Thursday, 20 February 2014

Ten Thoughts: Possession by A.S. Byatt

This is one of the set texts for the Reading into Writing module. I figured I might as well get a blog post out of it...

The novel is about two academics discovering a link between two prominent, if fictional, Victorian poets. The plot deepens and eventually comes to a head when their secret is discovered.

Which doesn't really tell you very much but more exposition would probably just confuse things.

1) The novel's characters scoff at feminism but this is very much a feminist book. One of the central themes of the book is the need for women to find fulfillment, rather than being trapped as drudges.

2) Christabel LaMotte is so obviously based on Christina Rosetti it's almost painful. (Byatt seems to have had fun plundering the lives of Victorian poets for inspiration - the exhumation of Ash's body to get to his papers is obviously inspired by Dante Rosetti's exhumation of his dead wife to retrieve his unpublished poetry).

3) The whole thing is set up around mirrors, reflection and echoes - Maud and Christabel live the same kind of life before masulinity intrudes on their cloistered existences.

4) All the men are big kids, doing whatever they can to avoid the real world and acting on their obsessions. All the women are frustrated and trapped (either by circumstance or physically in one case), with the exception of Leonora, who is sort of a proxy man, especially when it comes to sex.

5) Melusina is a paradox, at once a revolutionary figure and a conformist one. She presents us with the potential in all people (even if the focus is women here) but at the same time she is literally a home maker or builder and a guardian of the home.

6) The poem Melusina is written at the point in Christabel's life when she is at once at her most conformist and most transgressive - it's implied she has a lesbian relationship with Blanche but her 'greatest' (or should that be most accepted?) work is written when she's having an affair with a man.

7) It's full of classical elements but especially earth and water.

8) There isn't much love in this novel but there is an awful lot of longing. It really made me think of the Fields of the Nephilim lyrics, 'Come in from the cold, I'll owe you my heart, Be my shelter, Be my refuge tonight.'

9) To an extent another theme seems to be that there has been an illusion of change with regards to women's status and their lives but that's all.

10) Randolph Ash really is a pretentious, philandering, arse.

Not particularly deep I know, but these are my first impressions.

The next step is to work out where my impressions take me in terms of reading and what connections I make to other books. For me the themes are, broadly, feminism, the illusion of change, faerie and old stories and secret histories. The obvious books to go to are things like Christina Rosetti's Goblin Market for the faerie connection and because Byatt has so strongly identified LaMotte with her. After that it gets a bit more dicey.

Faerie leads me to Neil Gaiman and, initially, Stardust but the link doesn't feel very strong; they just happen to exist in the same corner of the fiction universe. In fact I can't think of a faerie based book that really forges a strong link to Possession, even though so many of the poems in the novel are based on myth and folklore. Perhaps its because the Victorian period saw so much of that culture diluted, dumbed down to make it fit only for children. If anything that makes me want to react to the insipid character of Victorian fairy tales by reaching for Snow White Blood Red, a collection where horror writers spin their own versions of those classic stories.

The secret history aspect makes me think of Tim Powers and the way he takes historical figures and weaves the odd things that happened to them into a fantasy. Because of the Victorian connection I would go to Hide Me Amongst the Graves... except I don't own it and haven't read it. The next obvious option is The Stress of Her Regard, which centres on the Romantic Poets. As Dr Polidori (Byron's physician) was Christina Rosetti's uncle there's a definite historical link there. In addition it feels as if there's a neat reversal here, Powers takes real characters and uses fiction to explain the strange things in their lives, whilst Byatt takes events and peppers the lives of her fictional poets with them.

In terms of the feminist angle, I'm a little wary. Mary Wollstencraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women seems like a good place to go to, but it's not fiction or even creative non fiction so I doubt its appropriate The lives the women live remind me of the Handmaid's Tale but that feels like hyperbole if only because Possession is not dominated by the starkness of the oppression Atwood envisages. Another option might be Emma Newman's Split World novels, where as Adrian Tchaikovsky put it 'it's always 1800 and never Christmas'. The hedging in of female characters by tradition and what feel like ultimately pointless tasks may be something that translates well but I'm not sure. Little Women (which I've heard not read) may be the right sort of ground.

It needs more thinking about.

One of the more obscure connections I've made is that is that the way Christabel describes her ethos in the letters she sends to Randolph Ash really reminded me of William Morris' way of seeing the world and of his untopian socialism. That in turn makes me think of News from Nowhere, his novel/travelogue of an Arts and Crafts Communist Britain (which is lovely if blinkered by an overly sunny attitude towards humanity).

I obviously need to perculate this a little more and see what I come up with. It's very much a work in progress.