Angels and Insects

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.

Angels and Insects

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Possession (1990), A. S. Byatt’s previous work of fiction, the late twentieth century academics Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey pursued the lives of fictional Victorian poets Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. The novel’s structure allowed Byatt to re-create a nineteenth century world and to contrast that period with that of the late twentieth century. She indicated that in the Victorian era sex was more difficult but love was simpler, and that what modernity has gained in knowledge it has lost in feeling.

Angels and Insects returns to the Victorian era, but it now appears as vexed as the reader’s own. The title suggests one of the novellas’ central concerns: Which term better describes humanity? Byatt offers no definitive answer, but her posing of the question combines historical romance and philosophical disquisition.

The first novella, Morpho Eugenia, takes its title from a Brazilian butterfly and the lovely Eugenia Alabaster (morpho in Greek means lovely, well-formed). This dual significance introduces a theme that pervades the narrative, the similarity between human behavior and that of the social insects. Even the architecture of Bredely Hall suggests this parallel. For example, Harald Alabaster’s study is “hexagonal in shape, with wood-panelled walls and two deep windows, carved in stone in the Perpendicular style: the ceiling too was carved stone, pale grey-gold in colour, a honey-comb of smaller hexagons.” The description demonstrates Byatt’s skill in re-creating Victorian settings in loving detail, but her word paintings move beyond mere decoration. Alabaster’s study, with its hexagonal construction, suggests a beehive and so links him and his household to the insect world.

Alabaster, a former clergyman who became a baron on the unexpected death of his older brother, retains his clerical garb and religious preoccupations. Byatt pointedly begins the novella in 1859, the year Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, which challenged the biblical account of creation and shook the foundations of religious belief for many. Born in an age of faith, when the Bible could be taken literally, Alabaster has lived to find “a world in which we are what we are because of the mutations of soft jelly and calceous bone matter through unimaginable millennia.” Byatt thus demonstrates that culture shock is not an exclusively late twentieth century phenomenon.

To combat his doubts, Alabaster is writing a book arguing that belief in a Creator remains possible after Darwin. He enjoys discussing his ideas with William Adamson, a naturalist who had formerly supplied him with specimens and who was shipwrecked on his return from a decade in the Brazilian jungles. Though reared by a strict Methodist father, Adamson cannot share Alabaster’s religious views. He rejects arguments of design and analogy, but as he studies the workings of anthills and beehives he ponders the same mysteries that prey on Alabaster.

Even on his first night at Bredely Hall, Adamson observes the butterflylike qualities of Alabaster’s three oldest daughters. Lady Gertrude Alabaster resembles a queen bee or ant. Secluded in her bower, she is fed sweet foods and drink, and her only function appears to be the production of offspring. She has given birth to eight; Bredely Hall is aptly named. Despite her lassitude, Adamson senses that she provides the vital force of the household, that without her the family would cease to function, just as a hive or anthill cannot survive without its queen.

In another analogy with the insect world, after marrying Eugenia, Adamson discovers that his conjugal life assumes a cyclical pattern, for sex is banned during Eugenia’s frequent pregnancies. Pointedly, Adamson’s second honeymoon, in 1861, coincides with the mating flight of the local ants.


(The entire section is 1605 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Adams, Ann Marie. “’Reader, I Memorialized Him’: A. S. Byatt’s Representation of Alfred, Lord Tennyson in The Conjugial Angel.” LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 19, no. 1 (2008): 26-46. Explains the role of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as both character and poet in Byatt’s The Conjugial Angel.

Alfer, Alexa, and Michael J. Noble, eds. Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. For the advanced student of Byatt. This volume includes at least one essay on each of her major works. Includes an index and a select bibliography.

Kelly, Kathleen Coyne. A. S. Byatt. New York: Twayne, 1996. Part of a well-established series of introductions to literary figures, this volume includes a chronology, an annotated bibliography, a biographical sketch, and a commentary on Byatt’s individual works, including the novellas in Angels and Insects.

Levenson, Michael. “Angels and Insects: Theory, Analogy, Metamorphosis.” In Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt: Imagining the Real, edited by Alexa Alfer and Michael J. Noble. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Discussion of the prominent themes of the work. Part of a collection of essays exploring Byatt’s fictional works as types of realism.

Pearce, Margaret. “Morpho Eugenia: Problems with the Male Gaze.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 40, no. 4 (1999): 399-411. An explanation of the issues of gender and feminism raised by the male narrator who presents himself as the center of the story.

Reynolds, Margaret, and Jonathan Noakes. A. S. Byatt: The Essential Guide. New York: Random House, 2004. Provides a close reading of Byatt’s novels and novellas, a well-developed interview with Byatt, and a thorough discussion of themes and techniques.

Shuttleworth, Sally. “Writing Natural History: Morpho Eugenia.” In Essays on the Fiction of A. S. Byatt: Imagining the Real, edited by Alexa Alfer. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2001. An examination of the role that naturalism plays in Morpho Eugenia. Part of a collection of essays exploring Byatt’s fictional works as types of realism.

Williamson, Andrew. “’The Dead Man Touch’d Me from the Past’: Reading as Mourning, Mourning as Reading in A. S. Byatt’s The Conjugial Angel.” Neo-Victorian Studies 1 (2008): 110-137. Explores the séance as a motif that correlates spirituality with reading and writing.