The Books: “Angels and Insects” – ‘Morpho Eugenia’ (A.S. Byatt)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

14925142.JPGAngels & Insects: Two Novellas – by A.S. Byatt. After Possession, which hit the literary world like a bomb going off … AS Byatt hung back for a while. I’m sure it was nuts for her. Awards and interviews and fame. The next book that came out (and believe me – after I read Possession, the first of her books I read, I read everything else of hers I could get my hands on … which took about 3 weeks … and then … dadblastit … I WAITED, and WAITED and WAITED …. It was agony!) Anyway, finally – out came Angels and Insects which is two novellas published as one book. They are peripherally connected to one another – one character overlaps with both stories (a very peripheral character) … and yet the themes are similar. “Morpho Eugenia” is the first novella in Angels and Insects and it is that story that was turned into a movie called Angels and Insects. Never mind that ONE of the stories is the “insect” story while the other one is the “angels” story … “Morpho Eugenia” is the insect story. I disliked that they used the title of the collection of novellas for the film of just ONE of the stories. But oh well. I wasn’t consulted. It actually wasn’t a bad movie – and it’s my favorite of Kirstin Scott Thomas’ performances, although – I wish she had been made even LESS attractive. (It’s hard, though – she’s so gorgeous). It’s just wrong for the part for her to have any conventional beauty whatsoever. It’s a MUCH stronger story if she barely seems like a woman at all. She says that in the electrifying scene at the end of the book (and actually – it’s electrifying in the movie, too – you think she is going to EXPLODE) … “You don’t think of me as a woman at all. So why should you be concerned about such and such?”

But let’s talk about the story itself, not the film. If you haven’t read Angels and Insects, I highly recommend it. Actually, just flipping through it right now made me realize I have to re-read it. I loved every word. It’s a feast for the mind and spirit.

“Morpho Eugenia” is the first story in the collection. The story is, well, relatively simple … although layers of complexity are added until you feel kind of like William himself (he’s the main character): buried in innuendoes, lies, and half-truths. You don’t know WHAT is going on. It takes place in 1860. William Adamson is a naturalist, who has spent years in the Amazon – living with the indigenous people – and studying flora, fauna, but mainly insects. Byatt returns again and again in all of her books to the fascination 19th century folks had for insects. It was nearly a mania. Randolph Henry Ash in Possession has the same fascination. And some of Christabel’s letters and poems in Possession have to do with various insects as metaphors. Mid 19th century. A time of Darwin, of scientific exploration and discovery … William Adamson represents that. He has spent years outside of normal British society. On his return home to England, his ship sank – and he was rescued, and managed to save his once-in-a-lifetime only specimen collection of tropical butterflies. In comes Harald Alabaster – a rich dude who lives on a self-sustaining estate with his wife, many children, and a bazillion servants. He is interested in Adamson’s work – so he basically invites him to come stay on his estate, as the resident naturalist. Bring his specimens. A conservatory is set up where the butterflies can fly free – and a laboratory is set up for Adamson to do his work in peace and quiet. Adamson very quickly kind of falls in love with Eugenia – one of the Harald Alabaster’s daughters. At the same time – he begins to “work with” Matty Crompton, a spinster, who is the younger children’s governess. Matty Crompton, a woman whose position would never allow her the freedom of Adamson (her position in her class, her sex, her education) … so she asks Adamson if he woudln’t mind helping her teach the children, and go on nature walks with them – to pass on some of his knowledge about insects.

I’m making this book sound very boring. It’s actually the total opposite. Something is deeply deeply wrong in the Alabaster household and it takes William a long long time to figure it out. He is in an awkward position because he is indebted to Alabaster – and once he marries Eugenia – he almost becomes enslaved to him. He begins to lose his purpose in life. Eugenia doesn’t understand any of his issues. She is most definitely Daddy’s little girl. So William tries to lose himself more and more in his work … only he doesn’t know anymore what his work is FOR. He feels trapped on the Alabaster estate.

Matty Crompton, meanwhile, has this intense (one might say fiery) interest in ants – ant societies and communities … so they set up observation posts to watch the ants do their thing. Because this is Byatt – we get multiple levels of narrative. Crompton keeps notes on what she observes. Instead of Byatt describing the notes to us as an omniscent narrator – we get to read the notes themselves. We get to read William’s personal journal. Matty has actually written a fanciful and violent fairy tale – she asks William to read it and give her comments. We get to read the whole thing. You go deeper and deeper into the intellectual pursuits of these two characters – you lose sight of the Alabaster estate altogether (which is what these two experience when they lie in the grass, watching the ants) … and when you come back up for air – after 20 pages of his journals or whatever … and you are “back to reality” – it’s quite jarring.

A man needs to be free. A man must not be beholden to anyone – father-in-law, wife, job … William has chosen his own prison – but he didn’t realize at the time what a prison it would be. Matty Crompton, the spinster governess, sees all. And yet until the electrifying scene at the end – you never know what it is that she sees. She seems to only be consumed with ants. And John Milton. Other than that … she is barely human.

It’s a brilliant novella – full of ideas, and passion, and long conversations about Darwin and God and Milton … and also a couple of plot-shockers … ugliness at the core of life at the Alabasters.

I highly recommend it.

Here’s an excerpt. William has not yet married Eugenia. But he is overly conscious of her presence and being at all times … he’s a bit obsessed with her physicality. Another way of saying: he wants her. Yet you can tell too … from the first sentence … that there is something about this life … on an estate where you never have to leave … that doesnt’ suit him. Especially because he is, essentially, an employee.

Watch how he’s having this lovely (he thinks) conversation with Eugenia … where he has been made the ‘star’ of her attentions … and watch Matty Crompton’s jujitsu move (physical and cerebral). Good for you, Matty. Intellectuals everywhere thank you.


Excerpt from Angels & Insects: Two Novellas – by A.S. Byatt.

He went on nature rambles. He felt coerced into doing this, reminded of his dependent status by the organisation of Miss Mead and Matty Crompton, and yet at the same time he enjoyed the outings. All three elder girls sometimes came and sometimes did not. Sometimes he did not know whether Eugenia would make one of the party until the very moment of setting out, when they would assemble on the gravel walk in front of the house armed with nets, with jam-jars on string handles, with metal boxes and useful scissors. There were days when his morning’s work became almost impossible because of the tension in his diaphragm over whether he would or would not see her, because of the imagination he lavished on how she would look, crossing thel awn to the gate in the wall, crossing the paddock and the orchard under the blossoming fruit trees to the fields which sloped down to the little stream, where they fished for minnows and sticklebacks, caddis grubs and water-snails. He liked the little girls well enough; they were docile, pale little creatures, well buttoned up, who spoke when they were spoken to. Elaine in particular had a good eye for hidden treasures on the undersides of leaves, or interesting bore-holes in muddy banks. When Eugenia was not in the party he felt his old self again, scanning everything with a minute attention that in the forests had been the attention of a primitive hunter as well as a modern naturalist, of a small animal afraid amongst threatening sounds and movements, as well as a scientific explorer. Here the pricking of his skin was associated not with fear, but with the invisible cloud of electric forces that spangled Eugenia’s air as she strolled calmly through the meadows. Perhaps it was fear. He did not wish to feel it. He was only in abeyance, untnil he felt it again.

One day, when they were all occupied on the bank of the streams, including both Eugenia and Enid, he was drawn into speaking of his feelings about all this. There had been a great fall of spring rain, and various loose clumps of grass and twigs were floating along the unusually placid surface of the stream, between the trailing arms of the weeping willows and the groups of white poplar. There were two white ducks and a coot, swimming busily; the sun was over the water, kingcups were golden, early midges danced. Matty Crompton, a patient huntress, had captured two sticklebacks and trailed her net in the water, watching the shadows under the bank. Eugenia stood next to William. She breathed in deeply, and sighed out.

“How beautiful all this is,” she said. “How lucky I always feel to live just here, of all the spots on the earth. To see the same flowers come out every spring in the meadows, and the same stream always running. I suppose it must seem a very bounded existence to you, with your experience of the world. But my roots go deep …”

“When I was in the Amazon,” he answered simply and truthfully, “I was haunted by an image of an English meadow in spring – just as it is today, with the flowers, and the new grass, and the early blossom, and the little breeze lifting everything, and the earth smelling fresh after the rain. It seemed to me that such scenes were truly Paradise – that there was not anything on earth more beautiful than an English bank in flower, than an English mixed hedge, with roses and hawthorn, honeysuckle and bryony. Before I went, I had read highly coloured accounts of the brilliance of the tropical jungle, the flowers and fruits and gaudy creatures, but there is nothing there so colourful as this. It is all a monotonous sameness of green, and such a mass of struggling, climbing, suffocating vegetation – often you cannot see the sky. It is true that the weather is like that of the Golden Age – everything flowers and fruits perpetually and simultaneously in the tropical heat, you have always Spring, Summer, and Autumn at once, and no Winter. But there is something inimical about the vegetation itself. There is a kind of tree called the Sipo Matador – which translates, the Murderer Sipo – which grows tall and thin like a creeper and clings to another tree, to make its way up the thirty, forty feet to the canopy, eating its way into the very substance of its host until that dies – and the Sipo perforce crashes down with it. You hear the strange retorts of crashing trees suddenly in the silence, like cracks of gunshot, a terrible and terrifying sound I could not for some months explain to myself. Everything there is inordinate, Miss Alabaster. There is a form of the violet, there – see, here are some – that grow to be a huge tree. And yet that is in so many ways the innocent, the unfallen world, the virgin forest, the wild people in the interior who are as unaware of modern ways – modern evils – as our first parents. There are strange analogies. Out there, no woman may touch a snake. They run to ask you to kill one for them. I have killed many snakes for frightened women. I have been fetched considerable distances to do so. The connection of the woman and the snake in the garden is made even out there, as though it is indeed part of some universal pattern ofs ymbols, even where Genesis has never been heard of – I talk too much, I bore you, I am afraid.”

“Oh no. I am quite fascinated. I am glad to hear that our Spring world in some sense remains your ideal. I want you to be happy here, Mr. Adamson. And I am most intrigued by what you have to say of the women and snakes. Did you live entirely without the company of civilised peoples, Mr. Adamson? Among naked savages?”

“Not entirely. I had various friends, of all colours and races, during my stay in various communities. But sometimes, yes, I was the only white guest in tribal villages.”

“Were you not afraid?”

“Oh, often. Upon two occasions I overheard plots to murder me, made by men ignorant of my knowledge of their tongue. But also I met with much kindness and friendship from people not so simple as you might suppose from seeing them.”

“Are they really naked and painted?”

“Some are. Some are part-clothed. Some wholly clothed. They are greatly given to decorating their skins with vegetable dyes.”

He was aware of the limpid blue eyes resting on him, and felt that behind her delicate frown she was considering his relations with the naked people. And then felt that his thoughts smutched her, that he was too muddied and dirty to think of her, let alone touch at her secret thoughts from his own secret self. He said, “Those floating grasses, even, remind me of the great floating islands of uprooted trees and creepers and bushes that make their way along the great river. I used to compare those to Paradise Lost. I read my Milton in my rest-times. I thought of the passage where Paradise is cast loose, after the Deluge.”

Matty Crompton, without lifting her eyes from the stream surface, provided the quotation.

‘then shall this mount
Of Paradise by might of waves be moved
Out of his place, pushed by the horned flood,
With all his verdure spoiled, and trees adrift,
Down the great river to the opening gulf,
And there take root an island salt and bare,
The haunt of seals and orcs, and sea-mews’ clang.’

“Clever Matty,” said Eugenia. Matty Crompton did not answer, but made a sudden plunge and twist with her fishing net and brought up a thrashing, furious fish, a stickleback, large, at least for a stickleback, rosybreasted and olive-backed. She tipped it out of the net into the jar with the other captives, and the little girls crowded round to look.

The creature gasped for a moment and floated inert. Then it could be seen to gather its forces. It blushed rosier – its chest was the most amazing colour, a fiery pink overlaid, or underlaid, with the olive colour that pervaded the rest of it. It raised its dorsal fin, which became a kind of spiny, draconian ridge, and then it became an almost invisible whirling lash, attacking the other fish, who had nowhere, in their cylindrical prison, to hide. The water boiled. Eugenia began to laugh ,and Elaine began to cry. William came to the rescue, pouring fish from jar to jar until, after some gasping on grass, he had managed to isolate the rosy-waistcoated aggressor in a jar of his own. The other fish opened and closed their tremulous mouths. Elaine crouched over them.

William said, “It is very interesting that it is only this very aggressive male who has the pink coat. Two of the others are male, but they are not flushed with anger, or elation, as he is. Mr. Wallace argues that females are dull because they keep the nests in general, but this father both makes and guards his own hatchery until the fry swim away. And yet he remains an angry red, perhaps as a warning, long after the need to attract a female into his handsome house has quite vanished.”

Matty said, “We have probably orphaned his eggs.”

“Put him back,” said Elaine.

“No, no, bring him home, let us keep him awhile, and put him back when we have studied him,” said Miss Mead. “He will build another nest. Thousands of fish eggs are eaten every minute, Elaine, it is the way of Nature.”

We are not Nature,” said Elaine.

“What else are we?” asked Matty Crompton. She had not thought out her theology, William said to himself, without speaking out loud. Nature was smiling and cruel, that was clear. He offered his hands to Eugenia, to help her up the bank of the stream, and she took hold with her hands, gripping his, through her cotton gloves, always through cotton gloves, warmed by her warmth, impregnated by whatever it was that breathed from her skin.

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3 Responses to The Books: “Angels and Insects” – ‘Morpho Eugenia’ (A.S. Byatt)

  1. ak says:

    Right before I read Angels and Insects, I read a book on Darwin, changes in English society, and the whole passion for amateur scientific pursuits among “gentlemen scholars.” I wish I could remember the book’s title (Evolution and Society?). I do remember a great quote from it, though: “Bughunting was the Trojan horse of Victorian agnosticism.”

    Anyway, it gave me some insight to A&I that I probably would’ve missed otherwise. I’m sure to some Victorians, the rapidly changing science of the day was as unsettling as William’s discoveries in the Alabaster household. Well, maybe not that unsettling, but pretty unsettling.

  2. red says:

    Awesome comment – thank you thank you. Great perspective – Yes, as I recall in Morpho Eugenia, William has a lot of conversations with Mr. Alabaster – who is concerned that William no longer believes in God. They have a lot of conversations about what his dedication to science would do to his faith.

    Hugely disruptive, I imagine – and the whole bug thing is fascinating to me. A mania for insects!

  3. Pingback: Angels and insects « There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one

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