Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne is quoted as saying in the epigraph to A.S. Byatt's novel Possession: A Romance, attempts to "connect a bygone times with the very present that is flitting away from us" (Byatt 1). Possession tells two parallel stories, that of a love affair between Victorian poets and the discovery of that love affair by modern textual critics, who fall in love themselves. The stories speak to each other, creating meaning in their connections and disconnections. Though not a rewriting of a specific book or biography, Possession draws on Victorian personalities, fiction and ideas. One way to interrogate this text is to examine it in relation to a well-known Victorian novel, Jane Eyre, and question how each book portrays the movement of independent women into and out of love. To approach this question, I follow Sally Shuttleworth's discussion of Victorian psychology, especially Victorian ideas of the self, and apply them to the two texts and specifically the characters of Christabel in Possession and the eponymous heroine in Jane Eyre.

In 1845, influential psychologist J.E.D. Esquirol posited that "the condition of selfhood is dependent on having something to conceal: it is the very disjunction between inner and outer form which creates the self" (Shuttleworth 38). This popularly discussed conception of selfhood depends on the existence of not of an inner self of thoughts and feelings, nor an outer socialized self, but a space between what is hidden and what is shown to the world. What is the effect when this space is collapsed, when both the inner and outer selves are subjected to an outside gaze? This is the danger both Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and A.S. Byatt's Christabel LaMotte face when they fall in love. Both heroines, middle-class Victorian ladies without family support or wealth, consider themselves basically self-sufficient. Subjected to the gaze of a male lover, each experiences an intensification of emotion and thought and a subsequent widening of the space between her inner and outer selves — a more absolute, but also more divided self. Sex threatens both the new and old self by collapsing the inner and outer worlds; Christabel, in giving in to her desire, is destroyed and remade into what "all men see women as" — double, simultaneously a demon and an angel, unable to ever discover a unified self again (Byatt 404). Jane, resisting sexual desire, retains her selfhood, at least until the end of the book, when the question remains if Mr. Rochester's ruined gaze still has the power to know her completely enough to destroy her.

Charlotte Brontë was certainly aware of the new theories of the self; her "fiction circles obsessively around the relationship between concealment and selfhood" (Shuttleworth 39). The ideas about this relationship were born out of changing patterns of social organization, economy and physiological theories of psychological functioning (38). Pre-cursors to the theories of the unconscious, nineteenth century psychology began to recognize the divisions of selfhood, and the role of the body in defining the self:

What emerged from these developments was not simply a more complex version of psychomachia, where reason battles with passion, nor a new grounding of authenticity in the concealed inner realms of body and behavior. Selfhood, if we follow Esquirol, was situated neither in inner impulse, nor in outer social behavior, but in the self-conscious awareness of the disjunction between the two. [38-39]

The view of subjectivity as actually created by "repression" of passion is echoed by John Kucich, who notes that forms of Victorian self-control may "play a more positive, empowering role within subjectivity than we have come to think" (68). In other words, the true self is not the inner passion which is repressed by the outside culture, but the combination and conflict between the inner and outer worlds.

Though more complex theories of the psyche have emerged since 1848, we can use this formulation to examine Victorian texts such as Jane Eyre and better grasp the psychological underpinnings of the character and the story. We can also use to it examine modern texts such as Possession, which attempt to emulate or rewrite Victorian stories and characters, questioning how the idea of selfhood has changed and how it has remained the same. Byatt herself draws a parallel between Jane Eyre and her Victorian poetess Christabel, when Christabel's cousin remarks, "I am sure [Christabel] resembles the romantic Jane Eyre, so powerful, so passionate, so observant beneath her sober exterior" (365). Not only is the relationship specifically marked out in the later text, it is intimately related to the disjunction between inner and outer selves which marks both women. The similarity between the selves of Jane and Christabel is in the existence of both the passionate inner core and the "sober exterior."

In the beginning of Jane Eyre, the child-version of Jane is all passion; just before meeting Mr. Rochester, she is almost all reserve. Her position as a governess, following her years as a student and teacher Lowood school, provides no mental or emotional stimulus. While Jane never asks for more or attempts to pursue her emotions or desires, she feels an absence. In spare moments at Thornfield, she looks out from the house and confesses, "I desired more of practical experience than I possessed." Jane imagines "other and more vivid kinds of goodness" in the world that as are yet unknown, but simultaneously blames herself for the imagining, suggesting that "many" would call her "discontented." In self-defense, Jane claims, "I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature" (Brontë 93). This passage shows that even while Jane's inner self and outer self seem to be in alignment, a space exists, held up by the power of her imagination. She feels passionately about nothing at this point except the possibility of passion, but that much creates a self; the "restlessness" she feels is in fact her nature, her self, the disconnect between the face she shows to the world and her inner world of fantasy.

Christabel, by contrast, feels no emptiness or restlessness. Within her home, which she and her friend/lover Blanche Glover have named Bethany, Christabel lives a self-sufficient and creative life, writing poetry, talking and keeping house. Christabel describes her existence as "An Egg, a perfect O, a living Stone, doorless and windowless, whose life may slumber on till she be Waked-or find she has Wings to spread-which is not so here-oh no-" (Byatt 152). The egg image suggests a totality; within her home, unsubjected to any outside gaze, Christabel is whole, the outer self (the "milky moonstone" shell) directly connected to the inner self (the "gold, soft cushion") with no space between. This image rejects the idea that the self is created by a separation between inner and outer states. However the egg is also linked to a lack of life, suggesting that where there is unity there is also deadness. The egg, wrapped in silk, lies inside "a funerary Urn" and is compared several times to stone (151-2). An egg itself is a symbol not of life but of the possibility of life, a possibility Christabel explicitly rejects.

Yet Christabel's self-analysis is only partially true; when she does venture out of the house to the breakfast party where she first meets Randolph Henry Ash, the presence of the outside world creates a separation between her inner and outer selves. Ash not only perceives this separation, he glimpses her inner self past her outer assumed modesty, as he later tells her: "I remember your face-turned aside a little-but decisive . . . — and suddenly you spoke — of the power of verse and the Life of the Language — and quite forgot to look shy or apologetic, but looked, forgive me, magnificent" (189). Poetry is the vehicle of their connection, the undoing of Christabel's myths, both of her wholeness at Bethany and the outer seeming she assumes when she leaves Bethany. Within Bethany, Christabel's love of language is the one thing which perhaps is not realized to its fullest potential; though Blanche is extremely supportive of her work, Christabel notes that she was "too indulgent" a reader, whereas Randolph, a poet himself, can fully understand her relationship to language and writing (380). The moment at which Christabel is divided and Randolph sees and understands that division proves to be a turning point in Christabel's life. The chain of events following from this moment lead to a dissolution of her lifeless unity and a creation of a new, divided self.

Letters form the basis of Christabel and Randolph's relationship, an interchange of ideas, questions, and stories. In her fourth letter, with no word of anything but friendship between them, Christabel writes, "I had half made up my mind to plead — no more such letters — leave me quiet with my simple faith — leave me aside from the Rush of your intellect and power of writing — or I am a Lost Soul — Sir — I am threatened in the Autonomy for which I have so struggled" (187). Christabel's half-made plea is surprising, given Randolph's complete respect of her autonomy and physical privacy up to this point. Her perturbation derives entirely from the stimulation of her inner self, the shift and change of one part disturbing the fragile balance of her unitary and calm existence. Within Bethany all is no longer open; Blanche writes in her diary that Christabel hides the letter she receives, thus creating a separation between her inner self, which is waking up to new knowledge, thoughts and emotions, and her outer self, still playing the contented, tranquil egg (52).

Jane experiences a comparable shift in the relation between inner and outer selves. Just after meeting Mr. Rochester, but before realizing who he is, Jane reflects on her own discontentment: "What good it would have done me at that time to have been tossed in the storms of an uncertain struggling life, and to have been taught by rough and bitter experience to long for the calm amidst which I now repined" (99). Her attitude, almost opposite to Christabel's, leads her to a very different conclusion when confronted with an intellect and appreciation directed at her. Conversation with Mr. Rochester frees her "from painful restraint" and she ceases "to pine after kindred . . . the blanks of existence were filled up" (125). Mr. Rochester's attention to her and his appreciation of her wit and spirit, all the things which she usually hides, change her self-conception. Where before restlessness was her "nature" now she is happy, her inner and outer halves approaching unity. Jane's "unity" is linked to a loss of self, a surrender to Mr. Rochester, and cannot last if Jane is to retain a sense of self. The night Jane and Mr. Rochester share a heart-to-heart, Mr. Rochester's bed is set on fire by his mad wife, a woman who has lost the outer, controlled self and with it any selfhood she might once have had (Shuttleworth 174). Bertha's fire serves as a warning that Jane's own selfhood is in danger, her self-control disappearing with her perception that it is no longer necessary.

The fire leads Mr. Rochester to recognize, or at least begin to admit, his love for Jane, and subsequently he embarks on a plan to make Jane jealous by pretending to court Blanche Ingram. The introduction of other people into Thornfield creates a separation between Mr. Rochester and Jane and thus within Jane — her self is restored in the conflict between her inner world of love and passion and the quiet, composed image she presents to Mr. Rochester and his guests. This new version of Jane is not the same as the one that existed before Mr. Rochester, whose passion was only imagined. Now Jane begins to forget all Mr. Rochester's faults, even his plan to marry without love (Brontë 160). The disappearance of Jane's sharply critical mind is allowed because she has no hope of realizing her love; once she and Mr. Rochester become engaged, Jane seeks to create separation, openly finding fault with him even as she comes to love and worship him more.

Conflict characterizes Jane and Mr. Rochester's relationship as they approach the unity of marriage. After Mr. Rochester's veiled and roundabout proposal, wherein he convinces Jane he is marrying Blanche in order to make her admit her love for her, they enter into a game of verbal and physical tension. Jane's memory of Mr. Rochester's affair with a French dancer makes her determined "not to be [his] English Celine Varens" (230). Her determination to hold on to her self leads her to write to her uncle for her inheritance, a step which ultimately stops the wedding (Shuttleworth 175). In the meantime, she enters into a "system" in which, when other people are present she is "as formerly, deferential and quiet" and when alone with him in the evening she "thwart[s] and afflict[s] him" with teasing and avoidance of embraces thus keeping "the distance between [Jane] and [Mr. Rochester] most conducive to [their] real mutual advantage" (Brontë 233-4). Jane maintains a distance not only between herself and Mr. Rochester but between her outer and inner impulses. "My task was not an easy one," she acknowledges, "often I would rather have pleased him than teased him. My future husband was becoming to me my whole world" (234). Thus Jane uses conflict to maintain her selfhood, even as she becomes more enmeshed in Mr. Rochester, closer to marital union, the fulfillment of her desire and the subsequent dissolution of the distance between her outer and inner elements — the dissolution of her self.

Where Jane begins with a divided but unhappy subjectivity and moves to a more fulfilled but endangered selfhood, Christabel begins with something either less or more and is not pleased with the change. Her growing relationship with Randolph frightens her. After their first kiss, which Randolph says was the result of feeling that, "the whole of you, the depth of you, called to me," Christabel likens him to a flame that will burn her up (Byatt 211-12). "I shall go up" with the result being "a deal of white fine powder"-ash (213). The play on Randolph's name suggests that what Christabel fears is not only the destruction of herself but that she shall become him, or a part of him. The possibility of destruction comes from that moment in which he saw the whole of her, both the depth of her soul and the presence of her body, which he describes as an integral part of the moment. Unable to stay away from him, Christabel continues to meet Randolph though she is depressed and tells him it is because "you take me out of myself and give me back — diminished — I am wet eyes — and touched hands — and lips am I too-a very present-famished-fragment of a woman" (218). As their physical contact continues, Christabel's writing becomes more fragmented, his gaze collapsing the space between her inner and outer self — a collapse that is not a return to her former protected unity but a reordering of her selfhood.

However these brief moments of unity between them are not enough to truly deconstruct her, leaving her merely fragmented and confused:

And you say . . . — 'I love you. I love you.' — and I believe — but who is she — who is 'you'? Is she-fine fair hair and-whatever yearns so-I was once something else-something alone and better-I was sufficient unto my self — and now I range — busily seeking with continual change. [218]

The real fragmentation and unhappiness here problematizes the usefulness of the definition of self as the place between inside and outside. In Jane Eyre the continuation of conflict, although not always what Jane desires, is necessary. In Possession, necessity and value are more ambiguous. Christabel did possess a "self" of some kind, and it was enough for her, though isolated and in some sense dead. Randolph's male gaze, precisely because it is directed at her "essentially," her "soul and with that [her] poetry" and not just at her body, kindles a new kind of desire in her, and the space created by that desire, while allowing an awakening of new thoughts and self-knowledge, is painful. Randolph compares Christabel to "a bird . . . chained to a stand . . . wearing its jesses with what dignity it could muster, enduring man's presence with a still-savage hauteur, ruffling its feathers from time to time, to show both that it tended itself with respect, and that it was not quite comfortable" (303-4). Unlike the image of the egg, Christabel-as-bird is wholly alive "some bright-plumed creature of tropical forests," yet still chained (303). Randolph wants to make her see that she is free but fails to understand that there is no place in their world for the freedom her new self would require.

The climax of Christabel and Randolph's relationship — and, both claim, of their lives — comes when they finally consummate their love. Having abandoned Bethany and Blanche because she could not do otherwise ("this is necessity," she tells him, "none of the old considerations-none of the old cares-seem to be of any importance"), Christabel meets Randolph in bed with a passion as "fierce as his own" (300; 308). Up until this point Christabel has largely yielded to Randolph, her words attempting to create distance between them but her actions that of the fettered bird. In this final moment of fulfillment and desperation, Christabel attempts to hold on to some autonomy.

"Don't fight me," he said once, and "I must," she said, intent, and he thought, "No more speech," and held her down and caressed her till she cried out. Then he did speak again. "You see, I know you," and she answered breathless, "Yes, I concede. You know." [308]

Their relationship began with language, but it culminates with an almost violent domination. Christabel surrenders, not only her body, but her self, knowledge of both her body and her soul. Randolph's penetration of Christabel and their union, destroys whatever selfhood she possessed before. "When I go away from here," she says after, "this will be the midpoint, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run." When he assures her that she is safe with him she refutes him, answering, "I am not at all safe, with you. But I have no desire to be elsewhere" (309). Christabel can recognize that her desire is not wise, that it threatens her, but she has no self-control left to hamper it or protect her self.

Randolph and Christabel's physical and emotional union results in a child, physically changing Christabel. The changes in her life and self-concept are more lasting however. Rather than a self-contained "living Stone," Christabel explains that for the thirty years after her love affair with Randolph, "I have been Melusina . . . I have so to speak flown about and about the battlements of this stronghold crying on the wind of my need to see and feed and comfort my child, who knew me not" (544). Melusina is an ancient fairy, whose story Christabel tells in an epic poem greatly influenced by Randolph. Her poem, a Romance, is a space where Christabel imagines "women's two natures can be reconciled." When her young cousin asks which two natures, and whether all women are double, Christabel explains that "men [see] women as double beings, enchantresses and demons or innocent angels . . ." She emphasizes that this is not an objective truth but a male view, and asks, "Who knows what Melusina was in her freedom with no eyes on her?" (404). The answer to her question seems to be what she herself was before Randolph; after, even without his continuing gaze, she has been reshaped into the male idea of womanhood, the double-self — an extremely typical Victorian idea of women.

Jane, much more firmly rooted in Victorianism, escapes being reshaped by the male gaze — how? Like Christabel, Jane is confronted by a choice: follow her desire and stay with Mr. Rochester as his mistress, or hurt both herself and him by parting from the man she loves so dearly? Though she claims she "cannot" leave, an echo of Christabel's inability to turn back from her affair with Randolph, Jane does find the will to depart Thornfield (253). The difference lies in their divergent perceptions of passion and its relation to selfhood and sanity. Christabel, while understanding that her union with Randolph will burn her up, is not afraid to be passionate, only of the results. Jane, on the other hand, sees her desire to stay with Mr. Rochester, and her agony over the whole situation, as madness. This attitude comes directly from Victorian ideas that sanity, especially for women, means self-restraint (Shuttleworth 50). In convincing herself to go, Jane posits her own, individual self-worth, but also suggests that if she stays it is only because she is mad:

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God... Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour...They have a worth — so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane — quite insane with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. [Brontë 270-71]

If Jane stays, it will be not as herself but as a new Bertha, her mad alter-ego. Ideas of morality also play in here, but in Possession, morality is dismissed as a secondary concern to "the core... [Christabel's] solitude" and thus her selfhood (Byatt 213). In Jane Eyre, laws and principles are hardly dismissed, but Jane's true fear is not to displease God but to give in to the "insane" passion of her own body.

Of course Jane's escape does not end the novel; she returns to Mr. Rochester and their marriage is completed. Jane's retention of a separate self at the end is questionable; however, the changes in their relative power relations by the end make Jane's union with Mr. Rochester more acceptable. Mr. Rochester's blindness means he can no longer (re)constitute her through his gaze, leaving her some distance; no longer can he fully know her or possess her the way he could before. Jane claims that Mr. Rochester's blindness "is what knit [them] so very close," for she serves as his eyes, interpreting the world for him (Brontë 384). Her role, as well as her newfound economic independence, places her in a position of power (Shuttleworth 180). With nothing between them, Jane returns to her original feelings for Mr. Rochester: "With him I was at perfect ease . . . Delightful consciousness! It brought to light and life my whole nature: in his presence I thoroughly lived" (Brontë 372). The collapse of Jane's inner and outer selves is presented as a triumph. Yet there remains a feeling of unease; instead of ending happily with Jane and Mr. Rochester, the novel ends with St. John Rivers. The final exile of Jane and Mr. Rochester to the dank Ferndean also strikes an off note, as does Jane's relationship with Adele, which seems to place her in parallel with Mrs. Reed. Jane Eyre moves "reluctantly, defiantly, towards a conventional ending in marriage whose harmony and stasis suggest, to an individual defined by conflict" as Jane has been throughout the novel "a form of self-annihilation" (Shuttleworth 181-82). Thus the ending can be read as a triumphant culmination of Jane's search for acceptance and understanding, or a loss of independence forced on the characters by Victorian convention.

How much of any piece of art is shaped by its context? That is far too large of a question to answer here, but I will attempt to touch on a few points. Clearly, the use of a Victorian definition of selfhood to analyze these novels was more helpful for understanding the Victorian novel, Jane Eyre. Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester and her self-image changes with the intensity of the disconnection between her inner self and her outward manner. This framework could also be useful to examine Jane's childhood and her relationship with St. John Rivers. In the latter, she sees a choice between a sibling-type bond and marriage, and she explicitly states that in the former her body would be under a "stringent yoke" but her "mind and heart would be free...There would be recesses of [her] heart which would be only" hers. By contrast, if she married St. John, she would "become a part" of him (Brontë 347). Again, the male possession of both body and mind leads to the collapse of the female self. Jane's longing for freedom and selfhood contrasts sharply with the end of the novel in which she abandons all freedom of thought. Pure Victorian convention?

In Possession, Christabel and Randolph do not find each other in the end, nor live on in happy union. Christabel spends the rest of her life alone, wracked with guilt for Blanche's suicide, unable to mother her own child and divided within herself. In her final letter to Randolph as he lays dying, Christabel writes, "I would rather have lived alone, so, if you would have the truth. But since that might not be — and is granted to almost none — I thank God for you" (Byatt 546). Some intangible force, outside of desire, still binds them together, and Christabel is able to recognize that Randolph's destructive gaze was all unwitting.

Do you remember how I wrote to you of the riddle of the egg? As an eidelon of my solitude and self-possession which you threatened whether you would or no? And destroyed, my dear, meaning me nothing but good, I do believe and know. I wonder — if I had kept my closed castle, behind my motte-and-bailey defenses — should I have been a great poet — are you are? I wonder-was my spirit rebuked by yours... — or was I enlarged by your generosity as you intended? These things are all mixed and mingled — we loved each other-for each other — only it was in the end for Maia . . . [545]

Questions of self and other are more complicated in the modern text, which gives no answer as to whether Christabel would have been better off as an "egg" than she was as a fairy, half-human and half-fish or bird — a phoenix that burned but never flew out of the ashes. Poetry provides one answer, Christabel's greatest poem, The Fairy Melusina, was largely shaped by Randolph and her experiences with him. Without him, however, other poems might have come. The only hint the text gives us as an answer is Christabel's: they loved each other for Maia, the great-great-great-grandmother of Maud Bailey, one of the foremost scholars of Christabel's work. Maud too is suggested in this passage, in the "motte-and-bailey defenses," much of the kind Maud herself lives within. Maud and Christabel parallel each other throughout the text, with Maud living in a white apartment like an egg, working best only in solitude, afraid of what desire will do to her, what it will undo in her or make her become. Christabel's story, tragic as it is, is a message to her modern descendant. Maud, unlike Christabel, or Jane, lives in a world where she can perhaps collapse the space between her inner self and her outer defenses without losing control, or lose control without losing selfhood.

In the final lines of the body of Possession, Maud consummates her relationship with Roland, a man who, like her, has long thought his only desire was to be free of desire.

Roland finally, to use an outdated phrase, entered and took possession of all her white coolness that grew warm against him, so that there seemed to be no boundaries and he heard, towards dawn, from a long way off, her clear voice crying out, uninhibited, unashamed, in pleasure and triumph. [551]

The foregrounding of period with the reference to an "outdated phrase" draws an immediate contrast between this love scene and the one between Randolph and Christabel. Here, all boundaries collapse, including the ones inside themselves. The destruction of boundaries is not a loss, however, and Maud's cry is not Christabel's concession. In a way it seems closer to Jane Eyre's triumphal, "Reader, I married him," her celebration of the selfhood she finds only in her ability to completely lose herself with Mr. Rochester (Brontë 382). How much value does individuality have in and of itself, and how much of it can be shared with or given to another person? The question of love, of romance - and Romance. "Romance is a proper form for women," Christabel says, "Romance is a land where women can be free to express their true natures...though not in this world" (Byatt 404). Questions of selfhood, penetration, love and desire remain; questions asked by Charlotte Brontë in 1847 were asked again by A.S. Byatt in 1990 and are asked today. By examining these works both in their own contexts and as comparable texts we gain a greater understanding of the works, and a further base upon which to continue the exploration of these topics.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Kucich, John. "Passionate Reserve and Reserved Passion in the Works of Charlotte Brontë." Critical Essays on Charlotte Brontë. Barbara Timm Gates, ed. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990.

Shuttleworth, Sally. Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.


Victorian Overview Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre

Last updated 21 May 2004