It's hard not to sympathize with Beatrice Nest, the twentieth-century Ellen Ash scholar who roosts in a corner of the "Ash Factory" and slowly works away at a study of Ellen Ash's journals. Life has turned her into a kind of mother hen, but for years she's had no students left to nurture and help to grow.
Dr. Nest is the product of a university education in the early twentieth century—a time when women students and scholars were often patronized and treated condescendingly by the institution itself, as well as excluded from the important goings-on of departmental life. As Beatrice says to Maud Bailey when the younger woman comes to visit her office:
"I don't think you can imagine, Miss Bailey, how it was then. We were dependent and excluded persons. In my early days—indeed until the late 1960s—women were not permitted to enter the main Senior Common Room at Prince Albert College. We had our own which was small and slightly pretty. Everything was decided in the pub—everything of import—where we were not invited and did not wish to go. I hate smoke and the smell of beer. But should not therefore be excluded from discussing departmental policy." (12.117)
Most of Beatrice's academic work has revolved around the life of Ellen Ash, and Possession's narrator makes it clear that the male-dominated status quo of the early twentieth-century university helped to put Beatrice on that path. She had actually wanted to work on the poetry of Randolph HenryAsh but was steered towards the great poet's wife instead, since that was seen as a more fitting subject for a woman scholar (7.4)
As A. S. Byatt remarks in an interview with Philip Hensher: "Beatrice was of the generation who was told that because she was a woman she must work not on Randolph Ash, but on Ellen Ash—it's disgusting to want to work on Randolph, he was a man." Can you imagine?
Luckily for Beatrice, her work on Ellen Ash hasn't been totally tedious. She feels real sympathy for her subject, and the two women actually share a couple of important things in common. Both women are celibate, though for different reasons: Ellen, because of her Victorian terror of sexual intimacy, and Beatrice because she has always felt hugely uncomfortable with her own body. As Possession's narrator tells us:
In fact her thoughts about her own sexuality were dominated entirely by her sense of the massive, unacceptable bulk of her breasts. […] She imagined herself grotesquely swollen, looked modestly down and met no one's eye. (7.12)
Beatrice and Ellen also share another thing in common: their love for Randolph Henry Ash, of course. When Possession's twentieth-century heroes gather together near the end of the novel to discuss their plans for thwarting Mortimer Cropper, they meet in Beatrice's apartment. There, Maud notices that Beatrice keeps a photo of R. H. Ash on a "little secretaire," "where those of father or lover might have stood" (27.2). Talk about loving your work.
Like Leonora Stern, Beatrice Nest is an important figure of female power in Possession. Both women are characterized as having large bodies, and even larger bosoms—something that makes us think of traditional mother-goddess imagery—and both women bear certain resemblances to classical goddesses and folksy witches.
Whereas Possession's narrator paints Leonora as an exotic figure (for starters, she's American), Beatrice is made to seem much more homespun. In the novel's climactic graveyard scene, she bursts onto the scene like a druidic priestess from Arthurian legend:
Cropper spun round, and the beam of the other's flashlight revealed, peering through the branches, like bizarre flowers or fruit, wet and white, Roland Mitchell, Maud Bailey, Leonora Stern, James Blackadder, and with streaming white woolly hair descended, like some witch or prophetess, a transfigured Beatrice Nest. (28.78).
In the same interview with Byatt that we quoted above, Philip Hensher goes so far as to say that Beatrice is "[t]he central figure," and "the avenging angel of the book." Byatt agrees, and adds that Beatrice is also "both Dante and Beatrice"—that is, she is both the traveller who makes their way through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, and she is the loving guide who helps to bring the traveller through.
So, whereas Possession's early chapters make it seem as though Beatrice should simply be pitied, by the end of the novel, she's really come into her own.