For Byatt, realism has the particular value of providing the reader with an easy access to a fictional world, whereas formal play satisfies a more abstract pleasure in the shapes and structures of literary works.

Being a novel about poets and literary critics, most of the characters in Possession are authors, readers or both. As such, the novel is replete with literary pastiches of Victorian poetry and postmodern literary criticism, experiences of reading, theoretical discussions between characters, and – typically for Byatt – very consciously crafted structures of metaphors, historical references and narrative conventions which draw readers’ attention to the formal aspects of the novel and its status as fiction.

As is clear from its subtitle, Possession defines itself as A Romance, and it does draw much of its form from the medieval romance quest. In addition to self-conscious comments by the characters (particularly Ash and LaMotte) who frequently compare their situation with the conventions of romance (e.g. 193, 456, 500), the general interest felt during the Victorian era towards the chivalric romance permeates the novel. There is a quest to be fulfilled (328), there are women viewed as princesses in towers (277) and men as devouring dragons (503). One of the epigraphs is a quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne defending romance as a valid literary genre. Romance has, Hawthorne writes, “fairly a right to present [the truth of the human heart] under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation,” whereas the realist novel “is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience”.

The exclusion of all things improbable and imaginary to the realm of romance gave the early proponents of realism the chance to take their theories of fiction’s ability to imitate real life to the extreme: even to the point of claiming that since the purpose of the novel as a genre was to imitate human experience it should abandon the conventions of form and plot. An anonymous critic writes in the North British Review in 1864: ” . . . the realist in fiction is careless about plot. His sole object is to describe men’s lives as they really are; and real life is fragmentary and unmethodical” (cited in Stang 151). Similar ideas can be seen in the writings of many late twentieth-century theorists. David Cowart, for example, points out how art is still expected to hold a mirror up to nature, how “‘life’ or ‘nature’ has been redefined as something fragmented, indeterminate, and absurd – and art now is expected to ‘reflect’ that fragmentation, indeterminacy, and absurdity” (Literary Symbiosis 42). Similarly, Byatt suggests that many contemporary authors feel that “‘modern’ reality as opposed to ‘nineteenth-century’ reality, is ‘chaotic, fluid, random,'” and that consequently the realist novel should reflect such undifferentiated reality (Passions of the Mind 178). By consciously siding itself with romance and against the logical conclusion of realist fiction, Possession draws attention to the discarded qualities of romance, and by returning to the point where that path began Byatt’s novel is searching for a new beginning to realism: a way to re-incorporate the metaphorical qualities assigned to romance and thus produce a way of writing about reality that would not lead to the overly fractured narratives of the postmodern novel and the resulting loss of mimesis.

Byatt’s use of both medieval and modern romance conventions and her adoption of Hawthorne’s defence of romance as a genre which tells human truths veiled in fantastic circumstances remind the reader that this novel is representative neither of Victorian realism nor of postmodern intertextual play in their most common forms, but a combination of the two, or, as Lynn Wells puts it, “Byatt’s fantasized redemption of postmodernity” (672). It is precisely Byatt’s mixing of the realistic and the fantastic or romantic in Possession which lifts this work above her other novels, in which the conventions of realism alone are unable to support her complex metaphorical structures and still maintain a mimetic effect.2 In Possession the intersecting worlds of ghosts, geology, lovers and fairies, along with their various symbolic meanings, merge happily in a literary detective story which affords its reader both the pleasure of abstract play and the satisfaction of fulfilled curiosity.

Byatt’s aim in combining abstract structure with habitable worlds is to achieve in fiction a unique kind of epistemological access to reality. As Hilary M. Schor has shrewdly observed, Byatt’s

continued interest in fiction suggests not the love of story making per se, but some sense that the novel is a kind of organizational structure, some way of knowing and naming material, some way of resurrecting interest, available nowhere else . . . as if she thought (and this is an instinct much more akin to the Victorian than the postmodern novelist) that the novel’s form was at its heart to invoke everything else. (237)

Schor’s use of the word “invoke” recalls Byatt’s own abundant use of spiritualist symbolism in her attempt to describe the relationship between fiction and reality. Without wanting to claim that fiction is directly referential, Byatt nevertheless suggests that literary forms can become fictional worlds in which reality is resurrected or summoned into a ghostly existence. Indeed, as Schor argues, her use of the novel form is, above all, “a series of strategies for the deployment of and the debate over matter” (238; emphasis original). In Possession Byatt mercilessly parodies those literary theorists who see language and literature as self-referring systems, and an “untrammelled curiosity” about “things other than literature” (Passions of the Mind 188) fuels the plot of the novel.

Possession begins with Roland’s discovery – made while chasing down yet another elusive textual reference in Randolph Henry Ash’s poetry – of letters written by Ash and tucked away in a book that used to belong to him. The letters, addressed to an unknown woman, have an almost shocking physical presence (20-21) and turn Roland from a purely textual scholar into both a thief and a detective, waking in him a new curiosity about objects and their existence beyond textual references. During a field trip to Whitby the two scholars discuss the ubiquity of metaphor – sexual metaphor, in particular – in their world-view: “Do you never have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world?” Roland asks Maud.

I mean of course everything connects and connects – all the time – and I suppose one studies – I study – literature because all these connections seem both endlessly exciting and then in some sense dangerously powerful – as though we held a clue to the true nature of things? I mean, all those gloves, a minute ago, we were playing a professional game of hooks and eyes – mediaeval gloves, giants’ gloves, Blanche Glover, Balzac’s gloves, the sea-anemone’s ovaries – and it all reduced like boiling jam to – human sexuality. . . . We are so knowing. And all we’ve found out, is primitive sympathetic magic. Infantile polymorphous perversity. Everything relates to us and so we’re imprisoned in ourselves – we can’t see things. (253-254)

Roland struggles between a pleasure felt at the endless game of references and a fear of losing his connection to real, physical objects – “things” – which would not be defined exclusively through his own language and culture. Like Umberto Eco’s Casaubon in Foucault’s Pendulum (1989), Roland is equally frightened and attracted by the connections which can be formed between the different expressions of human culture, the game which feels both “endlessly exciting” and “dangerously powerful.” Yet, despite the undeniable thrill of the chase from one reference to the next he is also disappointed with the result, the reduction of the complexity of ideas and objects to a single reference network: himself.3

Thus human experience of both art and life must not be limited to a postmodern play of fictions, Byatt believes. Rather, she suggests, “whilst it was once attractive (séduisant?) to think that whatever we say or see is our own construction, it now becomes necessary to reconsider the idea of truth, hard truth, and its possibility” (Passions of the Mind 24). What she proposes is that fiction at its best is formed from metaphorical structures which are also true reflections of the reality beyond the text. Without this relationship with reality and its attendant emotional engagement of the reader in the story, fiction will lose one half of its gestalt-like character and become pure symbolic structure – more argument than fiction.

The emotional crux of Possession lies in the tragic discovery that Ash died believing LaMotte had murdered at birth their love-child, his only progeny. But the postscript of the novel paints a different picture for the reader. There are in the novel only three sections where the events of the nineteenth century are omnisciently narrated, rather than inferred from pastiche poems and documents, or focalised through the imaginations of the twentieth-century researchers. The last of these describes a meeting between Ash and a little girl he obviously recognises as his own daughter. Having just experienced – along with the twentieth-century characters – the revelation that the child survived, but that the message of her existence never reached Ash on his death bed, the readers of the novel are thus let into a secret the contemporary protagonists of the novel will never know. This not only creates a gap between the readers and those characters right at the moment when the empathetic link between them is at its strongest, but it also undermines the initial sense of closure created by the original revelation, and the certainty readers have already settled on.

On the other hand, the novel as a whole is a celebration of just the kind of certainty, based on a combination of diligent search for facts and an intuitive leap, which the ending momentarily undermines. Byatt’s construction of an initial “false” ending, undermined by another “real” ending, does not leave the reader with a feeling that the closure of the story has been undercut, quite the contrary. Byatt’s readers are taken through a moment of narrative vertigo where the foundation of an already experienced closure gives way. That feeling, however, is immediately replaced by an even stronger sense of closure as the shattered puzzle of the narrative rearranges itself in a different, but even more emotionally satisfying and poetically true picture.

Such a technique is very different from the multiple endings of many other postmodern novels, and as Byatt notes concerning The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles, though they might seem a move towards narrative freedom, an ending which denies the reader closure can also undermine the empathetic connection altogether:

His theory of “freedom” leads to the experimental alternative endings to the novel, which painfully destroy the narrative “reality” of the central events, which have happily withstood authorial shifts in style, interjections and essays on Victorian reality. Fowles claims he did not control his characters, but his projected endings do not suggest a plurality of possible stories. They are a programmatic denial of the reality of any. (Passions of the Mind 174)

Whereas Byatt sees Fowles’s technique as a “programmatic denial” of the reality of fictional worlds, she herself breaks the reader’s initial sense of certainty only to cement the mimetic effect of the final ending of Possession. The reality of fiction, she argues, is dependent on the emotional reaction of the reader to the story, and by denying his readers closure Fowles also undermines the poetic truth of his own novel (which, it could be argued, is his intention all along). This belief is reflected in Byatt’s own choices for the narrative structure of Possession. The most notable of these must be the inclusion of the three sections during which the Victorian world is narrated directly to the reader, as well as one direct commentary by the narrative voice on the experience of reading. But unlike Fowles’s narrator, who causes a jolt between the realms of the fiction and the reader’s reality, Byatt’s narrator either sidesteps from one era to another within the fictional world, or echoes a particularly self-conscious experience of a character. The effect of these techniques is to heighten, not undermine, the reader’s imaginative entry into the world of the work. “My instinct as a writer of fiction,” she claims, “has been to explore and defend the unfashionable Victorian third-person narrator – who is not, as John Fowles claimed, playing at being God, but merely the writer, telling what can be told about the world of the fiction” (On Histories and Stories 102). Thus, though it would seem natural to include Possession and The French Lieutenant’s Woman in the same genre of British rewritings of the Victorian era, Fowles’s novel is part of an earlier deconstructive paradigm which seeks to perform critical readings of texts in order to reveal their ideological bases. Where Fowles encourages his readers to question the text and the pronouncements made in it, Byatt puts more emphasis on the creation of a habitable imagined world and the kind of reading which makes the existence of such a world possible.

In another of her essays Byatt recounts her attempt to write the novel Still Life (1985) without the networks of interleaved references, without metaphor, concentrating purely on the accuracy of description. During the process she finds that her mind-set simply sees metaphor everywhere and that in attempting to forgo its influence on her writing she was “doing violence” to her own “mental constitution” (Passions of the Mind 14). The novel finally emerged as a combination of metaphors and a characteristic she found and valued in Van Gogh’s painting: “an intention of accurate rendering” (15; emphasis original), with the movement between words of simple denotation and those she calls “mental icons” (19) becoming central both to the novel’s theme and its structure. Thus, rather than abandoning the constructed networks of metaphors and interlocking references in favour of “transparent” language, Byatt accepts them as one of the most successful ways of invigorating our sense of the independence of reality from our thought.

In Possession the rewards of the combination of metaphorical structures and accurate rendering or invoking appears particularly in Roland’s growth into a poet. Since playing the academic game seems to lead him repeatedly to the same disappointing result, he finds himself reaching beyond the framework within which the game takes place. Towards the end of the novel, Roland turns to writing “lists of words that resisted arrangement into the sentences literary criticism or theory:”

He wrote: blood, clay, terracotta, carnation.
He wrote: blond, burning bush, scattering.
He annotated this: “scattering as in Donne, ‘extreme and scattering bright’, nothing to do with scattergraphs.” . . .
He rejected wooden, point, link, and other ambivalent words, also blot and blank, though all these sprang (another word he hesitated over) to mind. (431)

The conspicuous physicality of the first four words (moving from blood and earth through the blood-coloured clay to the flesh-coloured flower) emphasises the connection between words and the things they represent, but also the words themselves as things with a history and a presence which resists individual users’ manipulation. Roland’s discarded, “ambivalent” words shift too easily between word-classes and between literal and metaphorical meanings to satisfy his longing for “things“.

This search for the indivisible, basic elements of language extends also to the level of narrative. Byatt has an abiding fascination with myths and old tales and the way they retain their essence from one telling to the next. Commenting on the writing of one of the pastiche fairy stories for Possession she notes:

The pleasure of writing it was in handling the old, worn counters of the characterless persons, the Fate of the consecutive events, including the helpless commentary of the writer on the unavoidable grip of the story, and a sense that I was myself partaking in the continuity of the tales by retelling them in a new context in a way old and new. Christabel’s commentary was “knowing” about inevitability; my own writing was “knowing” about Freud. But the story was primary and had its own life. (On Histories and Stories 131; emphasis original)

Again we find in her thinking the idea of poetry and narrative as methods of arranging and ordering objects, whether individual words, metaphors, or entire tales. The same theme also surfaces in one of the poems Byatt wrote for Ash, “The Garden of Proserpina”. The poem compares several different mythical gardens and asks whether they are all “shadows” of one, true, original garden; whether the quest for the essence of stories is also a search for their referentiality. At the end of the novel, Roland’s re-reading of this poem – with its presentation of creation myths and Giambattista Vico’s views on the materiality of the first words of men – sets off an epiphany during which his thoughts about language, expression and truth all coalesce into an experience which sparks his own gift for poetry. Having been “taught that language was essentially inadequate, that it could never speak what was there, that it only spoke itself” (473), Roland now connects the independent presence and materiality of words with the networks of metaphor in Ash’s poetry, and realises that “he had things to say which he could say about the way shapes came and made themselves” (475). Words are things, yet, at the same time, they are also about things.

A crucial step in the process to this discovery has been the distance which has grown between Roland and Ash’s poetry, even as the life of the poet has become more familiar to the scholar. He has over the years come to regard Ash’s words as part of himself, but the process of discovering the poet’s relationship with LaMotte has both peaked Roland’s interest in things beyond the texts and has made the presence of the author in the poetry much more pronounced. In the silence of Roland’s flat two portraits of the poet almost seem to come to life, emphasising the sudden otherness of Ash from Roland: he “saw them as wholly distant and separate, not an angle, not a bone, not a white speck of illumination comprehensible by him or to do with him” (467). But through the acknowledgement of difference comes an understanding of the ways in which a reader brings the work to life, even though he or she does not comprise it. Roland’s re-reading of Ash’s poem opens up a vision of words and literary works functioning as repositories, as whole worlds of objects which are simultaneously already in existence and created in the act of reading. As he experiences the otherness of the poem – encounters it “as though the words were living creatures or stones of fire” (472) – Roland gains an almost mystical understanding of how it is possible to know a work of literature without imposing subjective meanings on it. The work, Roland realises, is different to each reader and created anew each time it is read, yet it has an existence and an autonomy that extends beyond the single reading. During such an encounter,

a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge. (471-472; emphases original)

Byatt’s novel as a whole is an exploration of how such an experience of reading can be achieved and why readers should attempt it in the first place. Without attempting to explain away the duality, her work emphasises the need for readers consciously to involve themselves with the possibility of encountering the work as an autonomous object which has an existence beyond the single reading, even though the work is also, in part, constituted by that encounter.

Literary Work as an Autonomous Voice

In a recent essay on the ethics of reading William Paulson argues:

To interact sociably with a text is to posit that it is the delegate of a person, even if we are obliged to (or think it wiser to) construct that person entirely from the evidence of the text. Our respect for the “ghost” and its intentions may enable us to respect the text’s resistance, and keep us from taking it as simply an occasion for our own critical or constructive performance. (115)

Just as Byatt suggests in the quotation at the beginning of this article, Paulson also sees texts as repositories of voices which are, to an extent, autonomous. The “ghost” in the text has no power which the reader is not willing to give it, but by allowing herself to be used as the medium through which a work of literature is manifested, a reader may, as Byatt and Paulson would both argue, experience the text as an intellectual, sensual and emotional encounter. In Possession the spiritualist symbolism permeates the relationship between readers and literary works (along with other kinds of relationships, including that of lovers, and biographers and their subjects), and successful reading experiences always involve a kind of humility on the part of the reader.

As an author, Byatt herself is constantly mediating works of the past, both by creating pastiches and through including discussions concerning historical works in her own narratives. But unlike the authors of most postmodern metafiction, whose self-conscious use of intertexts is meant to break through the illusion of realism, Byatt’s own work takes a very different approach to the metafictional and intertextual developments in the postmodern novel itself. The structure of Possession utilises postmodern techniques, but, as Djordjevic has pointed out, it does so “in order to hoist postmodernism with its own petard” (46); that is, in order to show that the self-conscious use of familiar styles can enrich, rather than explode, realist story-telling. Thus the crucial difference between this novel and most other postmodern intertextual games, or “historiographic metafictions,” as Linda Hutcheon has called them (295), lies in Byatt’s attempt to emphasise the honest resurrection of the Victorian voices, and not the idea that our access to the past is merely textual (i.e. readerly or subjective). “[W]riting Victorian words in Victorian contexts, in a Victorian order, and in Victorian relations of one word to the next was the only way I could think of to show one could hear the Victorian dead,” Byatt argues, denying that past events accessed through texts would necessarily also be ‘textualised’ in the postmodern sense (On Histories and Stories 46-47). Her aim is to create new works which would evoke the same intertextual context to which genuine nineteenth-century works refer. This would give readers the opportunity to recreate that context for themselves, even while aware of the fact that they are reading a pastiche created by a postmodern author. The multitude of authorial positions in such a text, including the fictitious poet, the authors on whom his or her work is modelled and, of course, Byatt herself, are the primary positions in a chain reaching towards the birth of language, a chain not of floating signifiers but anchored (as Roland’s experience with the word-lists shows him) through words, the “names that were also things” (472).
Byatt’s novel and her critical writings suggest that granting the work the power to speak for itself is a method which allows readers to connect with past minds. Byatt’s focus in Possession is on the relationship between a reader and a long-dead author, with the Victorians pondering upon the validity of the historical method and the reliability of Biblical narratives, and the twentieth-century characters facing the problem of understanding the individual lives of the Victorians. Both sets of characters find that encounters with dead authors become possible only with the help of intuition, imagination, and a temporary surrendering of one’s own voice. Roland experiences such an encounter at the end of the novel, when the metaphorical structure of Ash’s poem and the network of allusions to other works suddenly reveal themselves in his mind. “Think of this,” says Byatt’s narrator,

– that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone, and they were alone with each other. True, the writer may have been alone also with Spenser’s golden apples in the Faerie Queene, Proserpina’s garden, glistering bright among the place’s ashes and cinders, may have seen in his mind’s eye, apple of his eye, the golden fruit of the Primavera, may have seen Paradise Lost, in the garden where Eve recalled Pomona and Proserpina. He was alone when he wrote and he was not alone then, all these voices sang, the same words, golden apples . . . (471)

The references abound between the words of the work and all the other occasions those words have been used, all referring to images and experiences shared between the reader, the author and all the other authors whose voices echo in this poem. Rather than expecting readers to formulate the meaning of words only in their own, contemporary context, Byatt emphasises the contextual history of expressions:

I do believe that if I read enough, and carefully enough, I shall have some sense of what words meant in the past, and how they related to other words in the past, and be able to use them in a modern text so that they do not lose their relations to other words in the interconnected web of their own vocabulary. At a time when certain kinds of criticism and ideological activity are happy to dispense with close attention to the history of words and their uses, it seems somehow important to be able to make coherent texts using words as they were used, together. (On Histories and Stories 94; emphasis original)

Such passages make clear Byatt’s intellectual background and the way it colours her view of how a connection with past minds could be achieved. For she is not attempting to reach the biographical author but the life that was lived in writing. While reading Browning, she wishes to hear the voice of Browning the author (which overlaps, but does not completely match the voice of Browning the man) – the voice which was also the unified voice of all the poets and all the authors on natural philosophy, Christianity and history, whose works Browning had read. Byatt’s emphasis on the immortality of words over the immortality of the flesh is also clear in the way the discovery of the thoughtful, passionate and literary correspondence between Ash and LaMotte affects the twentieth-century characters, compared to the much less satisfactory continuity of their flesh in Maud Bailey, who turns out to be a descendant of their love-child. It is clear that the real resurrection of Ash and LaMotte occurs through their writings, whereas the night-time unearthing of the evidence about Maud’s blood-line from Ash’s grave – however dramatic the scene may be – does not have an equivalent emotional impact.

Thus, in Possession the readings of long-lost manuscripts are presented as moments when the voices of the dead are restored to life through the force of faithful imagining. Djordjevic lists multiple examples from the novel of “dead” texts which, after having been read, are “alive” to their readers (56-57). Many of the characters in the novel, however, fail in their readings because they lack the necessary respect for the voice being resurrected. They either read too much of their own interests and desires into the Victorian poems, or, like the American collector Mortimer Cropper, practice a kind of “vulgar spiritualism” (Djordjevic 51) in their attempts to reach the dead through the material objects they owned during their lifetime. Ash’s reply to Cropper’s ancestress concerning Victorian spiritual practices also serves as a manifesto for true literary resurrection:

The Historian and the Man of Science alike may be said to traffic with the dead . . . I myself, with the aid of the imagination, have worked a little in that line, have ventriloquised, have lent my voice to, and mixt my life with, these past voices and lives whose resuscitation in our own lives as warnings, as examples, as the life of the past persisting in us, is the business of every thinking man and woman. But there are ways and ways, as you must well know, and some are tried and tested, and others are fraught with danger and disappointment. What is read and understood and intellectually grasped is our own, madam, to live and work with. (104; emphases original)

In this passage the concept of resurrection through language is heavily underlined by the vocabulary of spiritualism; the physical mediation of the power of the spirits. Though he strongly distrusts the methods of bodily mediation and the purely emotional responses of its practitioners, Ash believes that in intelligent and honest reading and rewriting he is lending his breath to the thoughts of the dead – an idea for which Byatt confesses her indebtedness to Browning (On Histories and Stories 45).4

Ash’s poems are mostly monologues by historical characters in the style of Browning, each with a separate voice and an individual set of beliefs. His interest in the past is thus linked to his passion for the workings of individual minds, and the idea of the resurrection of individual voices from the past is clearly made the central theme of his career in the novel. “I find I am at ease with other imagined minds,” he writes to LaMotte,

bringing to life, restoring, in some sense to vitality, the whole vanished men of other times, hair, teeth, fingernails, porringer, bench, wineskin, church, temple, synagogue, and the incessant weaving labour of the marvellous brain inside the skull – making its patterns, its most particular sense of what it sees and learns and believes. (158; emphasis original)

Such lives are simultaneously imagined and physical, parts of Ash himself and yet separate from him. Lynn Wells has suggested that Byatt’s characters and their relationship to the past are set up as an example of Bakhtinian dialogism, a framework within which the exchange between them and the past allows them to grow beyond the constraints put on their lives by postmodernism (676). While Wells sees this mainly as a way of interpreting the relationship between the different sets of characters of the novel, it can also be seen as a guiding principle of Byatt’s view of an author’s relationship with the characters they create. The dialogue with and respect of the past is certainly present in the intertextual allusions and in the resurrection of the dead in the writings of the living. However, through her metaphorical structuring and self-conscious use of form Byatt gives equal weight to the guiding principle of the implied author; the other half of Bakhtin’s “double-voiced discourse” (Bakhtin 324). The balance between these two halves in the creation of literary characters is the central element in Ash’s poetry, as well as a principle explicitly endorsed by Byatt: “[A] character for me only comes alive when it manages, as a metaphor links two separate things, to link two separate things I’ve observed, of which only one must be part of myself, the other must be somebody else, or something else, or some other book . . .” (Interview cited in Todd 100). In other words, the author must also be a reader – of other books and of other people – and combine in their writing their own voice with the mediated voices of others.5

Again, it is Roland’s epiphany which serves as the most striking example of this theme in Possession. Looking at a photograph of Ash’s death mask he experiences the gestalt: “You were inside – behind those closed eyes like an actor, masked: you were outside, looking at a closure, if not finality” (472). Roland himself, as Ash’s reader, has been both inside and outside the mask, has been both a medium for the words he has read and the observer of their meanings. And through experiencing this duality he finds his own voice not as a critic but as a poet, finally able to come to terms with the fact that the words he use are ones already worn in use by previous authors, but with which he can still construct and communicate his own thoughts. Again Byatt combines the sense of abstract patterning with the idea of audible presentation of that pattern by an individual voice, as Roland finds himself able to “hear, or feel, or even almost see, the patterns made by a voice he didn’t yet know, but which was his own” (475).

Byatt’s self-conscious realism starts with the same assumption as realism in general: “that there is a hard reality, not ourselves, which is not amenable to our planning, plotting and power-strategies” (Passions of the Mind 128), and that one of the main purposes of fiction is to talk about such a reality by creating simulations of it. At the same time, her novels display a postmodern self-consciousness about literary technique and the ways in which authors use unnaturally structured narratives to achieve in the reader the experience of having encountered something real. Bo Lundén has argued that a major theme in Possession is the re-education of the twentieth-century characters to accept a “dynamic residue which appears to be operative in all strivings towards knowledge but which, at the same time, still remains on the fringes of intellectual discourse” (125). The novel certainly does point to a limit in what analytical language is able to say about the reading experience. Byatt finally has to rely on paradoxical statements (“The place . . ./ Is what we name it, and is not” in one of Ash’s poems on page 465), and expressions which attempt to convey the intuitively grasped, almost material presence of words and their meanings (the repeated, italicised “things” in Roland’s vocabulary). The complexity of her position arises from wanting to read and write narratives in which the reader encounters both a habitable fictional world and a literary voice. Despite the failures of rational language to describe exactly what such an encounter would entail, Byatt seems to hold this assumption as a kind of faith or creed, while at the same time self-consciously exploring its validity in her fiction. While Byatt’s emphasis on realism stems from her belief that fiction can and should create both a world and a voice, and her explicit manipulation of literary form is an expression of an aesthetic pleasure found in the contemplation of abstract structure, in Possession she also re-introduces the themes and techniques of romance in order to allow herself the “latitude” to express in a non-analytical form her own theory about the nature and purpose of fiction.

E-mail: merja.polvinen@helsinki.fi


1. A striking example is the relationship between Possession and Byatt’s discussion of the story of Lazarus, Victorian spiritualism and Browning’s and Eliot’s views on infinity and individual incarnation in a 1991 essay “Robert Browning: Fact, Fiction, Lies, Incarnation and Art” (Passions of the Mind 29-71). Back to text

2. Cf. Djordjevic 70-75 on her disagreement with such critics as Danny Karlin over whether the metaphorical structures of Possession overweigh its narrative. Though Karlin calls the symbolic connections “too knowing and too coercive” (cited in Djordjevic 73), Djordjevic herself feels the novel succeeds in its aim to create metaphors which present real objects even as they are interpreted as symbols. Back to text

3. Another novel by Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale (2000), elaborates on this search for materiality. It tells the story of a disillusioned deconstructionist critic who abandons his academic career to go in search of facts and real instances of physical existence. His decision takes place in a postgraduate seminar on Lacan, where the participants

found the same clefts and crevices transgressions and disintegrations, lures and deceptions beneath, no matter what surface we were scrying. . . . I went on looking at the filthy window above [the tutor’s] head, and I thought, I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there. A real, very dirty window, shutting out the sun. A thing. (2; emphases original)

In his desire to connect to hard facts the protagonist exchanges literary theory to biography, but only finds himself in areas just as lacking in solid foundation as before. On Byatt’s views on biography, see “Reading, Writing, Studying” p. 6 and “Choices”. Back to text
4. Bo Lundén suggests that the above quotation is indicative of Byatt’s criticism of academic intellectualism and of Ash as the champion of subjective and emotional kind of knowing: “In other words, what Ash seems to say is that what we know about the past is inevitably formed by our own understanding of the past, not of any objective or ‘true’ understanding” (116). Since Ash is favourably comparing intelligent reading and historical research against spiritualism I find Lundén’s interpretation in this instance rather curious. Back to text

5. For a useful discussion of Byatt’s other works and their negative portrayal of authors who consume the voices of others for their art, see Gitzen. In Possession the (potential) authors are more likely to be the possessed than the possessors and it is the critics and biographers who are presented as predators in this sense (e.g. the aptly named Fergus Wolff). Back to text


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