The Enclosed Space in Possession

Marta Cobb '97 (English 168, 1996)

Byatt offers many contrasting views of the enclosed space in Possession, both in myth and in daily life, but she always portrays it as an exclusively feminine place. The women of the Drowned City of Is exist under "a skin/Of moving water" (149). The Victorian poetess Christabel shares a house with her friend Blanche from which the two seldom emerge. Even Maud, a modern scholar, lives in her pristine apartment and works in her tower office. In fact, most of the women of Possession -- Val, Beatrice Nest, Ellen Ash, Lady Bailey -- exist in one or two separate spaces that define them. The men, such as Roland, Ash, or Cropper, roam more freely. When they venture into an enclosed space occupied by a woman, they become intruders. Ash, telling of his visit to Christabel's house writes, "I think your house did not love me and I should not have come" (216). Beatrice Nest perceives Roland, entering her office with a scholarly inquiry, as a "persecuto[r]" (131). Two notable exceptions to this theory of gender are Leonora Stern, the feminist scholar, and James Blackadder. Leonora, perhaps through her bisexuality, possesses a strange sort of freedom that none of the other women have. She, of all women, is the most assertive and the most sexually aggressive. Despite her feminism and her majestic appearance, she unsettles women, especially Maud, in the same way that a man would. James Blackadder, in contrast, seldom leaves his office in the hellish "Ash Factory." He forms an interesting foil for Leonora, describing himself as a "dusty barman" next to a "peacoc[k]" (436). In this metaphor he becomes the dull-colored peahen compared to her display of boldness and color. Later, when she proposes a sexual encounter, he refuses because he does not feel "strong enough" (464). With Leonora as a female aggressor he plays a masculine passive. In this way Byatt oddly reverses more typical gender relations.

One of the many themes running throughout the text is women's opposing desires for enclosure and freedom. In the many included texts of letters, poetry, and stories, Byatt creates two images of women possessing these conflicting desires. The first image is the incarcerated sorceress, the subject of one of Ash's poems. She emerges when Maud and Roland discus thresholds:

"I wrote a paper on Victorian women's imagination of space . . . About agoraphobia and claustrophobia and the paradoxical desire to be let out into unconfined space, the wild moorland, the open ground, and at the same time to be closed into tighter and tighter impenetrable small spaces -- Like Emily Dickinson's voluntary confinement, like Sibyl's jar."

"Like Ash's sorceress in her In-Pace."

"That's different. He's punishing her for her beauty and what he thought of as her wickedness."

"No he isn't. He's writing about the people, including herself, who thought she ought to be punished because of her beauty and wickedness. She colluded with their judgment. He doesn't. He leaves it to our intelligence" (61).

Despite women's desire for open space in Victorian fiction and reality, the enclosed space, although claustrophobic, offers safety because of its tightness and impenetrability. In this space a woman does not have to fear losing herself. Byatt later goes on to suggest that, although the enclosed space has altered, women of the present possess the same propensity for enclosure; this desire frequently conflicts with their need to live and love freely. The sorceress, a figure like Vivien from Arthurian legend, has lived freely. Her enclosure, whether voluntary or forced, becomes a punishment for her beauty and power. Neither scholar makes it clear if the sorceress could leave her "In-Pace" if she wants. Perhaps she remains imprisoned because she agrees with those who wish to see her punished. The drowned city of Is forms another example. This city of women, ruled by the sorceress Dahud, sinks beneath the waves to punish "it's wickedness" and Dahud's "perversions" (148). The image of the woman punished for her power repeats over and over again throughout the text.

Byatt also uses another other image, just as common in fairy tales and mythology -- the princess in the glass coffin. Christabel LaMotte writes of this princess in one of her strange fairy tales. Forced into a death-like sleep by an evil enchanter, she lies still until the hero, a humble tailor, finds her:

.But then between the fronds he saw a face, the most beautiful face he could have dreamed or imagined . . . Her gold hair lay around her like a mantle, but where its strands crossed her face they stirred a little with her breathing, so that the tailor knew she was alive. And he knew -- it is always so, after all -- that the true adventure was the release of this sleeper who would be his grateful bride (71).

Unlike the sorceress who possesses power, the princess in the coffin is passive, waiting to be set free from her enclosed space. What she thinks when she lies in her coffin -- what she dreams, whom she hopes will come rescue her, if she even wants to be rescued -- does not matter. Until someone comes to free her, she only has enough life in her body to keep her from dying. A man will liberate her and the price of her liberation is sexuality in the form of marriage "-- it is always so, after all." We take this portrayal of the woman, so common to fairy tales, for granted. Obviously, although she knows her readers do, LaMotte does not, hence her wry comment. LaMotte combines the contrasting images of princess and sorceress in her epic poem The Fairy Muselina. Initially, she resembles a typical fairy princess needing rescue from her solitude. The hero, a wandering knight, finds her singing to herself by a lonesome fountain and makes her his wife. Later, when he breaks her command and spies on her in her bath, he discovers that she has a semi-serpentine body. She "has two aspects -- an Unnatural Monster -- and a most proud and loving and handy woman" (191). Her half-human, half-snakelike body represents her split nature and her failure to fit within the usual fairy-tale roles.

Unfortunately, women outside myths and fairy-tales frequently do not resemble either the princess or the sorceress, but have traits of both. For them, the decision to escape or to remain in the enclosed space is never uncomplicated. Christabel LaMotte and her modern counterpart Maud Bailey form a clear example. LaMotte meets the poet Ash, and a mutual attraction, strengthened by their impassioned correspondence, quickly develops. Yet from the beginning she fears what she perceives as an intrusion into her carefully established solitude. As she writes:

Oh, sir, you must not seek to ameliorate or steal away my solitude. It is a thing we women are taught to fear -- oh the terrible tower, oh the thickets round it -- no companionable Nest -- but a donjon.

But they have lied to us you know, in this as in so much else. The Donjon may frown and threaten -- but it keeps us very safe -- within its confines and we are free in a way you, who have freedom to range the world, do not need to imagine. I do not advise imaging it -- but do me the justice of believing -- not imputing mendacious protestation -- my Solitude is my Treasure, the best thing I have. I hesitate to go out. If you opened the little gate, I would not hop away -- but oh how I sing in my gold cage (152).

Even though she was taught to fear solitude, Christabel treasures it. In her eyes, the "terrible tower," or the glass coffin, becomes a refuge. In seclusion, she and Blanche have security and freedom that they would not otherwise have, a space for their mutual friendship and their art. Men, because they have the "freedom to range the world," do not need to create such spaces for themselves. Women, who lack this freedom, must create these little refuges in which they can enjoy a strange sort of captive liberty. If Ash attempts to enter or to ease her solitude, she will not resist, but he threatens the fragile freedom she has carved out for herself. The princess, as Blanche calls her, does not want to be kissed into wakefulness and pulled into the outside world. She wants to sing, like Muselina, in her lonely space, her golden cage. The Christabel who lives in Bethany house seldom leaves home, accept to walk her enormous guardian Dog Tray, and almost never receives visitors. Her hands always seem encased by "white kid gloves" (298-9) and her feet in "a gleaming pair of laced boots" (299). Everything about her, even her delicate verses, possesses a restrained quality. Yet this confinement also limits her talents. "Could the Lady of Shalott have written Muselina in her barred and moated tower?" Ash asks her in a letter (206). His words do not lack truth, for Christabel only begins writing her epic when she has left her golden cage behind.

When she and Ash go to Yorkshire, many of these constraints fall away. That first night, when Ash joins her in the bedroom, he finds her in the bed, covered in the bedclothes and a "high-necked white lawn nightdress, covered at neck and wrists with intricate goffering and pin-tucks and lacy edges, buttoned with a row of minute linen buttons" (307). Her gown, covered with elaborate decorations, conceals her entire body. Ash also notes her discarded crinoline, "a kind of trembling collapsed cage" (307-8). One confinement has replaced another, but this quickly disappears as well. Ash never sees the white nightdress again; "she must have bundled [it] away" (310). In Yorkshire, Christabel suddenly roams freely outdoors, marching "indomitably over the moors, the crinoline cage and half her petticoats left behind left behind, the wind ruffling her pale hair" (310). For that month of their liaison, Christabel escapes her golden cage and experiences freedom in the same way that Ash does, outside its confinement. Her epic takes place in the spot where she knew that freedom.

That month of freedom has grave consequences for Christabel and upon the life she left behind. She becomes pregnant, and while she has her child in secret, Blanche commits suicide. One of her reasons for her act is a "failure of ideals" (333):

We believed it was possible to live frugally, charitably, philosophically, artistically, and in harmony with each other and Nature. Regrettably, it was not. Either the world was too fiercely inimical to our experiment (which I believe it was) or we ourselves were insufficiently resourceful and strong-minded (which I believe was also so, in both cases, and from time to time) (333).

Christabel's sexual relationship with Ash pulls her free of her enclosure, but it also destroys the space she had created for herself. She left willingly enough, but she cannot go back. The gilded cage and the safety it offered, once abandoned by its tenants, collapses upon itself and the harmony that she and Blanche had once enjoyed, disrupted by the correspondence between the two poets, shatters completely. LaMotte spends the rest of her life living with her sister, a self-titled "old witch in a turret" (543). Her seclusion, once a treasure, becomes a curse. Her poetry, even the epic which Ash encouraged her to write, goes unread and her child, adopted by her married sister, does not love her. Despite all the pain and passionate emotions, however, she does not much regret her relationship with Ash, but she will always have questions about what might have been. As she writes in her final letter to her lover, "If I had kept to my closed castle, behind my motte-and-bailey defences -- should I have been a great poet -- as you are?" (545). Or is it true, as Ash suggested, that poets who live in seclusion cannot write great poetry? He managed to live a productive life after their love ended. Why did the relationship effect her far more drastically than it effected him? She will never have any answers, nor does Byatt offer any to the reader. In many ways Christabel has, as she feared, caught fire, and now, at the end of her life she has little more than ashes. She can only find comfort in the knowledge that "if there must be a Dragon -- that He was [Ash]" (546). Her peaceful life could not go on uninterrupted forever, but at least she loved its destroyer.

Maud Bailey, a modern day scholar, faces problems similar to Christabel's. Although she has a career and prestige in her chosen field, her office in the tower and her pristine apartment create an enclosed space for her as Bethany house did for Christabel. Working with Roland on the LaMotte-Ash correspondence, she comes to question her not only her assumptions about her ancestress, but her refuge as well -- her "bright safe box" where she "work[s] alone" (151). When Roland stays in her apartment, she faces a strange predicament, if he leaves, the room will be "grey and empty" but if he does not, "how c[an] she concentrate?" (467). Roland's presence violates her space and interferes with her ability to work, but without him her once bright room becomes a gloomy place. As with Christabel, desire destroys the peace and beauty of the enclosed space. As she admits to Roland at the end of their scholastic adventure:

I feel as she did. I keep my defences up because I must go on doing my work. I know how she felt about her unbroken egg. Her self-possession, her autonomy. I don't want to think about that going (549).

Loving Roland threatens her precious autonomy and her ability to do her work. At the same time, she feels what she feels and she does not want to deny it. Strangely, Roland does not perceive that the relationship threatens his own career. The ending, although positive, does not make it clear if they do actually find "a modern way," (550) as Roland phrases it, to resolve their feelings and careers without letting love become "a wrecker" (550). Certainly their forbears came to little success. Perhaps that's why Byatt chose to end where she did, this way, she can avoid the question of what becomes of them.

United Kingdom Overview