13 January 2009
This won the Booker – wait for it – nineteen years ago, and I first read it not long after that. It’s a housebrick of a novel: one of several ways in which it imitates (or parodies, or satirises) Victorian fiction. We also get the meaningful epigraphs, the thumbnail sketches of characters we can easily store in our heads (more of them later), the outlandish coincidences defiantly staring you in the face. And probably another half-dozen tropes I’m too slow to notice: this isn’t just a literary novel, it’s one in which Byatt plays games (not all of them flippant) with literature and literariness. Great fun for us English graduates, spotting the quirks of mid-Victorian men (and women) of letters.
But it’s set in the present, so we have that late 20th Century phenomenon of the parallel viewpoint. Or the parallax view: we’re looking from such a different angle it makes the Victorians seem very strange. The trick, also played by Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is to uncover the humanity of these weird creatures locked deep inside their weird century. Farrell did something like it in The Siege of Krishnapur – although there was no overt present in that novel, only the author’s 20th Century sensibility satirising the children of a very strange Empire.
For Byatt, as for Harold Pinter in his screenplay of Fowles’s novel, the 20th Century viewpoint has a physical form, in the shape of characters living now. And she has the grace to make her own century subservient to the 19th: she’s set it in the milieu of the Victorian studies industry with, for instance, the main character’s boss stuck in ‘the Ash factory’ writing the key to all mythologies (a phrase Byatt herself uses in another context) relating to a single poet who died a hundred years before. He’s spent his whole life doing it and, like Casaubon in Middlemarch, he hasn’t a hope of ever finishing.
Like the film version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981, five years before Possession begins) the novel presents us with parallel 19th and 20th Century relationships. Five chapters in, it’s not at all clear what direction either of these is going in: all we know is that the Victorians brought theirs to an end in that noble way that only the noble Victorians can: we’ve just had the final letter read to us by Wheelchair Woman. The two academics who have cleverly found the letters don’t seem like a good match on first acquaintance. Byatt presents Roland as definitely a Beta male, whereas Dr Maud Bailey’s recent life-changing affair was with the Alpha who got the job poor Roland applied for.
The 20th Century world Byatt presents is a satire on academia. It’s either moribund, like the Ash factory, buffeted by fads (it’s no accident that the Alpha affair was between exponents of feminism and structuralism, 1980s favourites for the pillory), or beset by rivalries, envy and Schadenfreude. The concerns of the19th Century world are equally obscure, but altogether more engaging. Ash and his correspondent – I wouldn’t be surprised if we later find out they only ever communicate by letter – are deep into a strange world of myth and fairy-tale, full of the kinds of disturbing meanings that Angela Carter had fun with in The Bloody Chamber. That book was written 20 years before Byatt’s novel and is still on A Level syllabuses now; the complete story by Christabel that we read in Chapter 4 is straight out of it, full of sexual undertones which we have to read as the sublimation of the passion we now know Christabel brought to an end. I bet Byatt was laughing as she wrote it – it’s not only the 20th Century she’s satirising.
But I’m not telling you the plot. That won’t take long. Roland has found some drafts of a letter by Ash in the London Library. He’s a minor cog in the Ash factory, and this is the first good thing that’s ever happened in his foundering life (foundering career, foundering relationship stuck, appropriately, in a dank basement flat) and the title of the novel comes into play: he immediately feels the drafts are his, in the same way Gollum feels about the One Ring…. He tells nobody, obviously, until he has to. By the time he’s found Maud, the one person in England who might know anything about Christabel, we’re in Da Vinci Code land. The author has already arranged chances and coincidences to fall his way, and now she really starts to stretch it. The finding of the letters has to proceed via: Roland’s rescue (from a wheelchair accident) of the very woman whose stately home contains the letters they hardly dare to believe in; the fact that the stately home has remained more or less untouched since 1918; a family connection that gets Maud on their side; and their happening upon a nest of dolls which, together with the lines by Christabel that Maud remembers hinting at the dolls’ secrets, brings them to their trove. Ok, Shotgun Man (Wheelchair Woman’s husband) doesn’t want to give the letters up. But – halleluiah – he hates the American rival who just happened to have stopped by a few months before and trampled on his land.
This is all fine, because we don’t have to believe any of it: we just want to know what’s going to happen next. And anyway, it’s not Da Vinci Code land – It’s Wilkie Collins land, it’s Dickens land. The Da Vinci Code wasn‘t even a twinkle in Dan Brown’s eye when this novel was written.
In chapter 6 we meet Materialist Man, the other American academic we already hate (because the Brits do). Unlike our questing heroes, he’s crazy about stuff: autographs, letters to nobody in particular, R H Ash’s pocket watch…. He’s a buffoon. Then we meet Beatrice Nest – Byatt’s names are another cod-Victorian feature – whose chaotic office in the Ash factory satirises another strand of dilettante academia. (I’m reminded of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, in which rooms are not just symbolic of the interior life – although they are that as well: they’re personal statements, status symbols, territorial markers.) And it‘s no accident that Beatrice‘s office is underground, whereas Maud Bailey‘s is like an eyrie high up in a modern block.
So far, so much harmless fun. Then the real business starts: the 20th Century pair are allowed to get to work on the 19th, in a freezing library at Shotgun Towers. Byatt makes them ill at ease with each other: the only encounters they have other than professional ones are embarrassed and awkward: he makes her jump as she stares into the depths of an iced-over pond – then she bumps into him as he puts his eye to the bathroom keyhole to see if she’s finished in there…. But we know what’s coming, even though at the time of writing it hasn’t come yet.
There’s a pair of chapters setting up a neat contrast between 19th and 20th Century letters. In Chapter 9 Maud – did I mention she’s Green Lady? I don’t think I did – gets letters from Alpha Male and Tiresome Feminist Woman. They represent the two academic fads, and both letters ooze Subtext. His is teasing, games-playing, flirtatious. Hers is a parody of 80s feminism…. Byatt has more fun shooting more fish in more barrels – but there’s a twist: Alpha Male is patronising about Roland – and Maud isn’t buying that. She still doesn’t rate Roland, but she’s not having Mr Smarm being condescending to him. Byatt tells us Maud isn’t experienced enough to see completely through his love-rat façade, but allows the reader to….
Then come the 19th Century letters: Chapter 10 consists of 40-odd pages of ‘The Correspondence’, and we see what the 20th Century sophisticates have lost. I suppose that’s why Byatt places the present-day letters where she does, so that the openness and sincerity of these tortured souls stands out all the more clearly. And Reader, they’re superb. One of Byatt’s little jokes is that Ash is ‘The Great Ventriloquist’: we’re to believe that a large part of his oeuvre is in the form of dramatic monologues, but on the epic scale, and full of Matthew Arnold-like Big Themes rather than Browning’s character sketches. The joke is that the real ventriloquist in this novel is Byatt herself – and shit, she does it well. Again we’re in French Lieutenant’s Woman territory, between the rock of a genuine passion and the hard place of Victorian morality. By the end of the chapter they have met, a couple of times, and it’s practically killing them. The trajectory is unremarkable – it’s identical to Brief Encounter – but the language of their letters, and the plausibility of their at first unspoken mutual passion, are very persuasive. As is the shock of realisation – particularly well-drawn on his side – that the passion was never just about a meeting of minds.
Meanwhile Byatt sketches in the myth-bound storytelling of their poetry, the never-ending mid-Victorian topic of Doubt, the Morris and Co Pre-Raphaelite faith in a hard day’s work…. Somehow, by the end, these two are as strange as Victorians always seem to us – and yet we know exactly why the correspondence has to stop. Christabel is the one who insists, I think – but all clarity is lost during the last few letters: the dashes that are always a feature of their letter-writing style almost take over as the only thing that becomes clear is that however much they try to rationalise, words just aren’t enough. And what actually took place at their meetings is only ever hinted at. And… we still don’t know if that really is the end of the affair.
Names note. For days I’ve been wondering about LaMotte, Christabel’s surname: castle-like, impenetrable – and only today have I put it together with Bailey. Dr Maud, of course, is just as careful to maintain her own defences as Christabel ever was. And then we’ve got Roland, another name plucked by the 19th Century from an earlier mythology. It’s only a game, I know, but it’s good fun.
Yippee: as in the 20th Century the shy, chaste academics piece together evidence that Ash and Christabel travelled to Yorkshire together – Ash and Christabel are getting on with it. But Byatt teases us first: she doesn’t make it clear until Chapter 15. I’ll come back to that.
Nothing much new happens in London and Lincloln – more of Mr Smarm (real name Woolf – Aaoo-ow-ow-awoo), more of Annoying American Feminist Woman, more of Beatrice, Bosom Lady. But, oh yeh: Beatrice’s archive contains an interesting snippet – one of Ash’s housemaids had to leave in disgrace, if you catch my drift, and refused to name the father. As if she needed to. Then, to Yorkshire. First we get Maud and Roland, in their separate rooms, finding exquisite links between the places and the poems. This is Byatt having another laugh: earlier, Materialist Man was satirised for constantly stepping on the heels of Ash, to no apparent effect. Now here are our brave hunters doing it – and getting right to the heart of it. One description of the light inside a cave, and a poem by Christabel evidently in response to it, is superb. They find themselves in a shop selling Whitby jet – and Maud realises she might be wearing a brooch bought for her ancestor in that very shop. (Did I mention she‘s a great-great- something of Christabel?) But it’s not proof, it‘s never proof. And whatever Maud and Roland have going is so far non-existent. The closest they get, after Roland has persuaded Maud to let down her hair, is a meeting of minds: Roland assures her he isn’t making a pass at her. But it does turn out that they share an ideal mental image: of being alone, in single beds.
And then comes a real French Lieutenant’s Woman moment. Chapter 15 opens with a pastiche of a Victorian novel: a gent and a lady, in a train compartment, described as though for the first time. But, reader, this is the first time: at last we get Ash and Chris unmediated: not pieced-together evidence, not letters, not poems, but them, in the flesh. Obviously, this is just another level of mediation: the Victorian style of the opening paragraphs reminds us we’re still immured inside a book. But at least now we can let the omniscient narrator get inside their heads – or, to be accurate, inside Ash‘s head – and, for this chapter at least, give us what we want.
It carries on being Fowles-like throughout the whole chapter: Byatt plays endless games, mainly in the form of the parallels between the experiences of the Victorian characters and their present-day pursuers who don’t realise how closely they’re following. There are skeins of tenuous (but nevertheless real) links: not the faintest hint of anything as irrational as a ghostly echo or frisson, just the meeting of like minds across the centuries. (Byatt can’t resist a joke about a place called Boggle Hole. Roland and Maud go there for a day off, because they know Ash never went there and they like the sound of it. And in the following chapter, well, guess where Ash and Christabel go, for exactly the same reason. And I bet Byatt went there when she was a kid in Yorkshire. Maybe she went there on a beautiful day in June.)
So. Still great fun, and the poems are superb. And the links between the narratives and the poems. And I’m not a bit bothered that I got it wrong about the Victorian story being like Brief Encounter. Not so brief – and, blimey, we’ve even had orgasms. And blood. Hmm. I suppose the chilly modern sophisticates will get there in the end; it’s still not happened yet, despite earnest conversations about the 20th Century academic insistence on the sexuality of everything literary. Which we‘ll no doubt get plenty more of soon: Tiresome American Woman is on her way for a few weeks or months in England…. Clever, that: the Victorians don‘t talk about it; they do it.
(Two more French Lieutenant’s Woman links. One is the description of Ash the naturalist on the fossil-strewn shore: not quoted from that early description of Charles in the Fowles novel, but close enough to ring a lot of bells. I assume Byatt would expect her readers to notice the similarity: same target audiences, surely? The second…. To make his story of Victorian sex plausible, Fowles has to make Sarah somehow beyond the pale of normal Victorian morality. He has her make up a story to do with a French officer: she wants to be ostracised. In fact, to the modern reader, this simply makes her more like us – a 20th Century woman stuck in a 19th Century moral bind. And Christabel? Half French, educated by an independent-minded Frenchman – a million miles away from the tight English corset we all know about. So: modern, then, a bit like us. And, like Sarah, a virgin nonetheless when the big moment arrives.)
About 100 pages to go (out of 500), and the wolves are closing in. Not the wolf, Alpha Male man, who was only ever interested in what’s inside Maud’s knickers, not some dusty letters. But Materialist Man – real name Crocker, curator of shedloads of Ash’s stuff in some hermetically sealed New Mexico university – has worked out that Shotgun Man has something, and he’s determined to get it. Tiresome Feminist Woman, aka Leonora Stern, is also in England, and has guessed that Maud’s gone (as it were, Yeats fans), to Brittany with Roland to look at a journal relating to Christabel. And Blackadder, lord of the underworld that is the Ash Factory, has finally been forced into action. I’ll come back to all of them in a bit.
First, Byatt carries on having fun with the chaste academics. She gets them sharing a cabin on the Brittany ferry – in bunk beds, with Maud choosing to go on top. Obviously. (This wasn’t quite what Roland had in mind in his dream of clean single bed. We’re not told what Maud thinks: Byatt enjoys withholding such things and, after all, it doesn’t do to let the reader know too much.) And, in Nantes – they see the journal, pages and pages of it, written by Christabel’s young cousin and revealing a) what a tightly corseted thing Christabel was, figuratively speaking, self-possessed to the point of appearing possessed in a completely different way… and b) how, well, she just wouldn’t talk about her – wait for it – pregnancy. Byatt lets us alert readers spot this a lot quicker than the cousin, who kicks herself for her obtuseness – but I wish the author hadn’t taken quite so long over getting to the main point: that when the baby’s due Christabel disappears – and returns after a week or so with no sign of the child. Gulp.
That was the etiolated Chapter 19. In Chapter 20 Byatt feeds us more snippets of which each of the academics sees only a portion. Cropper reads accounts of a séance, after the pregnancy, attended by Christabel, who wants to believe, and an uber-sceptical Ash. He wants to know about ‘the baby’ and seems to want to show Christabel that it won’t be found in the front room of a posturing medium. (We don’t know whether they attended together: Christabel is a frequent traveller on that particular line and it would be easy for Ash to know about it.) Err…. Maud and Roland know about the pregnancy; everybody knows about the suicide of Blanche, the woman Christabel lived with in what Leonora has always celebrated as a lesbian relationship; and everybody, by the time Crocker has given a high-profile lecture, knows (or everyone thinks they know) that Christabel, to quote Blackadder in a tv appearance he’s press-ganged into making, is Ash’s Dark Lady. But so far, only Roland and Maud have seen the letters. However… Crocker is trying to buy them, and is well on the way to getting his way. How exciting.
But alongside (or threaded through) the spoof detective story are a couple of things that Byatt the biographer is genuinely interested in. The first is Roland’s long-running jibe with Maud about narrative curiosity, such an unfashionable concept, Byatt’s characters constantly tell us, in the chilly academic corridors of the 1980s. For instance, at the end of Chapter 19 the French academic who has let Maud and Roland see the journal in Brittany apologises for being mysterious about its contents: she hadn’t wanted to spoil the story. (Byatt, obviously, knows whose side her readers are on: it’s one of the ways she makes Roland so sympathetic in contrast to the Lacan-spitting Woolf.)
The other thing comes up in Crocker’s lecture. He extols the free passage of information, boasts how his university – as should all right-thinking places of learning – makes its archives freely available. The joke is, of course, that Materialist Man wants the actual things that others are welcome have copies of. And he’ll bluster and bully and, obviously, buy his way into getting whatever he wants. In fact, almost all the academics are bullies to some degree. Leonora almost bludgeons her way – her huge, physical, room-filling way – into making Maud agree with her opinions. Blackadder, the stereotypical dour Scot, has his own dark methods of getting his way. Alpha Male man is just a bully. Not like Maud and Roland, then? Well…. They don’t want anything for themselves, not in the psychotically acquisitive way Crocker does: they mock such an idea mercilessly, insisting (as does Blackadder, if I remember rightly) that it‘s the language that counts. But… but but but: they still want it first, their piece of the chandelier (an image used by Byatt in a different context earlier) that will achieve – what? Fame? Respect? And they’re just as excited by touching these things and, for instance, the jade brooch that might have been Christabel’s, as Crocker is about Ash’s precious watch. Hmm.
If you’ve never read the novel before, look away now and go to the next paragraph. Before I started reading it again, one of the few clear memories I had of it was of sheaves of papers being blown away in the hurricane of 1987. That, as anyone alive at the time remembers, was October. Not long to go, then – Byatt has carefully got us to the summer now, although, just as carefully, she hasn’t mentioned the year since it was 1986 near the start. I can’t remember now if the papers – the letters, presumably – disappear for good. If they do, then Byatt is definitely making her own editorial point. What fools these mortals are – all these mortals. Maybe ars longa vita brevis, but what if vita’s all we’ve got? Surely Roland and Maud won’t be satisfied with single beds forever.
What larks. Byatt has more metafictional fun – sorry, too pretentious… has more fun messing about with our heads. And the heads of her characters. She has Roland (and, maybe, Maud) squirming about the trajectory of what seems to be the romance of their story; she has at least one of the characters point out how like the revelation scene in a detective story it is when all the evidence is put together. In other words, she reminds us, you think you’re so clever, but I had it all mapped out a long time before you came tripping along. And she does what all good Victorian novelists do – and what all readers want, even Maud by this time – she reveals absolutely everything we want to know. And provides us, Shakespeare-like (someone even mentions As You Like It) with the requisite nuptials at the end. She’s doing something different from McEwan in Atonement – giving us what we want with no strings attached.
I think some of my favourite games are to do with the way Byatt appears to be taking the piss but manages some serious points anyway. We have the pathetic-seeming Beatrice Nest – who turns out to be absolutely right about Ash’s wife putting up barriers against her future readers. Ellen Ash ‘baffles’ us – and it’s only in the second of Byatt’s forays into 19th Century omniscient narrator mode that we come to understand why: their marriage was unconsummated. As before – and as again, in the Postscript – we are privileged to know what the 20th Century characters never find out. Good old Byatt, letting us feel superior like that – rather as Roland feels when only he knows about the two drafts that kick-start the whole novel.
There are other gratifying things. The way everybody comes together to outwit Crocker – including Roland’s now ex-girlfriend Val and her new boyfriend as well as all the academics – is just like the way things happens in Martin Chuzzlewit. And in that novel the one who comes good is old Martin; in this one it’s Blackadder, now a benevolent presence looking after Roland’s interests. We’re ok about the outrageous way the grave-robbing happens at the exact moment of the arrival of the hurricane of 1987 – because, obviously, it helps the plot along. (I realise now that the blowing away of the papers in the same hurricane is a scene from Our Friends in the North, and not this novel at all. So I didn’t even remember that bit right.) And there’s a wonderful paean to reading, when Roland realises that his way – when it’s just you and the text, just you and the text – is the one that gives reading its real purpose. I felt like copying it out – because Byatt does it so much better than, say, Virginia Woolf in an article printed again in this week’s Guardian. (Personal note: the novel is dedicated to Isobel Armstrong, the academic who put her own students, including me, on to that very track from the 1970s onwards. She taught me at Leicester and, come to think of it, her 14th-floor office in its tower, complete with paternoster lift, must have been the model for Maud’s in the novel.)
What else? I found these last chapters the richest of the whole novel: there’s just so much going on. And it’s very forgiving: even the absurd Crocker is allowed to survive – although his power Mercedes isn’t, flattened by a tree in the storm like the black monster it is. (Several of the characters are almost killed by it at one time or another.) All the characters become more rounded: Blackadder, Beatrice Nest, Leonora Stern, Val the hard-done-by ex. Only one stays in a kind of limbo: about half-way through, Byatt’s finished with Alpha man Woolf, so we never see him again. Not so Alpha now, is he?
And, of course, Maud and Roland finally sort themselves out. For a start, Roland’s not a failure, he’s a success – with three job offers on the strength of his close textual reading of Ash. Maud isn’t the Ice Queen, she’s just always been too self-conscious about her own good looks and has to learn not to freeze people out. Byatt lets them have their cake and eat it: they can be lovers, and separate: he’ll take the job in Amsterdam, only a hop away from Maud’s bed in Lincoln. What could be more agreeable?
Then, just when joy is unconfined… Byatt throws us, and Ash, another tasty mouthful. We know he never read Christabel’s last confessional letter, written when he was dying and hidden by his wife. So he never knew about the daughter that we – and all the main characters – know about. Except, in a shameless wish-fulfilment postscript, Byatt lets us see that, yes, he did meet his daughter when she was still a child… and he knew exactly who she was. She shouldn’t be able to get away with it, but – don’t ask me how – she does. Just as when we come out of Slumdog Millionaire, nominated for an Oscar this week, when we feel that good at the end we don’t ask too many questions about realism and plausibility. Just give it to us.
So, the best British novel of 1990? Or merely high-class hokum? Don’t the best novels deal with something more urgent? At the end of the 1980s couldn’t Byatt have tackled something more – what? – crucial? Silly questions, probably based on my own sense of guilt at spending so much time doing what I enjoy. Novels don’t have to change the world… but the best ones change something, work on some aspect of our understanding. And I think this one does. It makes me, at least, feel good to be breathing, good to have a brain, good to feel engaged. And if the experience of reading a novel feels life-enhancing, isn’t that enough?