- 1 A.S. Byatt, The Game, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. (Subsequent references are to this edition.)
- 2 Patsy Stoneman, Brontë Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heig (...)
1A.S. Byatt’s novel The Game1– dense, complex, profoundly and self-consciously “literary” – is a fascinating example of a contemporary writer’s use of the Brontë myth. In Brontë Transformations, Patsy Stoneman asserts that because The Game “foreground[s] the intertextuality of both autobiography and fiction” it differs from earlier texts which refer back to Jane Eyre and, like Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontës Went to Woolworths, is more concerned with “the control of the process of representation—of writing”.2 However, the power of the creative imagination is a central preoccupation in both The Brontës Went to Woolworths and The Game. The story of two sisters locked in an intense sibling rivalry, The Game is an exploration of that power. The game itself—essentially an imaginative construct—which the two sisters, Cassandra and Julia, create and develop throughout their childhood and adolescence, lies at the heart of their troubled, tortuous, and even, on occasions, violent relationship.
- 3 A.S. Byatt, Introduction to Rachel Ferguson, The Brontës Went to Woolworths,London: Virago, 1988, (...)
- 4 Rachel Ferguson, We Were Amused: Memoirs, London: Jonathan Cape, 1958, 185.
2The three Carne sisters in The Brontës Went to Woolworths similarly share an imaginary world that at times threatens to become more real than their everyday world: ironically, it is when they receive a visit at their London home from Charlotte and Emily Brontë, the result of a table-turning session when they were on holiday in Yorkshire, that things begin to get out of hand and Shiel, the youngest sister, becomes seriously frightened.A.S. Byatt has recorded the specific and lasting impression made on her as a young schoolgirl when she first read The Brontës Went to Woolworths, with its meeting of “the urgent world of the romantic imagination” and her “everyday world of […] Pontefract High Street”: a meeting which frightened her because “it seemed to loosen reality’s grip” on her and her “grip on reality”.3 It would seem that Rachel Ferguson was herself conscious of this aspect of her novel, for she remarked when she was still writing it, “it’s getting so odd that I’m rather frightened of it”.4
- 5 P. Stoneman, op. cit., 152.
3If, as Patsy Stoneman also argues, for A.S. Byatt Jane Eyre “functions as a generic plot” which is “transmitted both direct and by means of an intertextual chain which […] includes Rachel Ferguson”,5 then another intriguing link can now be added to this chain. A.S. Byatt has recorded:
- 6 A.S. Byatt, Letter to author, 16 June 2000.
I read “Tea with Mr Rochester” in a Penguin paperback collection of Frances Towers’ stories which my mother gave me to read when I was, I think, about 10 or 11. I remember loving her sense of mystery, and of the importance of writing […] the story did very directly make me want to write […] I think I still have the Penguin somewhere—as I have the tattered Brontës went to Woolworths. I suppose also these works fascinated me because of the invasion of the real world by fictions as powerful as witches […]6
- 7 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, London: Granada, 1977, 93.
4A.S. Byatt’s point here, that Frances Towers’ story “Tea with Mr Rochester” made her “want to write”, neatly illustrates the empowering nature of the Brontë myth, for the story of Prissy, the young narrator, is one of obsession with the fictional character Mr Rochester and of the gradual merging of her real world with the world of her imagination, stimulated by her reading of Jane Eyre. In writing The Game, A.S. Byatt, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “thinks back”7 through Rachel Ferguson and Frances Towers to Charlotte Brontë and, in the process, acknowledges with them the power of imaginary worlds to invade the everyday.
- 8 Charlotte Brontë, “Retrospection”, The Poems of Charlotte Brontë, ed. Tom Winnifrith, Oxford: Basi (...)
5The Brontë allusions are essential to the novel: A.S. Byatt has clearly based her characters’ game on the imaginary games played by the Brontë children throughout their childhood and, certainly, in Emily’s and Anne’s case, well into their adult lives. Although the Corbett sisters lead very separate adult lives until their father’s death brings them together again, like the Brontë sisters, they are never free of that “bright darling dream”8 which haunts them, that extraordinary imaginary world of their childhood. For both Cassandra and Julia the reality of adult life fails to live up to the intense inner world they inhabited in their youth. During their teenage years they develop their highly visual board game with clay figures into one involving considerable literary skills, with stories and texts being produced by both sisters, sometimes collaboratively, sometimes individually. Such is the intensity of the sisters’ involvement that it loses any sense of playfulness and becomes a struggle for control over the outcome of their joint imaginative enterprise. The struggle for control gradually extends beyond the game and in adult life leads both sisters into a quest for their own individual identities with, ultimately, appalling consequences.
- 9 Jane Campbell, “The Hunger of the Imagination in A.S. Byatt’s The Game”, Critique, Spring 1988, 15 (...)
- 10 Ibid., 149.
6In her article “The Hunger of the Imagination in A.S. Byatt’s The Game”, Jane Campbell observes that A.S. Byatt has “taken to heart [Iris] Murdoch’s warning against too heavy a reliance on a controlling myth”, but goes on to state that the “dominant myth is the story of the Lady of Shalott”.9 Without questioning the importance of Byatt’s use of the Lady of Shalott, I would like to shift the emphasis and suggest that the Brontë myth is in fact the “controlling myth” in this text. Jane Campbell describes how “the structure of the novel is patterned on that of a game with two players, alternating between Cassandra’s and Julia’s perceptions and between retrospective and present narrative”.10 This underlying structural pattern emphasises the inherent importance of the Brontë myth to the novel. The following extract from Cassandra’s Journal occurs towards the end of The Game and illustrates many of A.S. Byatt’s preoccupations, which are all interconnected and link back to her use of the Brontës’ biography and myth:
When we were children, we were not quite separate. We shared a common vision, we created a common myth. And this, maybe, contained and resolved our difficulties. This is that primitive state that has been called innocence. We wove a web in childhood, a web of sunny air […] But there is no innocent vision, we are not indistinguishable. We create each other, separate. It is not done with love. Or not with pure love. Nor with detachment. We are not simply specimens, under the bright light, in the glass case, in the zoo, in the museum. We are food for thought. The web is sticky. I trail dirty shreds of it. (230)
7In this passage Cassandra is recalling the opening lines of Charlotte Brontë’s poem “Retrospection”:
We wove a web in childhood,
- 11 C. Brontë, Poems, op. cit., 186, l.1-2.
A web of sunny air […]11
8This poem is one of two epigraphs to the novel, emphasizing from the very beginning the parallels between Cassandra’s and Julia’s lives and those of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, parallels of which, significantly, Cassandra herself is aware.
- 12 Stevie Davies (ed.), The Brontë Sisters: Selected Poems of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, Cheadle: Car (...)
- 13 Ibidem.
- 14 C. Brontë, Poems op. cit., 190.
- 15 Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott”, l.38 in The Poetical Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, L (...)
9In “Retrospection”, Charlotte Brontë looks back to her childhood when she and her siblings were able to indulge at will in their imaginative games. Now, in 1835, aged nineteen, she asks whether their childish fantasies have withered and failed. She answers her own question by asserting that, on the contrary, the web they spun in childhood is still weaving its effect upon their lives. As Stevie Davies states in her Introduction to The Brontë Sisters: Selected Poems of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, “the tiny seed of fantasy planted in childhood has become a fruitful and sustaining myth, which the adult human being can call upon at will”.12 It was not for another four years, in 1839, that Charlotte was to write her “Farewell to Angria”: she alone amongst the Brontë children had come to recognise that what had once been, in Stevie Davies’s words, “a fruitful and sustaining myth”13 had become “a burning clime where [they had] sojourned too long”.14 Cassandra’s and Julia’s game, their own form of Angria, terminated abruptly before Cassandra went up to Oxford, but its repercussions haunt their adult lives. When, in her journal, Cassandra remarks that the “web is sticky” (230), she is implying that the “web of childhood” which she and Julia spun together in their imaginative game has not only lost its original quality of innocence, but has also become sullied and cloying: it has lost its sense of glory. Like the Lady of Shalott’s, “magic web of colours gay”,15 it has somehow, with the passing of the years, degenerated. Now, she insists, “there is no innocent vision” (230). These words, while referring back to the sisters’ childhood game, also bring to mind the urgent questions in Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode”:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream? (ll. 56-7)
10Wordsworth’s sense of childhood vision:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
- 16 William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”, ll.62-64 in William Wordsworth The Poems Vol (...)
But trailing clouds of glory do we come (ll. 62-4)16
11eventually fades “into the light of common day” (l. 77); Cassandra’s childhood vision has not so much faded as been transformed into an unpleasant and embarrassing encumbrance, which still has the power to haunt her and to discolour and distort her adult life. Her sister Julia is also ensnared by the web they wove together: neither of them seems able to expose it to the daylight so that it can fade away naturally, into the past where it belongs.
12Cassandra seems to be the less successful in throwing off the web which their imaginations wove into the very fabric of their lives. When she went up to Oxford as an undergraduate it was a short step from the romance of the game, with its imaginary knights and ladies, originally derived from the images on a pack of cards, to the academic study of Malory and other medieval romances. In later years, after she has become an Oxford don, a specialist in medieval literature, she tells Julia, “I’ve made a life out of it, in a way” (101). From Julia’s standpoint it “was easy enough to see what Cassandra had made of it all—an object for detailed examination, sterilized with footnotes and things” (47). Julia, however, does not appreciate the full extent to which Cassandra still has problems with the relationship between her real and imaginary worlds. To Cassandra it seems as though her journal is:
becoming an increasingly necessary means of distinguishing between what was real and what was imagined. Once she had used it for the opposite purpose, recording moorland rapes and battles alongside vicarage teaparties with indifferent skill as though the one ran into the other […]. Daily events had been landmarks, tips of icebergs useful for locating events in the inner drama. Empty rooms had been—were—peopled. Helen Waddell had once seen Peter Abelard peering in through a hospital window.
Charlotte Brontë had seen the Duke of Zamorna leaning against a school mantel-shelf and had felt exhilarated and faint. They had played with fear, too; they had deliberately blurred the edges that divided the real from the fantastic. (24)
- 17 T.J. Wise & J.A. Symington (eds.), The Brontës: Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence, Oxfo (...)
13In this passage, A.S. Byatt specifically draws a parallel between Cassandra’s and Charlotte Brontë’s difficulties in distinguishing between the real and the imaginary. Cassandra’s original manner of writing in her journal, “recording moorland rapes and battles alongside vicarage teaparties with indifferent skill as though the one ran into the other”, exactly reflects the style of Emily Brontë’s diary paper of 24th November 1834 in the way in which the imaginary world blends almost seamlessly with the real: “Anne and I have been peeling apples for Charlotte—The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine. Sally Moseley is washing in the back kitchen.”17 Like Charlotte Brontë too, when she quite clearly sees the Duke of Zamorna leaning against the fireplace in the school-room at Roe Head, fantasy is in danger of becoming more real to Cassandra than the material world. She now uses her diary to note obsessively every detail of her day in an attempt to convince herself of her place in the physical world and of her grasp on actuality, because she is very much afraid. She has little confidence in her own, individual, existence: the blurring of “the edges” which she has practised from childhood is causing deep psychological stress.
14Julia’s continuing obsession with her sister, combined with her novelist’s curiosity, makes her try to pin Cassandra down, to label her and confirm her precise position in the world in relation to herself. However, Cassandra observes, “we are not indistinguishable […] We create one another separate […] We are not simply specimens […] in the glass case, in the zoo, in the museum” (230). Human beings, unlike specimens in glass cases, cannot be so easily captured, so precisely classified and known.
- 18 A.S. Byatt, in Antonia Fraser (ed.), The Pleasure of Reading, London: Bloomsbury, 1992, 128.
15 The motifs of captivity and enclosure, the question of who is the observed and who the observer, recur throughout the novel and are underlined by the insistent repetitions and echoes from “The Lady of Shalott”, a poem which haunts the text, as it haunted so many others in the nineteenth century. A.S. Byatt has herself considerable personal insight into the potency of the Lady of Shalott myth, “the enclosed weaving lady became my private symbol for my reading and brooding self long before I saw what she meant for [Tennyson], and for the nineteenth-century in general.”18
16In her illuminating study, The Lady of Shalott in the Victorian Novel, Jennifer Gribble argues that Tennyson:
- 19 Jennifer Gribble, The Lady of Shalott in the Victorian Novel, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1983, 2.
introduces details about the lady’s setting and task, notably the symbolic mirror, web and curse, that transform courtly romance into allegory—an allegory that reflects on the individual consciousness in its relationship with society, and on the nature and role of the creative imagination.19
17The same is true of The Game: through the story of the two sisters, Cassandra and Julia, by her symbolic and allegoric interweaving of the Brontë and Lady of Shalott myths, A.S. Byatt explores within her own text “the nature and role of the creative imagination”.
- 20 Charlotte Brontë, “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell”, Wuthering Heights, ed. Hilda Mars (...)
18It is Cassandra’s curse to be doomed to silence. At sixteen her sister Julia took their joint imaginative heritage, re-fashioned a story which had originated in Cassandra’s fantasies, published it and by so doing effectively silenced the outraged Cassandra and brought their joint game to an abrupt end. For “the essence of the Game was privacy; privacy could only be preserved through absolute silence. But more deeply, she was in some way prohibited—outside the Journal—from putting pen to paper” (71). Her creative imagination is dealt its death-blow by Julia’s treachery and by her own implacability, a trait she shares with Emily Brontë. Julia says of Cassandra that she “tolerated nothing and admired very little” (57): Emily too, when she learned that Charlotte had discovered her poems, was furious and it was only after long and bitter discussion that she agreed to their publication.20
19As already noted, there is an unnerving sense in The Game of the watcher and the watched. On constantly finding herself shut out by Cassandra, Julia, a child with an almost rabid curiosity, learns to pry: she picks locks, reads Cassandra’s private papers, follows her when she attempts to run away from home. Julia becomes almost a doppelganger figure—indeed, this is what each sister becomes to the other in adult life. Neither can shrug off the other, “but with Cassandra watching—I’ve always been scared stiff of waking up and finding out I was nothing but a thought in Cassandra’s mind” (86). To Cassandra, Julia appears “real and dangerous” (94):
In the beginning she had been merely inquisitive eyes, scuffling, proprietary curiosity the other side of the locked door. But lately she had come to see her as an almost impersonal menace, something which would infallibly take what she, Cassandra, wanted because its only function was to want precisely that. She had the story. Which could be abandoned. She had Simon. Who could be forgotten. It was important to keep secret what she herself now wanted—whatever that was. (94)
20It is the sisters’ obsession with what the other is doing which leads in adult life to their very real anxieties about their individual identities, an obsession which has its roots in their joint childhood imaginative game.
- 21 Mrs Humphry Ward, Introduction to Jane Eyre, The Life and Works of Charlotte Brontë and Her Sister (...)
- 22 A.S. Byatt, The Pleasures of Reading, op. cit., 131.
21A.S. Byatt explores in depth in The Game the perils and pleasures, the “whims and passions”21 of such creative endeavour. “We are food for thought”, says Cassandra in her journal (230), an oblique allusion to a line from Dr Johnson which pervades Byatt’s text, “The hunger of the imagination that preys incessantly on life”,22 and also to Coleridge’s lines which Cassandra quotes much earlier in her journal:
Ours is the reptile’s lot, much toil, much blame,
Manifold motions making little speed
- 23 Samuel T. Coleridge, “Psyche” ll.4-7, Coleridge Poetical Works ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, Oxford (...)
And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed. (25)23
22The imagination can be exhilarating and liberating; it can also be rapacious, insatiable and highly dangerous.
- 24 A.S. Byatt in conversation with Sue Lawley, “Desert Island Discs”, BBC Radio 4, 16 June 1991.
23Although The Game is clearly not a straightforwardly autobiographical novel it is plain that A.S. Byatt acquired much of her insight into the personal politics of joint creative work from her own childhood experience as the eldest of four siblings, three girls and a boy. She has also described the sensation of an equally bright and gifted younger sister snapping at her heels and following in her footsteps, and the accompanying fear of being overtaken24—which in The Game becomes an intense, obsessive and ultimately destructive sibling rivalry.
24Like the Drabble sisters, Cassandra and Julia have their Quaker background to contend with:
The whole Quaker tradition emphasises the practical at the expense of the imaginative […] So you and I created a world, we explored in the imagination things that were deficient in our experience. A normal procedure, I assume, only we carried it beyond the point where it was normal. There was a gulf between the life we created and the life we lived. (101-102)
25The sisters’ adult lives become a battle to bridge that gulf between the life of the imagination and the everyday world. It is Cassandra who seemingly has the greater difficulty in coming to terms with reality. Although clearly the more imaginative sister, she is the one doomed to silence. She cannot write creatively, for publication; she can produce a scholarly edition with footnotes and introduction but an imaginative construct like a novel is beyond her—something her less imaginative sister, Julia, seems to be able to accomplish with comparative ease, judging by the number of novels she has published. Julia’s success lies, perhaps, in the fact that she is an observer of the life around her. She lives the more outwardly normal life with a husband and child, which, as a realist novelist, she puts into her fictions: “she wanted the complicated, irreducible social world outside […] she needed them, she wanted them, she wrote about them, she fed on them (40). Julia explains to herself the difference between her kind of imagination and Cassandra’s by drawing an analogy with Wordsworth and Coleridge:
I don’t […] use my imagination enough, and she uses hers too much. Like Wordsworth and Coleridge, one trying to ‘give the charm of novelty to things of every day’, whilst the other […] likes ‘persons and characters supernatural or at least romantic’. (122)
26When they were children it was Cassandra who thought up the most extreme, extravagant and violent stories for the game, and Julia who always tried to establish happy endings, which Cassandra continually refused to allow. The result was that Julia as a child was haunted by nightmares invaded by their daytime imaginings, which suggests comparisons with the lives of the Brontës, for, as Christine Alexander has written:
- 25 Christine Alexander, “‘That Kingdom of Gloom’: Charlotte Brontë, the Annuals and the Gothic”, Nine (...)
Writing was a game for the young Brontës: a maze constructed chiefly from literary and visual models—from the Annuals and the works of Scott, Byron, Hogg, and Martin, amongst others—a maze (or web as [Charlotte] Brontë herself called it) constructed to confuse and amuse not only her siblings but her imagined audience.25
- 26 Janet Frame, “Beginnings”, Landfall 19, March 1993, 44.
27The game began innocently enough for Cassandra and Julia, quite possibly as a result of what they knew of the Brontë children’s literary games, although this is never stated clearly in the text. It seems highly probable that the Drabble children would have drawn parallels between themselves and the Brontës, although they would not be unique in doing this.26 Ultimately Cassandra and Julia’s game is to have terrifying consequences for their adult lives: as constructed in their childhood, it is never intended to have even an imaginary audience, but depends solely on its two players: its essence is privacy. As they grow up, however, the silent concealment of their elaborate network of stories and texts forms an emotive web of repressed rivalries and fears which continues to entangle them both intimately and, seemingly, irrevocably.
- 27 A.S. Byatt, The Shadow of the Sun, London: Vintage, 1991, xiv.
28The sisters’ struggle to find a balance between the life of the imagination and the everyday world highlights what A.S. Byatt refers to “as the problem of female vision, female art and thought”.27 In The Game, it is Cassandra who has both the vision and thought but cannot transform it into art. She writes a note in her journal, “Cassandra who was Apollo’s priestess, and—since she refused intercourse with the Lord of the Muses, and was thus no artist—incapable of communication. Unrelated to the world of objects around her” (141). Unrelatedness to the “world of objects” is a problem Cassandra shares with her namesake: at those moments when she is least in touch with reality, objects recede and she has difficulty distinguishing physical actualities; she is all too prone to retreat into a state of vision. She notes:
I live in two worlds. One is hard, inimical, brutal, threatening, the tyranny of objects where all things are objects and thus tyrannical. The other is infinite: heaven, through the pane of glass, the Looking Glass world. One dreams of a release into that world of pure vision and knows that what would be gained would be madness; a single world, and intolerable. (141)
29Julia recognises that she has it in her to write something other than her usual type of realist novel of the “social and emotional truth-telling variety”. The blurb on the dust jacket of one of her published novels reads “Julia Corbett is an extraordinary woman who portrays with grim accuracy the trials of ordinary women” (110) but Julia has by heart the Guardian critic’s comment:
In Miss Julia Corbett’s first two novels an element of romantic fantasy was uneasily blended with a warm, human understanding of very real daily problems. In her later work she has consolidated her achievement in the second field […] but with the fantastic romantic overtones some of the vigour has been lost. In the earlier books, clumsily conveyed, was a sense of possibilities and concerns outside domestic claustrophobia. I sometimes wish Miss Corbett could see her way to reopening, reinvigorating her fantastic vein; she might then have it in her to be a very good writer. (47)
- 29 Ellen Moers, “Female Gothic: Monsters, Goblins, Freaks”, New York Review of Books, 4 April 1974, 3 (...)
30The irony is that the novel which sees Julia returning to “a sense of possibilities and concerns outside domestic claustrophobia” is the one which is to destroy Cassandra. In this case, Julia’s book is emphatically not “life-giving” but quite literally “death-dealing”. Exposing the intricate pattern of their imaginative world to public gaze snapped the creative thread of the game for Cassandra. Julia’s exposure of Cassandra’s life and self in A Sense of Glory ends in Cassandra snapping the thread of her own life. They were never quite separate as children in their joint imaginative endeavour; one formed the warp and the other the weft, each one necessary to the weaving of their web of fantasy and imagination. Cassandra’s unremitting silence towards Julia after the cessation of the game becomes an act of self-silencing. Both girls sink individually into a terrible despair with the ending of the game. The first time Cassandra had felt such a “paralyzing, irrational, overwhelming fear” (71) had been when she was sent away to school. Her terror wore off gradually as Julia joined her there a year later. Intimately linked, like the Brontë sisters, and like them a prey to terrible fears when apart or not collaborating, “not indistinguishable” and “not quite separate”, Cassandra and Julia have an extraordinary love-hate relationship in which the love seems mostly to be obliterated by the extraordinarily intense and vicious hatred. In her article “Female Gothic: Monsters, Goblins, Freaks”, Ellen Moers points to “the savagery of girlhood”29 and there are some frightening moments of very real savagery in Cassandra and Julia’s childhood. On one occasion, when Cassandra runs away from home, she is deeply frightened by “something crawling in the hedgerow, breathing heavily in the next field” (31); when Julia, who has been following her, thinking they are a safe distance away from home, reveals herself, Cassandra launches a desperate attack, using her “suitcase, nails, teeth, shoes, silently intent on real damage” (31). She has to be torn away from Julia. When the sisters return home to see their dying father, Cassandra still strikes the local vicar, as she did when she was eighteen, “as a spiritual desperado, and one whose capacity for violence was by no means spent” (33). Her violence, however, will now be turned in on herself: it will become, in Ellen Moers’s words, “an impetus to self-destruction”. Cassandra’s single-minded determination to end her life has parallels with Emily Brontë’s determination to brook no interference in her management of her final illness, only allowing her sisters to call a doctor when it was already far too late.
31 Talking to Julia’s daughter, Deborah, about her sister’s novels, Cassandra says:
Stories in themselves have no necessary imaginative value. They may be simply therapeutic for the author. They may be positively dangerous—not a lighting up of facts but a refusal to face facts, a distortion. This always happens, not usually to a harmful degree. But the imagination can be violently dangerous. (68)
32In A Sense of Glory Julia effectively imagines herself into Cassandra’s life: not so very difficult in some respects as she has spent her life in close and detailed observation of Cassandra. But since no-one can ever know all there is to know about another person, Julia’s imaginative depiction of Cassandra can only be a cruel distortion that proves to be, as Cassandra herself predicted, “violently dangerous”.
33A.S. Byatt’s preoccupation in The Game with the dangers implicit in the “hunger of the imagination” is emphasised by her use of recurring images and symbols such as reflections, mirrors, mirror-images, moons, glass, vision, and television. With the double mirror images, first of Cassandra looking into their mother’s mirror and being frightened by Julia, and then of Julia looking into Cassandra’s mirror and not daring to look into the space beyond her own image for fear of seeing Cassandra’s image, A.S. Byatt is externalizing the sisters’ fear of that “other” which haunts them. Each is afraid that she lacks a separate identity of her own. Julia looks into the mirror, fails to confront her fear of that other image, turns away and is doomed to live with that “other” presence.
34Mirror images crucial to questions of identity can be found not only in A.S. Byatt’s The Game, but also in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Jane, Cassandra and Julia all experience both a loss of self and a sense of fear when they look into mirrors at critical moments in their lives. Locked in the Red Room, Jane Eyre describes how she
- 30 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Jane Jack and Margaret Smith, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, 12. (...)
had to cross before the looking glass; my fascinated glance involuntarily explored the depth it revealed. All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality; and the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented as coming up out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers.30
35Jane is describing her recollection of a fearful childhood experience which was the catalyst for change in her life. The looking-glass is a “visionary hollow” which reflects back to the child an image which causes her momentarily to lose touch with reality and enter a world of spirits and phantoms. She fails to recognise herself in the image reflected back at her and experiences the sensation of viewing an “other”.
- 31 Ibid., 358.
- 32 Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth- (...)
- 33 C. Brontë, Jane Eyre, op. cit., 362.
36Again, two nights before she is due to marry Mr Rochester, Jane Eyre wakes from disturbing dreams to the glimmer of candlelight—she gains her first sight of Bertha Rochester’s face in “the dark oblong glass”31 in her bedroom in the early hours just before dawn. Sandra Gilbert in The Madwoman in the Attic has argued that this confrontation with Rochester’s mad wife Bertha is “an encounter […] with her own imprisoned ‘hunger, rebellion, and rage’, a secret dialogue of self and soul”. Bertha, she argues, is “Jane’s truest and darkest double: she is the angry aspect of the orphan child, the ferocious secret self Jane has been trying to repress ever since her days at Gateshead”.32 Gilbert sees Bertha as Jane’s alter ego, Bertha’s hideous appearance in the mirror reflecting Jane’s own turbulent and contradictory emotions about her forthcoming marriage. Then, on her wedding morning, when she is finally dressed in her wedding garments, Jane Eyre describes how, about to hurry downstairs to Mr Rochester, she is called back by Sophie, the maid who has been helping her to dress, because she has not looked at herself in the mirror, “So I turned at the door: I saw a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger”.33 It is as much from that “stranger” as from her beloved Mr Rochester that Jane Eyre runs away. By taking flight and finding her own path through the world Jane ultimately finds her way back to Mr Rochester, but this time on her own terms, as his equal at last and with a confirmed, positive sense of her own identity.
37 Cassandra too distrusts mirrors. In her notebook she writes:
I do not need, or like, the reassurance of mirrors, they do not reflect the hollow in the skull; they close off ways. Mirrors are partial truths, like certain putative works of art. Like almost all works of art. (138)
38For her, they reflect only the external surface and can only tell part of the story. They can also play tricks on the unwary. When as a child Cassandra looked into her mother’s mirror, saw her sister and shrieked, that moment of literally seeing “double” was a foreshadowing of Julia’s role as her doppelganger, a premonition of the extraordinary difficulties they would have in trying to develop their separate identities.
39Again, when the adult Julia looks into Cassandra’s mirror after her sister’s death and is too terrified to look beyond her own “melting, innocent face” (235), she remarks to her own reflection, “I’ve got to let go, there is no possession, I will be on my own” (235). Imprisoned since childhood in an intense struggle for identity, her fear on looking into the mirror is that Cassandra’s death, far from freeing her to lead her own life has, on the contrary, set Cassandra free to haunt her forever more. When Cassandra, who shares the isolation of Jane Eyre and her iron will, has read A Sense of Glory, she describes herself as “a mirror on the wall to be asked what she, what either of us means?”, and chooses to “put out the light”: she wants, she insists, “no more reflections” (230). She can see no satisfactory future for herself and chooses oblivion instead—unlike Jane Eyre she refuses to fight for her own identity.
40 Cassandra prefers the greater reassurance of glass:
There is an absolute difference between the recessive caverns of corridors of mirror reflected in mirror, with my face repeated idiotically on the perpetuated thresholds, and the receding open space my shadow, as it were, illuminates through plain glass. (138)
41Like Anna in A.S. Byatt’s first novel The Shadow of the Sun, Cassandra sees the moon through glass. Standing in a lighted room at night she looks out and sees the moon. The windowpane reflects “the yellow glitter of the lamplight” (138), thus showing the glass to be solid. However, when Cassandra stands between the lamp and the glass, the dark shadow thrown by her head can be seen to contain the silver moon. By imposing her solidity between the lamplight and the solid glass surface an emptiness or darkness is created by which she is then enabled to see the reflected light of the sun, that is the moon. In this manner the solidity of self and glass are negated and Cassandra sees this as “an image of vision—a chain of alternating light, reflected light, and darkness” (138).
42A.S. Byatt uses television to explore further these ideas of vision. It is no coincidence that Cassandra places the glass snake (a gift from Julia) on top of the television where it seems to trigger an increasingly disturbed reaction towards glass objects. The snake is especially appropriate to Cassandra, representing as it does her own Coleridgean type of imagination, her “otherworldliness”, her ability to look through and beyond the glass barrier. She says mirrors are “partial truths” (138) and she sees the television as a “form of mirror”, a “mirror of our desires, of our ways of seeing” (138). Watching her sister Julia on screen she sees her as a “mirror-image of [her]self” (138) and has a “sense of diminishing reflection” (139) — like a mirror. When she watches Simon, a David Attenborough-type naturalist, whom both sisters had fallen in love with as adolescents, she has “the illusion of a world infinitely extended through dissolving glass, the Looking Glass” (139). She recognizes this as a dangerous untruth: her imagination and love of fantasy tempt her to blur the edges again, she has to remind herself that the glass screen is solid. She cannot deny her own solidity either, much as she might wish to. Writing in her journal, Cassandra describes the two worlds she lives in, the one “hard, inimical, brutal, threatening” (141)—the “real” world—and the other “infinite: heaven […] the Looking Glass world” (141)—the world of “pure vision” (141), a world with which Emily Brontë too was intimately acquainted. This is the world Cassandra longs for, but recognizes that that way madness lies; it is essential not to break the pane of glass between the two worlds, “it seems, ideally, that the two worlds should run into each other; but practically, one knows this would be destructive” (141). This would appear to have been Charlotte Brontë’s understanding also. Her “Farewell to Angria” is her recognition of the dangers of blurring the distinction between fact and fancy. Cassandra, however, although realising the need to keep a firm hold on reality, is determined on her own isolation: she wilfully cuts herself off from human communication.
43Undoubtedly drawing deeply on personal feelings and experience, at the same time highly “literary”, allusive, and self-conscious in terms of narrative technique, The Game is itself not unlike “the recessive caverns of corridors of mirror reflected in mirror” (138). Julia’s novel A Sense of Glory is, we are told, “about the dangers of imbalance between imagination and reality” (122): she is, in a sense perhaps, writing the mirror-image of the novel in which she herself is a character. Cassandra’s priest tells Julia that Cassandra has “only a very tenuous connection with reality” (121). Asking herself what sort of “glorious reality” (122) Cassandra might inhabit, looking carefully back over her weekend in Oxford with Cassandra for clues, Julia makes the connection between Cassandra’s imaginative world and Simon’s place in it, experiencing moments of pure imaginative vision as episodes and incidents cohere into a pattern. It is no coincidence that Julia calls the heroine of her novel Emily Burnett. As intelligent, literate, solitary children, she and her sister, like the Brontës, created a shared imaginary world, but instead of breaking free from the past, they persist in dragging their own version of “that burning clime”, their own model of Angria, into the present.
44Iris Murdoch has characteristically remarked that:
- 34 Iris Murdoch, quoted by Martha Satz in Dictionary of British Women Writers, ed. Janet Todd, London (...)
people create myths about themselves and are then dominated by the myths. They feel trapped, and they elect other people to play roles in their lives, to be gods or destroyers or something, and I think that this mythology is often very deep and very influential and secretive, and a novelist is revealing secrets of this sort.34
- 35 Iris Murdoch, “Against Dryness”, Encounter, January 1961, reprinted in The Novel Today, ed. Malcol (...)
45A.S. Byatt has written several critical studies of Iris Murdoch’s novels and her own early novels are undoubtedly influenced by her reading of Murdoch. Through their game Cassandra and Julia create their own shared myth which neither of them can satisfactorily break out of or leave behind. Their entire adult lives remain dominated by it: trapped within it each believes herself threatened by the other. The myth of the game lies buried deep within their adult psyches and each is loath to admit to her obsession. By refusing to bring it out into the light of common day each sister allows it to go on damaging the other and their relationship. Julia’s attempt to come to terms with this relationship by making a thinly disguised Cassandra the heroine of her latest novel backfires violently through the failure of her imaginative capabilities. She cannot conceive of a situation where Cassandra might be able to reach out positively towards Simon and establish a more normal, adult, friendly relationship with him, which might hold further possibilities for development and growth. Julia’s novel A Sense of Glory is a distortion of the facts: her failure of imagination, her inability to allow for what Iris Murdoch describes as “contingency”,35 is what proves violently dangerous and ultimately kills Cassandra. Cassandra chooses not to fight back and confront Julia: by her decision to commit suicide, she allows Julia to destroy her.
46Whether “books are life-giving or death-dealing” remains open to question as Simon and Julia drive away from Oxford at the end of the novel, with Julia silently resolving to herself that she will change: “it was no good talking, she had to start behaving differently” (237). “What was over was over” (238) — or was it? In the dark boot of the car Cassandra’s private papers “closed into crates, unread, unopened […] bumped and slid” (238). There is a hint of macabre threat in those last words: will Cassandra, in death, “prey incessantly on life”, on Julia, as Julia, in life, preyed on her?
- 36 Julia Kristeva, Desire In Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Léon S. Roudiez (...)
47As I have tried to illustrate in this paper, creative works of literature are never written in complete isolation. No fiction can ever be entirely free of other texts: each work is located, in Julia Kristeva’s words, “within the totality of previous […] texts”.36 A.S. Byatt clearly relishes engaging with the works of other writers. In The Game she uses the Brontë myth to reflect on the nature and power of the creative imagination, and to explore how that imagination can become an overwhelming and ultimately destructive force in the lives of “reading and brooding” female selves. She demonstrates how the child is mother to the woman, and how unresolved childhood tensions and sibling rivalries can cast their dark shadows on adult lives. Sombre, harrowing, and intensely moral in its concerns, The Game is a novel about the power of literature to form and transform lives and equally to limit and curtail them. It is by any standard a work of extraordinary intelligence as well as emotional intensity, its literary allusiveness playing a vital part in its rich density of implication. As Julia and Simon drive back to London, with Cassandra’s papers bumping about in the dark boot, the question of the power of the text to haunt both Julia and reader is left tantalisingly open.