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POSSESSION

The Victorian Era
Working on Possession, Neil LaBute had initially approached the Victorian era with particular images in mind, based on films and literature of and about that era. Which, he explains, is precisely why he "had to be careful to not just emulate but rather re-interpret the era: the flashbacks had to be filtered through a modern sensibility. Every time we go to the past in Possession, we're not just cutting back to another story, but we are playing out a discovery that Roland and Maud have made in the present and are now imagining what that would be."

Jennifer Ehle feels that the Victorian era has long been "treated as a heightened romantic period, probably more than it actually was."

Indeed, the Victorian era, which has been romanticized over time, was a period full of social change and crisis. Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, which in advancing his theory of natural selection dealt a blow to the Victorians' religious faith, and created a climate of uncertainty that pitted science against religion.

Isobel Armstrong, a Professor of English at the University of London (and to whom A.S. Byatt dedicated Possession) notes, "During this period, people were questioning evolution and determining social philosophies. The incipient upheavals that create the world of the next century are already beginning to operate at this time. Byatt is so good at writing about this time because she intuits this upheaval which is going on under the surface and is about to break out."

Yet Armstrong feels that the Victorian characters have a freedom that the modern characters cannot access: "Ash and LaMotte feel and express, and explore and think about, desire in a way that the modern characters cannot. Once you establish the knowingness about sexuality that modern culture does, then you cannot tap mysterious emotions and powerful feelings around sexuality. At the start of Possession, Roland and Maud have ceased to believe in the power of passion and they have to go back to the past in order to rediscover it. Their counterparts have more of a capacity for risk-taking than they do.

"The fascination of researching the Victorian period is that it is unrelated to us in the sense that today we can talk about issues that the Victorians could not. Where they could not discuss sexuality, bodies, and a whole range of related subjects, Byatt's modern characters can. Indeed, they are almost fatigued and bored by sexuality and lives in which everything is liberated and open. They look back to a past where everything is closed, muffled, and concealed — and they're fascinated by it."

Along those same lines, Victorian poetry is of modern interest because it was written at a time of social repression. As Gwyneth Paltrow points out, "The poetry is heartfelt and deep within the confines of what was acceptable sociologically at the time. You find that the lyrical depth and beauty of the poetry seems to provide a way of setting themselves free."

LaBute says, "Poetry still has the potency as a form to express. But we're not brought up to look at it with the same value as before — when people read it for pleasure, to be moved, and to have artistic freedom. I think the power remains, it just depends if we allow it to sweep us away."

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