Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell embark upon a journey of discovery in A.S. Byatt's novel Possession. They learn of a connection between two Victorian poets, Randolph Ash and Christabel La Motte. They discover unpublished and unrecorded letters between the two poets that suggest a romantic affair. However, they must work quickly and secretively in order to introduce their findings to the literary world. Information concerning the letters leaks to other literary critics and buyers, and Bailey and Mitchell slip away on extended vacations in order to produce a coherent and valid argument that Ash and La Motte were romantically allied. Their attempt to unearth the romantic couple's past leads them to abandon their lives at home and at their respective universities. Roland withdraws from his live-in girlfriend, Val, leaving her without any information as to his whereabouts. Despite Roland and Maud's collective effort interpreting the letters between La Motte and Ash, they often work in the same room, though separately and without speaking. Solitude plays a substantial role not only between Roland and Maud, but also between Ash and La Motte. Ash threatens Christabel's liberal lifestyle which includes living in her own home and doing as she pleases. Their correspondence reflects her apprehensions regarding their relationship, describing how it might infringe upon her sense of solitude and freedom. The style in which the novel is written, and the connections between various documents and characters suggest that isolation and solitude which is often desired by Christabel and Roland is difficult to obtain and maintain.
"The most important thing to make clear to you is this. I make no threat to your solitude. How should I? How may I? Is not your blessed desire to be alone the only thing which makes possible what would else in very truth harm someone?" [p.214; Ash to Christabel]
Ash desires a relationship with Christabel. She desires solitude and space, while he yearns for her presence. Thus, he must combine solitude and togetherness in some way in order for them to be with one another. He says he does not threaten her solitude, is this true?
What other female characters have we seen who desire freedom, while the male desires attachment and a relationship? Aurora Leigh desires freedom to complete her work, poetry, yet ultimately falls in love with a man. What are the commonalities between Aurora and Christabel? Is Jane Eyre similar to Christabel, or an antithesis of her personality?
While Ash tried to become closer to Christabel, he distanced himself from his wife Ellen. Roland and Maud examine his letters before they are sure of the affair between poets.
"No. They read exactly like the letters of a solitary husband on holiday, talking to his wife of an empty evening...Think about it -- if you were a man in the excited state of the writer of the Christabel letters-could you sit down every evening and write to your wife -- in front of Christabel, it would have to have been? Could you produce these travelogues?" [p.235]
What is it exactly about Ash's letters to his wife that suggests that he is travelling alone? Is writing without emotion and indicator of solitude?
In a letter from Ash to Christabel, he suggests a concept of freedom which does not mean complete solitude.
"The true exercise of freedom is -- cannily and wisely and with grace -- to move inside what space confines --and not seek to know what lies beyond and cannot be touched or tasted. But we are human -- and to be human is to desire to know what may be known by any means." [p.218]
What is Ash attempting to say to Christabel? Is this his ultimate combination of solitude and togetherness which would make their relationship work? When Ash states "But we are human -- and to be human is to desire to know what may be known by any means", how does this relate to the work between Maud and Roland?
Maud and Roland must escape and leave others behind in order to complete their investigation.They claim that they must "disappear," Maud leaving Leonora and Roland leaving Val without explanation. Is their leaving simply because they must keep their work a secret, or because solitude and isolation is a necessary requirement for intellectual progression? Is their activity, meaning their disappearances and secretive nature, a mirror of Ash and La Motte's behavior? Are they working within a confined space mentioned in the above statement, or are they creating their own space?
Does the writing style of Possession indicate that human curiosity makes solitude impossible? The documents are interconnected, Byatt includes Ash and La Motte's letters, Ash's letters to his wife, La Motte's poetry and narrative to produce a puzzle-piece type of story. Everything appears interconnected, nothing stands alone.
Why is Val jealous of Roland's work? How is this different than the behavior of Ellen Ash to her own husband?
Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Vintage International, 1990.
Last modified: 5 April 2004