Driven by the twin impulses of academic interest and personal curiosity, Roland and Maud in A.S. Byatt's Possession strive to uncover the relationship between Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. They reluctantly agree to a professional collaboration that will enable their scholarly sleuthing and, ideally, academic promotion. Initially, Roland hesitates to ask for Maud's help when, facing her frigidity, he conjures up the "ridiculous and romantic" vision of "their two heads bent together over the manuscripts, following the story, sharing, he had supposed, the emotion" (144). Likewise, the novel attributes Maud's frostiness towards Roland to her near anti-masculine brand of feminism; her reluctance to assist him is also probably due to her greater scholarly achievement and respectability in the field. Neither skittish Roland nor chilly Maud could possibly anticipate the romantic closure that Byatt has in store for them. More interestingly, their discovery of their love for each other mirrors their discovery of Ash and LaMotte's romance in surprising and complex ways. As they doggedly follow the paper trail of this Victorian love affair, they unintentionally arrive at the postmodern Edenic site of promising union, ultimately awakening together to a world that "had a strange new smell. It was the smell of the aftermath, a green smell, a smell of shredded leaves and oozing resin, of crushed wood and splashed sap, a tart smell, which bore some relation to the smell of bitten apples" (551).

Yet Byatt's novel escapes easy classification as either romance-infused postmodern or a post-modern-infused romance. While Ash and Christabel's relationship doubtlessly blossoms into romance, Roland and Maud's relationship reaches a more complex end (an end we could more accurately call a beginning). Byatt complicates their love for one another largely through the motif of possession. For these two scholars, the possession of knowledge is one way in which they establish coherence in the world. As they study Ash and LaMotte's love letters, they construct a narrative of their romance and discover the influence of this relationship on their poetry. In this sense, Roland and Maud willingly heed the drive to know, to find out what really happened between these two Victorian poets. Byatt suggests that this will to know is more fundamental to humanity than even sex, something Roland admits when he and Maud are about to discover Ash and LaMotte's letters.

Roland lifted the lid on a bare casket. There were empty arched pigeonholes at the back, fretted and carved, and two empty little drawers. He felt unable to tap and tug at the framework. He felt unable to urge the unbuckling of the trunk. He felt as though he was prying, and as though he was being uselessly urged on by some violent emotion of curiosity -- not greed, curiosity, more fundamental than even sex, the desire for knowledge. He felt suddenly angry with Maud, who was standing stock still, in the dark, not moving a finger to help him, not urging, as she with her emotional advantage might well have done, further exploration of hidden treasures or pathetic dead caskets. Sir George said, "And what in particular might you expect to find?" Roland did not know the answer. [92]

In this passage, Roland aligns his sexual with his intellectual drive. He expects Maud, soon to be his lover, to help and urge him along towards the impending discovery of the letters. It's as if he cannot become a complete or accomplished scholar without first uniting romantically with Maud. His possession of knowledge is thus intimately linked to sexual possession (i.e. of Maud), and these forms of possession in turn lend coherence to his professional and personal lives. As the plot unfolds, it becomes more and more evident that Roland and Maud's romance is predicated upon their common, human will to know. Together they discover their own romance alongside that of Ash and LaMotte, despite the fact that, "Coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable" (456).

Discussion Questions

Why would Byatt present the pursuit of knowledge as more fundamental than sex? Does Maud share Roland's will to know? Why is this drive essential to their scholarly work?

Roland's understanding of the relationship between literary achievement and love curiously echoes Aurora Leigh's conception of poetry and marriage. Just as Aurora needs to marry Romney in order to become a true artist, Roland seems to require a romantic union with Maud in order to become a true scholar. What does this formulation tell us about Byatt's view of art versus scholarship? Could we argue that Randolph and Christabel's poetic achievements are similarly predicated upon love? Do they require a romantic union in order to flourish as artists? What is different about their romance from that of Aurora and Romney?

If Roland and Maud are so determined to discover coherence in the Ash/Christabel affair, then why is it problematic that they do not know about Ash's meeting with his daughter? that they do not know of things "that happened and leave no discernible trace," that "are not spoken or written of" (552)?

Why would Byatt want us to compare Roland and Maud's romance to that of Randolph and Christabel? Are they both in fact romances? If Roland and Maud's story ends with the potential for a new yet uncertain beginning (i.e. in the suggested postmodern garden of Eden), then what does Byatt ultimately think of romance as a literary genre? Is Possession guilty of nostalgia? If not out of nostalgia, why do contemporary authors like Byatt in this novel and Swift in Waterland reconfigure Victorian literature and social behavior?


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

Last modified 5 April 2004