Page 26. " in the Reading Room, under the high dome "

The British Museum Reading Room 2006
GNU Free Documentation LicenseThe British Museum Reading Room 2006 - Credit: Unknown
The Reading Room is a round room in the central courtyard of the British Museum, built to house the museum's library. Completed in 1857, it has a diameter of 140 feet (approximately 42.6m) and was inspired by the domed Pantheon in Rome. The Room was originally surrounded with iron bookstacks, and contained three miles (4.8 kilometres) of bookcases and twenty-five miles (forty kilometres) of shelves.

In 1986, the period in which Possession is set, the British Library was housed within the Reading Room, and readers would sit at desks around its wheel-like layout. In 1997 the British Library moved to a new location in St Pancras, and the interior of the Reading Room was carefully restored. In 2000 The Reading Room re-opened, and was made available to all Museum visitors for the first time. At the same time, the museum's Great Court was completed, allowing visitors to move freely around the main floor - and the outside of the Reading room - for the first time in 150 years. From 2007 the Room found a new use, as a home for major exhibitions. It is scheduled to revert to its normal use in 2012.

The British Museum website.

Page 26. " like flames dying in Humphry Davy's bell-jar "

Bell jar and vacuum pump
Creative Commons AttributionBell jar and vacuum pump - Credit: Hannes Grobe
 Sir Humphry Davy (1778 - 1829), was an eminent English chemist and inventor. He is well known as the inventor of the Davy lamp, a safety lamp created for use in coal mines.

A bell-jar is a piece of laboratory equipment used in experiements to create a vacuum. A bell-shaped dome, often made of glass, is placed on a base, and then the air is sucked out using a vacuum pump. Davy would have used bell-jars in many of his experiments.

Page 27. " Marmion "

Marmion is a poem by Walter Scott (1771 - 1832), about the Battle of Flodden Field.

The poem can be read in its entirety here.

Page 27. " Childe Harold "

 Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is a narrative poem by Lord Byron (1788 - 1824).

The full text of the poem can be read here.

Page 27. " to study under F. R. Leavis "

 Frank Raymond Leavis (1895 - 1978), was an English literary critic, and a teacher at Downing College, Cambridge.

Byatt says that Leavis showed his students 'the terrible, the magnificent importance and urgency of English literature' and also deprived them of confidence in their 'capacity to contribute to, or change it'.

Page 27. " a troubadour lyric "

A troubadour lyric is a piece of lyric poetry composed - and originally performed - by a troubadour, and popularly themed around subjects such as chivalry and courtly love. A troubadour lyric was often humourous or satirical in nature.

Page 28. " Descartes "

 René Descartes (1596 - 1650), was a French philosopher and writer, best known for his philosophical statement Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

Page 28. " sprang up like the heads of the Hydra "

The Hydra is a beast from Greek mythology. It has poisonous breath and many heads, and each time one is cut off, two more grow to replace it. The Hydra was killed by Heracles as the second of his Twelve Labours.

Page 32. " Balzac's Chef-d'Oeuvre Inconnu "

Le Chef-d'Oeuvre Inconnu (in English - The Unknown Masterpiece), is a short story by Honoré de Balzac. It was published in several places before being incorporated into Balzac's La Comédie humaine. In Possession, Fergus Wolff says that it is 'about a painting that turned out to be nothing but a chaotic mass of brush-strokes'. 

Page 33. " Christabel LaMotte "

The name LaMotte is from the old French motte, meaning hillock or mound. A motte-and-bailey is a type of castle built on a fortified mound (motte) with an enclosed courtyard at its base (bailey). So the name would denote a person who lived near such a stronghold. (It is also interesting to note the connection between the words motte and bailey in relation to character names). The name Christabel means 'beautiful Christian' or 'follower of Christ'. Christabel is also the name of a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Page 33. " The Fairy Melusina "

 Melusina (or Melusine) is a fairy or water spirit of European legend. As punishment for a wrongdoing, Melusina was condemned to take the form of a mermaid, (or, in some versions of the story, become a serpent from the waist down) every Saturday. A mortal man, Raymond of Poitou, fell in love with her, and she agreed to marry him on the condition that he would never enter her chamber on a Saturday. They married, and had several children, and each child had a strange deformity. Raymond kept his promise to his wife for many years, but eventually he spied on her whilst she was taking a bath, and saw her altered form. Melusina, her form once again altered to become either a  specter or a dragon, leaves her husband, never to return.

Several different versions of the Melusina story can be found here.

Page 33. " Geoffroy à la Grande Dent "

This translates as 'Geoffroy with the large tooth' - one of Melusina's children who is born with large tusks.

Page 34. " Dr Maud Bailey "

The name Maud means 'powerful fighter' or 'strength in battle'. The name was popular in the 19th century because of Tennyson's poem Maud. The surname Bailey seems to have several possible origins. One of these means 'person of high rank; steward; official' and another means 'enclosure', as in the enclosed courtyard of a motte-and-bailey castle. (It is also interesting to note the connection between the words motte and bailey in relation to character names).

Page 34. " 'She thicks men's blood with cold' "

This is a line from 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The stanza containing the line reads thus:
'Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.'

The entire poem can be read here.

Page 35. " Rapunzel Rapunzel "

Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeRapunzel - Credit: Kay Körner
 Rapunzel is a character from the fairy tale of the same name, made famous by the Brothers Grimm. A man and his pregnant wife live next door to a walled garden owned by a witch. To satisfy his wife's cravings, the man climbs the wall and steals vegetables from the witch's garden. The witch catches him and lets him go only with the promise that he will give her the child when it is born. The witch raises the child as her own, but shuts her away in a high tower with no stairs or door, and only one window. The witch gains access to the tower by calling out 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair' and then climbing the long golden locks that Rapunzel lowers down to her. One day a prince hears Rapunzel singing in her tower. He watches the witch climb Rapunzel's hair, and when she leaves he calls to Rapunzel to lower her hair and climbs it to enter the tower. He asks Rapunzel to marry him and on his many subsequent visits to her they plan their escape. But before they can leave the witch sees that Rapunzel is pregnant (or, in some versions, she gives away that the prince visits her). The witch cuts off Rapunzel's hair and casts her out into the wilderness. When the prince next visits, the witch lowers Rapunzel's severed hair and he climbs up, only to be confronted by the witch. He leaps (or is pushed) from the tower and is blinded by the thorns that he falls into. He too wanders the wilderness until one day he is reunited with Rapunzel and her tears of joy restore his sight.

Page 37. " Starched and gophered frill "

'Goffering' is the process of using a heated iron to create a crimped or fluted edge on a frill or ruff. It is derived from a French word, gaufre, meaning 'waffle'.

Page 41. " a commonplace book "

A commonplace book was a notebook or scrapbook that its owner would fill with thoughts, quotes, letters, prayers etc as a way of compiling knowledge.

Page 43. " a painting of the infant Hermes and his mother "

In Greek mythology, Hermes was the messenger of the gods and guide to the underworld.

Page 44. " the Tractarians "

The Tractarian Movement, also known as the Oxford Movement, started in Oxford in 1833 and sought to restore traditional Catholic teachings and ceremonies to the Anglican church. The name Tractarian refers to the movement's publications, the Tracts for the Times.

Page 45. " Surely Richmond is Beulah "

Beulah is a name given to Jerusalem in the Bible, and refers to the Jews returning from exile and God being pleased with them:
"No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah [my delight is in her], and your land Beulah [married]; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married." (Isaiah 62:4)
Beulah is also mentioned in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, where it is described as a land of peace where 'the sun shineth Night and Day' and the 'air was very sweet and pleasant'. By suggesting to Christabel that 'Richmond is Beulah', Blanche is clearly saying that their home is peaceful and happy, and perhaps that God is pleased with them. But since Beulah also has the meaning 'married' it also hints at the homoerotic feelings that Blanche supposedly has for Christabel.

Page 45. " a subject from Malory "

Sir Thomas Malory (c1405 - 1471), was an English writer, about whom very little is known. Malory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), a collection of tales about King Arthur and the mythology surrounding him. Malory retold stories that already existed in French or English folklore, and added a few new ones as well. Le Morte d'Arthur remains the inspiration for many modern retellings of Arthurian legend.

Page 45. " the imprisoning of Merlin, maybe, by the damsel Nimue "

 Merlin and Nimue are characters from Arthurian legend. Merlin is the great sorcerer who advises King Arthur, and Nimue (also known as Vivien, and a host of variations on both names) is the Lady of the Lake, who gives King Arthur his sword, Excalibur. Merlin is in love with Nimue, but she eventually enchants and imprisons him (in a cave, or under a mountain or rock).

Page 45. " the solitary Maid of Astolat "

 Elaine le Blank (meaning white or fair) of Astolat, also known as the Lily Maid, is a character from Arthurian legend. She fell in love with the knight Sir Lancelot, and when he refused to become her husband or lover she stopped eating, and eventually died. Her body, still in bed, was floated down the Thames in a barge to Camelot, bearing a letter in her hand to be read by Lancelot. Different versions of her story are told in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (which can be read here, starting at Book XVII, Chapter IX) and as part of Tennyson's narrative poem Idylls of the King (which can be read here). The story also inspired Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott (which can be read here).

Page 45. " 'Christabel before Sir Leoline' "

This refers to the unfinished poem Christabel, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The maiden Christabel is praying in a wood when she meets a woman called Geraldine who says that she has been abducted from her home by five men. She asks for Christabel's help and together they make their way back to the castle where Christabel lives with her father, Sir Leoline. Geraldine shares Christabel's bed, and seems to cast an enchantment over her. On meeting Geraldine the next morning, Sir Leoline realises that she is the daughter of his childhood friend, and vows to return her safely to her father. He asks his bard to travel to her father and tell him of his daughter's rescue, but the bard recounts a dream he had, where a dove (Christabel) was strangled by a snake (Geraldine) and asks to go to the wood where Christabel prays and clear it of anything 'unholy'. Geraldine looks at Christabel with a 'serpent's eye' full of 'malice', and Christabel realises that, despite her beauty, Geraldine is malevolent. However, Christabel is unable to warn her father because of the enchantment upon her, and can only beg him to send Geraldine away. Sir Leoline, apparently under a similar spell, takes Geraldine's side and turns away from his daughter.

The scene of Blanche's painting is taken from lines near the end of the poem: "And when the trance was o'er, the maid / Paused awhile, and inly prayed: / Then falling at the Baron's feet, / 'By my mother's soul do I entreat / That thou this woman send away!' / She said: and more she could not say; / For what she knew she could not tell, / O'er-mastered by the mighty spell. / Why is thy cheek so wan and wild, / Sir Leoline? Thy only child / Lies at thy feet, thy joy, thy pride. / So fair, so innocent, so mild;

This might seem like a strange subject for Blanche to paint, using Christabel's namesake as her model, but the poem has undertones of lesbian sexuality that many criticis have noted, so perhaps this is a reflection (by Blanche or by Byatt) of the ambiguous relationship between Blanche Glover and Christabel LaMotte.

You can read the full poem here.

Page 46. " the Glass Coffin "

 The Glass Coffin is a fairy tale of German origin. It was retold by the Brothers Grimm in their collections of stories.

Page 47. " Peeping Tom "

A Peeping Tom is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as 'a person who derives sexual pleasure from secretly watching people undressing or engaging in sexual activity'. It is interesting that Blanche uses this term, as it suggests a particular kind of fear, of being watched and found out. The term 'Peeping Tom' derives from the story of Lady Godiva, who agreed to ride naked through the streets of Coventry if her husband would lower the taxes of the townspeople. She ordered everyone to stay indoors and close their shutters whilst she rode through the town, and all obeyed her, except for one man, Tom, who watched through a hole in his shutter and was struck blind as punishment.

Page 48. " the daughters of Kali and the Fatae Morganae "

 Kali is a Hindu goddess, often regarded as a mother goddess and protector. She is portrayed in rather frightening form, with either four or ten arms, black or blue skin, three (often red) eyes, and sometimes fangs, lolling tongue and wild hair. She sometimes wears a garland of human heads, and carries a sword in one hand and a bloody severed head in another. Kali is associated with eternal energy, time, and change.

Fatae Morganae refers to Morgan le Fay, half-sister of King Arthur and a powerful sorceress of Arthurian legend.

Page 49. " Coventry Patmore "

Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore (1823 - 1896), was an English poet and critic. He is best known for his poem The Angel in the House, which described an idealistic view of courtship and marriage. The term 'angel in the house' came to embody the Victorian ideal of the devoted and submissive woman. Contemporary and modern feminist writers have been unsympathetic to both the poem and the ideal.