Seen in a Victorian Mirror
Two A.S. Byatt novellas reflect but fail to illuminate a past period
IN "Angels and Insects," A. S. Byatt returns to the Victorian world summoned up with such wizardry in her previous novel, "Possession" (1990), this time in a pair of novellas exploring, among other things, questions of love and marriage.
The first, "Morpho Eugenia," takes its title from a species of butterfly. The hero, William Adamson, is an intelligent and enterprising man of humble birth who has spent 10 years observing and collecting specimens of wildlife in the Amazon jungle. A contemporary of Darwin, he is impressed by the power of Darwin's theory to explain the rich diversity of life he has encountered in his travels. As the story opens, Adamson, lean and leathery from his expedition and the shipwreck he survived on his return, is
staying at the gracious country home of the Rev. Harald Alabaster, a white-haired baronet who is something of an amateur naturalist himself. The Alabaster family, as blond-haired and ivory-complexioned as their name suggests, includes the baronet's plump, indolent wife; two hunting-shooting-riding sons, three lovely nubile daughters, and a bevy of smaller children.
The kindly paterfamilias offers to help the impecunious Adamson by inviting him to stay on and catalog his collection. Alabaster himself is writing a treatise in which he hopes to demonstrate that the recent discoveries of natural science are not incompatible with the belief in a divinely ordered universe, and he would like to have Adamson on hand as a sounding board for his ideas. Adamson agrees.
Before long, however, the naturalist is totally smitten with the blonde beauty of the eldest daughter, Eugenia. He knows he is beneath her station, yet he feels he "must have her or die," as if his need for her were an instinct stronger and deeper than his rational mind would allow. A reasonable and disciplined man, however, he approaches the object of his ardor in a civilized manner that wins the family's respect and makes this union a real possibility.
As Adamson becomes an accepted member of the household, he also observes its workings, as if it were an anthill or a beehive: the combative, idle brothers like drones; the beautifully adorned ladies like queen bees; and an army of neutered female "workers:" "silently hurrying, black-clad young women, carrying buckets of cinders, buckets of water, boxes of polishing tools, fistfuls of brooms and brushes and carpet beaters.... Some were no more than children, hardly different from the little girls in the n ursery, except that the latter were delicately swathed in petticoats, and frills, ... and these were for the most part skinny, with close-fitting, unornamental bodices and whisking dark skirts, wearing formidably starched white caps over their hair."
Adamson is well aware that analogies between insects and humans can be misleading. But he is blessed or cursed with a kind of double vision that leads him to see such correspondences, from the social organization of ants and bees to the mysterious process of change embodied in a caterpillar's metamorphosis. Many remarkable discoveries are in store for him, proving that things are not always what they seem, whether it's the true nature of his love for Eugenia or the nature of the companionship he shares w ith the plain but intelligent Matty Crompton, an educated woman who, like himself, occupies an anomalous role in the household.
The characters in the second novella, "The Conjugial Angel," ("conjugial" being the special term used by the famous mystic Swedenborg) view life from a very different, but equally "Victorian" perspective. They are a circle of people who hold seances, hoping to talk with souls of the dead. Two are mediums: quiet, virginal Sophie Sheekhy and lively Lilias Papagay, "an intelligent, questioning ... woman ... who, in an earlier age, would have been a theologically minded nun, and in a later one would have had
a university training in philosophy or psychology or medicine." These ladies are neither fanatics nor frauds. They are not quite sure themselves what is actually happening when they go into trances or practice automatic writing. Mrs. Papagay, who sorely misses her husband, a sailor lost at sea, values the opportunity to perhaps receive messages from him. But even more, she finds, seances offer her a wonderful way of being involved with life: "this traffic with the dead was the best way to know, to observe,
to love the living, not as they were politely over teacups, but in their secret selves, their deepest desires and fears."
The seances take place at the home of Captain and Mrs. Jesse: he is a truly courageous sea captain with a heroic record; she is a sister of the Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson, author of the great poem that most eloquently and poignantly articulated the faith and doubts of an era: "In Memoriam A. H. H."
Emily Tennyson Jesse is the sister who had been engaged to marry her brother's dearest friend, the very same Arthur Henry Hallam whose sudden death at the age of 22 inspired Tennyson's masterpiece, a testament of the grief that haunted the poet for the rest of his life. Tennyson's powerful expression of love, sorrow, faith, doubt, and devotion is something of a burden to Emily. His loss overshadows her own. And her marriage to Captain Jesse nine years after Hallam's death has elicited murmurs of surprise
Byatt's characters - fictional and historical - ponder the nature of love - temporal and eternal - in images and concepts that are authentically Victorian, yet not that far removed from the hopes and fears still felt by their descendants a century later. Her lushly descriptive prose has a Pre-Raphaelite vividness of color and detail. She manages, by and large, to avoid the fallacy of attributing present-day ideas to people of the past. Indeed, if she errs, it is more in the opposite direction of taking t he past too literally: of failing to delve below the surface to find out more about the Victorians than the Victorians already knew about themselves.
"Angels and Insects" is an exquisitely executed, intelligent, and diverting diptych that lacks only the final touch of inspiration to transform it from reflective mirror into illuminating lamp.