Saturday, 30 January 2016

Symbolism in Possession: A Romance: Linking Past to Present

In Possession: A Romance the main character, Roland Michell, finds a love letter written by Randolph Henry Ash, his favourite Victorian poet, to Christabel LaMotte. He goes on a journey to discover the depth and the extent of the relationship between Ash and LaMotte, together with Maud Bailey, a specialist in LaMotte’s work. Roland and Maud then realize that Ash and LaMotte were different people than they believed them to be because of their relationship, which seems out of character for both poets considering their poems. In the process of discovering Ash and LaMotte’s relationship, they start to self-reflect. In A.S. Byatt’s “Possession: A Romance the allegory of water links the nineteenth century characters to their twentieth century counterparts.

For Byatt water serves as a mirror in this book, which Roland and Maud unknowingly use to reflect on their own academic and personal lives while they are discovering and analysing the relationship between Ash and LaMotte. Roland and Maud are surrounded by water whenever they obtain new information or when they are thinking about their own academic and personal lives because of what they recently discovered, for example when they are reading the correspondence between the two poets, they are enclosed by snow in one of the residences of LaMotte, unable to return home and when they are about to open the box Ellen Ash left on her husband’s grave, there is a storm raging outside “The box sat between candles, on the table in the window, rusty and earthy and wet”. Maud and Roland retrace the footsteps of the poets on their journey along the shores of England, here they really start to self-reflect. Roland talks about his situation when it comes to research as well as his relationship with Val. Maud connects to his feelings, even though their situations are different. She lives alone but she is not happy about it because she is lonely. “I have my own solitude”. While having this conversation, they are looking out over a waterfall. The page before this passage covers how the sight is constructed of a pool of water and the waterfall splashing down into it. The couples are similar to each other: both fall in love while discussing literary works, both feature a male who is having an affair and a female who is living in solitude, away from men in general. Roland recognizes this too, as Mark Hennelly mentions in his article on Possession: A Romance, “And it is probable that there is an element of superstitious dread in any self-referring, self-reflexive, inturned postmodernist mirror-game or plot-coil that recognises that it has got out of hand”.

Water is used to connect Maud to LaMotte, with the use of Melusina, a poem written by LaMotte. All three characters are self-sufficient, intellectual women who live in solitude “with the will to preserve their independence”, until a man shows interest in them. According to Gillian Alban LaMotte is angry with Ash “for the difference between destines of men and women” because she has to put her life aside to have this child while and he can go on as if nothing happened. Melusina is described as “self-sufficient”, yet she gives up her freedom to have a soul and to be able to bear children. LaMotte has a similar experience once she falls pregnant by Ash. “I have been Melusina these thirty years. 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”. As Jessica Triffin states the women are “preserving solitude, and distance, staying cold and frozen, may, for women as well as artists, be a way of preserving life”. This is exactly what all three characters are trying to accomplish. Maud first really connects to LaMotte through Melusina when she first realises that LaMotte was together with Ash in Yorkshire.

There are references in the book to new life with the use of water, symbolizing circulation or fertility, for example; how water becomes snow and ice in the winter and makes the land cold and lifeless, but when spring comes it turns into water again and the land is reborn. All through the book there are small hints to new life, in this case Maia Thomasine Bailey, the child LaMotte and Ash conceive, of whom Maud Bailey is a decedent. As Maud mentions “early versions of the Melusina myth have childbirth instead of the bath”. This not only links Melusina to LaMotte, it also indicates that LaMotte became a mother as well. After Ash and LaMotte take a trip to Yorkshire, she looks for “sanctuary” in Brittany. “She said, in Breton, ‘Sanctuary.’ My father held her in his arms, and kissed her wet face – her eyes were closed – and said, ‘You have a home here for as long as you desire’”. Her whole time spend with her family in Brittany, she is often surrounded by water and when she is missing, gone to give birth, the shores are the first place they look for her. At the ending of the book Ash meets their child which is when it becomes clear that her name is a hint to new life through water as well. “So she said, swinging more busily, that her name was Maia Thomasine Bailey, and that her father and mother lived in the house down there, and that she had two brothers. He told her that Maia was the mother of Hermes, thief, artist and psychopomp; and that he knew a waterfall called Thomasine”. She is named after a waterfall in Yorkshire, one Ash and LaMotte both saw and wrote about, which Maud and Roland later discover.

It is apparent that water “links” both generations together and provides the allegory of the story. As mentioned there are a few topics through which this is made clear, namely; the self-reflection of Roland and Maud while doing research on LaMotte and Ash, the Fairy Melusina whom connects Maud and LaMotte together as independent women and Ash and LaMotte’s lovechild who is the great-great-great-grandmother of Maud. All three of these represent one of the symbolistic meanings of water of which self-reflection is the most important one.

This is the essay I wrote for a course in my first year of the Bachelor English Language and Culture on the University of Utrecht. I deleted some quotations and the sources to prevent other students from copying this work but the quotes are still marked and are not my own words but either Byatt her words or from an academic who wrote about Possession as well.