Possession Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-21


Fergus Wolff questions Blackadder about Roland's whereabouts, hinting that Roland might be pursuing some discovery involving Christabel LaMotte along with Maude. When Blackadder has no information, Fergus moves on to Val, who is also unsure about Roland's location or plans. She becomes more interested when Fergus mentions Maud, confirming that Maud has called several times. Val gives Fergus the phone number she was instructed to use in case of an emergency, which Fergus calls. The number turns out to belong to George Bailey, who is brusque with him, but does inadvertently confirm that Maud and Roland have been pursuing information related to Christabel. Meanwhile, Cropper meets with Hildebrand Ash, who will inherit after the current Lord Ash (who is elderly and frail) dies. Cropper nurtures Hildebrand's ambitions of greatness in order to lay the groundwork for future access to items related to Ash. By chance, Fergus runs into Cropper and tells him that Roland has discovered some letters connecting Ash and Christabel, which piques Cropper's interest.

Maud is determined to find out how Christabel spent the year between her trip to Yorkshire and Blanche's suicide, and begins by reviewing Blanche's suicide note. Ash seems to have spent the year uneventfully at his home in London; there are references to Christabel having been away at the time of Blanche's death, but no one knows where, or how long she had been gone for. Maud is interrupted in her work by the arrival of Leonora Stern, who is very affectionate with her. Leonora has received a letter from a French scholar named Ariane Le Minier, which Maud translates for her. Ariane has been working on a little-known French writer named Sabine de Kercoz, who was a distant cousin of Christabel's. Ariane has recently come across a letter from Sabine which seems to indicate that Christabel visited her family in France in the autumn of 1859, and she includes a copy of the letter. In the letter, Sabine describes the sudden and unexpected arrival of Christabel, who also seems to be experiencing ill health. Leonora Suggests that it would be worthwhile to travel to France to see what other documents Ariane has, and suggests that she and Maud go together. Maud vaguely defers, but is agitated by Leonora's presence, and anxious to get away. She telephones Roland, but Val answers the phone angrily. The next day, she phones Blackadder, but he doesn't seem to have any contact with Roland.

Cropper travels to Seal Court to visit George Bailey, saying that he knows George may be in possession of some letters related to Ash. George at first denies this, but becomes more interested when Cropper tells them how much money the letters could be worth. Cropper leaves his card, encouraging George to contact him if he is interested in discussing selling the letters. Angrily, George seeks out Maud to accuse her of having deceived him by not revealing the value of the letters, especially when she knew how much the money could have benefitted the couple. Maud is distressed, mostly because Leonora is intrigued by what he is so angry about, and she desperately wants to avoid revealing her discovery. Back in London, Blackadder receives a phone call from a lawyer named Byng, seeking an evaluation of the letters and hopes of a counteroffer. Blackadder is sure that Cropper has already bid on the letters, and is frustrated knowing he won't have the funds to match the offer. He is determined to find out what Roland has been up to. Paola quickly calls Roland to warn him that Blackadder knows about the letters, and is going to seek him out.

Desperate, Roland calls Maud; they both know the story is about to come out, and that Blackadder, Cropper, and Leonora are all going to feel betrayed and angry. They make an abrupt plan to go together to France to look at the documents held by Ariane and try to learn more about what Christabel did in France. Maud will lie and tell Leonora she is going away with a lover; Roland will give the impression he is leaving Val, so no one will look for him at their flat. A short time later, they are en route to France together. Once they arrive, they meet with Ariane, who has uncovered a private journal kept by Sabine during the time Christabel visited. She has made them copies, and Roland and Maud settle into a hotel near the ocean where they read the journal.

The journal begins in October 1859; Sabine has hopes of being a writer, and Christabel has encouraged her to keep a journal as a way of honing her skills. Sabine has lived a quiet life with her widowed father but is ambitious and excited at the arrival of a cousin with wider experience and literary abilities. At first, Christabel is very cool and reserved, but she gradually warms to Sabine, and even offers her feedback on her writing. However, Sabine gradually becomes jealous and suspicious that Christabel and her father might be falling in love. She distances herself from her cousin, until she realizes, on Christmas Eve, that Christabel is pregnant. She tries to tell Christabel that she knows her secret, but is rebuffed, so she goes to her father instead. He, however, says that Christabel has also refused to speak with him about her condition or her plans, and he thought it best to leave her alone. In late April, Christabel abruptly vanishes, causing everyone distress as they search for her. The family suspects she might be at a nearby convent but no one admits to having seen her. Christabel returns in early May, having given birth, but refuses to answer any questions about what happened to the child. The journal ends in May, with Sabine describing Christabel receiving a letter that seems to alarm her, and which she does not open.

Meanwhile, Cropper is feeling pressured to get the letters before Blackadder can access them. He turns a scheduled lecture in London into a high profile event and announces there that letters have been uncovered revealing an affair between Ash and LaMotte. He also uncovers an item from his own archive related to Christabel: a letter from her to Priscilla Penn Cropper, in which Christabel reveals that she attended a séance hosted by Mrs. Lee. This is significant information because Ash is known to have attended a séance hosted by the same medium where he caused a scene by revealing some of the tricks being used to simulate the impression of communicating with the dead. It is possible that both attended the same event. One potential source of information about this is an autobiography by Mrs. Lee. Cropper tries to obtain this, but Blackadder is already exploring this possibility. Mrs. Lee's account describes reluctantly agreeing to allow Ash to attend a séance at which a group of people, including Christabel, were present. He disrupts the session, and then causes a further scene by demanding of one of the women present "What happened to the child?" After Ash is ushered out, Mrs. Lee is distressed and confused, especially by the bitter and sarcastic poem he later writes about mediums and seances.

As Blackadder struggles to determine whether there's any way he can find funds to buy the letters, he is contacted to speak on a news program about the recent discovery. He is surprised to find that Leonora is also being interviewed, as an expert on Christabel, but they bond when she coaches him on how to present successfully. Afterwards, they continue their conversation with Leonora providing her theory about where she believes Maud has gone. The narrative breaks with Ash's poem about the séance.


In this section, the threat of other scholars learning about Maud and Roland's quest and interfering with it becomes increasingly urgent. While Fergus was mostly motivated by spite, curiosity, and jealousy, Cropper becomes genuinely obsessed with being the one to uncover the mystery and gain possession of the letters. While Maud and Roland don't really have any greater claim to the quest, other than Maud's family lineage connecting her to Christabel, Cropper is portrayed as malevolent: someone who is driven by his own ego rather than curiosity and a desire for knowledge. As Maud and Roland increasingly muddy ethical lines by, for example, using Leonora's information for their own ends, they are not necessarily any better than Cropper, but Byatt clearly pits them as the heroes and Cropper as the villain, prompting the reader to become more invested in the race against time.

Roland and Maud's need to act hastily and avoid detection from the other scholars hot on their trail prompts them to take risks. When they travel to France together, they explicitly compare the decision to two lovers running off, hoping that this might be the impression they give to others. While they are still guarded and careful with each other, the intensity of travelling and working together over a span of months is unquestionably increasing their intimacy, shown in scenes like the one where they fall asleep in the same bed.

A parallel version of scholarly affinity also seems to begin to play out between Blackadder and Leonora. While the two academics are polar opposites in many ways, their shared distaste for Cropper, and their reluctant admiration for each other's stubborn self-awareness, leads them to start to form an alliance. However, Leonora and Blackadder working together pose even more of a danger to Roland and Maud.

The escape to France and attempt at keeping a secret mirror the story that emerges of what happened to Christabel after the end of her affair with Ash. While from Sabine's perspective, Christabel seems icy and guarded, she must have been terrified and lonely after the discovery of her pregnancy. At this time in history, as the story of the Ash maidservant has foreshadowed, options for women who became pregnant outside of marriage were very limited, and her entire reputation rests on keeping her pregnancy a secret. While the need to protect herself is clear, Christabel isolates herself by refusing to trust those around her even when they show compassion and a desire to help. Sabine and her father do not judge their cousin, and are anxious to support her, but she keeps them at arm's length.

The combination of the journal describing Christabel's pregnancy and then the research confirming the confrontation between Ash and Christabel at the séance draws the mystery to a crisis point. There is now proof that Christabel gave birth to a child fathered by Ash, and that at some point he learned about this event and confronted her about the child's fate. However, the question of what that fate was remains the final mystery to be solved. Unrefined medical practices meant it was still quite common for infants to die at birth or shortly afterwards; on the other hand, the harsh social ostracism shown to unwed mothers meant it was always a sinister possibility that a woman might kill her newborn infant in order to conceal the fact that it ever existed. The fear of whether the affair ultimately culminated in a grotesque crime makes the urgency of uncovering the end of the story even more forceful.