Study Guide

Randolph Henry Ash in Possession

By A.S. Byatt

Randolph Henry Ash

Handsome, charming, and more than a little susceptible to smart women who like good poetry, Randolph Henry Ash is, in his own way, just as enigmatic as Christabel LaMotte.

As with Christabel, there are certain things that Possession's twentieth-century scholars know about R. H. Ash by the time the novel concludes, and there are a handful of extra things that only we readers get to learn. But there are also other things that none of us will ever know about Randolph Henry Ash—unless one of you readers has access to the Tardis, that is.

When we first "meet" Ash, the image we get of the celebrated nineteenth-century poet is one of a reserved, faithful husband who devoted his life to knowledge and art. As the novel's narrator tells us:

He [Roland Mitchell] thought he knew Ash fairly well, as well as anyone might know a man whose life seemed to be all in his mind, who lived a quiet and exemplary married life for forty years, whose correspondence was voluminous indeed, but guarded, courteous and not of the most lively. Roland liked that in Randolph Henry Ash. He was excited by the ferocious vitality and darting breadth of reference of the work, and secretly, personally, he was rather pleased that all this had been achieved out of so peaceable, so unruffled a private existence. (1.22)

Roland's certainly wrong about the "unruffled" part, as he's about to learn. By the end of Possession, we know that Ash was capable of far more passion, spontaneity, anger, and excitement than Roland or anyone else had ever assumed.

Roland Mitchell, Version 1.0

Randolph Henry Ash is in his mid-forties when he meets Christabel LaMotte and falls in love with her, and Possession's narrator describes him like so:

He was a handsome man, with a flowing head of very dark brown hair, almost black but with russet light in its waves, and a glossy beard, a little browner, the colour of horse-chestnuts. His brow was expansive, the organ of intellect well-developed, though he was equally well-endowed with the bumps of compassion and fellow-feeling. He had black brows, a little rough and craggy, under which very large dark eyes looked out at the world steadily enough, fearless but with something held in reserve. (15.2)

Readers might be forgiven for assuming that Randolph Henry Ash looks a lot like Roland Mitchell would look if Roland suddenly decided to grow out the facial hair of a nineteenth-century man. Both men have dark hair and eyes, and, like Randolph, Roland's face reflects his kindness, gentleness, and compassion.

Given the fact that we readers also know—by the novel's end—that Randolph Henry Ash is Maud Bailey's great-great-great-grandfather, we might also be forgiven for trying to find some of her physical characteristics in his face too. We can spot at least one in this passage: "The nose was clearcut and the mouth firm and settled—a face, one might think, that knew itself and had a decided way of taking in the world" (15.2). Possession's narrator also describes Maud as having "clearcut features" (4.12), and the narrator doesn't use the same term when describing Christabel LaMotte.

That's some food for thought.

Ask Us about Ash

Like many of Possession's characters, Randolph Henry Ash has been given a symbolically meaningful name. His surname, "Ash" is one of the multiple points of connection that the novel draws between him and the Norse figure "Ask," whose name refers to the ash tree (source).

In Norse mythology, Ask and Embla were the first man and woman. Randolph Henry Ash certainly knew their story, and we know this because the love poems that he wrote about his love affair with Christabel LaMotte are called the Ask to Embla poems. By giving his poems that title, A. S. Byatt not only gives us a crystal-clear clue to the significance of Ash's name but also lets us know that Randolph himselfwas aware its significance as well.

'Til Death Do Us Part

On his deathbed, Randolph Henry Ash remarks to Ellen Ash, his wife of more than forty years, that not many husbands and wives could boast of having gone "[f]orty-one years with no anger" (25.44). No doubt.

Because Randolph and Ellen Ash were both private people, we don't know a whole lot about their married life. That said, we know a little bit more than Possession's twentieth-century scholars do.

The most important factoid that we know is that Randolph and Ellen have never been sexually intimate. We're never told exactly why that is—you can take a gander at Ellen Ash's character study if you'd like to see what we do know—but the novel's narrator does make it clear that it's because of Ellen's preferences, not Randolph's.

This knowledge raises an interesting question for us that Possession's twentieth-century scholars would never think to ask—namely, the question of whether or not Randolph Henry Ash had everbeen sexually intimate with anyone before his love affair with Christabel LaMotte. We don't any explicit information one way or another, but as Randolph gets ready to spend his first night with Christabel, here's what he thinks about:

He thought of his hopes and expectations and the absence of language for most of them. There were euphemisms, there were male group brutalities, there were books. He did not want above all, to think at this time of his own previous life, so he thought about books and walked up and down by that sharp-smoky fire of seacoals and remembered Shakespeare's Troilus:

'What will it be
When that the wat'ry palate tastes indeed
Love's thrice ruptured nectar?' (15.64-65)

This passage doesn't give us any hard-and-fast information to go on, but it's certainly suggestive.

One's thing's for sure: whatever Randolph's previous sexual experience was before his love affair with Christabel, Possession doesn't go in for any Apatow-style "if you don't use it, you lose it" jokes.

Portrait of the Artist as a Not-So-Young Man

In one of the first drafts of his first letter to Christabel LaMotte, Ash describes himself as "a middle-aged and somewhat disparaged poet" (1.15). Randolph would have been about forty-four or forty-five years old at the time, and he was already an established writer. As we readers know from Mortimer Cropper's biography of Ash, before his mid-thirties, he had composed:

28,369 lines of verse, including one twelve-book epic, 35 dramatic monologues covering History from its dimmest origins to modern theological and geological controversy, 125 lyrics and three verse dramas, Cromwell, St Bartholomew's Eve, and Cassandra, unsuccessfully performed at Drury Lane. (6.48)

Not long before meeting Christabel LaMotte, Ash had published a book of "dramatic poems" called Gods, Men and Heroes, which "had not, contrary to Ash's hopes and perhaps expectations, found favour with the reviewers, who had declared his verses obscure, his tastes perverse and his people extravagant and improbable" (1.19). Yikes. And they say the critics killed Keats.

Whatever his nineteenth-century reviewers may have thought, however, there's no denying that Ash's writing made a solid place for him in literary history. As James Blackadder explains to Shushila Patel when she asks him why Ash is so important, twentieth-century scholars consider him to be "a central figure in the tradition of English poetry" (20.60). In fact, Blackadder even goes so far as to say that "[y]ou can't understand the twentieth century without understanding him" (20.60).

And what exactly did Randolph Henry Ash write about? All kinds of things. Ancient history. Contemporary history. Religious faith and religious doubt. Mythology. Love. Geology. Insects. Biology. Microscopes. Astronomy. You name it, he wrote about it. Asthe novel's narrator tells us, Ash had an "elastic mind and memory" (1.2). He was intellectually curious and imaginative, and, most of all, he was fascinated by "how individual people at any particular time saw the shape of their lives—from their beliefs to their pots and pans" (20.66).

That last one is a particularly important aspect of Randolph Henry Ash's interests, because Possession itself is very similar. Like Ash, it's doing its best to understand how individual people at certain points in time—say, the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and the late twentieth century—understand the shapes of their own lives. Not only that, but the novel also affirms and celebrates Ash's belief that it's possible for writers to understand and represent history truthfully through poetry and fiction.

With this in mind, it's possible to see that Randolph Henry Ash isn't just Roland Mitchell's nineteenth-century counterpart—he's A. S. Byatt's counterpart, too.

Literary Models

A. S. Byatt has admitted that the real-world nineteenth-century poet Robert Browning was one of her models for Randolph Henry Ash, but she's also explained that she didn't want Ash to be too much like Browning, because she wanted to leave herself enough "freedom to invent" (source). As she says, she also had Thomas Carlyle in mind (source), and we can see the influence of Alfred, Lord Tennyson too.