• Kendra Fields

"Resurrecting the Voices of the Past:" How Literary Allusions Make Dead Authors Breathe Again

Updated: Jan 28

How Byatt's Literary Allusions Prove her Point of the Immortality of Authors

One writing tool an author has is known as literary allusion-the decisive choice to reference another author's text within their own primary work. In essence, literary allusions add another dimension to texts as they guide readers to bridge the gap between two literary works in order to provide additional layers to characters/places. In her novel Possession, A.S. Byatt generously peppers her text with literary allusions to both real historical writers and to her own made-up poets. For example, Byatt alludes to the fictional works of her characters R.H. Ash and Christabel LaMotte with the excerpts of their works at the beginning of each chapter in her novel. Yet she also alludes to real Romantics, a common characteristic Victorians also followed, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Byatt doesn't just allude to real authors as people, but she also includes details from their work into her narrative. One prime example of this is the character Christabel. If you are like me, you also probably didn't recognize this allusion until R.H. Ash directly asks LaMotte in a letter if she was named after Coleridge's poem. Samuel Taylor Coleridge indeed did start to write a poem titled "Christabel" yet never finished the piece for reasons unknown. But once this common connection with the name Christabel is known between Byatt and Coleridge, it is then up to the reader to decide just exactly why the author references this other work. In this case, why did Byatt name her fictional poetess after an unfished Coleridge poem?

While I argue that there are several reasons why Byatt may have chosen this poem to name her character after (please see my Resource page if you are curious about my own curiosity with this shared name of Christabel), Byatt's general use of literary allusions do not just add character layers, but they also serve the purpose of her overall theme of the immortality of authors. This theme of immortality of authors, or rather how each time a person reads a literary text they give new life to the author, is not only depicted through the whole plotline of Roland and Maud chasing the letters and retracing the lives of Ash and LaMotte, but it is also present during the letter correspondences between Ash and LaMotte themselves.

Here is my evidence for asserting that Ash and LaMotte are conscious of their immortality as writers based on their letters included in chapter ten:

-Ash writes about how he imagines those authors he reads and then he comments,

"It seems important that these other lives of mine should span many centuries and as many places as my limited imagination can touch. For all I am is a nineteenth-century gentleman plumb in the midst of smoky London-and what is peculiar to him is to know just how much stretches away from his vanishing pin-point of observation-before and around and after-whilst all the time he is what he is, with his whiskered visage and his shelves full of Plato and Feuerbach, St Augustine and John Stuart Mill" (Byatt 174).

Note how Ash as a poet seems conscious of the fact that he will be imagined by future readers in the same way he imagines the great writers he reads. He seems to understand the possibility that readers and biographers will depict him a certain way whether it is true or not based on their imagination.

-Lazarus is a a key figure they discuss. Yet again this another literary allusion not just to Ash's character Lazarus in his poem but also to the real biblical figure (real as in the Bible does have a person named Lazarus in it). For those who are not familiar, Lazarus is a man who comes back to life days after his death. This theme of resurrection, of the ability to be alive once again, mimics the idea of how authors' works also give new life to authors after they are dead.

-Ash calls LaMotte "my Phoenix" (214). A phoenix is a mythical bird which is reborn about of its own ashes, and is therefore another example of a resurrecting figure.

-Cropper literally brings Ash back to the land of the living when he unburies his grave to rob it at the end of Byatt's novel.

With the constant trail of literary allusions, from biblical and fairytales to the Romantics, Byatt's work itself becomes an example of how novels keep other authors alive. Even if the reader has not read the referenced work, the allusion still might spark the reader's interest to research more about the other text. In short, literary allusions offer authors another way to continue living when their original work become obsolete. Allusions allow a rebirth of interest in their work, and the new readers will provide a new life for dead authors.

Byatt, A.S. Possession. Vintage Books, 1990

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