Now for the next installment of the #readbyatt readalong with Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness! When we last left our scholars, Maud and Roland, they were both somewhat miserable, but they were on the brink of discovering something great about the two poets they study: Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. They discovered that the two poets not only knew each other, but were possibly in love and probably influencing each other’s work. Juicy stuff for scholarship on Victorian poets that hasn’t changed in eighty years or so.
This section was more primary source than narrative. Chapter 10 is an epic back and forth between RH and Christabel, where they go from platonic letter-writing friends to being scandalously in love. It’s very well-done, though there were parts that were difficult to get through, the payoff is worth it.
There are poems and letters and biographies of the fictional poets that are all interspersed throughout the main narrative featuring Roland and Maud. I mostly enjoy the story when it focuses either on Christabel and RH together or Roland and Maud together. The rest I enjoy less, like the biographies of RH or the sections that focus on other scholars.
I am interested in the way Byatt seems to focus her descriptions of the women on their physical appearance. She spends so much time talking about how large Beatrice Nest, a scholar who studies RH Ash’s wife, is. Take this passage:
If people thought of Beatrice Nest — and not many did, not very often — it was her external presence, not her inner life that engaged their imagination. She was indisputably solid, and nevertheless amorphous, a woman of wide and abundant flesh, sedentary swelling hips, a mass of bosom, above which spread a cheerful-shaped face […]. (125)
In fact her thoughts about her own sexuality were dominated entirely by her sense of the massive, unacceptable bulk of her breasts. […] Another woman might have flaunted them, might have carried them proudly before her, moulded grandly about a cleavage. (130)
I don’t know what to make of these passages, honestly. I can’t think of a male character that is described in such detail in connection with their physical appearance, other than the descriptions of Maud’s hair. Which is another passage I’d like to leave here for consideration:
Maud put up her hands to her head, and hesitated between unpinning the brooch and pulling off the whole head-binding. Finally, awkwardly for her, she did both, putting the scarf on the counter, and then unpinning its carefully constructed folds and handing the large black knobby thing to the old woman, who trotted away to hold it up in the dusty light from the window.
Roland looked at Maud. The pale, pale hair in fine braids was wound round and round her head, startling white in this light that took the colour out of things and only caught gleams and glancings. She looked almost shockingly naked, like a denuded window-doll, he first thought, and then, as she turned her supercilious face to him and he saw it changed, simply fragile and even vulnerable. He wanted to loosen the tightness and let the hair go. He felt a kind of sympathetic pain on his own skull-skin, so dragged and ruthlessly hair-pinned was her.s Both put their hands to their temple, as though he was her mirror. (282)
I bring up both of these passages because they seem to uncommonly focus on physical appearance in a way that other portions of the book do not. Since I think that Byatt is doing something very intentional here, I’m going to leave them for now without passing judgment. It was just something I happened to notice.
It’s really too soon for me to have any sort of opinion at all, other than am I enjoying it or not and the answer is yes, I am. But I did find a few more lines and passages that I thought were noteworthy:
A moth’s wing scaly like a coat of mail,
The sharp hooked claws upon the legs of flies –
I saw a new world in this world of ours –
A world of miracle, a world of truth
Monstrous and swarming with unguessed-at life.
– from Swammerdam, by RH Ash (223)
And after that — a rain — of Ash —
Ash the sheltering World-Tree, Ash the deadly Rain
So Dust to Dust and Ash to Ash again —
I see whole bevies of shooting stars — like gold arrows before my darkening eyes — they presage Headache — but before the black — and burning — I have a small light space to say — oh what? I cannot let you burn me up. I cannot. I should go up — not with the orderly peace of my beloved hearth here — with its miniature caverns of delight, its hot temporary jewel-gardens with their palisadoes and promontories — no — I shall go up — like Straw on a Dry Day — a rushing wind — a tremor on the air — a smell of burning — a blown smoke — and a deal of white fine powder that holds its spillikin shape only an infinitesimal moment and then is random specks — oh no I cannot —
– a letter from Christabel to RH (213)
Our next section is Chapters 14-19 for next Monday. I hope to see you there! As I mentioned last week, please be sure to leave the link to your #readbyatt posts and I’ll be sure to include them at the bottom of this post. What did you think of Chapter 10? Do you have a favorite character yet? Were there any quotes that you loved? Hated?