Summer reading: Possession, chapters 6-10.

In which, most importantly, we get to read The Correspondence. And other stuff happens, too, but . . . The Correspondence! Another great place to end. Okay, fine. We also meet the vile Cropper, learn more about Leonora. And Beatrice Nest, poor Beatrice (and through her, Ellen Ash).

There are some very interesting themes in this section. The two that pop out at me are biography and sexuality. Both Cropper and Leonora tend to see their particular poet through a specific lens. For Cropper, that lens is, essentially, himself, and for Leonora, it’s sexuality/feminism/lesbianism. The danger is that, instead of reporting the facts and then interpreting them, they are interpreting the facts and then reporting them in such a way to make them line up with that interpretation.

And when it comes to sexuality, in this section we start to see that the modern-day folk certainly can talk a lot about sex, but when it comes to love and relationships, it doesn’t seem as if they are doing any better than the Victorians. I am not sure I’d go so far as to say that all that talk of sex is stifling them, because it doesn’t seem as if it’s stifled Fergus, but it does seem to have stifled intimacy. Certainly there is something repressed about Maud.

Of course I don’t need to point you in the direction of these famous letters to get the idea of who Byatt might have been channeling. And what of the letters themselves? There are a few quotes in particular that I love. This one, from Ash:

The impulses to religion might be the need to trust–or the capacity for wonder–and my own religious feelings have always been inspired more by the latter. I find it hard to shift without the Creator–the more we see and understand, the more amazement there is in this strangely interrelated Heap of things–which is yet not disordered.

And this (of course), from Christabel:

No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.

What a description of the situation they have fallen into. Is “fallen into” too generous? Perhaps so. Ash, especially, charged ahead, seemingly unconcerned with the possible consequences of his actions.

Christabel’s story, The Threshold, is, indeed, set at the threshold of adventure for Roland and Maud, just as they are discovering what the letters say (actually, they discover it before we the reader are allowed to know, but that’s the concept anyway). That story is based on Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower,” which I read to see if I could gain some insight into what Byatt might have been thinking. I thought it was interesting that it’s basically about Childe Roland approaching the Dark Tower, not actually what he finds in it. I kept waiting for the poem to get to the exciting LotR stuff, but instead it was about the journey rather than the actual adventure. Which also explains why Christabel’s story ends where it does, without anything resolved.

And I guess now is as good a place as any to talk about the theme of “possession.” Cropper wants to possess all that he can of Ash’s, and so, possess Ash himself. He even imagines (in the biography) Ash considering his new wife as a possession. There are other examples, too: Beatrice being so possessive of Ellen, Roland’s possession of the letters (and wanting to do the work himself). Even Blanche with Christabel. I think that theme will continue to develop over the course of the book, but . . . well, I don’t want to give a lot away, but I think that one of the themes of the book is that even if we read someone’s most private letters or diary, we still don’t know everything about them. No matter how well Maud knows Christabel through her writing, she will never actually grasp (or possess) all of Christabel’s thoughts or experiences.

We’re given quite a bit of information about Beatrice there, and you feel (or at least I feel) pity for her, and I always felt she was kind of benevolent, but I noticed how Roland was talking to her and she just sat there smiling, and I just wanted her to do something. We’ve been given indications that she feels more deeply than she can express, and to see her sitting there with a placid smile because she’s slightly intimidated by (meek, mild) Roland is . . . frustrating.

I think I would also like to say something about the letter that Fergus sent Maud, the letter that was notable only for how petty it seemed and how much it bugged Maud. Fergus, with the last name Wolff, is clearly much more of a predator than our Roland. And Leonora sent a letter, too. I don’t think I know what to say about Leonora. She overpowers me in the same way that Maud seems overpowered by her.

Roland and Maud’s class differences make another reappearance, and this time we get more of Maud’s perspective rather than just Roland being prickly. Of course, we only get Maud’s perspective after she’s been goaded into it by Fergus. And Roland is a bit harsh, believing that Maud, used to being surrounded by beautiful things, would not be able to appreciate the beauty or romance of the bathroom.

But, in the end, what sticks with me about this section is The Correspondence. Andrea and I were talking about it a bit last week, and we both agreed that the first part was difficult to get through. The letters dragged on for longer than I’d remembered, with a slow build, but when they start picking up steam, they make quite an impression. I am not sure I have a lot to say about the letters themselves (or the revelations they make of love and treachery), but I would like to hear your comments.

I’m going on vacation at the end of this week, but I should still have plenty of time to get next week’s chapters written up. Happy reading!

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  1. Oh my goodness. The Letters. So great! Even despite the fact that I can’t really approve of their relationship (well, as anything other than friendship, which they’d clearly moved beyond by the end of the letters), some of the later letters were really moving in their descriptions (especially his) of their feelings. Beautiful. Like this, from Ash:
    ‘I have dreamed nightly of your face and walked the streets of my daily life with the rhythms of your writing singing in my silent brain. I have called you my Muse, and so you are, or might be, a messenger from some urgent place of the spirit where essential poetry sings and sing. I could call you, with even greater truth – my Love – there, it is said – for I most certainly love you and in all the ways possible to man and most fiercely.’
    Lovely. And I loved the line you quoted about the fire.
    I really like Beatrice – I love her protective impulse towards Ellen Ash. Though I agree, it was frustrating to watch her be intimidated and not DO something.
    And I agree with your assessment of Blackadder vs. Cropper (in this and the previous post) – Cropper gives me the creeps – that description of him photographing the letters of that old lady in the bathroom at night was wiiiiiiierd. So obsessive (and possessive) of him.
    I will admit, I’m not used to having to work this hard when reading –
    even the more difficult books I’ve read recently have been more
    difficult emotionally, not intellectually, like this one is.
    Man, I can’t wait to talk about the next section!!! 🙂

    Posted 6/26/2007 at | Permalink
  2. Kari

    I think it’s interesting how much Ash pushed things at first (and even with what you quoted, upping the ante by saying that he loved her) especially with Roland’s observation that he’d never read anything like this from Ash before.

    Posted 6/26/2007 at | Permalink

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