A Reciprocal Possession

Possession – the title of A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize winning work quite aptly describes the feeling whereby both the novel’s various ‘living’ characters and the historical figures whose lives they attempt to reveal are inexplicably driven in the frantic pursuit of their (often undefined) respective goals. This is particularly evident in the correspondence between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel Lamotte, which captures the possession of the aforementioned figures by each other, and concurrently epitomizes the total possession of Roland and Maud by the mysteries of the past.

In this correspondence, Ash discourses on the nature of possession, arguing that “there [is] no middle way” (177) – that the phenomenon is unavoidably extreme. Where we might understand possession to mean a type of surrender, however, Ash indicates its reciprocity, noting that when “[he] speak[s] to [Christabel] as [he] might speak to all those who most possess [his] thoughts” he “find[s] [himself] unpardonably lending [her] […] [his] voice” (177). Essentially, while possessed by Christabel or such figures as Shakespeare, John Donne, etc., he necessarily engages in the possessive act in relation to them as well through the inevitable attempt “to construct a Dialogue” (177). Ash argues that this leads to him “encroaching on both halves of [the dialogue]” (177), and it seems that this is likewise the case with Christabel, as both are in a way scripted by the other and yet succeed in scripting the other in such clearly manifested ways as the productions of Melusina and Swammerdam.

This notion is thematically important for the novel as a whole, as characters like Roland and Maud, while trapped in the monologue of objective scholarly reality, nevertheless attempt a sort of dialogue with the story of Ash and Christabel. They are indeed clearly possessed by the story, witnessing its effects on their own lives and choices, yet they also possess the story, uniquely ‘writing’ it by bringing it to life through their own explorations and interpretive perspectives. Barthes would argue that a reader takes possession of an author’s text, but Byatt seems to view possession rather as mutual discourse, and just as Christabel later notes that she is “enlarged by [Ash’s] generosity” (502) in his reciprocal possession of her, so Roland and Maud are enlarged by the story, discovering themselves and each other while also permitting the enlargement and completion of Ash and Christabel’s romance through their possession of it.

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