Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I admit that I had never heard of Rebecca West until sfp at Pages Turned wrote about her. What many already know is that West was a brilliant writer. I quickly realized this after reading only a few pages of her books. Then I read that she had an affair with H.G. Wells at the age of 19 and they had a son together. However, Wells was still married. His wife reportedly knew of the affair, but chose to ignore it. At this time, I was reading Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau and by coincidence, A.S. Byatt's Possession. The turning point came when I began to see similarities between Byatt's Victorian romance and the real life Wells-West relationship.

In Possession, Randolph Henry Ash, a famous poet and writer in Victorian England begins a secret affair with Cristobel LaMotte, also a gifted writer, but supposed lesbian. At the time, Ash and LaMotte were writing epic poems and stories based on old British and Breton myths. It was a world of fantasy, shadows and metaphors, similar to modern science fiction that Wells was writing of. Now, I have no idea if any of this makes sense, but I enjoy finding these little nuances in novels and trying to discover if they have any relation to anything real.

Ash and LaMotte have this affair which produces a child, just as Wells's and West's did. Though LaMotte has the child in secret and gives it up for her sister to raise, there was a child. Also, LaMotte's lover Blanche tells Ash's wife that Cristobel and her husband are having an affair. Ash's wife chooses to ignore this news and continues to live her life with Ash as if nothing happened. This was similar to Wells's wife's knowledge of his fairly public affair with West and her choosing to remain with him.

And the last thing that struck me as interesting is that though West was well known and respected in her time, Wells is certainly the more famous writer of the duo. West is still read and studied, but nowhere near on par with Wells. In Possession, it is Ash that retains the fame and notoriety, while LaMotte becomes a subject for select scholars. Byatt may have simply been following the all too familiar path of women writers through history...neglect.

These are possibly only mere fancies I've created. Mere coincidences, not probabilities. But Byatt is a scholar of the Victorian and she would certainly have known about Wells and West, as many already do. Wouldn't it then be possible that she had this love affair in the back of her mind as she began writing Possession? I don't know and it probably doesn't matter in the end, but it added layers to the novel that I would have glanced over, were it not for the real life similarities.

4 comments:

Ella said...

West is a wonderful writer, head and shoulders (in my opinion, anyway) above Wells. If you haven't read "The Return of the Soldier", it's a great piece to start with - very 'Turn of the Screw'.

M. Barresi said...

She is definitely one of my main TBR authors. After I get through Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I'm moving on to Wilkie Collins and West. At least that's the plan...

Dorothy W. said...

Very interesting stuff here! You make me want to read Possession again. And I agree with Ella -- West is a much better writer than Wells.

M. Barresi said...

I enjoyed Possession, but wasn't thrilled with it. It has made me want to read another Byatt book, so I hope Possession isn't considered her best.