Fantasies of (Re)collection: Collecting and Imagination in A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance

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Author: John J. Su
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2006
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,456 words

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[(essay date winter 2004) In the following essay, Su examines the theme of collecting in Byatt's Possession.]

More than fifteen years after its initial publication, Robert Hewison's The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline (1987) continues to shape how scholars think about the social consequences of heritage in Great Britain. Hewison argues that the postwar obsession with museums, country houses, and other forms of heritage points to "the imaginative death of this country" (9). While he grants that the impulse to preserve and collect material traces of the past is perfectly understandable in light of postimperial realities of economic and social decline, Hewison insists that the burgeoning "heritage industry" neither preserves the past nor provides guidance for a nation struggling to envision its future. Rather, it stifles the possibility for creative change by establishing an idealized past as the model for what Great Britain should be. The dangers presented by heritage, in Hewison's account, are even greater than those recognized by the two most prominent studies on the subject prior to his own, Patrick Wright's On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain and David Lowenthal's The Past Is a Foreign Country. The national preoccupation with the memorabilia of former glory establishes "a set of imprisoning walls upon which we project a superficial image of a false past" (139), Hewison argues, and these "walls" limit the potential for Britons to rethink their identities and goals in the face of the so-called "decline of Britain."

In this essay, I will read the fascination with collectors and collecting in A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance (1990) in relation to two theoretical questions that Hewison's analysis provokes: (1) Can heritage or other forms of memorabilia ever assist in the imagination of more satisfying social roles and identities? and (2) Can collecting material traces lead to an accurate or truthful depiction of the past? Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel represents one of the most popular and critically acclaimed examples of the widespread fascination with collecting apparent in contemporary British fiction. This fascination can be traced back to the 1963 publication of John Fowles's The Collector and figures subsequently in a range of novels including Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot (1984) and England, England (1998), Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton (1987), Bruce Chatwin's Utz (1988), and Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry (1989). Within these texts, characters are drawn to collecting in response to frustration with their class positions and social identities more generally. Not all of these novels share Hewison's pessimism about memorabilia, however; Possession, in particular, suggests that collecting can in certain instances help individuals to imagine alternative identities. By reading Byatt's novel with respect to the two questions above, I hope both to understand better the fascination with collecting in postwar British fiction and to complicate Hewison's account of the social implications of the postwar rise of heritage.1

The conflicting attitudes toward heritage presented by Byatt and Hewison can be read in terms of broader debates among theorists of postmodernity and globalization...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100072513