The field of English literature is more subjective than other academic disciplines and as such, people in other disciplines can perceive the study of literature as personal opinions constructed by the reader apart from the text. Often, the opinions and conclusions of literary scholars seem out of reach of their academic peers in other disciplines because they have a deeper knowledge of historical concepts and biographical information, which cannot be entirely relied upon yet not entirely discredited. A.S. Byatt’s novel “Possession” explores questions about academic and personal reading processes. By exploring this question through the example of Christabel Lamotte, I argue that our “knowledge” of background information to texts can colour our readings to the point where it can alter the textual meaning and can become supplementary to the text itself. I further posit that research, although not perfect, is the most effective way of gaining new knowledge.
Much of the basis for study in English literature can lie in historical context; biographical contexts can also contribute to a richer understanding. How does our previous knowledge or the things we know colour our readings of texts? To what extent do we ascribe our own interpretations to a text? This dilemma is illustrated in the character of Christabel Lamotte, specifically what was known about her by scholars like Maud Bailey and how that could have influenced interpretation. The very thought of LaMotte being involved in an affair with R.H. Ash at first seems uncharacteristic of her and Maud Bailey completely discredits the idea from the beginning (42). With further research and looking for specific examples that could be interpreted to support the claim of an affair between the two authors, more evidence is found. This leads to more questions about what we can find in texts if we are looking for it; would the same evidence exist if it was not being diligently searched for?
As English majors, it is our job to find what is relevant and prove it thus with textual and historical references. As stated previously, these references can be initially tainted with subjectivity and personal interpretations so the only way to strengthen an argument is to question its very basis even further. When Maud and Roland cautiously accept the notion that there may have been an affair between their favourite authors, the evidence they find changes what they thought they knew. Can new information lead to a reformation of previous thought or will it be shaped to fit what was already assumed about the subject? The fact that new information is being gathered from personal letters is significant to note. These letters were written to specific readers; how accurate can a reading of the letters be by someone who was not intended to read them? (131)
It is not my intent to bash the literary research process but merely to draw attention to how we as readers can construct textual meanings outside of the text itself because of our own knowledge and subjective experiences. The information we have about authors is important to note and can be significant at times to understanding the meaning; it is also important to keep in mind where the information comes from and that although it may be correct, there may be more to the background of the work, the author, and the circumstance than originally thought. It is only through research and questioning what we believe we know that we are able to find what we don’t know and come to know more things.
Do you have any personal examples for when your previous knowledge has accurately/inaccurately coloured your reading of a specific text?
What effect do the series of personal letters have on objective understanding of facts?