The character of Maud Bailey in A.S.Byatt's Possession is a serious scholar dedicated to the study, particularly from a feminist perspective, of the fictional poetess Christabel LaMotte. Roland Michell, also a literary scholar and the protagonist of Possession, discovers that Randolph Henry Ash, the poet of his interest, may have had a love affair with LaMotte. Together, Roland and Maud are launched by this discovery into a pursuit to demystify the two poets, also discovering each other in the process. From their first meeting, Roland is intrigued and struck by Maud, describing her as

. . . much taller than Roland. She was dressed with unusual coherence for an academic, Roland thought, rejecting several other ways of describing her green and white length, a long pine-green tunic over a pine-green skirt, a white silk shirt inside the tunic and long softly white stockings inside long shining green shoes. Through the stockings veiled flesh diffused a pink gold, almost. He could not see her hair, which was wound tightly into a turban of peacock-feathered painted silk, low on her brow. Her brows and lashes were blonde, he observed so much. She had a clean, milky skin, unpainted lips, clearcut features, largely composed. She did not smile. She acknowledged him and tried to take his bag, which her refused to allow. She drove an immaculately glossy green Beetle . . . She smelled of something ferny and sharp. Roland didn't like her voice. [44]

The next time Roland examines Maud, now focusing more on her face, his description of her becomes more flattering and romantic, as well as more sensual. He notes:

The stain glass worked to defamiliarise her. It divided her into cold, brightly coloured fires. One cheek moved in and out of a pool of grape-violet as she worked. Her brow flowered green and gold. Rose-red and berry-red stained her pale neck and chin and mouth. Eyelids were purple-shadowed. The green silk of her scarf glittered with turreted purple ridges. Dust danced in a shadowy halo round her shifting head, black motes in straw gold, invisible solid matter appearing like pinholes in a sheet of solid colour. He spoke and she turned through a rainbow, her pale skin threading the various lights. [147]

Questions

1. Roland says he prefers to describe Maud's outfit concisely with the words "unusual coherence for an academic" but yet goes on to describe her, in particular her outfit, in almost excessive detail. Why does Roland focus on Maud's clothing and appearances, especially after his original statement?

2. What can we make of the images of light and gold obscured by or diffused with darkness or blackness? Think of Roland's descriptions, "Through the stockings veiled flesh diffused a pink gold, almost" (44) and "Dust danced in a shadowy halo round her shifting head, black motes in straw gold, invisible solid matter appearing like pinholes in a sheet of solid colour" (147). How does this imagery relate to the lines of LaMotte's poem which are quoted on the page preceding Roland's first meeting with Maud,

. . . filaments of wonder
Bright snares about
Lost buzzing things, an order fine and bright
Geometry threading water, catching light. [146]

What of the "haughty brows/Circled with gold" in another LaMotte poem, also quoted in close proximity to Roland's second description of Maud. How does this line refer to Roland's observance of Maud's "brow flowered green and gold"? Also, if Maud's hair is "invisible", how is it "appearing like pinholes"?

3. What should we make of Maud's concealment of her golden hair with scarves? What does Roland make of this practice? What makes Maud's hidden or repressed beauty/sexuality so provocative, yet frustrating, to Roland?

4. How does Byatt use gold and green in his descriptions of Maud as well as throughout Possession? How is illumination and beauty linked with gold or growth, nature and fertility linked with green? How does both these colors relate to the pursuit of knowledge? to romance?

References

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


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Last modified 6 April 2004