In A.S. Byatt's Possession, two literary scholars, Maud Bailey and Roland Michell, investigate the relationship of the Victorian poets they study, respectively, Christabel Lamotte and Randolph Ash. After discovering the correspondence of the two poets and making several connections between their works, Maud and Roland are excited by the possibility that Lamotte secretly accompanied Ash on his famous walking tour of Yorkshire.
In the passage below, Maud and Roland spontaneously decide to recreate Ash and Lamotte's trip to Yorkshire. By doing so, they "follow the path" of the Victorian poets in three ways. They retrace the steps of Ash and Lamotte's trip, intentionally, and, when they visit a place called Boggle Hole, unintentionally. They continue along the trail of clues that suggests an affair between the poets. And Maud and Ronald move closer to a romance as brash as that between Ash and Lamotte.
While deciding to sneak away to Yorkshre, Maud and Roland discuss their shared obsession with the Ash/Lamotte connection. They feel driven to pursue their study, even while alienating their colleagues and lovers. Their conversations raise several questions about revisiting old lives and texts, and the role of the literary scholar.
"Which came first? His line or her line? There are problems about dating Ask to Embla--which we're obviously on the way to solving, among other things. It reads like a classic literary clue. She was a clever and hinting sort of woman. Look at those dolls."
"Literary critics make natural detectives," said Maud. "You know the theory that the classic detective story arose with the classic adultery novel--everyone wanted to know who was the Father, what was the origin, what is the secret?"...
"I want to--to--follow the--path. I feel taken over by this. I want to know what happened, and I want it to be me that finds out. I thought you were mad, when you came to Lincoln with your piece of stolen letter. Now I feel the same. It isn't professional greed. It's something more primitive."
"Narrative curiousity--""Partly." [pp. 258-259]
1. How believable is Maud's theory that Christabel left clues for the benefit of future biographical and literary scholars? To what extent should a writer's personal life be considered when studying his or her literary works? How does Maud's and Roland's opinion on this subject change throughout the novel?
2. How does the attempt by Maud and Roland to recreate the lives of Ash and Lamotte compare to the attempt by A.S. Byatt to recreate the themes and style of Victorian works such as Elizabeth Barret Browning's Aurora Leigh?
3. What is the significance of the link between scholarly obsession and madness in the novel?
4. How does Byatt play with the forms of the "classic detective story" and the "classic adultery novel" in Possession?"
5. If not "professional greed" and not quite "narrative curiosity," what is it that drives Maud and Roland to continue their fanatical study of Lamotte and Ash?
Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Last modified: 5 April 2004