Study Guide

Christabel LaMotte in Possession

By A.S. Byatt

Christabel LaMotte

Who was Christabel LaMotte, deep down? What do we really know about her?

Even though Possession's twentieth-century characters have learned a lot of new things about Christabel LaMotte by the time the novel draws to a close, and even though we readers have learned quite a few more, she remains an enigmatic character. Possession doesn't let us forget that there's a lot we may never know about Christabel. Some secrets, the novel suggests, will always stay lost in the never-ending shuffle of history.

Generic Victorian Lady, Specific Shy Poetess

When Roland Mitchell first sees a photograph of Christabel LaMotte, he sees a woman who's "dressed in a large triangular mantle and a small bonnet, frilled inside its rim, tied with a large bow under her chin" (4.11). As the novel's narrator tells us:

Her clothes were more prominent than she was, she retreated into them, her head, perhaps quizzically, perhaps considering itself 'birdlike', held on one side. She had pale crimped hair over her temples, and her lips were parte to reveal large, even teeth. The picture gave no clear impression of anyone in particular; it was generic Victorian lady, specific shy poetess. (4.11)

We readers get a much more lively description of Christabel when the novel's narrator whisks us back to the summer of 1859, when Christabel accompanied Randolph Henry Ash on an expedition to North Yorkshire. As the narrator describes the two nineteenth-century poets sitting together on a train, we read:

The lady was dressed elegantly if not in the first flight of fashion; she wore a grey-striped muslin dress over which she had cast an Indian shawl with marine-blue and peacock paisleys on a dove-grey ground; she had a small grey silk bonnet, under the brim of which appeared a few white silk rosebuds. She was very fair, pale-skinned, with eyes, not unduly large, of a strange green colour which transmuted itself as the light varied. (15.3)

Reading this, savvy readers should be noticing the correspondences that A. S. Byatt is drawing between Christabel LaMotte and Maud Bailey. When Roland first meets Maud, she's wearing a scarf that she has wound around her head like "a turban of peacock-feathered painted silk" (4.12). Remind you of anyone's "Indian shawl"?

Now, let's zoom in and see what else Possession's narrator has to say about Christabel's appearance: "She was not exactly beautiful—her face was too long for perfection, and not in the first flush of youth, though the bones were well-cut and the mouth an elegant curve, no pouting rosebud. Her teeth were a little large for an exacting taste, but they were strong and white" (15.3).

Here, we start to see some differences between Maud and Christabel. Whereas Maud's face is so beautiful that she thinks of it as a "doll-mask" (4.164), Christabel's face is less perfectly proportioned and symmetrical. With that said, the two women do share their pale skin and their light golden hair. It's pretty clear that we're meant to draw connections between them throughout the novel.

For yet another example, let's take one final look at what Possession's narrator tells us here: 

Everything about her was both neat and tastefully chosen, breathing no hint of extravagance, but betraying no signs of poverty or skimping to the curious eye. Her white kid gloves were supple and showed no signs of wear. Her little feet, which appeared from time to time as the carriage movement displaced the large bell of her skirt, were incased in a gleaming pair of laced boots in emerald green leather. (15.3)

Now we're back to fashion choices that Christabel shares in common with Maud. When Roland first meets Maud, she's wearing "long shining green shoes" (4.12). So, okay, Byatt, we get it. Maud and Christabel are connected. But what's with these ladies and green footwear? Read on to find out.

The Fairy Melusina

In one of Sabine de Kercoz's journal entries, Christabel LaMotte's Breton cousin decides to vent some of her anger toward her pale, green-eyed visitor. With more than a little venom, Sabine writes:

I hate her smooth pale head and her greeny eyes and her shiny green feet beneath her skirts, as though she was some sort of serpent, hissing quietly like the pot in the hearth, but ready to strike when warmed by generosity. She has huge teeth like Baba Yaga or the wolf in the English tale who pretended to be a grandmother. (19.256)

How's that for family affection.

Apart from giving us a taste of her own imagination, Sabine's journal entry is important because it draws our attention to the imagery that Byatt is bringing into play through her characterizations of Christabel. As Sabine suggests, Christabel's emerald green boots make it seem as though the lower half of her body is serpentine. But although Sabine is inclined to think of her cousin as a snake, we readers are much more likely to realize that Christabel's boots make her look like a mermaid, or the fairy Melusina.

As we know from Fergus Wolff, Melusina: 

"was a fairy who married a mortal to gain a soul, and made a pact that he would never spy on her on Saturdays, and for years he never did […]. And in the end, of course, he looked through the keyhole—or made one in her steel door with his sword-point according to one version—and there she was in a great marble bath disporting herself. And from the waist down she was a fish or a serpent, Rabelais says an 'andouille', a kind of huge sausage, the symbolism is obvious, and she beat the water with her muscular tail." (3.51)

Throughout Possession, Christabel is repeatedly associated Melusina. Not only is she writing an epic poem about the legendary figure, but she also thinks of Melusina as a woman like herself, who sacrifices her perfect solitude for love, and, in the end, has cause to regret her decision.

Christabel is interested in all of the various facets of the fairy Melusina: to her, the creature was both a monster and a fertility goddess, both powerful and frail (10.90-91). In the same way, we readers are asked to recognize all of Christabel's various and at times contradictory aspects: her love of solitude and her passion for R. H. Ash; her determined Christianity and her impulsive entry into a disastrous love affair; her probable lesbianism and her belief that her relationship with Randolph was a "necessity" (15.13).

You can trust us on this one, Shmoopers: Christabel LaMotte isn't the kind of woman who fits easily into a box.

The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name

Possession's twentieth-century feminist scholars have long assumed that Christabel LaMotte was a lesbian and that she and Blanche Glover lived together happily as romantic partners. But when the Ash-LaMotte correspondence comes to light, Leonora Stern remarks that LaMotte was apparently not a lesbian-feminist poet "exclusively" (27.75).

If we readers wanted to assign labels using today's terminology—a practice that Possession's narrator tends to avoid, thought the academic scholars in the novel don't exactly shy away from it—we might say that Christabel LaMotte was bisexual rather than "exclusively" lesbian. That's the tack that the writers of Possession's film adaptation take, and it makes a lot of sense.

With that said, the fact is that the true nature of Christabel LaMotte and Blanche Glover's relationship never comes to light with 100% certainty in Possession. The novel gives us certain hints and clues that suggest that the two women were probably lovers, but it never confirms that theory for sure.

Not only does this raise compelling questions about Christabel's sexuality, but it also raises some thorny, equally compelling questions about the novel's sexual politics. On the one hand, it's easy to imagine Christabel as having a complex sexual identity—to see her as someone who created a lesbian home in the midst of nineteenth-century England's patriarchal and heterosexual society, and as someone who still managed to find herself swept away by a love affair with a man.

On the other hand, pop culture has given us the stereotype of the lesbian who "turns," or is "cured," when she meets an appropriately charming/handsome/unusually attractive man, and so it's easy to see why many of Possession's readers might find Christabel's narrative arc frustrating, or even infuriating.

When it comes right down to it, Possession's many-layered mythical and allegorical patterns consistently emphasize the significance of heterosexual pairings. The love affairs between Christabel and Randolph and Maud and Roland seem to echo the patterns established by Adam and Eve, Ask and Embla, Merlin and Vivien, Pluto and Proserpine, Dahud and Gradlon, and, of course, Melusina and Raimondin. These recurring patterns of romantic love between men and women don't leave much room for visions of meaningful same-sex partnerships.

With all of this in mind, interpreting Christabel's sexuality—and its significance—can be pretty tricky. What do you think, Shmoopers? What meanings do you gather from her sexuality and sexual relationships?

Literary Models

Byatt has said that Christina Rossetti was one of her real-world models for Christabel LaMotte, but she's also made it clear that Christabel isn't meant to be Christina Rossetti. Just as Byatt used more than one model for Randolph Henry Ash, she also left herself "freedom to invent" Christabel in whatever ways she needed and wanted to (source).

Apart from Christina Rossetti, Christabel also shares certain similarities with Elizabeth Barrett Browning (source) and Emily Dickinson (source). And, of course, there are also elements of Christabel that come purely from Byatt's own imagination, conjured up to create a character that we can recognize as being unique and whole, rather than simply a patchwork of various nineteenth-century women.