Angels and Insects
Each of Byatt’s novellas depends on a Victorian text. MORPHO EUGENIA, named for the butterfly and the beautiful Eugenia Alabaster, the novella’s heroine, considers the impact of Darwin’s ORIGIN OF SPECIES, published in 1859, the year the story begins. Eugenia’s father, a former clergyman unexpectedly elevated to baron by the death of his older brother, tries unsuccessfully to find God in evolution. William Adamson, a naturalist married to Eugenia, is equally puzzled by the forces that guide ants and bees. As the double meaning of the novella’s title suggests, this tale explores analogues between the human and insect worlds.
THE CONJUGIAL ANGEL takes its title from Emanuel Swedenborg’s term for marriage. Though set in 1875, it revolves around Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1850 poem IN MEMORIAM, written to commemorate the 1833 death of his friend—and the fiance of his sister Emily—Arthur Henry Hallam. Emily married Richard Jesse, a ship’s captain, in 1842; for this act the Tennysons, the Hallams, and even one of Jesse’s sons regarded her a traitor. In the course of the novella Emily exorcises the ghost of Arthur Hallam, and Mrs. Papagay is reunited with her husband, the captain of the ship that had taken Adamson to Brazil in 1863. The characters in THE CONJUGIAL ANGEL ponder the mysteries of spiritualism, as perplexing as the workings of anthills and beehives.
Matty Crompton tells Adamson that his book on ants must “be delightful as well as profound and truthful.” Byatt fuses historical romance and metaphysics in a work that meets Crompton’s criteria. The facsimiles of woodcuts and metal engravings contribute to the Victorian atmosphere of the text.
Sources for Further Study
Belles Lettres. IX, Fall, 1993, p.28.
London Review of Books. XIV, November 19, 1992, p.18.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 13, 1993, p.8
The New Republic. CCIX, August 2, 1993, p.41.
New Scientist. CXXXVII, March 20, 1993, p.41.
New Statesman and Society. V, November 6, 1992, p.49.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, June 27, 1993, p.14.
The New Yorker. LXIX, June 21, 1993, p.98.
The Observer. October 18, 1992, p.60.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, March 1, 1993, p.40.
The Spectator. CCLXIX, October 24, 1992, p.32.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 16, 1992, p.22.