A romance develops between literary historians Roland Michell and Maud Baily as they research two Victorian poets' relationship. Roland first discovers signs of an unknown liaison between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. While traveling to discuss such findings with Maud, a fellow academic, he comes across a photograph of Christabel. Immediately after describing her physicality, the narrator goes on to depict Randolph and Maud's first meeting in person. The proximity of such descriptions quickly unites the characters of Christabel and Maud; their characterizations are separated only by a paragraph's break. Maud goes on to describe her familial relation with Christabel and therefore connects their characters even further. About to become engrossed with two parallel narrations, the reader must question their distance from the modern literary detectives.
When stories fail to be disparately separate, can the reader ever be removed from what he or she reads? In other words, is it possible to the reader to ever not be considered a character? When a narrative becomes more complex, it is very difficult for the reader to not engage in a more active role:
Miss Honiton's book contained, as a frontispiece, the first image he had seen of Christabel, a brownish, very early photograph, veiled under a crackling, protective translucent page. She was dressed in a large triangular mantle and a small bonnet, frilled inside its rim, tied with a large bow under her chin. Her clothes were more prominent than she was; she retreated into them, her head, perhaps quizzically, perhaps considering itself "birdlike," held on one side. She had pale crimped hair over her temples, and her lips were parted to reveal large, even teeth. The picture gave no clear impression of anyone in particular; it was generic Victorian lady, specific shy poetess.
At first he did not identify Maud Bailey, and he himself was not in any way remarkable, so that they were almost the last pair at the wicket gate. She would be hard to miss, if not to recognise. She was tall, tall enough to meet Fergus Wolff's eye on the level, much taller than Roland. She was dressed with unusual coherence for an academic, Roland thought, rejecting several other ways of describing her green and white length, a long pine-green tunic over a pine-green skirt, a white silk shirt inside the tunic and long softly white stockings inside long shining green shoes. Through the stocking veiled flesh diffused a pink gold, almost. He could not see her hear, which was wound tightly into a turban of peacock feather painted silk, low on her brow. Her brows and lashes were blond; he observed so much. She had a clean, milky skin, unpainted lips, clearcut features, largely composed. She did not smile. She acknowledged him and tried to take his bag, which he refused to allow. She drove an immaculately glossy green Beetle. [pp. 43-44]
Why would Byatt choose to place Roland's initial glimpses of both Christabel and Maud next to each other? What does this foreshadow about this novel's two major relationships? What is the significance that it is the female characters that are described next to each other? Why would Byatt choose to build a connection between Christabel and Maud rather than Randolph and Roland in the first parts of the novel?
Christabel's image is seen through an aged photograph, and therefore must be described through a sepia-like lens. Maud's image, however, is bright. She is a blond and is characterized to be wearing much color. What is the significance of such differences of description?
Christabel is described as "generic." Roland notices nothing special about her photograph other than she resembles a classic Victorian woman. Roland notices that Maud, on the other hand, "was dressed with unusual coherence for an academic." She appears to defy her role as a woman scholar, while Christabel is the very definition of a Victorian woman. What is the significance of such differences, especially considering the proximity of their descriptions?
As more is revealed about both of the novel's major relationships, is it possible for the reader to judge whether or not Roland is able to separate his desire for Maud from his interest in Christabel's love life? How much do the characters of Maud and Christabel blur later on, and what is the greater importance of such a narrative device, especially concerning the author's treatment of the importance of Victorian literature?
Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Last modified: 6 April 2004