Study Guide

Maud Bailey in Possession

By A.S. Byatt

Maud Bailey

When a smarmy ex-boyfriend describes you as the kind of woman who "thicks men's blood with cold" (3.59), you know you're doing something right.

Unlike the nightmare of "Life-in-Death" that appears in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner",

"Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold."

—Maud Bailey isn't really a terrifying portent of death. She's just a rad feminist scholar who's a little bit twitchy about sexual and emotional intimacy. And can you blame her? All her life she's been used to people treating her "as a kind of possession," as "a property or an idol," because of her icy good looks (28.171-73). Who wouldn't be a little cautious if that was going on?

Ice Queen

We'll say one thing for Maud's ex-boyfriend, Fergus Wolff: when he compared Maud to a literary nightmare, at least he got the color scheme right.

Like the nightmare of "Life-In-Death" in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Maud has very white skin and very blond hair. Her hair has been a particularly troublesome part of her life, as she explains to Roland Mitchell once the two of them have gotten to know each other: "It's the wrong colour, you see, no one believes it's natural. I once got hissed at a conference, for dyeing it to please men" (14.71).

After getting "hissed and cat-called" by her sister feminists, who assumed, incorrectly, that her hair was "the seductive and marketable product of an inhumanely tested bottle" (4.164), Maud shaved it off completely. While she was dating Fergus, she grew it out to convince him that she wasn't so easily intimidated by other people's opinions, but since breaking up with Fergus, she's worn it "always inside some covering, hidden away" (4.166). That's why, when Roland meets her, she looks like this:

She was dressed with unusual coherence for an academic, Roland thought, rejecting several other ways of describing her green and white length, a long pine-green tunic over a pine-green skirt, a white silk shirt inside the tunic and long softly white stockings inside long shining green shoes. […] He could not see her hair, which was wound tightly into a turban of peacock-feathered painted silk, low on her brow. Her brows and lashes were blond; he observed so much. She had a clean, milky skin, unpainted lips, clearcut features, largely composed. She did not smile. (4.12)

Maud's face has given her some trouble, too. When we first catch a glimpse of Maud getting ready for bed, this is what the novel's narrator has to say:

She brushed fiercely, supporting the fall, and considered her perfectly regular features in the mirror. A beautiful woman, Simone Weil said, seeing herself in the mirror, knows 'This is I.' An ugly woman knows, with equal certainty, 'This is not I.' Maud knew this neat division represented an over-simplification. The doll-mask she saw had nothing to do with her, nothing. (4.164)

So, yeah, Maud might be a little standoffish around the men and women who pursue her romantically, but wouldn't you be, too, if people kept mistaking you for a beautiful doll that they'd like to possess?

Professor Maud

Unlike Roland Mitchell, whose career prospects seem pretty dim at the beginning of Possession, Maud is a successful academic at the top of her game. Along with Leonora Stern, she's one of the world's two leading scholars of Christabel LaMotte, and it's thanks to her that the Women's Resource Centre at Lincoln University houses so many LaMotte materials.

Like Leonora Stern, Maud is a feminist scholar, and her own methods combine psychoanalytic theory and old-fashioned textual scholarship. Unlike Leonora, Maud has reservations about some of the things that other feminist scholars seem to take for granted. She isn't a fan of digging into the "private lives" of the women writers she studies (12.11), and as she confesses to Beatrice Nest, she doesn't love the fact that feminist scholarship has to pay so much attention to sex and sexuality:

"The whole of our scholarship—the whole of our thought—we question everything except the centrality of sexuality—Unfortunately feminism can hardly avoid privileging such matters. I sometimes wish I had embarked on geology myself." (12.128)

Still, don't think for a minute that Maud isn't committed to the cause. She may not agree wholeheartedly with some of the nitty-gritty, but she's in it for the long haul all the same.

Motte-and-Bailey

"Maud Bailey" might sound like a pretty common name, but it's actually full of literary and symbolic significance.

We're given a hint to the significance of Maud's first name when the novel's narrator remarks, in Chapter 18, that Maud's "namesake" is "icily regular, splendidly null" (18.66). Who might that namesake be?

Look no further than the title character of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Maud, who also has "a cold and clear-cut face," and is "perfectly beautiful," "[f]aultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null." In the first part of Maud, the poem's speaker calls for Maud to "come into the garden" and taste the joys of life. As Possession suggests, Maud Bailey's aloofness is preventing her from experiencing all that life can bring.

And what about her surname? On its own, "Bailey" might not mean much, but if you put the surnames "LaMotte" and "Bailey"together, you get something pretty close to the term "motte-and-bailey". The motte-and-bailey defense system was an early European form of military fortification that consisted of a walled-in castle on a hill (the motte), a deep trench, and another wall surrounding an outer perimeter (the bailey). Pretty clever, right?

By giving Christabel LaMotte and Maud Bailey surnames that are two halves of one term, A. S. Byatt gives us a pretty clear clue that these two characters are connected. And what else connects these two ladies? Their reluctance to give in to emotions and sexual desires. They put up a pretty great defense.

Now, get ready for a major spoiler, Shmoopers, because we're about to let you in on the little secret that rocks Maud Bailey's world as Possession draws to a close.

When Maud first meets Roland Mitchell, she tells him that she has a family connection to Christabel LaMotte. As she says, her great-great-grandmother, May Bailey, was Christabel LaMotte's niece, which would make Christabel Maud's great-great-great-aunt (4.27-29).

Except not.

What Maud doesn't know—though she discovers it later—is that Maia Thomasine Bailey, or "May" Bailey, as she liked to be called, wasn't Christabel LaMotte's niece at all, but Christabel's daughter instead. That means that Christabel wasn't Maud's great-great-great-aunt: she was her great-great-great-grandmother! Talk about having to re-draw the family tree.

Bringing Sexy Back

It wouldn't be fair to sum up Maud without saying a few more words about her thoughts on sex and sexuality.

Like Roland Mitchell, Maud fantasizes about complete independence and self-possession. She even shares the exact same fantasy of the "clean empty bed in a clean empty room, where nothing is asked or to be asked" (14.28). When she discovers the love affair between Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash, she isn't swept away by the romance of it all. Instead:

Part of her [is] dismayed that Christabel LaMotte should have given in to whatever urgings or promptings Ash may have used. She preferred her own original vision of proud and particular independence, as Christabel, in the letters, had given some reason to think she did herself. (13.14)

Despite Maud's reservations about sex, love, and romance, Possession ruthlessly brings its two would-be-celibate heroes together rather than letting them live out their fantasies of solitude. We readers have no way of knowing how long their relationship will last or how it'll end, but hey, at least we know that they'll both be happy to give each other space when they need it.