A S Byatt Angels & Insects
Vintage 1995 (1992)
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill. — R S Stevenson
I find I have contradictory feelings for Byatt’s fiction: I strongly admire what she writes, for its stimulating ideas, its in-depth research, its clever structuring and its examination of human nature; but I can’t say that I love the handful of her novels that I’ve read. It’s not that they seem preponderantly intellectual — I don’t think that’s necessarily a turn-off — but rather that I don’t always believe in, let alone warm to, the characters she depicts.
That certainly is the case with Angels & Insects, a pair of loosely-linked novellas set in the 19th century and infused with some of the obsessions that characterised that age. ‘Morpho Eugenia’ and ‘The Conjugial Angel’ deal respectively with the Victorian urge to explore and catalogue that gave rise to that era’s expansion of knowledge and understanding in the biological sciences and, in an opposite direction, a rush towards spiritualism, séances and beliefs in otherworldly beings. Along the way we encounter lonely individuals ensconced in the bosom of family or among companions, taboos broken in the midst of Christian communities, grief and loss suffered in comfortable surroundings. Readers may feel sympathy for those who suffer in such circumstances but I wonder whether they really know or even care about them?
‘Morpho Eugenia’ is centred on William Adamson who, after a decade in the Amazon jungle and a disastrous shipwreck, finds himself in the early 1860s cataloguing specimens at the country pile of the Alabaster family. Here he falls in love with Eugenia, one of the daughters of his patron, eventually marrying her. For various reasons — some defined, others less so — he’s not entirely happy, but he manages to find a kindred mind in the family tutor Matty Crompton. The end of the novella finds him on board Captain Arturo Papagay’s ship sailing back over the Atlantic to his beloved Amazon, a happy conclusion of sorts. Adamson deserves to be happy, we feel, but he’s a bit of a cold fish — for all that he’s infatuated with Eugenia — for much of the novel.
‘The Conjugial Angel’ is set in Margate a few years after ‘Morpho Eugenia’, in 1875. Here we meet a circle of spiritualists loosely united by Swedenborgian beliefs: Mrs Lilias Papagay, Sophy Sheekhy, Job Hawke, Mrs Hearnshaw, Captain Richard Jesse and Mrs Emily Jesse (née Tennyson). Most of the novella seems to be concerned with the group’s belief in angels and with examining one by one their beliefs and concerns. It’s not until towards the end that this rambling narrative — in which little apparently happens — starts to take shape as closure beckons for one or two of the participants. I found that I felt sorry for the leading participants — Emily Jesse in particular, but also Lilias Papagay and to some extent Sophy Sheekhy — but didn’t exactly warm to them.
You can see that the bipartite novel Angels and Insects takes its cue from overarching themes in the two novellas. You will also note that both types of the titular creatures are winged. Byatt, as many another author is so tempted, binds her narratives in a web of associative words. In the first story (the second, incidentally, to be written) winged insects — moths, butterflies, bees and, for a brief moment in summer, ants too — populate the novel. Morpho Eugenia, a genuine butterfly species, is what William Adamson imagines his bride to be (pretty and, as it turns out, flighty) and he spends a good deal of time logging the activities of the estate’s colonies of social insects. The metaphor of Eugenia’s resemblance to a breeding insect queen — Eugenia means ‘well-born — and her allegiance to the Alabaster family — cold, unfeeling landed gentry, a hive mentality rendering them faithful only to their own — make it clear that William (and Matty too) doesn’t belong to this closed world. William’s surname of Adamson underlines the aptness of his decision to return to the primeval Eden of the Amazon forest where, like a second Adam, he can continue to give ‘names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.’
In the second story the principal winged creatures are clearly the angels, though their nature is not imagined consistently by every character, whether intellectually by Mr Hawke or in a trance state by Sophy Sheekhy. But there are other feathered animals in evidence, from Mrs Jesse’s pet raven Aaron to her experiencing dizziness ‘as though a cloud of wings beat about her head’ or imagining herself pregnant ‘like a female Prometheus whose liver was regularly ripped at by a huge, rapacious dark bird’. And we cannot help but note that three of the principals have bird-related names: Mr Hawke most obviously but also Mrs Hearnshaw (the surname Earnshaw or Hearnshaw derives from an Old English compound meaning ‘eagle’s nook’ or similar), and of course there’s Mrs Papagay, related to popinjay, an alternative name for a parrot.
It is Mrs Papagay who provides the link with the first tale through her sea captain husband — missing at sea and presumed drowned. She and her companion, Sophy Sheekhy (from the Greek for ‘wise’ and the Gaelic sítheach ‘other worldly’) are the two genuine sensitives in the group, one able to receive messages from the dead, the other seeing what the others do not. Mrs Papagay, like the others, is desperate to get communications from loved ones in the group, but her Arturo is strangely absent. Mrs Hearnshaw wants to encounter her lost children, either stillborn or miscarried; Emily Jesse, the sister of Alfred Tennyson, desperately waits to hear from her dead love, Arthur Hallam, for whom her brother wrote In Memoriam. If the ties that bind the group together seem to be loosening in the course of the story, it is Mrs Papagay final encounter that provides the emotional punch to the story, much as William’s admiration of the family tutor Matty leads to a kind of resolution for the first tale.
‘Morpho Eugenia’ is often regarded as the more effective of the two novellas, but I grew to prefer ‘The Conjugial Angel’. I didn’t warm to the vapid William, more observant of the natural world than of the foibles of human nature, but I did engage more with the cast of characters in the seaside town. I enjoyed Byatt’s turns of phrase: Mrs Papagay ‘had a warm heart, like a comfortable brown thrush in a soft nest;’ she wondered whether ‘men were no better than creepy-crawlies, no better than butterflies and blowflies’; Mrs Jesse ‘encased herself in her private aura of mixed eccentricity, lingering tragedy, and finicking attention to [her pets] Pug and Aaron’. And Byatt’s extensive quoting from In Memoriam anchors her tale in a historical reality that makes one ponder how much may be purely imaginative.
Both tales have an air of melancholia, shot through with occasional moments of optimism and happiness. As Robert Louis Stevenson has it, in another context, ‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea,‘ lines that sprang to my mind when finishing each of the novellas and which suggest both homecoming and quietus.
Perhaps this is my lasting impression of Angels & Insects: Byatt is a species of entomologist, observing her subjects in their native environment, seemingly detached and dispassionate in her descriptions; and yet as entomologist she is passionate about her study, and in her minute observations one can discern, if one looks, a degree of compassion for her subject.