[This post was first published on the Fifty Special Books blog created by the Department of English to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Victoria. Contributors were asked to name a book that had special significance to them, provide a photo of the book or a photo of themselves reading the book, quote a passage from the book, and explain why it was meaningful to them.]
Associate Professor, English
Affiliation with UVic English: Faculty; Alumni, B.A. Hons. 1992
Special Book: Possession, A. S. Byatt
When did you first read this book: July 1993
Which sentence from this book has special significance for you?
“There are things which happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.”
What does the sentence mean to you?
I first read Possession in the summer between my M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Queen’s University. I loved the way this literary detective story unfolded through archival discoveries, semi-autobiographical Victorian poetry, transcriptions of letters and journals, and historical fiction. I became an early modernist, not a Victorianist, but, in retrospect, I can see that the story of a number of modern-day scholars competing and collaborating to discover the truth about nineteenth-century literary figures had a profound influence on my research practices. My training did not cover archival research or paleography … but I was determined to study records and letters. Eventually, I set off for England armed with a basic knowledge of Elizabethan Secretary and a romantic notion that I would change literary history by digging in the archives, just as Roland Michell and Maud Bailey did in Possession. Of course, I discovered very quickly that the records of early modern England are richer than I’d ever dreamed, and partial in ways that are both fascinating and frustrating. Finding out why people and institutions record certain things in certain ways became an obsession. It was the very partiality of literary history that ultimately interested me. Every record seemed haunted by “the things which happen and leave no discernible trace.” I wondered constantly about the unrecorded lives and events that changed the course of history, the books that have disappeared from our cultural history, the irretrievable responses of readers and playgoers, the complex lives of individuals whose dreams and desperation survive only in a line recorded by a clerk. These lines from _Possession_ came back to me as I worked; they reminded me that the past humbles the scholar, but they also legitimated a certain conjecture and imagination. Without an omniscient narrator to tell us of that profound encounter, we have to dream it ourselves even if we can never prove it. And perhaps it’s that desire for an omniscient narrator that makes me a literary critic rather than a historian.