Reseña de Richard Jenkyns
The Times Literary Supplement, marzo, 1990.
Roland Michell is a dullish young man with a doctorate and a bleak part-time job as a research assistant working on an edition of the famous Victorian poet R. H. Ash. Maud Bailey is a lecturer at a plate-glass university and an expert on Christabel LaMotte, an obscure Victorian poet and writer of fairytales, lately rediscovered by feminists. Little is known of LaMotte’s life except that she shared a house in Richmond with one Blanche Glover, who killed herself in 1860; thereafter she lived as a virtual recluse in the Lincolnshire home of her sister Sophie’s family. A chance find of Roland’s reveals a connection between the two Victorians and brings him into contact with Maud. A complex plot, worked out with much skill, involves the two of them, and a clutch of rival professors, in a quest for the full story of Ash and La Motte’s brief love-affair. We hear that Ash is known for his “ventriloquism” and “unwieldy range”; and in Possession A. S. Byatt sets out to match him. There are forty pages of correspondence between Ash and LaMotte, long extracts from their poetry and from the journals of Miss Glover, Mrs Ash and Christabel’s Breton cousin Sabine, and more besides. It must enthusiastically be said that Byatt’s ventriloquism is a tour de force. To be sure, there are one or two slips of chronology: Silas Marner is mentioned, and Tennyson’s Elaine quoted before they were written, and Christabel should not allude to Traherne’s Centuries, undiscovered until the twentieth century. Occasionally a phrase does not quite have the true Victorian ring. But pedantry must quickly give way to admiration for a brilliant achievement of sheer technique. The impersonation of Christabel is a triumph. She owes something to Christina Rossetti, more, perhaps, to Emily Dickinson, who provides a model for Christabel’s eccentric punctuation as well as for the blend of spareness and intensity in her lyrics. We are able to walk round Christabel and see her from different angles: we understand both why earlier critics saw her as a poet of sweet resignation or domestic mysticism, and why a newer school sees her as a proto-feminist, probably lesbian, although we realize that neither view is very close to the truth. We feel her both as a child of her time and as an individual: in her letters we meet a keen intelligence wrestling with some awkwardness and angularity, in her verse a passionate reticence, a quirky lyricism, nervous but refined. But Byatt is wise enough not to tell us everything; Christabel keeps some of her secret, including the nature of her feelings for Blanche Glover, and that is as it should be. Beatrice Nest, the editor of Mrs Ash’s journal, is muddly and pathetic, but she is on the side of the angels because she recognizes in it the “mystery of privacy”, in contrast to the smart omniscience of more successful academics. Byatt is at her most sensitive in the half-disinterment of buried lives. Blanche Glover’s suicide letter is very eloquent, defiant and defeated, mixing an honourable earnestness with spasms of genteel bitterness; and its poignancy is much increased by our sense that there lies behind it a story of passion, aspiration and failure, unspoken and irrecoverable. Blanche was a painter, who tried to dedicate her life to her art; but her paintings have all been lost.
Ash bears some general resemblance to Browning, though one detects elements of Arnold, Morris, perhaps Carlyle too. This impersonation is also remarkable, though less wholly successful. Byatt never quite removes the suspicion that he is a wordy bore. His letters do give the sense of a forceful, widely curious mind – no easy task – but Byatt has a slight tendency to suppose that pompous polysyllables will give the Victorian tone: Ash’s letters speak of “vegetable aliment” and “woolly integuments” – indeed even Christabel’s verse includes “pensile foliage”, surely the kind of eighteenth-century diction that the nineteenth century despised. Whereas Christabel emerges as a distinctive imagination within her age, Ash is perhaps too perfectly of his time to come fully alive; his interests exemplify the entire “Victorian frame of mind”, faith and doubt, geology, amateur biology, Darwinism, spiritualism, comparative mythology. Few people represent their period so neatly. The ventriloquism is impressive, none the less, and the struggle between conscience and passion in his and Christabel’s letters finely realized.
Possession is sure to get plenty of praise, as it deserves; it has earned the right to be judged by high standards, and so it is worth probing its weaker side. In its twentieth-century parts the characterization can be cardboard, and we sometimes have the feeling that we have been here before; one suspects not imitation but the lapse into a conventional cast of mind. Roland remains shadowy, and Maud never comes alive. She is an upper-middle-class lecturer in English, whose hair is her most glorious feature (though she tries to conceal the fact), with a former lover who spouts post-structural jargon and an admirer who is her social and intellectual inferior – in all these respects like Robyn Penrose in David Lodge’s Nice Work. She lets down her golden hair and we are encouraged to think of Rapunzel, as in Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven. The supporting cast includes a baronet who waves a shotgun at intruders and says things like “stone-age chappie” and “Never had any use for poetry myself”, and the usual gallery of academic types. There are Beatrice Nest, fat, scatty and obsessional, like Rose Lorimer in Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes; Professor Blackadder, sarcastic and disillusioned like most dons in fiction (Linton Hancox, for instance, in Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age); and Fergus Wolff, a seducer whose conversation lurches from deconstrucrion to Mills and Boon (”We two are the most intelligent people here, you know. You are the most beautiful thing I have ever dreamed about, I want you, I need you, can’t you feel it, it’s irresistible”). There are also two Americans. Leonora Stern is a loud lesbian feminist who talks dirty and is allegedly never dull; the half-hearted scene in which she half-heartedly attempts to seduce Maud is close to a similarly perfunctory episode in Alison Lurie’s’ The Truth about Lorin Jones. Mortimer Cropper wants to know every single thing possible about Ash, like Zapp in Changing Places, before Lodge spoiled his most exuberant invention by taking him seriously. Cropper is an acquisitive collector of Ash’s relics for his university, and our first sight of him is beautifully comic, skulking in a suburban bathroom in the small hours, furtively photographing a letter by Ash belonging to the lady of the house. But the extracts from Cropper’s lifeof Ash are perhaps Byatt’s least successful pastiche; she does not quite catch the anglophile mandarin accent, and she conflates it with another, more middlebrow American tone (”my lovely parental home. . . not far from where Robert Dale Owen University is so beautifully situated”). And Cropper proves to be a mother’s boy, sexually messed up. Compare Waugh’s Mr Joyboy. Aren’t Americans funny?
It is bad luck on Byatt that her book should follow Lurie’s Lorin Jones (1988), also built around a scholar’s pursuit of the truth about a dead artist. Lurie gives us a sequence of kaleidoscopically shifting pictures of Jones, differing yet recognizably of the same woman and each with its partial truth; the subtlety and agility of this performance are outside Byatt’s range. Each new discovery about Ash or Christabel more or less “corrects” the earlier view in a way that seems comparatively a little ponderous. Still, the book presents itself as a Quest, and it is apt that a quest should move towards a determinate goal; nor is it unfitting that a novel with a Victorian theme should proceed with a certain weightiness. Its texture is made, dense with allusion, cross-reference and symbolism in a fashion not easily summarized. Byatt is aware of the risks here: when Sabine hears a fairy story turned into a neat allegory, she thinks of a net drawing up a shoal of dull dead fish. We are perhaps not to take the symbols too solemnly: they are a high civilized entertainment, glancing and suggestive, where the fancy may play. At moments the symbolism seems to drive the story into a mechanical pattern: why should the beautiful Maud retreat, implausibly, into a chilly celibacy if not so that Childe Roland may possess the Bailey as Ash possessed the Motte? But on the whole the symbolic game enriches the fabric and coheres with a book that explores the relation between life and the literary imagination.
Possession is full of comparisons to other books: its characters liken the events in which they are caught up to As You Like It, Jane Eyre, Margery Allingham, Dick Francis. We should notice how unpretending some of these comparisons are. Prudently Byatt does not risk pointing to a prominent parallel with East Lynne (“and never called me mother”). But Possession does gain much of its élan from the way in which it bursts out of the confines of the campus novel to revel in the delights of a boldly romantic narrative, with a gloriously melodramatic climax – grave robbery and sexual consummation in a night of howling storm. Indeed, it is subtitled A romance, and begins with an epigraph from Hawthorne which distinguishes the “latitude” of romance from the “minute fidelity” of the novel. Yet ironically it is the book’s more spectacular and improbable events that bring it closest to the novel’s great tradition: to Great Expectations, it might be, or Felix Holt, where unlikely but not impossible happenings drive forward the narrative of a basically naturalistic fiction. There is a defensive note in this talk of romance, as though Byatt is thinking of critics rather than readers, and this seems a pity. Boldness is best: it is a mistake to have Roland reflecting that his situation has become implausibly romantic, because one can only agree. Worse still are one or two passages of would-be post- modern self-reflexiveness, which merely take us back to the university novel at its most arch and banal. “It is possible for the writer to remake . . . . Novels have their obligatory tour-de-force . . .” – enough of these drabblings. Here Byatt misunderstands the virtue of her own book, which lies in its solidity. It is grounded in specific times and places; even that climactic melodrama is precisely datable – to October 1987, the night of the hurricane. Byatt is good at evoking places: the Lincolnshire Wolds, the North Yorkshire Moors, the Breton coast. And she suggests that those who genuinely love literature may apprehend the real world more keenly: seeing the Wolds, Roland suddenly realizes the exactness of a description in Tennyson; walking down a passage in a neo-gothic country house, the word “drugget” comes into his mind from a poem by Ash. Conversely, poetry should be rooted in the actual world. Feminists have supposed the landscape in LaMotte’s Melusina to be symbolic and anatomical. So it may be, but it is also, we find, the Yorkshire background of her brief adventure in passion.
Sense of place is bound up with sense of the past. Ash holds that the life of the past persists in us and we must try to possess such fragments of it as we can. But how? Cropper’s greed to possess the past destroys its life by entombing it in an air-conditioned museum. Leonora is more sympathetic, but in her indignation at the decay of the mouldering churchyard where Christabel is buried she seems to understand less than Maud, who with generations of English gentry in her blood feels that the return to nature and oblivion is fitting. Christabel’s house in Richmond has been so slickly Victorianized by its present occupants that it has lost its Victorian character – another kind of greed for the past destroying the very thing that it seeks to possess. Roland remarks that it would have looked older when it was younger . But conversely Maud, driving past a wood, thinks of the trees when they were saplings and reflects on the young vitality of the past, upon which her own scholarly prying feeds like a ghostly thing.
Byatt is celebrating the vigour not just of the past but of this past; for Possession is another of those books that restore the Victorians to honour, with an especial admiration for their emotional lives . Both Maud and the author in her own voice contemplate the modem world’s knowing chatter about sex and its consequent fear of talking boldly about love. Attempting to have sex with his dispiriting girlfriend, Roland finds that he has to think of a Victorian woman in petticoats and black bodice to maintain his erection; we may contrast this drab coupling with the intensity of passion released by Ash and Christabel in a kiss. When Roland finally “possesses” Maud’s body, their love-making is triumphant, but that, we may infer, is partly because their relations hitherto have been marked by an almost Victorian restraint and decorum. Quite how far Byatt wishes to praise the last century may be a moot question. The comparatively conventional depiction of the present-day characters accidentally points up the romance and vividness of the Victorian part of the story; and elegantly self-conscious though the book is, one wonders if there is not a repressed Byatt, more robustly reactionary than she knows, longing to burst out and deÃ‚clare that traditional country life is best, and . the modern world is scruffy and smutty, and what a girl needs is a strong, handsome man to look after her.
All the same, she is sharp enough to tease our expectations. Blackadder is interviewed on television by an Indian woman about his efforts to keep Ash’s letters from going abroad. Surely, we think, the liberal novel- will exercise some positive discrimination on behalf of the immigrant. But no, she is ignorant, arrogant and superficial, and he does pretty well, because he really cares. This is indeed a kindly book: most of the major characters are allowed some sort of secular redemption – all perhaps except Wolff and Cropper, the two most avaricious for possession. Roland, who began his quest by purloining a document, confesses and hands it back, a “dispossession, or perhaps the word was exorcism”; Maud, who has clung to her self-possession, becomes willing to give herself. If this seems tidy and moral, like the end of a Victorian novel – well, is that not appropriate?
And in fact Byatt has a last surprise in store. The omniscient author takes over, and we learn something that her twentieth-century characters will never discover. It would be an unkindness to Byatt’s readers to give away the twist; those familiar with Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence will recognize a device that in a way seems sure of its effect, yet to risk sentimentality. Byatt brings it off, in part because she is not afraid; the scene, in a flowery summer meadow, is unashamedly idyllic, and its simplicity touching in contrast to all the elaboration that has gone before. One other clue: the scene includes a small girl who in a special sense is a link between the nineteenth and twentieth-century parts of the novel; she is given a message to carry, but goes off for a game with her brothers and forgets it. And so the book ends, like Wozzeck, with a child playing, innocent of the portentous meaning of what it hears. This is poignant in itself, but it also fits the novel as a whole. “There are things which happen and leave no discernible trace,” Byatt begins her epilogue, “are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.” The tone and sentiment recall George Eliot, surely by intention; we may learn from her that a multitude of small, forgotten acts and experiences makes the texture of the world in which we are embedded. Children are a generation’s link with its future, and yet the charm of a child lies in the unselfconsciousness which makes it lose so much that posterity would wish to have had preserved. But the way to possession is through dispossession; we can apprehend the past rightly only by letting it work in its own natural way, absorbing so much that is precious into the mysteries of privacy and oblivion. Byatt has contrived a masterly ending to a fine work; intelligent, ingenious and humane, Possession bids fair to be looked back upon as one of the most memorable novels of the 1990s.