How do you “Possess” a Memory?

The historical mystery that Roland and Maude set out to solve in the pages of Byatt’s Possession reflects the concern of the protagonists with the preservation of memory. The clues that lead Roland and Maude, as well as other interested parties, toward the discovery of the secret relationship between Ash and LaMotte are all, in fact, objects of memory: letters, jet broaches, diaries, etc. As objects, these items can be possessed; someone (or something) can be in possession of them, drawing a convincing correlation with the title. But who/what is the subject and who/what is the object of the possession?

The letters, which prove the relationship between Ash and LaMotte, are the most vexing examples questioning possession. As is evidenced by the legal battle over the rightful possession of the letters, there is ambiguity as to who ought to possess the letters, and who does possess the letters. By possessing the letters, an individual would assume the dominant role in a power-relationship over those who seek to possess the letters, just as Sir George possesses power over Cropper, Maude/Roland, and others seeking the letters. More importantly, the letters themselves possess a crucial element to this novel: memory and truth. The memory that is preserved within, and is possessed by, the letters significantly alters the way the reader interprets both the letters as physical objects themselves, as well as the lives of the individuals concerned within the letters.

The letters are not the only objects that possess memory; upon meeting his daughter in the park, Ash asks for a “lock of hair – a very fine one – to remember you by,” suggesting that hair acts as an important object of memory for Ash (554). Hair, as an object, has many roles in Victorian-culture, so much so that there are now museums dedicated to hair-jewelry. Furthermore, as Limond suggests in her article, The Persistent Shape-Shifting Life of Things: Subject/Object Relations Manifest in A.S. Byatt’s Posession: A Romance, hair acts as a commodity throughout the novel, both in Ash’s interaction with his daughter, as well as in the jet shop, where mourning jewelry, made of hair, is available for purchase (32).  Although hair may also act as a sign of wealth (particularly golden hair), and the trading of hair represents greed in Victorian-culture, it is notable that Ash’s request of a lock of hair arises specifically from his desire to obtain an object of memory (Limond 32).

Equally important, is the suggestion made by Limond regarding how hair “acts as an extension of identity via the body” (32). Maude’s hair, which is a nearly overwhelming motif throughout the novel, plays an important role in shaping her identity. In the same way, Ash’s daughter’s hair also forms much of her identity: the blonde hair, which the novel’s characters presume is Christabel’s, is actually Maia’s, as the final postscript informs the reader. This identity, unknown to either Maia or to scholars of either poet, demonstrates the personal nature of the memory that Ash obtains, and subsequently possesses, in the lock of hair. That this lock of hair remained in his watch, itself a symbol of memory, indicates the power that a memory can exert upon an object.

In sum, is it possible to physically possess a memory? Ash himself possessed memories of both Christabel and Maia through physical objects, and yet these meant little (or perhaps possessed incorrect meanings) to others in his life. These same objects have been dispossessed of that particular memory as a result of time and secrecy. In discovering the truth, it can be argued that Byatt’s scholars have allowed these objects, the letters and the hair, to repossess their original memories, but to what extent are these memories projected and to what extent are they preserved? And do they not now also possess a new meaning and new memories?

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