"I Am My Own Riddle"- A. S. Byatt's Christabel LaMotte: Emily Dickinson and Melusina

By Chinn, Nancy | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

"I Am My Own Riddle"- A. S. Byatt's Christabel LaMotte: Emily Dickinson and Melusina


Chinn, Nancy, Papers on Language & Literature


In her novel Possession: A Romance, published in 1990, A. S. Byatt invents the nineteenth-century poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte as well as their poetry. Most readers recognize Robert Browning as the model for Ash but are not certain of a model for LaMotte since neither her life nor her poetics resembles Elizabeth Barrett's.[1] Just as all readers are engaged in the search for answers to the mystery of Ash and LaMotte's relationship, so the literary detective searches for clues to LaMotte's identity. Byatt herself has said that she began with the idea of basing LaMotte on Christina Rossetti, "But [she] was too Christian, too self-destructive. . . . I wanted someone tougher. So I ended up with what I think is the greatest woman poet ever, Emily Dickinson. Her sounds, her words, the rhythm of her language" (qtd. in Rothstein C 22). The twenty-one Dickinsonian lyric poems in the novel appear to constitute Christabel LaMotte's major work and thus the greatest insight to Byatt's conception of the LaMotte character.

In addition to these lyrics, however, Christabel LaMotte wrote an epic poem entitled Melusina. According to a reference to a specific line in Book XII of Melusina, LaMotte's epic is comparable to the length of classical epics (Byatt, Possession 80).[2] Even though Byatt has not included all twelve books of The Fairy Melusina, images of Melusina pervade the text. Additionally, details of the novel make clear that The Fairy Melusina had crucial significance for LaMotte because a fictive biography comments, "After Melusina she appears to have written no more poetry, and retreated further and further into voluntary silence" (42). This "voluntary silence" generates no speculation in the novel. Then about midway through the story, Randolph Henry Ash asks Christabel LaMotte, "Could the Lady of Shalott have written Melusina in her barred and moated Tower?" (206). Near the novel's conclusion LaMotte calls herself "an old witch in a turret" and asserts, "I have been Melusina these thirty years" (543, 544). The questions these passages raise about LaMotte's character are more complex and disturbing than those generated by considering LaMotte as Emily Dickinson, a kind of Lady of Shalott.

"The Lady of Shalott," however, provides the bridge between these two disparate images--an American New England poet and a medieval water spirit. By focusing on the difficulty of being an artist--the necessity for isolation, the destructive effect of entry into the world outside the tower, and the inability of those in that world to understand the artist--"The Lady of Shalott" suggests a metaphor for the lives of both Dickinson and LaMotte. Tennyson's poem is quoted once and its central character is referred to numerous times in the novel, providing a recurring image for the difficulties of the woman artist.[3] But the story of the Lady of Shalott and the Melusina legend also share medieval settings and, as central subjects, beautiful but cursed women who experience tragedy. Motherhood, however, primarily distinguishes Melusina and LaMotte from Dickinson and the Lady of Shalott. Motherhood inspires LaMotte's best poetry but also ends her creative life as a writer. By connecting LaMotte to Melusina, Byatt evokes the difficulty of being both artist and mother. Using both Dickinson and Melusina as models for LaMotte, Byatt achieves the "toughness" she sought and creates a character who is neither Dickinson nor Melusina, but a complex and unique character in her own right. Criticism of Possession has failed to give Christabel LaMotte, whose origins span centuries and continents the attention she deserves as the novel's most complex character.

Although Emily Dickinson never crossed the Atlantic Ocean, her respect for British women writers, especially Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, makes her an appropriate model for a British poet. Dickinson wrote poems to each of them ("All overgrown by cunning moss" [148] to Bronte and "I think I was enchanted" [593] to Barrett Browning) as well as series of poems based on her reading of Jane Eyre. …

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