A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance (1990) is centrally concerned with etiology. The narrative traces the adventures of two present-day literary scholars, Roland and Maud, in their joint quest for the story about the relationship of two fictional nineteenth-century poets, R. H. Ash and Christabel LaMotte. A series of remarkable discoveries reveals that Ash and LaMotte corresponded, had a brief affair, and conceived a child. At the climactic moment Maud discovers that she herself is directly descended from their daughter. Another character observes, "'How strange for you, Maud, to turn out to be descended from both how strangely appropriate to have been exploring all along the myth--no, the truth--of your own origins'" (547). On one level the novel is the story of a woman's unwitting search for her origins; intricately woven throughout the text, however, in the fictional documents, both contemporary and Victorian, that fill it, is a pervasive attention to the myths--or truths--of the origins of humanity, of myth, and of poetry. In the poetry and letters of Ash and LaMotte and in the "real life" experiences of Roland and Maud, the tropes of garden, man, woman, tree, fruit, and serpent appear and reappear with original as well as familiar meanings. (1)
Byatt's book also reflects a major concern with the activity of reading, including professional reading institutionalized as literary scholarship. In fact, Byatt has described Possession as being "about the relations between readers and writers" ("Reader as Writer" 10). Her characters, often representing various schools of criticism, continuously negotiate their relationships with prior texts. As she ventriloquizes their poetry, private writings, and literary criticism, Byatt imagines her characters in dialogue with their literary forbears. The novel's inter- and intra-textuality, frequently remarked on by critics, give rise to an elaborate system of allusion that evokes many, if not most, of the major poets in English. Given this dual preoccupation with literary history and with myths of origin, it is unsurprising that Byatt makes John Milton, the preeminent poet of cosmogony in English, a major figure in the imaginations of her characters. (2) I argue that Byatt gives significant attention in her novel to a conscious reinscription of Milton, in that several key characters refer specifically and often to Milton as a way of positioning themselves theologically and artistically. In effect, Milton comes to stand in for Christian orthodoxy in the novel, and the nineteenth-century characters' ways of reading Milton allow Byatt to explore various Victorian modes of responding to the challenges to Christianity posed by nineteenth-century developments in science and culture. Byatt's disposition toward these responses further parallels her own use of mythic tropes to suggest a deliberate revision of the Genesis narrative, a revision in which transgression brings not death but life. In this manner she privileges Enlightenment humanism in contrast to Christian dogma and morality; however, the modernist orientation of this project is to some extent qualified by the postmodern reading performed by her characters. Ultimately, Byatt's multifaceted engagement with Milton's poetry and poetics reveals how modern and postmodern norms exist in tension within her novel.
The novel's three central nineteenth-century characters each record obliquely their reactions to Milton and the orthodoxy he represents: R. H. Ash, a popular poet and formidable intellectual; his conventional, timid wife Ellen Ash; and the reclusive but fiercely independent poet Christabel LaMotte. The reader meets each of them through the documents they leave behind--their correspondence, poetry, and journals, all of course ventriloquized by Byatt. Each character becomes a paradigmatic case of a different type of Victorian response to scientific and historical challenges to Christianity. Ash, the omnivorous intellectual well read in contemporary science as well as literature and philosophy, dismisses the truth claims of orthodox Christian doctrine in a Comptean view of history. For Ellen, scientific challenges to Christianity are deeply disturbing, and in order to maintain her equilibrium she must separate the moral content of the Bible, which she continues to regard as absolute, from the threatened historical and scientific content. For LaMotte, spirituality is of paramount importance, but the patriarchy of traditional Christianity in general and of Milton in particular drives her to a more idiosyncratic faith that includes spiritualism as well as regular church attendance. All three characters, as I will show, register their responses to Christianity by their ways of reading and rewriting Milton. Byatt's disposition toward the characters further reveals her pattern of privileging Enlightenment humanism in opposition to Christian orthodoxy.
Ash is the least orthodox and the most comfortable with liberal ideas. Several of his poems "reproduced" in the novel show a marked interest in myths of origin, and his correspondence and biography reveal an amateur scientist conversant with contemporaneous developments in natural history, including Darwinism and geology. Ash's interest in "the origins of life and the nature of generation" is equally biological, mythical, and poetic (269). His epic poetry often mingles mythical and biblical tropes with scientific interrogations.
Two of Ash's poems in particular evoke Paradise Lost: the Norse epic Ragnarok and the lyric/dramatic monologue The Garden of Proserpina. The "excerpts" Byatt has written for the novel show a concentrated attention to questions of etiology, and Byatt's inclusion of classical and biblical allusions invites comparison with Paradise Lost. Ragnarok is described by the narrator as "a poem in twelve books, which some saw as a Christianising of the Norse myth and some trounced as atheistic and diabolically despairing" (12). The excerpt shows a Miltonic interest not only in the story Ash is telling but also in other origin myths. The scene is set in "the middle-garden" where Odin, Honir, and Loki collaboratively create man and woman from logs of ash and alder lying on the seashore. The imagery employed in the description of the scene and the actions of the gods deliberately evoke multiple creation accounts from other sources, much as Milton alludes extensively to his classical precursors in Paradise Lost (for very different reasons, as we shall see). The opening lines relate that the gods have just come from a divine council, presumably narrated earlier in Ragnarok, a detail that serves economically to tie this excerpt to the epic tradition. In the world where the gods find themselves, "All was gleam / Of sun and moon well-wrought, and golden trees / With golden apples inside golden walls" (260). Byatt's imagery pointedly recalls both Eden and the Hesperides of Ovid. Drawing further on classical mythology, Ash describes Loki in Promethean terms: "Loki, the hearth-god, whose consuming fire / First warmed the world," then "flamed in boundless greed." The moment of creating man and woman recalls not Milton but the Bible. Allfather Odin asks, "Shall these trunks live?' and saw the life / The vegetable life, that sang i' th' quick" (261). Ash echoes God's magnificent address to Ezekiel, "Shall these bones live?" (Ezek. 37:3). Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, the final lines of the excerpt show a clear debt to Paradise Lost's famous ending:
Then Ask stepped forward on the printless shore And touched the woman's hand, who clasped fast his. Speechless they walked away [...] Behind them, first upon the level sand A line of darkening prints [...]. (263)
How does this literary debt function in Ash, and how does that function position him in relation to Milton? A letter to LaMotte, written many years after Ragnarok but presented in Possession before this excerpt, begins to answer those questions. Ash writes, "The existence of the same Truths in all Religions is a great argument both for and against the paramount Truthfulness of One" (180). Ash's creation story seems to dwell upon the universality of the elements that comprise various myths of origin, or "the existence of the same Truths in all Religions?' That line of reasoning can lead, according to Ash, to either of two conclusions: the "paramount Truthfulness of One" or of none. (3)
Milton, of course, took the former line. His references to classical mythology, both oblique and straightforward, were intended to expose mythology as a diabolically inspired bastardization of the true story of Satan's rebellion, and man's creation and fall, modified to exalt the fallen angels. (4) When the fallen angels become bards in Book 2, …