Tuesday, 25 July 2006

Review: Angels and Insects, A. S. Byatt (1992)

In the first of the two novellas in this volume, ‘Morpho Eugenia,’ William Adamson, an impecunious naturalist living in nineteenth-century England, falls in love with the daughter of his patron, Harald Alabaster. Eugenia is the eldest daughter, whose army fiancé had died tragically, and now her sister Rowena is to marry a young man. To compensate for her distress, William organises to create a cloud of butterflies; she is delighted. In the evening, the moths he has assembled will emerge and create a similar spectacle in dimmer colours.

He hoped to be able to sit alone with her in the dusk for a short time, companionably. This was the reward he had promised himself, which shows how things had changed a very little, how he had changed towards her. He even once or twice went over Harald’s remarks, so full of some kind of charge of meaning, so ambivalently impenetrable. ‘Say nothing. Say nothing. Your feelings do you credit.’ Which feelings? His love, or his respect for her difference, her station? What would Harald say if he said ‘I love Eugenia. I must have her or die’ — no, not that, that was ridiculous — ‘I love Eugenia; it is painful for me to stay in her presence, unless I may hope where I cannot expect to hope —’ What would Harald say? Had he imagined a paternal benignity in his gaze? Would paternal ire and outrage take over if he spoke? Did Harald respect his patience or his discretion?

.  .  .

She sat beside him on the bench, and her presence troubled him. He was inside the atmosphere, or light, or scent she spread, as a boat is inside the drag of a whirlpool, as a bee is caught in the lasso of perfume from the throat of a flower.

A kind of fate develops around the physical presence of Matty Crompton, as they make their book together, after the marriage, which goes off successfully (too smoothly, perhaps — not enough drama there to satisfy the fictive imperative — so that we start to wait for something else to happen). The book is their hope of economic independence. Their prison: the Alabaster household, a great country residence filled with horses, maids, cooks, and whispers. There’s also the evil brother, Edgar, and the flighty maid Amy, plus the wretched mediocrity of Harald, who — as a pastor — is struggling to develop a theory of intelligent design to offset the growing body of evidence for evolution — and all that it entails. Finally, Matty and William are free of the great secret, the ill that dwells in that haven of comfort, that sterile copiousness.

And the second picture is very different. Imagine the strong little ship, Calypso, rushing through the mid-Atlantic night, as far from land as she will be at any point on this voyage. The sky is a profound blue-black, spattered with the flowing, spangled river of the Milky Way, glittering and slippery with suns and moons and worlds, greater and smaller, like spattered seed. The sea is a deep blue-black, ribbed with green, crested as it turns, with silver spray and crinkled crests of airy salt water. It too is swarming, with phosphorescent animacules, the Medusae, swimming with tiny hairs, presenting a kind of reverse image of the lavish star-soup.

The second novella in this volume, ‘The Conjugial Angel,’ opens at a gathering. There is a startling connection with the last tale, however: Mrs Papagay is the widow of the captain of the Calypso. So, you wonder: what happened to them? In this second novella there is much spiritualist action, so maybe we’ll find out.

The other characters, all finely drawn, are found at first at Emily Jesse’s house, where they are conducting a séance. There is a further twist, just to prove that Byatt can juggle five balls at once: Emily was born a Tennyson so, yes, she is the poet laureate’s sister, and had been the sweetheart of Arthur Hallam, whose premature death Tennyson commemorated in In Memoriam.

These being denizens of the late nineteenth century, and gentle to boot, there is much reciting of poetry. The séance is a wonderful contrivance, full of ghoulish desires and unspoken yearnings, and spiced with matter-of-fact interactions: the balance is marvellous.

It was wrong, [Emily] knew it was wrong, to see Arthur in terms of mouldering heads and moral oppression. When he came to Somersby he had made it into a real Summerland of its own, a land of Romance. She could see him now, leaping down out of the gig into the lane, under the trees, embracing Alfred, Charles, Frederick, his Cambridge friends, smiling amiably at the younger boys and the assembled garden of girls, Mary the beauty, Cecilia the intelligent, Matilda the damaged innocent, Emilia, Emily, the wild and shy. ‘I love you all,’ he had told them, sitting out on the lawn in the evening light, ‘I am in love with every one of you, however romantic, however prosaic, however strange and fantastic, however resolutely down-to-earth.’ He had put up his arms in a great circular gesture embracing them all, which echoed, or more properly was echoed in, the gestures of the witch-elms, in In Memoriam, the trees who ‘Laid their dark arms about the field’. She remembered them reading Dante and Petrarch aloud, she remembered singing and playing the harp, and Arthur’s watching, delighted, ear and eye, gave the music a kind of perfection of intention and resonance they never had when the family played and sang only to itself.

1 comment:

RosieP said...

The movie is set during the mid-19th century, not the late 19th century.