Brash, bold, and talkative, Leonora Stern sweeps into Possession like a mythical mother goddess. As the novel's narrator tells us, she's "a majestically large woman, in all directions," and her "expansive presence" tends to fill whatever space she enters (18.21). When she arrives in Lincoln to visit her colleague and friend Maud Bailey, Maud remarks that she could feel her coming "across the Atlantic, like a warm front" (18.17).
One of the world's two leading scholars on Christabel LaMotte—Maud is the other one, natch—Leonora is Maud's opposite in many ways. Whereas Maud has white skin and extraordinarily light blond hair, along with a frosty disposition to boot, Leonora is olive-toned, has "a mass of thick black, waving hair," and is extremely extroverted (18.21). Plus, while Maud tends to keep mum about her sex life and sexual preferences, Leonora loves to talk about hers. This American scholar has none of Maud's stereotypically English repression when it comes to that.
A. S. Byatt's characterization of Leonora does include a number of racial and cultural stereotypes. Here's a sample description of her:
She had an olive skin, with a polished sheen on it, an imposing nose, a full mouth, with a hint of Africa in the lips, and a mass of thick black, waving hair, worn shoulder-length and alive with natural oils—the sort of hair that would clump and gather in the hands, not fly apart. She wore several barbaric, but obviously costly, necklaces of amber lumps and varied egg-shapes. Round her head was a silk bandeau, a half-tribute to the Indian bands of her hippy days at the end of the Sixties. She originated in Baton Rouge and claimed both Creole and native Indian ancestry. (18.21)
Reading this, we might start by wondering how someone can have a hint of an entire continentin their lips, and we might also take note of Byatt's use of the word "barbaric" to describe Leonora's jewelry. Given the fact that Leonora has been given both African and indigenous ancestry—and is the only significant character in Possession who's characterized explicitly as a person of color—that word ought to ring a few alarm bells. The fact that Leonora is also the most obviously sexualized of all of Possession's characters—with the possible exception of Fergus Wolff—will probably ring a few more.
Leonora is the only one of Possession's women characters who is openly lesbian, though she doesn't ever use that term to describe herself. If she did, she would probably use it in the sense that certain second-wave feminists used it—that is, to describe a deliberate, political choice to foster intimate relationships with women rather than with men.
Leonora has been married twice, to two different men, and, as far as we know, it was only after her second marriage that she started to date women. She may not date women exclusively, though: after all, she invites James Blackadder to bed during their trip to Brittany in search of Roland and Maud.
As with most characters in Possession, Leonora's sexuality and sexual identity aren't easily defined. Readers today may be inclined to call her bisexual—as they might also call Christabel LaMotte—but the novel itself avoids getting into specifics. Ultimately, it might be said that Leonora's sexuality is less important for who she is as a character, and more important for how it makes Maud feel.
Why's that? With Leonora, Possession employs the homophobic stereotype of the predatory lesbian—the fox among the chickens, if you will. During her visit with Maud, she attempts to seduce her unwilling host, and is mighty insistent about it. Here's the scene:
Maud put the lids back, mopped up the puddles, had a shower between curtains redolent of Opium or Poison, and had just climbed into her cool bed when Leonora appeared in the doorway, largely naked except for an exiguous and unbelted crimson silk dressing-gown.
"A good-night kiss," Leonora said.
"You can. It's easy."
Leonora came to the bed and folded Maud into her bosom. Maud fought to get her nose free. Loose hands met Leonora's majestic belly and heavy breasts. She couldn't push, that was as bad as submitting. To her shame, she began to cry. (8.71-75)
Remember how in Pitch Perfect, Esther Rose gets side-eyed whenever she's caught looking at one of her fellow Bellas? Remember that scene where Stacie blows a rape whistle over and over as Esther Rose tries to save her from the catfight that's erupting? Same stereotype. What's more, it's same choice to make the predatory lesbian a larger-bodied woman of color.
What should we make of this?
Bearing these stereotypes in mind, it's also possible to see that Leonora is meant to parallel and be a feminine counterpart to Fergus Wolff. Both characters have much more sexual confidence and are more sexually active than Maud, and both pursue Maud in ways that she finds threatening. It's not for nothing that Leonora is the total opposite of Maud physically, after all.
In fact, both Leonora and Fergus help to draw attention to the qualities that make Roland such an ideal partner for Maud: his meekness, the fact that he doesn't make passes, and the fact that he's not only happy to give her space but also craves that space himself.
Fortunately, Leonora isn't exactly the same as Fergus, and her friendship with Maud is strong enough to withstand their differences. In the end, she plays an instrumental role in helping to thwart Mortimer Cropper, and she also does her part to make sure that the Ash-LaMotte correspondence stays in England. Like Beatrice Nest, she's one of Possession's archetypal goddess/priestess/witch/powerful woman figures, and although her presence is sometimes overwhelming or threatening, she is, ultimately, a beneficent figure and a mighty ally.
Maybe that's why Byatt sneaks in the subtle detail that her maiden name was "Champion" (18.21).