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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 7, Number 1 (January 2009) : 19--30
How Browning and Byatt Bring Back the Dead
“Mr. Sludge, the ‘Medium’ ” and “The Conjugial Angel”
June Sturrock
Rubric A: Topoi


Just as Robert Browning repeatedly speaks through other voices in his poems, so does his admirer and critic A. S. Byatt in her fiction, ventriloquizing her characters’ poems, stories, letters, and even their academic work.  Such writing as Browning’s and Byatt’s can be understood as mediumistic, a channeling of the voices of the dead or the imaginary.  In turn both writers create mediums, Browning in “Mr. Sludge, the ‘Medium’” and Byatt in “The Conjugial Angel,” one of the two novellas set in Victorian England that form Angels and Insects.  Like Browning’s Sludge, Byatt’s mediums, Sophy Sheekhy and Lilias Papagay, function as figures of the creative writer.  Byatt has described Lilias as a “novelist manqué” and Sophy as poet-like.  Sludge is critically acknowledged to be a figure of corruption in art, and through him Browning explores the narrative artist’s inevitable negotiations between truth, fiction, and lies.  Sludge’s spiritualist activities are clearly aimed at the greater glory of Sludge.  Byatt’s mediums, however, are genuinely involved with the mourners and the mourned in the liminal world in which they move.  Lilias brings comfort to a bereaved mother, while Sophy transforms the life of Emily Tennyson Jesse, for this novella is based on the most famous case of protracted Victorian mourning, that for Arthur Henry Hallam, the subject of Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H.  Browning condemns his character by implication for Sludge’s wish that other people should “participate in Sludgehood.”  Byatt represents Lilias and Sophy as intensely aware of others beside themselves.  Thus both through their acts of ventriloquism and through their narratives and characters, Browning and Byatt demonstrate a shared anti-solipsistic aesthetic in texts involving the writer as medium.  They turn in imagination to what is outside themselves and represent either negatively (through Sludge) or positively (through Sophy and Lilias) the value of such outward movement.

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