MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 668-692
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Historical Repetition and Cultural Reflection in A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance
Giambattista Vico's The New Science, an eighteenth-century treatise on historical social theory, 1 makes an early appearance in A. S. Byatt's novel Possession, as the volume between the leaves of which the main character, a young literary scholar named Roland Michell finds the first titillating letters from one fictional Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, to another, Christabel Lamotte. The reasons for this initial mention seem plain enough: Vico was interested in the creative power of language not only to reflect reality, but also to shape it, an idea important to Roland's eventual discovery of his poetic vocation. Furthermore, The New Science proposes a repetitive model of history, with each generation mirroring those that have come before, much as the twentieth-century character, Roland and his fellow academic Maud Bailey, openly resemble their nineteenth-century predecessors, Ash and Lamotte. As exemplary postmodern citizens, Roland and Maud are discouraged by the inauthentic junk and venality of their times, and beset by anxieties about ideology, language, and sexuality unleashed by contemporary theory, which figures prominently in their professional lives. In the process of comparing themselves [End Page 668] to their nineteenth-century counterparts, they confirm their impressions that their own culture, for all its advances, has actually regressed into a state of paralyzing skepticism with regard to intellectual curiosity, artistic endeavor, and interpersonal relations.
The reference to Vico's work does more, however, than provide an element of thematic circularity and a basic pattern for the plot; it suggests a kind of "master code" whereby we can better interpret the complex project underlying Byatt's apparently contradictory text. On the one hand, Possession vividly depicts Western postmodern culture and adheres to some of its hallmark fictional techniques. The novel clearly qualifies as what Linda Hutcheon calls "historiographic metafiction," using a high degree of literary self-consciousness to focus readers' attention on the inevitable processes of fabrication and interpretation involved in reconstructing historical events in narrative form. In addition to its thematization of historiographic issues, Possession openly parodies other literary forms, most notably detective and romance novels, throwing into ironic relief some of the accepted "master narratives" of Western culture; Jackie Buxton notes this "generic pastiche" (200) as further proof of Byatt's postmodern style.
On the other hand, Byatt ostensibly favors an idealized conception of nineteenth-century England, and overlays her plot with traditional literary conventions that ultimately seem to undermine the novel's contemporary form and content. In this respect, Possession frustrates the same critics who applaud its postmodernism. For instance, Frederick Holmes discerns an abrupt reversion to "the discredited metaphysics of a Romantic idealism" ("Historical Imagination" 319) in Roland's sudden discovery, near the end of the novel, of his poetic ability, a discovery that brings with it a vivid sense of the power of words to describe and re-create the world. Holmes notes that
It is important to acknowledge that the liberation provided by Roland's imagination from the [. . .] sterility of his intellectual sophistication is never satisfactorily accounted for in rational terms. It is not clear how he overcomes the post-structuralist positions on language, authorship, and identity. His claim that some signifiers are concretely attached to signifieds is simply asserted, not argued for [. . .] . It would seem, then, that Roland's dramatic alteration is validated by the very sort of emotional [End Page 669] or existential experience that critical theory has conditioned him to dismiss as insubstantial. ("Historical Imagination" 330)
This "metamorphosis," which Holmes finally labels "problematic" ("Historical Imagination" 330) and "ambiguous" (Historical Imagination 73), seems to mark a final capitulation to a nostalgic impulse in the novel that has been barely held in check to that point, the same impulse that paints the nineteenth century as vibrant in contrast to the desolate present. Buxton, too, is troubled by this aesthetic "epiphany," which she sees both as "modernist-inflected" (215...