In the chapter entitled "The Correspondence" in A.S. Byatt's Possession, we read the unique, academic yet passionate correspondence between two Victorian poets, Christabel Lamott and Randolph Ash. Two thirsty scholars uncover their relationship, which is begun, aptly, with letters. In one of her fractured letters to Ash, Lamott compares herself to the Lady of Shalott, Alfred, Lord Tennyson's isolated and ill-fated weaving woman in his poem by the same name. The Lady of Shalott sits perpetually with her back turned to the world, weaving the reflections of the outside world she sees in her mirror. Becoming "half sick of shadows" the Lady of Shalott "left the web, left the loom" and embarks upon a journey into the world. But going out into the world proves poisonous, and as she floats "down to Camelot," the Lady dies. (As a poem coming out of Victorian England, her death speaks what might happen to the angel in the house if it decides to spread its wings.) Similarly, in the first part of Aurora Leigh, Aurora insists on being left alone to her writing, and cannot be bothered with her suitor, Romney. She does not, however, maintain this conviction, and in the end of the lengthy poem believes in the power of love as much as the power of her own writing. In this particular letter written by Lamott, she seems to regard Ash, and the outside world entire, as a threat to her poetry. Yet in Possession, like in Aurora Leigh and The Lady of Shalott, Lamott does not remain shut up, but continues a correspondence and relationship with Ash. Despite their original intentions, all three writers allow the world into their personal and artistic worlds, for better or for worse. This does not preclude, however, the emphasis placed on the need for privacy, indeed isolation, in order for these women to create art and live fully.

I have chosen a way -- dear Friend -- I must hold to it. Think of me if you will as the Lady of Shalott -- with a narrower wisdom -- who chooses not the Gulp of outside air and the chilly river-journey deathwards -- but who chooses to watch diligently the bright colors of her Web -- to ply an industrious shuttle -- to make -- something -- to close the shutters and the peephole to --

You will say, you are no threat to that. You will argue -- rationally. There are things we have not said to each other beyond the -- One -- you so starkly -- Defined.

I know my Intrinsic Self. The Threat is there.

Be patient. Be generous. Forgive. [205]


In his response, Ash asks Lamott "Could the Lady of Shalott have written Melusina in her barred and moated tower?" -- how does Ash's conception of the creation of art/writing differ from Lamott's in this passage, and what does this have to do with, if anything, their respective genders? How would Victorian times have influenced the way men and women artists viewed the creation of their work

Quite simply, why the emphasis on the importance of isolation of the Victorian woman writer? Yet, why does it also seem that this determination to be isolated is impossible to maintain? What does this say about the pervading influence of men, and of the outside world? Do men become the primary stuff of the outside world from which these women, for a time, hide themselves (or wish to hide themselves)?

What does it mean for Lamott as a woman, and what does it mean for her art, when she compares herself to the Lady of Shalott?

How do the different attitudes of men in these three works intersect or diverge?


Abrams, M.H. Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. New York: W.W. Norton and Company 2000.

Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Last modified 6 April 2004