Monday, December 8, 2008

Mirror images across the century (Books - Possession by A. S. Byatt)

This will no doubt be a little rambling as I am writing a final paper, and this is priming the writing pump - but I cannot resist, being deep in the epistolary romance that forms the centerpiece of A. S. Byatt's Possession. The two 19th century poets woo each other with the sharpness of their minds and the music of their pens:
I find I am at ease with other imagined minds - 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. It seem important that these other lives of mine should span many centuries and as many places as my limited imagination can touch. For all I am is a nineteenth-century gentleman plumb in the midst of smoky London - and what is peculiar to him is to know just how much stretches away from his vanishing pin-point of observation - before and around and after - whilst all the time he is what he is, with his whiskered visage and his shelves full of Plato and Feuerbach, St. Augustine and John Stuart Mill.
That, by the way, is a love letter.

I am also watching how Byatt creates a two couples of women who mirror each other across 100 years of separation. Val lives with Roland, the recent graduate of a contemporary scholar of poet Randolph Henry Ash. Val is also possessed of an English degree but she takes secretarial work to support the two of them. At this point in the story has become almost literally crazy with disappointment and boredom. While Ash writes important lyric poems and spends time as an amateur marine biologist learning about the world that will give him inspiration, his wife Ellen, like Val, stays in the hot London summer working - supervising cleaning of curtains and chandeliers, firing pregnant serving girls, and suffering from migraine - so that the house can be ready for her husband to create in upon his return.

The other couple are the poet Christabel LaMotte who, throughout the love letters fights to retain her independence:
The precious - letters - are too much and too little - and above all and first, I should say, compromising.

What a cold sad word. It is His word - the World's word - and her word too, that prude, his Wife. But it entails freedom.

I will expatiate - on freedom and injustice.

The injustice is - that I require my freedom - from you - who respect it so fully. that was a noble saying of yours about freedom - how can I turn from...

I will put in Evidence a brief History. A History of little nameless unremembered acts. Of this our Bethany cottage - which was named for a reason. Now to you and in your marvellous Poem - Bethany is the Place where the master called his dead friend to resurrection beforetimes and particularly.

But to us Females, it was a place wherein we niether served nor were served - poor Martha was cumbered with much serving - and was sharp with her sister Mary who sat at His Feet and heard His Word and chose the one thing needful. Now I believe rather, with George Herbert, that "Who sweeps a room as for They laws - Makes that and the action fine." We formed a Project - my dear Companion and myself - to make ourselves a Bethany were the work of all kinds was carried on in the Spirit of Love and His laws. We met, you are to know, at one of Mr. Rusin's marvellous lectures on the dignity of handicraft and individual work. We were Two - who wished to live the Life of the Mind - to make good things. We saw after thought that if we put together the pittances we possessed - and could come by by giving drawing lessons - or by selling Wonder Tales or even Poems - we might make ourselves a life in which drudgery was Artful - was sacred as Mr. Ruskin believes is possible - and it was shared, for no Master...we were to renounce. Not the lives that then encompassed us - cramped Daughterly devotion to a wordly mother - nor the genteel Slavery of governessing - those were no loss - those were gleefully fled and opposition stunachly met. But we were to renounce the outside World - and the usual Female Hopes (and with them the usual Female Fears) in exchange for - dare I say Art...
I wish as I read the letters for the satisfying snap of the the two lovers flying together after being held apart for months by convention, propriety and lengthy sentences. And yet, simultaneously, I hope that they never will. LaMotte is a poet in her own right whose hard won freedom is in itself a creation. She deserves to keep it. Her twin in the present is the scholar Maud Bailey who, though successful, works in a somewhat isolated realm of all women scholars making careers of studying women's literature or the wives of literate men.

Bailey is covertly researching the relationship of poets Ash and LaMotte. At one point she wishes to confirm some information in the diaries of Ash's wife Ellen. She goes to see Beatrice Nest, the scholar devoted to her papers.
"Was it important?" asked the grey voice, with no indication of whether the "importance" was scholarly, passionate or cosmic.

"I don't know. It might change our views of - of his work, I supposed a bit."
"What do you want of me?"

"A Xerox of those two letters. If it can be done, a copy of the Journal, between those dates. Not to tell Professor Cropper. Or Professor Blackadder. Yet. We discovered this ourselves - "

Beatrice Nest seemed to think for a longish time, her face propped in her hands.
"This - what you're so excited about - it won't- it won't expose her to ridicule - or - misapprehension? I've become very concerned that she shouldn't be - exposed is the best word I suppose - exposed."
I found this moment so, well, - exposed. Here is someone who has devoted her life to knowledge of one arcane subject who would gladly repress others' knowledge of her to protect her character. The woman is long dead. It's pathetic, really - and so perfect. I can imagine Beatrice Nest so clearly. This book is remarkable. Part romance, part literary ventriloquism act, part detective story, part social criticism of the roles to which women are relagated in the patriarchal machine, and part send up of academia - both the aspect of it that is all hallowed halls and the part that is more like cut-throat industry. The pairing of contemporary and historical figures adorned with the accoutrements of meta fiction - is now a well worn fictional form - but it is hard to not make the structure into mere conceit. This novel's structure is rock solid, but it is structure, that is, it lies beneath. Byatt is subtle with it, driving the story with character, with plot, and with great writing, not by exposing the cleverness of its underpinnings. Another book I have always felt does that successfully is Richard Powers' novel The Gold Bug Variations. Interestingly they came out at around the same time. It might be interesting to ponder what that is all about. Maybe in some future post.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Beatrice Nest kills me. What I think is so brilliant about Byatt's characteriztion is Nest's feeling of persecution and also proprietary ownership - Ellen Ash is HERS. SHE will get to dictate the conversation about Ellen, even if events unfold that show otherwise, that negate all of her research. Of course, by the end of the book we learn something about Ellen Ash that was never recorded ... it is the small things in life that are not written down or remembered that sometimes tell the whole story - and the biographer, acting as a detective, is always looking for that one thing that will EXPLAIN the person (think of the crazy Emily Dickinson scholars!!)

Oh, and another thing I love about Byatt is how she gently skewers the breaking-down of the Humanities into special-interest groups - gender studies, women's studies ... and how these two modern-day scholars, all about gender politics, they can't help it, it is their age - are confronted with the reality of two Victorian poets who do NOT fit into our neat modern-day classifications. Like, the lesbian scholars feel they OWN Christabel, know what I mean?


In a way, Ellen Ash (for me) is the key to the whole book. I am haunted by that character.

I have been LOVING your posts on Possession!

Ted said...

She is having a field day with the academician special interest groups, yes! Possession and White Noise are good companion pieces in that way. I am smiling at how crazy how are about this book. In my last four posts you have died once for Beatrice Nest, once for Maud Bailey, twice for Ellen Ash, and you LOVE Val. A fervid fan indeed.

Sheila O'Malley said...

The characters are all so great. What is the name of the blowsy feminist lesbian American?? Loretta? No, that's not right. I love her, too. She is so ridiculous - but SUCH a type!!

maryb said...

I've really been enjoying reading this series of posts. Possession is one of my favorite novels. It's always nice to see it through the eyes of someone else.

I always sympathize with Beatrice - I don't have my copy of the book handy but there's a part of Byatt's description of her that makes it clear she isn't comfortable in her own body and the way it is phrased always touches me. Something about always being aware of her breasts.