What really happened in 1868?
'Where was Rebecca Shot?' Chapter 28
by John Sutherland
John Sutherland explores the puzzles and conundrums in both classic and modern fiction in his series of books, the most notable being 'Is Heathcliff a Murderer?'. In 'Where was Rebecca shot?' Sutherland's chapter on 'Possession' explores a few curiosities within the novel and attempts to resolve them.
Sutherland outlines how A.S Byatt was able to blend genres in the style of Georgette Heyer, whom Byatt admires. He expresses his belief that she must have been influenced by the bi-temporal film version of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' in 1981 (though Byatt began writing the book in 1974).
John Sutherland does concede that A.S Byatt knows Victorian literature very well and her work is littered with clues to this and so he asks are her mistakes deliberate?
In 1889 when Randolph is on his deathbed he asks her to burn all his personal papers, which she clearly doesn't do. She defends this by writing
"...the ransacking of Dickens's desk for the most trivial memoranda, Forster's unspeakable intrusions into the private pains and concealments of the Carlyle's."
Sutherland points out that it was not Forster but J.A Froude who betrayed the Carlyles a long time after 1889, even after Ellen's death in 1896.
Sutherland even goes on to suggest that we may deduce that Ellen's diary is a fake similar to that of T.J Wise's forgery of Browning's papers!
At the end of the novel is a beautifully rich postscript in which Randolph Henry Ash wanders through a meadow and meets a girl called Maia Thomasine who gives him a lock of her hair.
"It was abundant, it seemed as though it must go on shining forever."
Sutherland explains how Ash had been aimlessly rambling prior to his death and therefore, it is possible that the postscript was a hallucination.
This is reinforced by the descriptions of flowers that clearly do not flower in May, but in more summery months. However, 1868 was the hottest year of the 19th century and it is probable that the flowers would bloom early.
Therefore, Ash's hallucinations could have been brought on by the heat and the event may have actually taken place. Sutherland believes Byatt knew about the heatwave of 1868 due the the amount of research she packs into her novels. I for one, would like to believe she did.
When asked about the flowers by Sutherland, she said this had been pointed out to her by a translator. The point of the postscript was to rap up the romance experienced by the Victorian couple when they were in North Yorkshire in the same ornate narrative.
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