Byatt, A.S.: Possession (SPOILERS)

SPOILERS for Possession; here’s the non-spoiler post if you got here by mistake.

So the main thing I was curious about when I went into this re-read was whether the narrative judged Christabel and Randolph, and whether I did. Possibly because of the whole being-thirteen thing, the moral issues raised by their relationship had somehow escaped me before now. *facepalm*

I had worried that Christabel was punished more than Randolph for bad sexist reasons. She is (that she dies thinking that he doesn’t know about Maia always, always chokes me up), but for a more justifiable reason, actually two: it is more harmful to cheat on Blanche than on Ellen (let me come back to Ellen), and she really should have told him the truth about Maia much earlier. But the narrative isn’t, I think, interested in whether this makes her a Bad Person, but in showing why she did these things.

The question of whether they should have stuck to correspondence depends, to me, on Blanche, and as a result is unanswerable, because I don’t know whether she’d have killed herself anyway. Obviously Christabel being away from their house was a significant factor, but whether they were effectively broken up by the time Christabel decides to go to Yorkshire I’m not sure of.

As for Ellen: when I came to Randolph’s assertion in the correspondence that “there are good reasons . . . why my love for you need not hurt her,” my eyebrow went all the way up, because just because they aren’t having sex doesn’t mean that an affair wouldn’t hurt her. So I looked forward to her POV to see if it did, and at the end of it . . . I still didn’t know. I’m guessing so, for her to have left Christabel’s letter to Randolph unopened, but when I re-read the chapter about his death, I noticed the narrator’s assertion at the start of the section, “we are going to see her clearly now,” and nearly laughed out loud. Not so much.

Speaking of things implied rather than stated, I can see why the pull-back after Yorkshire—the rawness of their pain, the preservation of the mystery, the way it verges on melodrama anyway with the seance scene—but it’s still a hard boundary to get past.

Miscellany:

I hate Leonora because she sexually harasses Maud. The bedroom scene in chapter 18—she makes her cry, laughs about it, and promises to do it again? HATE.

Would Christabel really have an intact hymen? I am skeptical, but know nothing of the politics of lesbian sexuality of that era.

Ha ha, Roland getting three academic jobs without interviewing for any of them.

I haven’t seen the movie and have no desire to, as this re-read confirms my prior belief that it’s critical to Maud/Roland that they be of those social classes. Also that he be short.

I also have no desire to read any of Byatt’s other work, which is partly the mainstream cooties and partly some kind of . . . not wanting to disturb the near-perfection of this book. I’m aware this isn’t rational, but I’m so far behind on all the things I’m enthusiastic about reading that I’m not going to worry about it too much.

“It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful.”

Finally, if anyone has ideas about where those excerpted letters are supposed to fit, I would love to hear them.

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  1. I think Christabel is punished more than Randolph, even laying aside Blanche, for culturally sexist reasons, as opposed to writer-sexist reasons, if you see what I mean? I mean, Christabel’s whole life is basically taken from her, not just Blanche: she ends the book living on her brother-in-law’s largess, which she hates, and with her daughter totally suspicious of her because she doesn’t realize she’s her mom. Whereas Randolph pretty much ends where he began.

    But I didn’t feel at all like Byatt (or the narrator) was trying to punish her in a judgmental fashion, not at all “look, here’s what happens to a Fallen Woman” or anything; I got much more of the impression that the writer was trying to examine what would be the consequences of asserting this kind of autonomy in a society where such autonomy isn’t welcomed.

    Oh, Ellen. I have always assumed that she was hurt by the Christabel thing, and even more hurt that Christabel was able to have his kid (and the part where she sees Maia’s hair and thinks it’s Christabel’s kind of stabs me in the gut), but it’s so tangled up in her feelings of guilt over not being able to have sex with Randolph that it’s hard for her to tease out, much less the reader.

    I also love Beatrice Nest. Oh, poor Beatrice.

    Leonora and Cropper! To my eye both these characters are supposed to be mostly-one-dimensional mustache-twirling villains (I hadn’t properly internalized they were both American; I wonder if that’s a comment on how Hollywood heroes always have American accents?) complete with sexual harassment and so on. I actually find both characters hilarious in a “so how villainous can we Possibly Be?” kind of way. Cropper’s autobiography totally cracked me up in its pompous over-the-top style the last time I read it, a couple of years ago (my first read was also as a young teen, and I didn’t pick up on the style at all at that point).

    I’ve had trouble with Byatt’s other work as well; I’ve tried to read some of it and it’s only hurt. The Children’s Book, in particular, I only got maybe a quarter of the way through before I had to stop. I did pick up Ragnarok from the library this week — I have a thing for mythology — and so far it’s really good.

  2. I like to think that Beatrice’s self-confidence improves from having been active at the end of the book, and that she finds new energy to work on Ellen’s diary (partly profiting by Maud’s respect and efficient example) and puts out an edition to coincide with Maud’s edition of the letters.
    Cropper’s autobiography is indeed hilarious. But I do think both of them are attempted to be portrayed at least a bit rounded–unlike the Ash heir, what’s-his-face, who’s on the gravedigging expedition. Which is why Leonora’s harassment stood out for me as not something the text attempts to give a her-POV explanation for, unlike Cropper’s acquisitiveness.

  3. What makes you think Maud was romantically or sexually involved with Blanche? I always read it as one-sided, mostly because Byatt’s favorites, or the characters she seems to endorse, tend to be exclusively interested in her other favorites, and she pretty clearly does not like Blanche. (I am sympathetic to her up until she steals the letter, which – as I’m meant to – I find unforgivable.)

  4. lionpyh, fished your comment out of spam–your hyphens/dashes/whatever got turned into weird symbols that tripped the spam filter (I have fixed them). Sorry ’bout that; shouldn’t happen again if you use the same email address.
    My reasons for thinking that Christabel and Blanche were sexually involved:
    Principally:
    Blanche’s journal: “And she kissed me, and called me her dear Blanche, and said I knew she was a good girl, and very strong, and not foolish. . . . She came in to me as I knelt there and raised me up, and said we must never quarrel and that she would never, ever, give me cause to doubt her, and I must not suppose she could. I am sure she meant what she said. She was agitated; there were a few tears. We were quiet together, in our special ways, for a long time.”
    (Together with the scholarly consensus that they were in a lesbian relationship, making me more confident in my interpretation of that phrasing.)
    The trip to Yorkshire: “In the morning, washing, he found traces of blood on his thighs. He had thought, the ultimate things, she did not know, and here was ancient proof. He stood, sponge in hand, and puzzled over her. Such delicate skills, such informed desire, and yet a virgin. There were possibilities, of which the most obvious was to him slightly repugnant, and then, when he thought about it with determination, interesting, too.”
    And to a lesser extent:
    Sabine’s journal: “For instance, I asked her about the curious name of Dog Tray and she began to tell me that he had been named as a joke, for a line in Wm Shakespeare’s King Lear–‘The little dogs and all–Tray, Blanche and Sweetheart, see they bark at me.’ She said, ‘He used to live in a house where there was a Blanche and where I was jokingly called Sweetheart–‘ and then she turned her face away and would say no more, as though she choked.”
    Christabel’s unread letter: “I have had few friends in my life, and of those friends two only whom I trusted–Blanche–and you–and both I loved too well and one died terribly, hating me and you.”
    (Yay ebooks and cut & paste.)

  5. Ah, thank you for finding those excerpts! Looking at them now, you’re probably right – a lot of the reason for my initial reading was that I’ve encountered several instances of an oddly standardized Lesbian-As-Obstruction character over the years. Jill Banford in D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox, Lucette in Rumer Godden’s Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy (I can go on…) – a pointedly small, weak woman who is “too attached” to the important heterosexual female character and is only in the story so she can get into and then be got out of the way, nine times out of ten by dying. I find this irritating, as a queer reader, and Blanche set off my alarms. Still does, really, but I guess it’s better than nothing to come round to the interpretation that she was at least loved briefly.

  6. One needn’t strongly identify as queer to find that annoying!
    You have an excellent point; it is not hard for me to turn my head very slightly and see Blanche as fridged for the sake of Christabel’s greater angst, strongly flavored by homophobia/heterocentrism [*], which feels like the author doing her wrong and not just Christabel.
    [*] Leonora being an awful fucking person assumes new and additionally unpleasant significance now.

  7. I should note first that I don’t think Byatt is homophobic; the main characters in the short stories The Chinese Lobster and A Lamia In The Cevennes are both, I think, queer-coded, and beautifully drawn. But it’s true that if I had read Possession first I might not have bothered to go on; there are books that ping me as saying “The real audience, the important audience, isn’t your kind”, and I do get that from Possession, if faintly.
    Ugh, Leonora. I am actually bothered less by her devouring lesbian feminism (though that in the same book as Blanche is what gives me the impression above; one or the other, singly, I would have let go) than her horribleness in the context of her race. I do realize that being loud and vulgar and physically and sexually greedy is a stereotype of Americans in general, but I wish it wasn’t paired with “a hint of Africa in the lips” and hair that’s “alive”. I don’t think that was intentional, either, but intentions, as always, are not really relevant.

  8. Yeah, I noticed that description this time around (it entirely failed to register previously), though it still fails to click in my head, much like Cropper, and I agree. I believe she is also the only character who is not white.

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