Wynne reviews Possession by A.S. Byatt

Bookhenge #12, written for Butterbur’s Woodshed, January 1, 1996 by Patrick Wynne.

Possession, by A.S. Byatt

Possession is a fabulous book. If I were Siskel and Ebert, and Possession were a movie, I’d give it two thumbs up, offer to sit with the kids while you go see it, and give you a few extra bucks for popcorn and Junior Mints. Possession is also an extremely complex book, with Byatt piling more layers of meaning on her story than St. John the Divine after a fresh plate of ‘shrooms (Walter Breen once told me that the Revelation of St. John was written under the influence of certain psychoactive mushrooms that grow on the isle of Patmos; I must have been sick the week we covered that in Sunday school). Since years of watching TV have rendered me incapable of focusing on more than a single obvious narrative thread at a time, it was difficult for me to decide which particular aspect of the book to discuss here in the ‘Shed. I imagine some of you will explore the multifoliate meanings of possession used by Byatt; I’ve certainly never read a more dead-on portrayal of the psychology of being possessed by an author, and the concomitant thrills of literary scholarship–time and again I saw my own feelings about working on Tolkien’s linguistic manuscripts mirrored with deadly accuracy. Others of you will probably delve into the various ways in which this book is a romance, both in the modern sense of a love story and in the older sense described in the quote from Hawthorne given at the beginning, and how Byatt uses the “latitude” of the romance in her portrayal of certain characters, such as the symbolically named Fergus Wolff, or Mortimer Cropper, the Devil himself in a black Mercedes (with license plates ANK 666, lest we miss the point), running haywains off roads and defiling graves.
But as I sat reading Possession in the loo one day last week, I had my own little Revelation of the John. Of course, how obvious! I felt positively flushed with success. All of this stuff about possession and romance, they’re merely peripheral issues Byatt included to decorate her main theme, like Julia Child arranging sprigs of parsley around a serving of boeuf bourguignon. When you get right down to the nitty-gritty, Byatt’s book is really about BATHROOMS.
The eyes are the windows of the soul, so the old saying goes. But according to Byatt, if you want to peek in a window at somebody’s soul, skip the eyes and head for the bathroom window, for it’s in the bathroom that our True Selves are revealed. Laugh at me if you will, 0 ye Philistines, but check out the myth of the Fairy Melusina, running like a leitmotif throughout Possession. This is a Bathroom Myth, pure and simple, the pivotal moment of which occurs when the knight Raimondin peeks at his fairy wife during her private ablutions: “She was a fairy who married a mortal to gain a soul, and made a pact that he would never spy on her on Saturdays, and for years he never did … And in the end, of course, he looked through the keyhole–or made one in her steel door with his sword-point according to one version–and there she was in a great marble birth disporting herself. And from the waist down she was a fish or a serpent … and she beat the water with her muscular tail.” (Ch. 3). On one level, this story is just another example of that age-old question posed by every man who has ever been forced to pace for hours outside a locked bathroom door, namely “What the hell is she doing in there?! ?” (This reminds me of an episode of Roseanne in which Roseanne and her sister Jackie are in the bathroom fiddling with a home pregnancy test. Dan knocks impatiently on the door and says, “What’s going on in there?”, to which Roseanne snaps back, “We’re worshipping Satan.”) But on a deeper level, the story of the Fairy Melusina is a mythic expression of the bathroom as a reflection of one’s True Self. It’s onIy by spying on Melusina in the bathroom that Raimondin sees his wife for what she really is: Jo-Jo the Sardine Girl. That’ll teach him not to pick. up chicks who hang out in enchanted grottos.
Having established the mythic resonance of the bathroom (it probably has something to do with the acoustics of the tiles), Byatt goes on to sprinkle several remarkably–one might almost say lovingly-detailed descriptions of bathrooms throughout Possession, in each case highly indicative of the personality of the owner (and I’ll pause here to note that Byatt’s descriptive abilities are positively luscious, even when describing things that do not flush). In fact, almost all of the main characters, and several of the minor ones, are characterized in terms of their own bathroom, or their reactions to (or actions in) someone else’s bathroom. Take Maud Bailey, for example. We’re told in Chapter 4 that her bathroom is “a chill green glassy place, glittering with cleanness, huge dark green stoppered jars on water-green thick glass shelves, a floor tiled in glass tiles into whose brief and illusory depths one might peer, a shimmering shower curtain like a glass waterfall, a blind to match, over the window, full of watery lights. Maud’s great green-trellised towels were systematically folded on a towel-heater. Not a speck of talcum power, not a smear of soap, on any surface.” This passage is more than just a clever way of telling us that Maud likes green and is totally anal. It later becomes clear that Maud is the modern counterpart of both Christabel LaMotte and Melusina, and Maud’s bathroom, described in green and watery images, is a reflex of Melusina’s verdant pool as depicted in LaMotte’s poem in Chapter 16. The clincher in this regard is Maud’s “shimmering shower curtain like a glass waterfall,” the very image of the “falling water
… Like streaming needles of a shattered glass” that plunges into Melusina’s pool.
Roland Michell finds Maud’s chill green bathroom as off-putting, as its chill green owner: “He moved gingerly inside the bathroom, which was not a place to sit and read or to lie and soak” (Ch. 4). To Roland, a bathroom is also a reading room–ah, a man after my own heart–and earlier, in Chapter 2, it’s to his own bathroom that Roland retires to secretly savor his illicit treasures, the purloined letters of Randolph Henry Ash. As Roland stands in Maud’s bathroom, he thinks of his and Val’s bathroom back in their squalid little apartment, “full of old underwear, open pots of eyepaint, dangling shorts and stockings, sticky bottles of hair conditioner and tubes of shaving foam.” Roland’s life at this point is like his bathroom–a total mess, cluttered with the detritus of a woman he no longer loves. The Messy Bathroom as a metaphor for Life crops up again with Leonora Stern, who is not so much a character as a force of nature. Leonora feels right at home in Maud’s bathroom, only too much so: “Leonora splashed a long time in Maud’s bathroom and left it covered with little puddles of water, lidless bottles and several different spicy smells of unknown unguents. Maud put the lids back, mopped up the puddles, had a shower between curtains redolent of Opium or Poison…” (Ch. 18). Here the messy bathroom exemplifies the chaos Leonora brings into Maud’s life in general, something Maud must constantly strive to rectify.
But wait, there is more! The whole Maud = Melusina Thang pops up again like a rubber ducky in a sudsy bath in Chapter 8, when Roland and Maud are staying at Sir George and Lady Bailey’s to study the new-found letters of Ash and LaMotte. Byatt provides a long description of the faded splendor of the Baileys’ upstairs bathroom, including (my personal favorite) an intricately-beflowered mahogany-seated privy of such magnificence that Roland thinks it would be “sacrilegious to use anything so beautiful for its proper purpose”. Roland also thinks, rather bitchily, that Maud “wouldn’t have been able to see the romance of the bathroom as he could”, and here we probably have the true meaning of romance in this book: the Romance of the bathroom. (You heard it here first, folks.) This bathroom provides the setting for a reenactment of the Melusina myth, as Roland (who is Raimondin, when he’s not busy being R.H. Ash) peeks in the keyhole to see if Maud has finished her ablutions. While he doesn’t literally catch her splashing her snaky tale in the bathtub (like Melusina’s, the Baileys’ tub is an enormous “marbly sarcophagus”), Roland notes that as Maud pads off down the hall, her pale hair gleams above a long Chinese dragon on the back of her aquamarine kimono, a vision of Maud as half-woman, half-dragon.
In Chapter 6, Byatt first introduces us to Mortimer P. Cropper in a bathroom, Mrs. Daisy Wapshott’s to be exact, whose painfully bourgeois facilities contain a veritable Beethoven’s Fifth of coordinated pink and purple accessories, including the ever-popular “scallop-shell holding pristine ovoids of purple and pink soap”, standing in stark contrast to Cropper’s oily urban elegance, with his black silk dressing gown and matching jammies with custom-made black-velvet slippers. (And at the risk of sounding like Jerry Seinfeld, what’s the deal with those little guest soaps anyway? Does anybody ever use them? I’ve never dared use them, they’re clearly some sort of trap: touch one, and the Guest Soap Police will kick down the door and haul you away, probably to be boiled down into more little guest soaps for somebody else’s bathroom.) Cropper is definitely showing his True Self in this scene, since he’s perched on Mrs. Wapshott’s mob-capped toilet seat at 3 a.m., clandestinely photographing her stash of letters from R.H. Ash, just in case she decides not to sell them. I said earlier that Cropper is a Satan-figure, but at the same time he’s also Pluto, who was not only the god of the Underworld but the god of riches–Byatt frequently refers to Cropper’s bottomless cheque-book, mercilessly wielded in his obsessive quest for further Ash artifacts to stuff into the already-bulging glass cases of the Stant collection. Cropper’s own bathroom reflects his endless wealth, of course; in Chapter 28 the plumbing of the Rowan Tree Inn inspires him to fondly reminisce: “‘The water made strange thumping and hawking sounds, which he treasured as he treasured, with equal love, the endless silver flow in his streamlined, Gold-tapped bathroom in New Mexico.” Here the “endless silver flow” might also be an allusion to the endless flow of silver from Cropper’s cheque-book.
I could go on about this topic, but no doubt by now you’re all feeling a little … well, pooped.
I’ll end this discussion with the wise words of Edmund “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” Wilson in chapter 4 of A Piece of My Mind (I956):

“I have had a good many more uplifting thoughts, creative and expansive visions–while soaking, in comfortable baths or drying myself after bracing showers–in well-equipped American bathrooms than I have ever had in any cathedral.”

Used by permission of Patrick Wynne.