by A.S. Byatt
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are
designed to enhance your group's reading of A. S. Byatt's Possession,
a richly layered story of passion, mystery, and scholarship.
Roland Michell and Maud Bailey,
two rather unfulfilled young literary scholars, unexpectedly become figures
of romance as they discover a surprising link between the two poets on
whom they are authorities. Byatt deftly plays with literary genres--Romantic
quest, campus satire, detective story, myth, fairy tale--as Maud and Roland
become deeply involved in the unfolding story of a secret relationship
between the Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte.
The young people's quest inevitably
attracts the jealous attention of the competitive academic world, and
all too soon the quest becomes a chase. Byatt's staggering technical ambition
and her powerful romantic vision are tributes to the great Victorian age,
which the novel brings to life. "For the Victorians, everything was part
of one thing: science, religion, philosophy, economics, politics, women,
fiction, poetry," Byatt says. "They didn't compartmentalize--they thought
BIG" (The New York Times Magazine, May 26, 1991). A knowledge of
the poetry referred to in the text is not essential to a full enjoyment
of the novel, but it will certainly enhance it; a few important poems
are listed after the questions below.
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1. What is the significance of the novel's title? Do you think it has more than one meaning? What
does the concept of "possession" mean to the novel's various characters,
both modern and Victorian? How can possession be seen as the theme of
2. Ash is nicknamed "the Great Ventriloquist" but this sobriquet could as easily be applied to Byatt
herself. Why does Byatt use poetry to give away so many clues to the
story? Are the poems a necessary and integral part of the novel or would
it have worked just as well without them? Do you find that the poems
in the novel succeed in their own right as poetry?
3. All the characters' names are carefully chosen and layered with meaning. What is the significance
behind the following names: Roland Michell, Beatrice Nest, Sir George
Bailey, Randolph Ash, Maud Bailey, Christabel LaMotte, Fergus Wolff?
(Clues to the last three may be found in the poetry by Tennyson, Yeats,
and Coleridge cited below.) Do any other names in the novel seem to
you to have special meanings? How do the names help define, or confuse,
the relationships between the characters?
4. The scholars in the novel see R. H. Ash as a specifically masculine, Christabel LaMotte as a specifically
feminine, type of poet, just as Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti,
the poets on whose work Ash's and LaMotte's are loosely based, were
considered to be extreme examples of the masculine and feminine in literature.
Do you feel that such a classification is valid? What is there about
Ash's and LaMotte's diction and subject matter that fulfills our ideas
of "masculine" and "feminine"? Do the poets themselves consciously enact
masculine and feminine roles? Do you find that Christabel's poetry is
presented as being secondary to Ash's? Or that the work of the two poets
5. Ellen Ash wrote her journal as a "defence against, and a bait for, the gathering of ghouls and vultures"
[p. 501]. Mortimer Cropper is literally presented as a ghoul, robbing
the poet's grave. Beatrice Nest, on the other hand, wishes to preserve
Christabel's final letter to Randolph unread. What is the fine line,
if any, between a ghoulish intrusion upon the privacy of the dead, and
the legitimate claims of scholarship and history? As much as the scholars
have discovered, one secret is kept from them at the end and revealed
only to the reader. What is that secret and what difference does it
make to Roland's future?
6. Freedom and autonomy are highly valued both by Christabel and Maud. What does autonomy mean to
each of these characters? In Christabel's day, it was difficult for
women to attain such autonomy; is it still difficult, in Maud's? What
does autonomy mean to Roland? Why does mutual solitude and even celibacy
assume a special importance in his relationship with Maud?
7. The moment of crisis in the poets' lives, 1859, was a significant year, as it saw the publication
of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. The theory of natural
selection delivered a terrible blow to the Victorians' religious faith
and created a climate of uncertainty: "Doubt," says Christabel, "doubt
is endemic to our life in this world at this time" [p. 182]. How does
Byatt compare this spiritual crisis with that which has befallen Roland
and Maud's generation, who are taught to believe that the "self" is
illusory [p. 459]?
8. The fluffy Beatrice Nest is scorned by the feminist scholars who crave access to Ellen Ash's
journal. Yet in her way Beatrice is as much a victim of "patriarchy"
as any of the Victorian women they study. What is the double standard
at work among these politically minded young people? Can Beatrice be
seen as a "superfluous woman," like Blanche and Val? What, if anything,
do these three women have in common?
9. Ash writes "Swammerdam" with a particular reader, Christabel LaMotte, in mind. Is Christabel's
influence on Ash evident in the poem, and if so, how and where? How,
in the poem, does Ash address his society's preoccupation with science
and religion? How does he address his and Christabel's conflicting religious
ideas? How does Christabel herself present these ideas in Mélusine?
10. Why is Christabel so affected by Gode's tale of the miller's daughter? What are its parallels with
her own life?
11. The fairy Mélusine has, as Christabel points out, "two aspects--an Unnatural Monster--and
a most proud and loving and handy woman" [p. 191]. How does Christabel
make Mélusine's situation a metaphor for that of the woman poet?
Does Christabel herself successfully defy society's strictures against
women artists, or does her awareness of the problem cripple her, either
professionally or emotionally? At the end of her life she wonders whether
she might have been a great poet, as she believes Ash was, if she had
kept to her "closed castle" [p. 545]. What do you think?
12. Roland and Maud believe they are taking part in a quest. This is a classic element of medieval
and nineteenth-century Romance, of which they are well aware. Aside
from the quest, what other elements of Romance can be found in Maud
and Roland's story? In Christabel and Randolph's? What other genres
are exploited in the novel?
13. When he returns to his flat at the end of the novel, Roland decides there is "no reason why he should
not go out into the garden" [p. 514]. What is the emotional significance
of his finally entering the garden?
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