In Morpho Eugenia, A. S. Byatt weaves into the story of the secret lives of Victorian England an intellectual dialogue that represents the most important debates of the period. Through the character of the Reverend Alabaster, the debate between creationism and evolution is highlighted by the ways Victorians faced the issue, which affected every fiber of social, religious, intellectual, and scientific life. Byatt presents this controversy through the eyes of the Victorians while still making the debate current and relevant to the development of the novella’s central characters and themes.
Byatt captures the obsessive desire of Victorians to collect and possess the natural world. Adamson’s entomological interest becomes an analogy of Adamson’s own life in the home of the Alabasters. Matty Crompton serves as the voice of feminism in the novella. Independent and determined to live her life the way she wants rather than the way she is told, Matty is an interesting contrast to Eugenia, who claims that her behavior with her brother had been an attempt to break social rules for acceptable behavior. Matty succeeds in breaking through the social repression, while Eugenia’s attempt to do so is at the expense of Adamson and Captain Hunt.
Conjugial Angel thematically centers on experimentation. The characters participate in a séance and attempt to reconcile their traditions with their experimentations. Mrs. Papagay, Tennyson, and Mrs. Jesse are all at different stages in their struggles between their own desires and their need to conform socially and sexually. Mrs. Papagay and Mrs. Jesse exemplify this contrast, raising feminist issues in the text.
The novella questions life after death and the existence of a spiritual affinity between two people. By examining these questions, Byatt once again mingles an important Victorian intellectual debate into her storytelling. The séances serve not only as narrative techniques but also as imaginative depictions of the Victorian interest in spiritualism, the occult, and the afterlife.
Conjugial Angel also is a memoriam to Tennyson, just as Tennyson’s In Memoriam memorializes Arthur Hallam. Byatt’s fiction also can be read as simultaneously Victorian, postmodern, and contemporary, raising important questions of genre.