Like the narratives of Graham Swift and Peter Carey that function to subvert Victorian notions of progress and religion, A.S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance questions a dominant Victorian construction--female sexuality. Possession is a novel about a pair of young scholars who trace the correspondence between a well-known male Victorian poet and a lesser-known female poet. The novel is a patchwork of letters, poetry, and narrative. In her depiction of the Victorian past, Byatt recognizes Victorian culture's elision of all discourse surrounding sexuality. Byatt depicts Victorian marriage--represented by the poet Randolph Ash and his wife Ellen--in the same way a Victorian would have represented it, as evacuated of sexuality. Yet one of Byatt's projects in Possession is to valorize the sexual act itself. To accomplish this, she must look outside of Victorian culture to find a way of representing the sexual act.
In her representation of Randolph Ash's marriage to Ellen, Byatt follows the Victorian tradition of displacing the sexual act from the marriage relationship. We learn that Ellen Ash marries Randolph after she has already lost her youth, implying that she has also lost her sexual attractiveness. She thinks back on her life, "A young girl of twenty-four should not be made to wait for marriage until she is thirty-six and her flowering is over" (499). Her memory of her wedding night reveals her terror over the sexual act.
She did not remember it in words. There were no words attached to it, that was part of the horror. She had never spoken of it to anyone, not even to Randolph, precisely not to Randolph. . . An attempt. A hand not pushed away. Tendons like steel, teeth in pain, clenched, clenched. The approach, the locked gateway, the panic, the wimpering flight. Not once, but over and over and over. When did he begin to know that however gentle he was, however patient, it was no good, it would never be any good?. . . The eagerness, the terrible love, with which she had made it up to him, his abstinence, making him a thousand small comforts, cakes and tidbits. She became his slave. [498-499]
The marriage between Randolph and Ellen is thus characterized by its lack of sexual intimacy. Ellen, the quintessential Victorian woman, does not enjoy the sexual act itself. For her, the sexual act is a brutal experience, incompatible with marriage. Marriage, according to Ellen Ash's construction of it, is frightening close to a master-slave relationship. By removing sexual intimacy from the marriage of Ellen and Randolph, Byatt is drawing on typical Victorian notions of female sexuality and marriage.
Victorian writers often depict the marriage relationship in the same terms as Byatt in Possession. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in her novel-poem Aurora Leigh, likewise evacuates the relationship between Aurora and Romney of all sexual interest. For Aurora, marriage has very little to do with sexuality or desire. She imagines marriage as the final step in becoming a complete woman and a complete artist. Whereas in Book II, Aurora refuses Romney's marriage proposal because she cannot imagine herself dependent on a man, in Book IX she changes her mind.
Passioned to exalt
The artist's instinct in me at the cost
Of putting down the woman's, I forgot
No perfect artist is developed here
From any imperfect woman.
. . . Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou'rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven. [645-649; 656-659]
Aurora claims that, because she is not a wife, she is not a perfect artist. She beliefvesthat love must inform the artist, since love finds its origin in God and the artist's task is to create an art that is infused with spirituality. The defining characteristic of Aurora's marriage to Romney, therefore, is their love, which has its roots in the divine love of God. Barrett Browning's text elides any discussion of sexuality. We can infer from this omission that, for Barrett Browning at least, the sexual act itself is subordinate to the sublime love the husband and wife feel for one another.
Since the Victorians did not have a way of discussing sexuality within the context of marriage, Byatt must locate Randolph Ash's sexual encounter outside of marriage. Likewise, since Victorian culture presumed sexual activity outside of marriage was sinful, Byatt is forced to look to other traditions to describe Randolph's sexual encounter with Christabel LaMotte. Byatt draws on the medieval courtly love tradition in her depiction of Ash's affair with LaMotte. That the relationship between the two poets develops by way of their written correspondence is one characteristic of the courtly love tradition. In this tradition, literature often has the power to seduce the (usually female) individual. A second characteristic of the courtly romance is the furtiveness of the relationship. The novel revolves around the secrecy of the poets' relationship and around Maud's and Roland's attempt to figure out precisely what went on between them. Third, Randolph's imagining of LaMotte as the hidden princess connects Byatt's description of their relationship with the courtly love tradition. Byatt describes Ash's thoughts as he and LaMotte travel together on the train. "All the way from London, he had been violently confused by her real presence in the opposite inaccessible corner. For months he had been possessed by the imagination of her. She had been distant and closed away, a princess in a tower, and his imagination's work had been all to make her present, all of her, to his mind and senses." (301) Byatt is clearly drawing from a pre-Victorian tradition in her description of the affair, since Victorian culture cannot give her the terms to discuss sexual intimacy in an affirming way./P>
In contrast to the Victorians' omission of discourse concerning sexuality is the twentieth-century's hyper-theorization and discussion of it. Maud and Roland recognize this as they search for clues together. Maud says to Roland,
"Do you ever have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course everything connects and connects. . . I mean, all those gloves, a minute ago, we were playing a professional game of hooks and eyes--mediaeval gloves, gaints' gloves, Blanche Glover, Balzac's gloves, the sea-anemone's ovaries--and it all reduced like boiling jam to--human sexuality. Just as Leonora Stern makes the whole earth read as the female body--and language--all language. And all vegetation in pubic hair." Maud laughed, drily. Roland said, "And then, really, what is it, what is this arcane power we have, when we see that everything is human sexuality? It's really powerlessness." [275-276]
As much as Byatt finds Victorian constructions of human sexuality limited, she suggests that twentieth-century fascination with sexuality and sexual theorizing is equally limited. We come to find out that Leonora Stern, who reads LaMotte's poetry as a mapping of the female body, has in fact misread LaMotte's texts. Her training in French feminism has limited her ability to read texts accurately. Byatt's text thus casts a critical eye on the utility of modern theories of sexuality. We can read Possession as critiquing both the Victorian system, with its omission of sexuality, and the modern one, with its intense analysis of sexuality. Significantly, one of the final images of the novel is the sexual encounter between Maud and Roland. Here Byatt offers a valorization of the sexual act on its own terms. Byatt's Possession thus conflates the Victorian past's omission of sexual discourse with modern discourse on sexuality only to subvert them both and to claim the significance of the sexual act itself.
Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Aurora Leigh. Ed. Kerry McSweeney. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.
Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. 1990. New York: Vintage International, 1991.
Last Modified 20 March, 2002