The title of A.S. Byatt's novel Possession relates to nearly every aspect of the multiple stories encased in the framework of Roland Michell and Maud Bailey's quest to discover the truth about the love affair between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Possession engages in various questions of ownership: Who is entitled to Roland's initial discovery and its aftermath? What does it mean to possess another person in a romantic relationship? Do Roland and Maud have a right to enter Mrs. Irving's so-called private garden in their own backyard? and so forth, encompassing issues both small and vast. One of the most important issues throughout the novel is the idea of cultural imperialism, as Leonora Stern and others term it, and the disputes which arise over whether the correspondence should remain in Britain based on the fact that its authors were British. Roland's quasi-mentor Blackadder and Maud's friend Leonora discuss this dispute in a television interview after the discovery becomes publicized:
Shushila sat between her guests and smiled. Blackadder watched the cameras and felt like a dusty barman. Dusty grey between these two peacocks, dusty with face-powder -- he could smell himself -- under the hot light. The moment before the broadcast seemed eternal, and then suddenly, like a sprint race, they were all talking very rapidly and as suddenly silent again. He had only the vaguest recollection of what had been said. The two women, like gaudy parrots, talking about female sexuality and its symbols when repressed, the Fairy Melusina and the danger of the female, LaMotte and the love that dared not speak its name, Leonora's huge surprise when it seemed that Christabel might have loved a man. And his own voice: "Randolph Henry Ash was one of the great love poets in our language. Ask to Embla is one of the great poems of true sexual passion. No one has ever really known whom those poems were written for. In my view the explanation advanced in the standard biography always looked unconvincing and silly. Now we know who it is -- we've discovered Ash's Dark Lady. It's the kind of discover scholars dream of. The letters have got to stay in our country -- they're part of our national story."
And Shushila: "You won't agree with that, Professor Stern? Being an American?"
And Leonora: "I think the letters should be in the British Library. We can all have microfilms and photocopies, the problems are only sentimental. And I'd like Christabel to have honour in her own country and Professor Blackadder here, who's the greatest living Ash scholar, to have charge of the correspondence. I'm not acquisitive, Shushila -- all I want is a chance to write the best critique of these letters once they're available. The days of cultural imperialism are over, I'm glad to say . . . " .
1. Blackadder mentions that "we've discovered Ash's Dark Lady". In his statement, the "we" could refer to the small group of people who fit together the puzzle pieces of Ash and LaMotte's relationship either by discovering a manuscript, clue, or new meaning in old text or by being a part of the physical journey which furthered the development of the discovery -- Roland, Maud, Blackadder, Leonora Stern and Beatrice Nest. It could also refer to the nation of Great Britain, or in an even vaguer sense, the world or human race as a whole. Which "we" do you think Blackadder means, consciously or subconsciously? What do these different possibilities say about personal ownership, national ownership, and universal ownership?
2. When Leonora says "I think the letters should be in the British Library. We can all have microfilms and photocopies, the problems are only sentimental", she suggests that the dispute relates to Britain's pride and honor in its culture and nationality, not to the possibility that the letters would give Britain's scholars an academic advantage over the rest of the world. Blackadder echoes her first statement with even greater emphasis: "The letters have got to stay in our country -- they're part of our national story." Are the letters a part of Britain's national story because their authors were British, because they were found in Britain, or for some other reason? Are the letters actually a part of the French national story, also, since Christabel's pregnancy and Maia's birth took place in Brittany and Christabel's national identity is mixed?
3. The strong sentiment against cultural imperialism also provides a basis for analyzing the possibility of hypocrisy of Great Britain, a nation of museums filled with historical artifacts taken from other nations and cultures. Byatt's decision -- if it is a decision -- to write a scene in which cultural imperialism is discussed with a journalist who is both Indian and female also raises questions about Britain's other forms of imperialism, such as its occupation of India, as well as alluding to the metaphorical imperialism between men and women (which is discussed at great length throughout the novel). How do the opinions of the characters in Possession compare to those of the characters in Waterland, another novel which discusses British imperialism? Waterland also deals with issues of gender. How does Mary Metcalf's pregnancy and abortion compare or contrast with Christabel's pregnancy and the birth of Maia, and how might those two situations constitute a kind of "gender imperialism"?
4. Blackadder declares that "Randolph Henry Ash was one of the great love poets in our language". Language is often inextricably linked to nationalism and imperialism -- dominating another culture by imposing a foreign tongue. Christabel speaks with her cousin Sabine and her uncle in Breton, but writes and publishes in English. Does any anti-French sentiment exist in the characters in Possession, as it does in Jane Eyre? Does it not exist, or does it exist by omission or a lack of discussion? Do the two novels differ in their treatment of France because they are set in very different time periods, or for other reasons?
Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Random House, 1990.
Last modified: 6 April 2004