Study Guide

Ellen Ash in Possession

By A.S. Byatt

Ellen Ash

Who was Ellen Ash, deep down?

In some ways, Randolph Henry Ash's wife is just as mysterious to us as his lover, Christabel LaMotte. Possession's twentieth-century scholars have decades' worth of her journals, but as we readers know, those journals contain a very selective representation of Ellen's life. If she were alive today, she'd be killing it on social media—she'd know exactly what information to reveal and what to hold back in order to give herself the exact public appearance she'd want.

Here are some things we know for sure about Ellen Ash:

  • She married R. H. Ash in 1848, when she was thirty-six years old.
  • R. H. Ash had begun courting her when she was twenty-one.
  • She and Randolph went their entire married lives without ever being sexually intimate.

A. S. Byatt has remarked that one of the real-world models for Ellen Ash was Jane Carlyle, the wife of Thomas Carlyle, who, as Byatt says, "was found to be virgo intacta when examined after a traffic accident" (source). We readers never learn exactly why Ellen and Randolph were never intimate, but we do know that their shared abstinence came about because of Ellen's intense fears. She remembers their honeymoon this way:

A thin white animal, herself, trembling.

A complex thing, the naked male, curly hairs and shining wet, at once bovine and dolphin-like, its scent feral and overwhelming.

A large hand, held out in kindness, not once, but many times, slapped away, pushed away, slapped away.

A running creature, crouching and cowering in the corner of the room, its teeth chattering, its veins clamped in spasms, its breath shallow and fluttering. Herself.

Ellen remembers these scenes with "horror" (25.160), and we learn that Ellen spent her married life trying to compensate for whatever it was that made sexual intimacy so terrifying to her. She thinks to herself of "[t]he eagerness, the terrible love, with which she had made it up to him, his abstinence, making him a thousand small comforts, cakes and titbits" (25.173). As the novel's narrator tells us:

She became his slave. Quivering at every word. He had accepted her love.

She had loved him for it.

He had loved her.

Among the short list of things that we know for sure about Ellen Ash is the fact that she was devoted to Randolph, and she remained devoted to him even after she learned about his affair with Christabel LaMotte. Unlike Blanche Glover, Ellen refuses to cause a scandal when she learns of the affair, and instead she simply goes on with her daily life. In her old age, it's also Ellen who makes sure that Christabel's final letter to Randolph is preserved for posterity, despite the fact that she can't bring herself to read it—or, in the end, to give it to Randolph himself.

We readers also know that Ellen Ash was good at other things besides household management and cake-making. As her journal entries make clear, she was an astute and insightful reader, and she had a sure eye for the strengths and weaknesses of both Ash's and Christabel LaMotte's writing. When we get a taste of Ellen's skills as a literary critic, it's not hard to see that even if she and her husband were sexually incompatible, they had lots of other things going for their relationship instead.

Toward the end of the novel, R.H. Ash remarks: "Forty-one years with no anger. I do not think that many husbands and wives can say as much" (25.44). Randolph and Ellen may not have had the kind of burning sexual passion that Randolph found with Christabel, but it seems clear that the Ashes had something else that was even more important to them both.