Analysis of A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects

Published in 1992, Angels and Insects continues A. S. Byatt’s interest in the Victorian era, which was established with her Booker Prize–winning novel Possession: A Romance (1990). The two novellas published as Angels and Insects are “Morpho Eugenia” and “The Conjugal Angel,” the latter concerned with angels and the former with insects. Set in the mid-19th century, “Morpho Eugenia” recounts the experiences of the naturalist William Adamson during his time at Bredely Hall, where he is staying with his aristocratic patron, the Reverend Harald Alabaster. Adamson marries one of Alabaster’s daughters, Eugenia, but after discovering her incestuous relationship with her brother Edgar he leaves for the Amazon once again. He is joined on this expedition by Matty Crompton, with whom he had been compiling a natural history book for children while at Bredely Hall. In this novella, Byatt addresses the mid-19th-century conflict between science and religion that arose in response to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. “The Conjugal Angel” similarly treats the complex relationship between science and religion by considering the position of spiritualism in the 1870s. The protagonists of this novella, Lilias Papagay and Sophy Sheekhy, are amateur mediums who hold s ances for their social circle. This circle includes the historical figures Captain and Emily Jesse; the sister of Alfred Tennyson, Emily was engaged to Arthur Hallam but married Captain Jesse after Hallam’s death. All present at the s ances, including Captain Jesse, presume that Emily attends in the hope of receiving a message from her former fiancé . When Arthur sends a message that he and Emily will be joined in the hereafter, Emily surprises everyone by refusing to have anything to do with the arrangement. For Emily, as for several other members of the group, communing with the dead prompts a fuller appreciation of the living.

Although these novellas are located at different points in the Victorian era and concern different characters, they are subtly linked. The title of the collection refers to both novellas, and they are concerned with the challenges posed to religion in the 19th century from both science and spiritualism. Moreover, the ending of “Morpho Eugenia” provides a subtle intertextual link to the plot of “The Conjugal Angel”; the ship that Matty and Adamson set sail on, The Calypso, is captained by Arturo Papagay, Lilias Papagay’s husband. The ending of “Morpho Eugenia” is ambiguous, leaving its protagonists “on the crest of a wave” (160) hovering between the ordered English world they are escaping and the Amazon to which they are headed. Although Arturo returns at the end of “The Conjugal Angel,” there is no such resurrection for Matty and Adamson, so the ambiguous ending of “Morpho Eugenia” is never resolved. In adopting such an elusive technique for closure, Byatt recalls Charlotte Bront ’s Villette (1853), which refuses to resolve the question whether the protagonist returns safely or drowns at sea.

The novellas belong to the genre of neo-Victorian fiction, a mode of contemporary fiction that engages with the Victorian past through an adoption of Victorian characters, locations, or themes. Byatt’s most famous work in that genre, Possession, adopts a dual plot to explore the interrelations between the 19th and 20th centuries. In contrast, the novellas in Angels and Insects are located entirely in the 19th century and adopt a narrative voice that appears consistent with 19th-century fiction. Yet Byatt remains aware of the 20th-century perspective of her readers and manages to incorporate it neatly into her stories without diminishing or patronizing the 19th-century context. Thus, while an opposition between 19th-century belief and 20th-century skepticism might be expected in “The Conjugal Angel,” Byatt complicates the issue by revealing the coexistence of an array of positions regarding spiritualism in the 19th century. She most expertly achieves this through the incorporation of various stanzas from Tennyson’s 19th-century poem, In Memoriam (1850); an elegy to Arthur Hallam, it articulated many of the Victorian anxieties and questions concerning religion and its place in the modern world.

Byatt, A. S. Angels and Insects. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992.
Schor, Hilary M. “Sorting, Morphing and Mourning: A. S. Byatt Ghostwrites Victorian Fiction.” In Victorian Afterlife: Postmodern Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century, edited by John Kucich and Dianne F. Sadoff, 234–251. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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