Post-Modern Victorian: A. S. Byatt\'s Possession

Post-Modern Victorian:
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,