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Penning Secrets: Presence and Essence of the Epistolary Genre in A. S. Byatt's Possession Lucile Desblache THE FRAGMENTED NATURE of our post-modern lives has been reflected in literature: at a semantic level, the message often explodes into opposing and corresponding layers of narratives, while classification eludes creative writing through a complex remodelling of genres and subgenres . More than ever, this approach requires of writing imaginative power, skillful control and literary scholarship. A. S. Byatt's virtuosity of writing has always been impressive, but in the piece of work for which she was awarded the Booker Prize in 1990, Possession, it was simply dazzling. The underlying concern with the nature of possession winds its theme through the variations of dependency in love, repression of passion, professional rivalry, supernatural powers and the obsession of biographers and academic writers with the object of their study. The book proposes a multi-layered plot through the present world of scholars, whose ruthlessness in achieving recognition is made apparent when new information about a nineteenth-century poet emerges. Possession is therefore conceived on this double temporal axis of past and present, but in spite of apparent dissociations, a unity in time is created by the fact that the modern day academics' professional concerns are anchored in the nineteenth century. Moreover , A. S. Byatt weaves complex and moving interpersonal stories, which respond to each other beyond and across time, the passionate love affair between the Victorian poet Randolph Ash and the poetess Christabel LaMotte showing echoes in the burgeoning relationship of Roland Michell and Maud Bailey (a distant descendant of Christabel). So many angles can be perceived in a piece of work of this scope: the critique of Victorian poetry, the satire of the world of scholars, the inclusion of symbols, myths, legends and fairy-tales to name but a few. Nevertheless, I propose to pinpoint this short study to a very specific aspect of this masterpiece: the presence and role of letters in the work. Let us begin with considering the multiple array of text types, genres and sub-genres through which the author weaves a network of intellectual and emotional discourse. To start with, the novelist entitles Possession a romance, clearly with the intention of freeing the book from the set textual boundaries that another genre may have imposed. In a quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne appearing as an epigraph, she suggests that "when a writer calls his work a romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a cerVol . XL, No. 4 89 L'Esprit Créateur tain latitude, both as to its fashion and material." In addition to freeing fiction from the ties of the novel, this loose classification also seduced her "in the attempt [of the genre] to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us."1 This is not however where her originality shows, but rather in the textual patterns of symmetries and contrasts, which she creates in constructing an excitingly polymorphous structure. Traditional third-person narratives or dialogues are combined with poems, excerpts from diaries (Blanche Gover's, Ellen Ash's and Sabine de Kerkoz's journals, as well as some autobiographical passages from Mortimer Cropper and Crabb Robinson ), critical texts, biographical notes, fairy tales, newspaper articles and, of course, letters. Apart from a few quotations2 this intertextual maze is, in fact, pure fiction shaped by Byatt into an alchemy of form. From epistle to epic, each genre plays its part in the architectonic balance of the writing and is associated with different angles of discourse. A. S. Byatt deliberately acts as a "reconstructive angel"3 in underpinning the work with Victorian poetry, though setting it in the era of post-deconstruction. Different tastes in poetry seem to preempt VaI and Roland's separation, as similar ones bind Randolph and Christabel into lifelong love. Most chapters start with a "quoted" poetic excerpt introduced as an epigraph that jolts Ash and LaMotte's presence out of fiction into the illusion of reality and familiarises the reader with "their" work. But let us now concentrate on the epistolary mode, which concerns us here. As I suggest in my title, the presence of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 89-95
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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