Angels and Insects comprises two novellas: Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel.
As we know, the Victorian age provides the perfect setting from which to explore themes of freedom and suffocation, as well as moral hypocrisy; it is these which are central to Byatt’s first tale, Morpho Eugenia.
Shipwrecked naturalist William Adamson is brought under the wing of a wealthy Victorian family and soon falls ‘in lust’ with the enigmatic Eugenia. The sheer beauty and eroticism of Byatt’s prose is magnificent:
‘She sat beside him on the bench, and her presence troubled him. He was inside the atmosphere, or light, or scent she spread, as a boat is inside the drag of a whirlpool, as a bee is caught in the lasso of perfume from the throat of a flower.’
and, later, when they are married:
‘…he felt that their bodies spoke to each other in a kind of fluttering bath of molten gold, a raidiant tent of silky touch and shimmering softness, so that long, tender silences were a natural form of communion during the mundane grey light.’
Just as Adamson has collected specimens of the natural world, Sir Harald Alabaster ensnares him, setting him upon the endless task of classification: an activity requiring meticulous ordering (mirroring the strict order of upper-class Victorian society). This parallel is taken further as we see Adamson studying ant colonies living near the house, each as minutely complex and strictly ordered as the society within the Alabaster home.
Byatt reminds us repeatedly of the contrast between Adamson’s bold past as an explorer of the Amazon, and the suffocating restrictions of polite aristocratic society. However, we come to realise that the family conceals just as many secrets as the darkly exotic jungle. Eugenia, for example, may outwardly (and symbolically) resemble the beautiful butterflies her father enjoys pinning to his boards, but the behaviour we discover of her is closer to the tumbling, devouring, ruthlessness of the insect world.
The pure ‘Alabasters’ are degenerate: stifled, congealing and corrupt, trapped within narrow, inward-looking mindsets. Using more symbolism, Byatt gives us a grotesque description of Harald Alabaster’s hands as ‘ivory-coloured, the skin finely wrinkled everywhere, like the crust on a pool of wax, and under it appreared livid bruises, arthritic nodes, irregular tea-brown stains. The flesh under the horny nails was candlewax-coloured, and bloodless.’
The Conjugial Angel examines the themes of grief and transiency through the Victorian obsession with séances and the next world. Byatt quotes significant portions of Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam, which explores mortality, and decay, inspired by Alfred’s love for Arthur Hallum (who died aged 22 and was engaged to Alfred’s sister, Emily). It is Emily who stands as the central figure in the story, as heartbroken in her loss as Alfred in his.
While the physicality of Emily and Alfred’s desire for Arthur is mostly hinted at, their suffering is vividly echoed in that of Mrs. Papagay. Torn by desire for the physical love of her husband, thought lost at sea, she dreams of ‘male arms around her in the scent of marriage-sheets’.
In both stories, there are dark themes at work, of selfishness, betrayal and deceit (of others and the self) but also an element of the fantastical. Byatt draws us into the stifling world of parlours and manners, but leaves doors open to possibilities: of adventure, of love, and of reignition of self-purpose. Both novellas end with protagonists looking to the future with more optimism, with eyes cast up to the stars.
The Victorianesque language is heavy at times, as dense and complex as Byatt’s themes, but there is beauty here, and such insight. Worth persevering for.
A S Byatt‘s novels include the Booker Prize-winning Possession, The Biographer’s Tale and the quartet, The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman.
Among her most recent works are The Children’s Book and Ragnarok: The End of the Gods.
Her highly acclaimed collections of short stories include The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Elementals and Little Black Book of Stories.