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A.S. Byatt’s novel “Possession: A Romance” caused a literary sensation when it was published in 1990. The mystery and love story tells the tale of two young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. It begins with the discovery of a letter from the well-known — and married — poet Randolph Henry Ash to an unknown woman. The search for her identity triggers a chase from London to Brittany, France. Along the way, the modern scholars uncover letters, poems and journals of Ash and his lover, Christabel Lamotte. Soon, others become interested in their pursuit and the story ends with a shocking graveyard discovery. Join Diane and her guests for our Readers’ Review of “Possession.”
- Rosemary Jann professor of English at George Mason University.
- Tania James author of "Aerogrammes and Other Stories" and "Atlas of Unknowns."
- Andrew Stauffer associate professor of English at the University of Virginia and director of NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship).
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “Possession” by A.S. Byatt. Copyright © 1991 by A. S. Byatt. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. For this month's readers' review, we've chosen a book one reviewer called a nearly perfect novel. "Possession" by A.S. Byatt tells the story of two scholars who reconstruct the secret affair of two Victorian poets through their poems and letters. Joining me in the studio to talk about the book, Rosemary Jann of George Mason University, Andrew Stauffer of the University of Virginia, and writer and author, Tania James.
MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour we'll welcome your participation in our readers' review. Join us on 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
GROUPGood morning, Diane.
REHMRosemary Jann, if I could start with you. Surely this was not the first time you had read this book. Tell me what you thought of it.
MS. ROSEMARY JANNWell, I enjoyed it the first time around. I think I got more deeply into it the second time around. I really appreciate the complexity of it. It's got this sort of feud -- fugue-like variation on themes that I really appreciated. I paid more attention to the doubling and the mirroring of the characters this time.
REHMShe did this so cleverly and we should say that this book was the winner of the Booker Award, one of England's most prestigious prizes. What do you make of the significance of the novel's title, "Possession," Rosemary?
JANNWell, certainly the idea of wanting to possess the truth, possess knowledge, the characters use terms like narrative greed, or the narrative curiosity, the desire to know, which is I think what keeps a reader reading a book, wanting to know who done it and how it was done. But in this case, the characters themselves think they have this idea of the historical characters, but as they pursue their investigations, they find that those characters elude them and that they don't in fact possess the whole truth.
REHMAndrew Stauffer, give us a very brief outline, if it's possible, of this novel.
MR. ANDREW STAUFFERWell, it's basically the story of two -- the centers of the story of two Victorian scholars who are researching the lives of Victorian poets. One is Randolph Henry Ash, a Victorian poet, and the other is Christabel LaMotte, a woman poet from the same period, and the two scholars are trying to determine what was the nature of the relationship between these two people, and in the course of doing that, make a number of discoveries documents in the archives that reveal that these poets had a love affair and there was a child, and meanwhile the scholars themselves are falling slowly in love and negotiating various professional relationships as they begin to move further down the path of discovery.
REHMHow did you feel about the novel?
STAUFFERI was impressed again about how vividly it conveys the romance of the archive, you know, that thrill of discovery of possessing and being possessed by the past via these material traces that we find left behind, whether they're documents or pieces of jewelry or locks of hair. It really does a great job of kind of bringing the reader along with that process and conveying the thrill of scholarship.
REHMYou and Rosemary are both professors of English -- pardon me -- so I'm sure you appreciated that use of language, but it's also the complexity of the plot...
REHM...going back and forth.
STAUFFERWell, part of that comes from the many documents that Byatt kind of introduces into the text, so it's not simply a third person narrator. You have letters, you have journal entries.
STAUFFERYou have poetry, of course, and so -- and they're all coming from different voices and different times and places, so in piecing that together, as Rosemary was saying, was part of the fun of reading the novel. It is a bit like a detective story.
REHMAnd Tania James, for you it was a first-time read.
MS. TANIA JAMESIt was. But my sister's been trying to get me to read it for years.
REHMWhat did you think of it?
JAMESI mean, it was -- I had brought no expectations to the table. I had no idea what it was about, but I -- maybe because I'm working on a novel myself, I was always trying to figure out how she was doing what she was doing. How did she move between literary fiction and historical fiction, and her weaving supernatural elements into a contemporary setting, and then -- but the most -- the thing I admired most about it I guess was that there's an emotional story underneath it all, and no matter what other storytelling feats happen, I can't feel a connection to a story unless I feel connected to the characters, and that they have real beating hearts, and that's something I think that's really hard to do. Harder than anything.
REHMAnd she did create that.
JAMESAbsolutely. Even with minor characters like Dr. Beatrice Nest. She's a great creation and seemingly kind of pathetic, but somehow in a pretty small space, Byatt is able to kind of give her a life and dignity and fullness that I really admire.
REHMRosemary, you talk about powerful women, and the fact that quite often they're misunderstood. Christabel LaMotte uses this theme a lot in the book.
JANNThat's right. She is a character -- she compares herself to the Lady of Shalott, who's normally a figure who's afraid to meet life, but she portrays her withdrawal from life as a way of nurturing her art, and I think she is a type of various women in the novel who struggle against men or institutional forces that are trying to silence them. I think that Beatrice Nest's problem. Maud Bailey obviously is struggling in her own way to find her own voice, and...
REHMMaud's is beautiful, she has...
REHM...a lot going for her.
JANNYes. But she has been sort of shamed by the feminist for being -- for looking too beautiful, for being too perfect, and her, you know, that big turban she wears on her head to cover up her hair is part of her, you know, that's her kind of withdrawal. That's her blocking out certain things -- certain things that would allow people to limit her possibilities, but it's also a kind of imprisonment, and just as Christabel breaks out of her imprisonment in the relationship with Ash, Maud ultimately does with Roland as well.
REHMWhat did you think of the males in this book, Andrew?
STAUFFERWell, in a certain way, they're all fragmented or limited, and depending on how you look at them. I mean, one of the things that struck me reading it is how sort of we expect the Victorian characters are going to be more sort of repressed or constrained in certain ways and were very modern. But in fact, the modern characters here, and in many ways the men, but the women too, are limited and struggling with their own sexuality or their own feelings. They're repressed in certain ways, and so Byatt does a good job of saying, you know, we haven't really changed that much between the two periods.
STAUFFERI think, you know, Roland, our modern hero is, you know, he begins sort of in a frustrated kind of passive position, and he slowly grows beyond that, but not much, you know. Then through the course of the novel he grows through discovery and he becomes, you know, more confident, but not that much more. It's a -- there's a kind of redemption that goes on, but it's maybe not as dramatic as you might imagine.
REHMTania, did you have any trouble going back and forth between the present-day scholars and those Victorian repressed poets that they were looking at?
JAMESYou know, there were challenges. I thought going into the letters is definitely a challenge. They're dense. They are not narrative. But it's interesting. I kind of feel like Byatt sort of sets us up to -- sort of manages our expectations in the way she tells us how to read the letters before we actually read them. She says, you know, they're not gonna tell you what happens next. They're not plot devices, but actually I loved that we are sort of held back from actually diving into the past until kind of late in the book, and by that point, she's sort of built these people as real historical figures, and I think if she had done it earlier, it would have felt like sort of gimmicky or maybe not yet earned.
JAMESBut I liked that moment when we actually do get into the train car with the LaMotte and...
REHMTalk more about that.
JAMESWell, I guess it sort of happens after the letters or it's -- I think, you know, it sort of -- it could have been just sort of these two very distant figures, you know, that they keep swirling around and around in the book, but, you know, this sort of -- the book has the kind of detective page-turning quality. You want to get to that moment, and when it happens it feels like a pay off.
REHMCould -- go ahead, Andrew.
STAUFFERI was gonna say it's one of the first times, and maybe the first time in the novel where we're actually in Victorian era with...
STAUFFER….a third person narrator...
STAUFFER...showing us Ash and LaMotte together on the -- it's the first time they've been sort of together in a committed way. So you feel like we're getting a direct view of the past as opposed to all the mediated letters from before.
JANNI was interested in those passages, too. There are three places in the novel where she intervenes, the third person narrator intervene, and tells us what's going on in that chapter. Obviously at the end, the epilogue we know that Ash did meet his daughter, and also the Ellen Ash at the death bed stuff. But, you know, I think that's also a way in which Byatt allows the reader to possess more information than the scholars do, you know, that we have a kind of privileged insight that even Maud and Roland, who might speculate about what happened, ultimately don't have.
REHMBut, you know, it's interesting, Tania, you touched on something that a number of my friends reading the book gave it up after the first 60 pages, saying it was just too confusing, they couldn't get into it, but it's after that point. So I want to encourage our listeners who haven't yet read "Possession," don't give up. Rosemary Jann, Andrew Stauffer, Tania James are here. Part of our readers' review of "Possession."
REHMAnd the number to call if you'd like to join us for this month's Readers' Review of A. S. Byatt's Booker award-winning novel "Possession." Here's an email from Leslie in Bethesda who says, "the only time I've ever called 'The Diane Rehm Show' was to speak with A. S. Byatt when she spoke about this amazing novel. I could not put it down as I traveled through Europe, though I feared it could not possibly resolve in a satisfying way. And of course I was dumbstruck by the astonishing and meant to and brilliant conclusion.
REHMI will ask your guests the same question, but avoided when I called, is Ash meant to be so obviously an inferior poet to Christabel? Is it just the stilted Victorian poetry as against the more modern verse?" And, Andrew, I know you wanted to read a poem. This is where it fits in.
STAUFFEROkay. Yeah, that's an interesting comment. I think it might be because Ash's poetry is sort of modeled after Robert Browning's mostly, which is a kind of difficult and gnarled Victorian style, whereas LaMotte's is more modeled after Emily Dickenson, which, although she's also writing in the 19th century, feels more modern in a lot of ways. So it may be that that's what the listener's picking up on.
STAUFFERBut I wanted to read just the very -- this is the last stanza given to us of Randolph Henry Ash's poem Ragnarok, which is this long epic -- sort of a Viking epic poem. And this is -- and all these poems that, by rights, in a certain way are meant to give us clues about the nature of the relationship between Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, the two poets because their love is getting refracted as they -- in the works that they write. And so this is the conclusion of that. And what it depicts is the first man and the first woman meeting for the first time in this epic. Ask is the man and Embla is the female, sort of an Adam and Eve scene.
STAUFFER"Then Ask stepped forward on the print-less shore and touched the woman's hand who clasped fast his. Speechless they walked away along the line of the sea's roaring in their listening ears. Behind them first upon the level sand a line of darkening prints filling with salt, first traces in the world of life and time and love and mortal hope and vanishing."
STAUFFERAnd that strikes me in a certain way as a (word?) of much of what's going on in the novel. Those prints and the -- you know, related to the text and the documents. But those footprints that are both there, the record of the love and the two of them walking together like Randolph and Christabel, but then vanishing. And, you know, the way that so much of the record of our lives is lost. We have these documents, but we don't have everything.
STAUFFERAnd just to connect it to one thing just to show how this works in the novel, in one of the letters that Christabel writes to Randolph right after they've met for the first time in the park when it's raining, she says, "I shall not easily forget our shining progress across the wet earth." Which you can see it's the same scene, it's just being refracted in their letters, that shining progress of the two lovers across the wet ground. You see it in Ragnarok, you see it in the letter and these are the kinds of things that show the kind of tour de force that's going on.
REHMTania, were you ever confused?
JAMESYes, during -- I keep coming back to those letters. Maybe they sort of scarred me in the beginning when I started them. But no, you know, I don't know. I think some of the -- I have to make the guilty confession that I might have skimmed some parts of some myths the first time around. And then the second time I read more closely and more -- and then, you know, I think I probably wasn't so confused because I would just sort of skim to get to -- you know, to get to the narrative a little bit. Sorry.
REHMOh, I think there are probably a lot of people who've done the same with this. Rosemary, you said this was the second time you had read it and this time you read it more closely, perhaps like Tania. You read for the narrative the first time and looked more carefully at the poetry the second time.
JANNYeah, so I think that's partly -- Tania had mentioned this earlier that if you know the ending then you know what to look for, you know, then you're a better detective. And so you know why you're reading the letters. You know what it is that's being teased out about the evolution of the relationship. So in that sense I think knowing the ending and reading it the second time through, you do get a deeper appreciation of all the things that Byatt's doing in the novel.
REHMTania, do I gather you missed a plane because of reading this book?
JAMESYes, I was reading -- I was reading the book and I was getting sort of swept away and I was at the gate. And I guess I missed the gate announcement that they changed the gate. And so I was alone with my book. We were alone together.
STAUFFERYou were possessed.
JAMESI was possessed. I was possessed. Yeah, yeah.
REHMAll right. Now here are two more representations of poetry that you might read, Rosemary, to contrast the two styles.
JANNThis is -- the first one is from page 297. It's Randolph Ash's -- one of his lyrics, I think, from Ask and Embla. Although this is actually not like the voice he uses in the -- like the passage that...
REHMIt's somewhat different.
JANNIt is. It's shorter. It's more lyric. "And his love then more than the kick galvanic or the thundering roar of ash volcanic belched from some crate of earth fire within. Are we automata or angel kin?" I see that as his voice drifting more towards Christabel's voice. This is a kind of more typical Christabel voice. This is from page 332. "Gloves lie together limp and calm, finger to finger, palm to palm with whitest tissue to embalm in these quiet cases with hands creep, with subtle stretchings out of sleep. Finger clef fingers troth to keep."
REHMI love that.
JANNIt's also a poem that resonant with lots of different themes in the novel.
JANNYou know, her relationship to Blanche. Ash makes some...
REHMTell us who Blanche is.
JANNBlanche Glover is the presumed lesbian companion of Christabel, presumed that is until they find out that she in fact did have this heterosexual affair and even bore a child. But there's also places where -- there's a place where Ash, who's a kind of naturalist -- amateur or naturalist, talks about this glove-shaped sea creature. And of course the meeting of their hands in various ways, I think it was in the passage that Andrew read, but also elsewhere, the scene on the train talks about looking at her gloved hands and things like that.
JANNSo it's just -- you know, it's like Byatt strikes this chord and it reverberates through various themes and characters in the novel.
REHMCourse, and there are social concerns common to both sets of characters, Andrew.
STAUFFERIn the sense of disapproval of friends or negotiating various commitments. We begin with Randolph is committed to Val at the beginning.
STAUFFERAnd he has to get sort of out of that, and the sooner the better as far as I'm concerned. Val is sort of terrible.
REHMVal criticizes him for absolutely everything because she's earning the money and he's sort of pining over he doesn't know what.
STAUFFERWell, one of the things she says to him, a scathing thing early on, is how can you bother caring about these old people that've been dead for a hundred years.
STAUFFERI'm dealing with real world problems out in the, you know, modern life and some of these things are pretty terrible. And meanwhile, you're focused on these -- this poet who no one cares about, has been dead for 150 years. And the novel is somebody's rebuttal to that position.
REHMDo you think that A. S. Byatt is trying to confuse us by making these names so similar? For example, Roland and Randolph. I mean, you really have to concentrate when you read this novel.
JAMESYeah, you're always -- I think it's another way in which her -- she's echoing these hints and clues and colors, you know. Maude is in green when we meet her first and so is LaMotte. She's described in all these kind of green eyes, green shoes. I mean, just the similarity of the names. I think that kind of put moving back between past and present to always kind of -- part of the delight but it's also part of the kind of confusion.
REHMAll right. I want to open the phones. We have a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Mary. You're on the air.
MARYOh, thank you. I'm just loving this show because this is my all time favorite book.
MARYNow, I haven't read it recently, but I did read it a couple of times. And the thing that I absolutely loved about the book was at the end when the reader discovers that the -- that Ash has not -- has seen his daughter. And that it's something that the researchers will never know. And I just love that all the research in the world we can do, but there are things that we will never know and that's okay. It's all right for people to leave these world with some things that are private.
REHMAnd cannot possess. I mean, that is the final irony, is it not, Andrew?
STAUFFERYes. we feel at the end that we -- as Rosemary said, we have a privileged position above and beyond that the scholars know. We see glimpses of a knowledge that they are not privy to. But at the same time we recognize in that moment that there's lots of other things that we don't know. That it talks -- it shows us sort of the fragmentary nature of the past and that the mission of sort of redeeming the past via the things that are left behind is always going to be incomplete. We're always just going to have fragments.
STAUFFERAnd so that ending is in a certain way triumphant because we know Ash met his daughter. But it's also tragic, you know, sort of brings a tear to your eye, you know, yeah.
REHMTotally tragic because he asks his daughter to pass a message.
STAUFFERYes. And the last words of the novel are something like the message was never delivered. And at the end of a novel that's been all about reading letters from the past and retrieving messages and piecing together the past from what was left behind to end with that is a kind of tragic note.
REHMAll right. To Silver Spring, Md. Good morning, Robin.
ROBINHi, good morning, Diane. Long, long, long time listener.
ROBINI wanted to say I love this book. I read it when I was 19 and had to really dig in and get through the density and enjoy it. But I'm just shocked that nobody's talking about how erotic it is and how wonderfully sexy the writing is and the relationships of both sets of couples are. And I want you guys to get into that.
REHMWell, we'll do our best. I must say you've got a Victorian couple, the Ashes. They have a sexless marriage, Tania.
JAMESYes. Yeah, that was a kind of surprise towards the end when that sort of revealed in the journal. I did -- you know, I think what Rosemary read mentioned the kick galvanic. And, you know, your call -- your question made me think of that scene where Roland kind of puts his eye to the keyhole, sort of seeing if anyone's in the bathroom pseudo innocently. That definitely -- that kind of foreplay, so to speak, was I think very sexy.
JAMESBut then there's also a kind of restraint and kind of carefulness and Maude's very defensive of her solitude in that sort of unspoken dance around romance that I thought was -- felt very non -- kind of different kind of sexy, I guess, was interesting.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And of course, as he looks through that keyhole, she lets down her hair. And it is the hair that is so magnificent and indeed sexy.
STAUFFERYeah, and that's a scene from one of her poems, too, then. Of course, the knight spying on the fairy in the bath, you know, it's sort of a classic, you know, iconic scene that's then reworked in modern context. You know, there's a lot of resistance -- there's no casual sexuality in this book. It's all -- you know, you work up to it. There's a lot of resistance. There's a lot of sort of slow development of relationship, whether it's in the letters between Randolph and Christabel or the kind of scholarship between Roland and Maude. It takes a long time for them to feel ready to commit. But when they do, of course it comes sort of in a rush.
REHMThe sad part really is that here the Ashes marry when she is, what, 36, 37. He has no idea that she is terrified of sex. And even on their honeymoon, he exerts all kinds of patience and caring for her. And it's tough because they're never going to have children. They're going to live in this marriage. It's no wonder that he then becomes so enamored of Christabel.
JANNAlthough I think, to be fair, the first attraction is an intellectual one, an emotional one.
JANNBetween Randolph and Christabel. And, you know, I think we're supposed to infer from the series of letters that the kiss in the park was sort of something that just came upon them both. But the initial attraction really is an intellectual one and an emotional one.
STAUFFERIt's really built up through their letters that we get the most sense of their intimacy, at least until they run away together, we see mostly as a textual, you know, mediated relationship. And that -- and it does become sexy but it is connected at a very kind of intellectual way.
REHMDo you think that the writing about sexuality is even Victorian in nature? I mean, it's all very, very understated, which is why I was so interested in our caller's comment, Tania?
JAMESYeah, I mean, it seemed so to me that thinking of Roland and Maude when they first are starting, they can only -- they can't talk about what's happening but they can sort of touch each other in these sort of casual ways. And that's how their romance sort of builds. But I thought there were also funny moments when Roland is reading a super feminist article about sexuality. And the imagery is sort of disturbing and actually really deflating to him. So I thought it kind of satirizes over talk about sexuality.
STAUFFERAnd Roland and Maude, the thing they both -- what they bond over is they both want to be alone. They discover that what they really want from life is a clean white room with no one in it, which is an interesting thing for a couple to bond over is their desire to kind of be hermetically sealed off. And that's why it sort of takes them so long to get over that and to begin to trust each other.
REHMDid you find that weird?
STAUFFERYeah, a little bit.
JANNWell, you know, I think part of it is, you know, Byatt implies that part of Roland and Maude's problems are that they're imbedded in this kind of scholarly model where feelings, landscape, everything is turned into language. And they suspect -- or worry that the things they feel are just kind of constructs. And they dance around that for a long time and the sort of repression that builds over that I think is part of the tension.
REHMRosemary Jann. She's professor of English at George Mason University. We'll take a short break here. More of your calls, comments when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We are talking about A.S. Byatt's novel "Possession." It won the prestigious Booker Award. Here's an email from Julie. She said, "I taught "Possession" in a critical theory class at Goshen College in Indiana. The students were amazed at how rich the novel was, how many different ways it could be mind for thoughtful reflection on the Victorian period and our own. I'm glad you mentioned Beatrice Nest on the show because she was a perennial student favorite." Now, why should that be? Why do you think that should be?
STAUFFERWell, she is sort of -- she's editing Ellen Ash's journal just to give you background.
STAUFFERShe's for many years, I guess 20 years of her life, has been editing the journal of Randolph Ash's wife and she was sort of forced to do that by male colleagues who wanted to work on Ash himself, but...
STAUFFER...because she was a woman, she was told to edit the wife's journal and so she sort of deferred and did that. And she's very slowly and methodically doing it.
REHMWhat does she discover about Ellen Ash?
JANNShe sees Ellen as a kind of a puzzling character, just as Beatrice herself is a bit puzzling, that, you know, there are depths there that don't quite meet the eye, that Ellen is -- seems like the totally supportive Victorian wife, and yet there's these gaps, there's these implications that are never quite explained, that Beatrice doesn't entirely know how to explain, but I think are explained in some ways when we find out the true nature of her relationship with Randolph Ash.
REHMIt's interesting because at one point, as I said, they do remain married even though it's a sexless, childless marriage. And she has to somehow make up for all the lack of sex during this whole marriage, which can't be very easy for. Would you read from page 458, start at the second full paragraph that begins with, they took to silence. Go ahead, Rosemary.
JANN"They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed armed resting on an arm, an ankle overlapping an ankle as they sat on the beach and not removed. One night they fell asleep side by side on Maud's bed where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale, elegant phrase. They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way the stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins."
JANN"Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would've undone it. On days when the sea mist closed them in a sudden milk white cocoon with no perspectives, they lay lazily together all day behind the heavy, white, lace curtains on the white bed not stirring, not speaking. Neither was quite sure how much or what all this meant to the other. Neither dared ask."
REHMAnd it's that lack of verbalizing. It's just the emotion filled moment. You spoke about the white room that each of them would've been happy to live in. A.S. Byatt, whom as our earlier emailer mentioned, was on this program many years ago and she said in another interview she likes books more than she likes people. So there you have those separate white rooms. Here's an email from Evelyn in Pleasanton, Texas. She said, "I was riveted by this book. It may sound like dull subject matter, but for me it was a thrilling page turner. The author brilliantly created authentic sounding research materials." Would you agree with that, Andrew?
STAUFFERI think so. She herself was an academic and she knows the forms that we operate. And some of it is a bit, you know, highly colored or a caricature of the way that scholarship proceeds, but generally it is an insider's view of what scholarship looks like.
REHMTanya, have you something you'd like to read for us?
JAMESOh, yes. We found the part where Maud who the whole time kind of keeps her hair up in this scarf. She finally towards the end undoes her hair in this kind of romantic moment with Roland. "She began slowly to undo with unweaving fingers the long, thick braids. Roland watched intently. There was a final moment when six thick strands, twice three lay still and formed over her shoulders. And then she put down her head and shook it from side to side and heavy hair flew up and the air got into it. Her long neck bowed. She shook her head faster and faster. And Roland saw the light rush towards it and glitter on it, the whirling mass. And Maud saw inside it saw a moving sea of gold lines waving and closed her eyes and saw scarlet blood."
REHMWow. That's really quite a passage. When we talk about the relationships among women, what was the nature of the relationship between Christabel and Blanche?
JANNWell, it was the Boston marriage, what they used to call it, you know, two...
REHMA Boston marriage.
JANNThat's a term from America, but a pair of women who set up household and stay together for their lives. You know, I think with certainly the feminist scholars in the book assume that Blanche and Christabel were lesbian lovers. And even Randolph, when he finds out how responsive Christabel despite being a virgin, apparently, there's a kind of implication that it's from her sexual relationship with Blanche. But -- and certainly Blanche's jealousy over the relationship leads to her suicide and leads to Christabel's guilt as well.
REHMAnd why does Ellen Ash bury Christabel's last letter unopened with her husband?
STAUFFERIt's sort of a message in a bottle for the future of the last, you know, black adder the professor says she did it for...
REHMI love that name, black adder, black snack, yeah.
STAUFFERYeah, black adder, yeah. He's the British professor who's working on Ash, you know, and in very elaborate ways.
REHMAnd trying to steal whatever he can find.
STAUFFERYes, exactly. But he says that she put it there for Maud because it turns out that Maud is the great-great-granddaughter of both poets and so she's been researching her own history all along, which comes as a surprising ending. The reason Ellen does it is because she can't bear to sort of share her last moments with her husband with this other women, that, you know, this is all the time we have left. He's on his death bed. I now have this letter that I've been asked to give to him. But he's still mine and I don't want to, you know, ruin our last moments with him being dragged back to that time and that relationship. So she buries it and he never reads it.
JANNBut at the same time she doesn't destroy it.
JANNAnd that's I think one of the things that connects to what Beatrice Nest recognizes about her, that there's some kind of depth there, things that she doesn't talk about. She could've simply destroyed the letter, end of the story, but she...
JANN...she plants it there for it to be discovered, you know, as Andrew says, discovered later, whether specifically by an ancestor or not.
REHMAll right. We have a caller in Mishawaka, Ind. Good morning, Matthew.
MATTHEWGood morning. A few years ago "Possession" was turned into a movie with Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow, a movie which actually led to me reading the book. The movie didn't do terribly well, but I thought it was a delightful film, but somewhat different from the book. I enjoyed both very, very, very much, but I just was curious what your panel thought. Has any of them seen it?
REHMNow, I have not, but apparently you have, Rosemary.
JANNWell, I have seen, but we were talking a bit about this before. I don't remember a whole lot except actually that passage that Tania just read. I remember Gwyneth Paltrow who plays...
REHMTaking her hair down.
JANNTaking her hair down, but...
JANN...they changed Roland to an American scholar played by Aaron Eckhart. And, you know, for me it was sort of helpful to embody these characters, but the complexity of the novel is such you simply cannot do justice to it in a film.
STAUFFERAnd I found the novel is so textual. It's so interested in the life of language. That's actually the first thing Christabel says to Randolph at the breakfast is talking about the life of language. And it does seem like such a bookish textual novel that when they transferred it to the film, a lot of the life was sort of drained out of it.
REHMOkay. And now we have to talk about Mortimer Cropper. He is again living up to his name Andrew. He becomes a grave robber.
STAUFFERYes, he's the American -- the Americans don't fair too well in this book.
STAUFFERThey tend to be sort of caricatures. Cropper is the grasping American. He seems to represent, you know, someone from Texas, you know, maybe the Harry Ransom Center, some place that's trying to buy up all the documents and gather them into a -- so he's a bit of a raider of documents and he literally becomes a grave robber to get that letter out of Ash's grave. Of course, we want him to do it 'cause we want to read that letter too, but he's sort of the unscrupulous collector, let's say.
JAMESAnd when he first appears, it's almost this comical appearance. He's like huddled up in some random woman's bathroom trying to make photocopies of something. I mean, he takes himself incredibly seriously and thus is like it provides a great comic relief. Otherwise the book would be really kind of very gray, then serious of these two dead lovers.
STAUFFERAt the same time he's a version of ourselves 'cause, as I say, we want all those documents too. As we read, we're like, yeah, where are the letter? We want more. What happened? What happened? What happened? And a desire to comprehend the narrative, that's a version of what Cropper is after. But he -- you know, he literally wants to possess the documents. He wants to own them.
JANNHe's like a vampire. He wants to, you know, sort of suck all the information and life out of Randolph Ash.
REHMNow, we remember that Roland was told he could not go out into his landlady's garden. At the end, he does exactly that, Andrew.
STAUFFERYes, by the end Roland has -- he's sort of stopped caring about the things that he thought that mattered, some of the restrictions of his former life, and he's begun to escape into a larger world. He's got three job offers at different universities. He's very confident with Maud at the very end. He sort of takes her in hand and says, let's try it, let's try a relationship. So he does grow in the course of the novel.
JAMESAnd I just love that moment at the end because there's so much about analysis and text and he sort of has fallen out of love a little bit with reading Ash. The way -- the same love that Mortimer Cropper had when he first touched a letter that Ash has read, that electric charge he gets just from being near those words and Roland sort of reads the garden of apples, I think the poem that the book opens with, and he just sort of relearns or re-feels that kind of electricity again.
REHMDo we have that letter...
REHM...that's taken out of the grave?
STAUFFERDo we physically have it?
REHMDo we have it here in the book?
STAUFFERYes, we do.
JANNThe Christabel letter, yes.
REHMThe Christabel letter.
STAUFFERYeah, and that's the one where he find -- and there's also I think a photograph of his daughter on her wedding day. Isn't that in the letter as well, that's in part of the same thing?
JANNYes, she sends a picture of the daughter.
REHMAll right. I want to hear the letter.
STAUFFERGot to find it.
JANNIt's on page...
JAMESIt's on 542.
JANN...yeah, 542. It's very long.
STAUFFERIt's pretty long. It's like four pages long.
REHMOkay. We can't hear the whole letter. Let's hear part of it. And remind our listeners, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
JANNHow about the very end of it or sort of the end of it?
JANNOr this is something near the end.
JANNThis is Christabel. "Do you remember how I wrote to you the riddle of the egg?" That's her sort of self containment metaphor.
JANN"As an eidolon of my solitude and self possession which you threatened whether you would or know, and destroyed my dear meaning me nothing but good, I do believe and know. I wonder if I had kept to my closed castle behind my mot and daily defenses, should I have been a great poet as you are? I wonder was my spirit rebuked by yours as Caesar's was by Anthony? Or was I enlarged by your generosity as I intended? These things are all mixed and mangled and we loved each other, for each other, only it was the end for Maia," that's the daughter, "who will have nothing of her strange name and is called plain May which becomes her."
REHMIt's spelled M-A-I-A.
JANN"I have been angry for so long, with all of us, with you, with Blanche, with my poor self. And now near the end in the calm of mind, all passion spent, I think of you again with clear love."
REHMIsn't that extraordinary. And the letter is buried and he never knows. He never knows.
STAUFFERBut he does have the chance to meet his daughter once at the very end, yes.
REHMHe does. And talk about that passage. That's a beautiful exchange there.
STAUFFERIt's a postscript. In 1868, this is some years after the affair, so the daughter would've been about seven or eight years old at that time.
STAUFFERHe is wandering through a field. It's hard to know exactly where this takes place. And he meets a little girl and she introduces herself as Maia Thomasine Bailey. And he begins to put together. He recognizes she looks like Christabel. And he's always suspected that there was child. He knows that she was -- he knows that Christabel got pregnant, but he wasn't sure whether the child lived or died. He meets the little girl. He has a conversation. He says please send your mother a message that a poet met you in the fields and that he still thinks of her and things like that.
STAUFFERWell, the girl is sort of a Tom girl and she meets her brothers on the way home and gets in a little bit of a tussle and she forgets the message and it's never delivered.
REHMWere you sad?
STAUFFERAs I said, it is a downbeat ending because you want all of the pieces to be connected and you want sort of the fragments to knit together and you want people to be aware of all that happened. I mean, but what kind of redemption is possible, you know, from the past? It wouldn't have changed anything. It just would've been another message that would've been communicated.
REHMBut it would have meant that -- and there's one last detail which is that it turns out that Maud herself is related.
REHMShe becomes the great-great-great-granddaughter.
STAUFFERI think that's right, yes.
JANNI don't read the ending as quite so sad because I think Ash went there on purpose and knew that he would meet May, Maia, there.
REHMYou think. Why do you think that?
JANNBecause he -- you know, I think he has discovered that the child exists. I don't think he could just lay eyes on her and suddenly...
JANN...fill out all these details.
JANNSo for me, I think of Ash as having the satisfaction of knowing that he did have a daughter and that she lived.
JANNAnd this is a kind of rediscovery at the end.
REHMAnd we have rediscovered the book "Possession." I hope you'll take the time to read it. It's absolutely wonderful, by A.S. Byatt. Rosemary Jann, Andrew Stauffer, Tania James, thank you.
STAUFFERThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd for next month's Readers' Review, we turn to Scott Turow's first legal thriller "Presumed Innocent." So I hope you'll join us Wednesday, August 22. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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