This paper is the product of an all-nighter I pulled during my freshman year of college. Comments from my professor at the time sent me into conniptions: "I hate it when such a jumbled peer-editing draft results in such a fine paper --- it undermines all of my authority. Are you sure you don't want to go into English literature instead of science?" Eeek! He meant well, I'm sure, but I didn't know then if science was my thing, and I don't know now. But this still is a pretty good paper.
Searching for the Ideal Relationship in A.S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance
Romantic relationships are funny things. Of course, at age eighteen, having officially had only one such association, I suppose I may seem (and probably am) less than qualified to speak expertly on this particular aspect of human experience. I might argue otherwise, but this is not a paper about the intimate and intricate details of my love life. Rather, I was making a point about love and its universality, a subject that has inspired art and literature for as long as such things have existed. From ancient texts such as the Hebrew Song of Solomon to Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnets and modern rock and roll lyrics, it seems that everyone with a voice has something to say about their relationships (or lack thereof). The idea of the ideal relationship appears again and again, be it during the battle of the sexes or the queer rights movement. My recent reading of A.S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance provided me with a literary example of several romantic relationships that made me stop and think about my own vision of the perfect romance, whose description I will refrain from embarrassing myself with here. Woven though all of the colorful prose, rich literary allusion, and potent sensuality of Possession are portrayals of several love relationships, but the interaction between Byatt's male and female protagonists, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, seems to be the ideal when compared to the other male-female relationships she depicts.
During their mad pursuit of information related to a preveiously unknown affair between the poets Randolph Henry Ash, the focus of Roland's academic career, and Christabel LaMotte, Maud's personal specialty, a relationship between the two scholars evolves: from cool professionalism to an unspoken understanding, to a tenuous romance. This growth is characterized by a series of curiously desexualized exchanges during which Byatt seems to be reminding her readers that a relationship should not be based on such intense passion that either partner owns the other, but on a mutual exchange of self in which both partners maintain and relinquish equal degrees of what Maud so aptly describes as "self-possession" (Byatt 549). She demonstrates this ideal earlier in the novel with the "companionable silence" maintained by Roland and Maud even after the dramatic discovery that they share a deep desire for a lack of desire, and that by some "powerful coincidence" they both picture this ideal state as an empty, clean, white bed (290-1). They maintain an almost absurd chastity even after Maud remarks that "'if [they] were obsessed with each other, no one would think [them] mad'" (360), and so their attachment deepens "without comment and without progression" on all planes—mental, physical, and emotional (458). The apparently inexorable development of the relationship between Roland and Maud is a strong indication of Byatt's vested interest in the success of that relationship, which she seems to be holding up as an example of what might work as a possible alternative to other male-female relationships, which she depicts in various relationships between her other characters.
Roland and Maud's relationship develops in sharp contrast to the other male-female ralationships Byatt develops in Possession. One example springs easily to mind during a confrontation between Maud and the dominating Fergus Wolff, who seems as aggressive as the predator implied by his surname as he presses her for information about her new research. Tightly gripping her arm, he literally maintains his hold on her as he threatens: "'...if you don't tell me, I shall find out, and consider what I find out to be my own property, Maud'" (256). Maud seldom articulates her mixed feelings about Fergus except to mention that he was the reason she chose to grow out her hair, which she keeps constantly covered (295-6). Once, she even goes so far as to describe their interaction in terms of a dirty bed --- a clear contrast to what she confides in Roland, and so Byatt again demonstrates the superiority of her protagonists' relationship. As Maud explains to Roland towards the novel's conclusion,
"I feel as [Christabel LaMotte] did. I keep my defences up because I must go on doing my work. I know how she felt about her unbroken egg. Her self-possession, her autonomy. I don't want to think of that going." (549)
Maud's words here recall LaMotte's fear that an affair with Ash would destroy her creative spirit, severing her ties to her writing just at the song of handsome Lancelot --- the call of the outside world --- drew the Lady of Shalott away from her weaving to her death (205). Thus, Byatt not only illustrates the positive aspects of Roland and Maud's romance but questions the validity of relationships that destroy either partner's ability to function as a creative, productive individual.
Just as Roland and Maud's interactions are a far cry from her experiences with Fergus, they are a dramatic departure from Roland's life with his girlfriend, Val. When the reader first encounters Val, she is introduced as a source of worry for Roland, although she once fit into his life simply, naturally, and without question or hesitation (11-15). As the novel progresses, we learn how Val, like Roland, pursued Randolph Henry Ash as an avenue to academia, but met with failure and had to abandon her scholarly ambitions, consoling herself with Roland, saying to him, "'At least you want me... I don't know why you should want me, I'm not good, but you do'" (17). Later it becomes apparent that this statement is not just reflective of Val's low sense of self-worth, but of her total despair and subsequent relinquishment of self-possession to the unwilling Roland, who finds himself dragged down by his responsibility for her (un)happiness, and his dependence on the money she earns for menial tasks to finish his Ph.D. studies. Their mutually destructive relationship eventually disintegrates as he escapes into the world of Maud Bailey and the Ash-LaMotte romance and she is, to use an awful cliché, swept off her feet by her philanthropic employer, Euan MacIntyre. In the end both find themselves more fulfilled by their new freedom and relationships: under Euan's protective, wing, Val blossoms until she seems to embody "the glistening self-pleasure of sexual happiness" (469), and Roland finds academic success beyond his wildest dreams waiting for him in the mail left behind in the apartment he and Val once shared (507-9). Soon afterwards, his pent-up emotions find release in poetry, a sudden burst of creative self-expression reminiscent of LaMotte's abandonment of her relationship with Ash in order to maintain her artistic integrity.
Although Ash never meant to harm either LaMotte or her writing, it is impossible for their affair to continue, both because of her unswerving dedication to her art and his marriage to his wife, Ellen, a relationship whose flaws are the deepest of those mentioned here. We are introduced to the Ashes as newlyweds in a passage of an Ash biography by Mortimer Cropper, whom we later discover idolizes and idealizes the poet to the point of purchasing and preserving his possessions, not for high-minded purposes such as donating them to museums, but a personal collection. Cropper's selfishness and the passage from his Ash biography that describe Ellen as Ash's "possession" give the word a sinister meaning --- and, in perfect keeping with the novel's running commentary on relationships, it turns out that this selfish, dominating form of possession is less than kind to the possessed (121). Cropper's idyllic depiction of the Ashes' honeymoon is shattered by Ellen's perspective on these events, which is presented not in the cryptic journal she left for posterity, but as one of Possession's several flashbacks to the Victorian-era incidents that inspired the events of the modern romance. The contemporary scholar notes that "Ash's poetry, for Victorian poetry, is knowledgeable about sexual mores and indeed about sensuality.... Could such a man have remained happy with a purely platonic desire? Did Ellen Best's prim delicacy... hide an unexpected ardour of response?" (123) His speculations on the unknowns of that relationship hardly approach the stark flashes of truth from Ellen's memory:
She remembered her honeymoon [not] in words [but] in images... A complex thing, the naked male, curly hairs and shining wet... its scent feral and overwhelming.
A large hand, held out in kindness, not once, but many times, slapped away, pushed away, slapped away.
A running creature, crouching and cowering in the corner of the room, its teeth chattering, its veins clamped in spasms, its breath shallow and fluttering. Herself. (498)
This passage is but a brief selection from a series of descriptive flashbacks presented in a painfully real and dramatic succession toward the novel's close, when the true answers to questions about the Ashes' relationship and the mystery of LaMotte's child by Ash begin to fall into place like so many subsequent dominoes succumbing to the pull of gravity, and as Roland and Maud succumb to the inexorable forces drawing them together. Appearing as it does between so many revelattions, this graphic passage cuts to the core of romantic possession's most tragic extreme with the simple words: "She became his slave" (499). Ellen Ash's terrible guilt at her inability to perform sexually for her husband literally enslaved her, illustrating not just A.S. Byatt's opinion of the oppressiveness of Victorian society's expectations for women but her more important assertion that no one must ever be another's possession lest the tragedy of Ellen Ash repeat itself.
At the end of Possession, we are left knowing that, of the relationships examined in this paper, only two --- that of Val and Euan and that of Roland and Maud --- remain intact. Of these two, that of our protagonists is of course the one that must be examined closely in this conclusion. Byatt leaves her lovers together at dawn, exultant in their love and their long-delayed love-making. It is a scene of mixed emotions and meaning:
In the morning, the whole world had a strange new smell. It was the smell of the aftermath, a green smell, a smell of shredded leaves and oozing resin, of crushed wood and splashed sap, a tart smell, which bores some relation to the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful. (531)
What conclusions can we draw from this passage? It seems somewhat oxymoronic to describe a smell as "fresh and lively and hopeful", especially right after characterizing it as "the smell of death and destruction". However, for the less literal-minded, those phrases may evoke spring thaw, the most violent and destructive season of the year, which clears away the long deathlike sleep of winter for the reawakening of new life. Perhaps Roland and Maud's love will be a rebirth of life and hope for the two of them. After all, "the smell of bitten apples" is reminiscent of "O love, be fed with apples while you may", Val and Euan's quoting of Robert Graves in bed together, affirmation of Val's escape from "permanent disappointment" and the happy state of her relationship at the novel's ending (450-1). Even if this is no more than an expression of their physical enjoyment, we have the encouraging evidence of Roland's gentle "'We could think of a way'", "'We can work it out'", and "'I'll take care of you, Maud'", later affirmed by her "uninhibited" cries of pleasure and triumph (550-1). All things considered, even assuming Roland and Maud's relationship is not the perfect ideal I have tried to make it out to be, it is still the best of those depicted in Possession. They have earned their happy ending, and if their determined statements in their last appearance are any indication, they will continue to do so.
Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Vintage International, 1990.