The Possession of Paradise: A. S. Byatt's Reinscription of Milton

Article excerpt

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. …