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Angels and Insects
by A.S. Byatt

Category: Fiction / Historical
294 pages; ISBN: 0-09-959181-2

Rating: 10/10  (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Jenny Grinsted


Elegant, playful and sparklingly intelligent, Angels and Insects is constructed, unusually, of two novellas: each having a different cast but sharing a historical setting, namely the mid-Victorian period, and both more or less concerning themselves with the impact of Darwinism. Scientific fairytales, or maybe parables for a modern age, both face head on the fear of death and lapse into meaninglessness of a Godless world - whilst simultaneously and paradoxically working their own peculiar kind of narrative magic.

In Morpho Eugeneia, William Adamson, an entomologist returning from ten dangerous years in the Amazon basin, falls in love with Eugenia, the eldest daughter of his patron Harald Alabaster. Seemingly an impossible passion - he is penniless and of inferior ancestry - as if by magic he wins her hand. Where this (very self-consciously) fairytale romance ought to end, however, is where the novella really begins: William is absorbed into the microsociety of the Big House and, whilst erotically in thrall to Eugenia, nevertheless becomes dissatisfied with his confined, vaguely parasitic existence and increasingly aware that somewhere, something is wrong.

Whilst Harald secludes himself in his study desperately trying to defend God against the onslaught of Darwinism, William, the children of the house and their governess Matty investigate the colonies of ants on the estate. The parallels between the ants’ nests and the intricate society of the Big House are manifest; but what makes it so interesting is the way these parallels are intrinsically and self-consciously part of the story: how far we can draw conclusions about human beings by analogy with the animal world being itself a contested issue.

The second novella, The Conjugal Angel, quieter, darker, focuses around seances in, of all places, Margate. An exploration of grief in a post-Darwin world, this takes an oblique, distinctly feminist slant on that great monument of Victorian mourning and loss of faith, Tennyson’s elegy on his friend Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam A.H.H. . Emily, sister of the poet and one time fiance of Arthur, ostracised for marrying someone else years after his death, and now an old woman, participates in these seances; and their successful efforts to contact Arthur meet with powerful, troubling, emotionally ambiguous results.

If Darwin undermined the traditional, comforting religious narrative explaining our place in the world, both these novellas could be said to similarly undermine traditionally accepted narratives: the fairytale romance with a princess, Tennyson’s famous, monumental poem. Yet, without giving too much away, ultimately what they replace them with is not alienation, nihilism and chaos but unexpected, semi-miraculous transcendence all the more powerful for its recognition of its own evanescence and fragility. Matty, the governess in Morpho Eugenia, uses her knowledge of entomology to write a parable of her own within the novel; and A.S. Byatt doesn’t just affirm the continued existence of hope and love in a godless world, but more challengingly at times seems to make the explosion of stifling received narratives, be they the traditional, hierarchical religious cosmos, In Memoriam A.H.H. or the fairytale where the princess is always beautiful and always perfect, the very precondition of transcendence.


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