Haunting prose. Byatt's masterpiece.
The shipwrecked naturalist who is the protagonist of "Morpho Eungeia" is rescued by a family whose clandestine passions come to seem as inscrutable as the behavior of insects. In "The Conjugial Angel" a circle of fictional mediums finds itself haunted by the ghose of a very real historical personage.
In these accomplished novellas, the author returns to the territory she explored in Possession: the landscape of Victorian England, where science and spiritualism are both popular mania, and domestic decorum coexists with brutality and perversion.
...taken from the back cover of the book
Angels and Insects - A.S. Byatt
(Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel)
This is really two books in one, joined only by the most tenuous of
The first, Morpho Eugenia, is the story that the 1995 movie 'Angels &
Insects' tells. The film follows the plot of the book faithfully, which
definitely influenced my reading of the book. A shipwrecked naturalist,
William Adamson, is befriended by a wealthy Victorian gentleman, who
invites him to stay at his estate. The naturalist falls in
lust-at-first-sight with one of the gentleman's daughters, Eugenia, and,
to his surprise, is given permission to marry her. They wed and have lots
of children, but in a rather-obvious literary device, Eugenia has no
personality whatsoever. However, another woman, a children's tutor, Matty,
who collaborates with the Adamson on a book about ants, is just brimming
with personality, although he seems oblivious to it. However, when a
Shocking Truth is revealed, things quickly turn out the way the reader saw
that they should have long ago.
The Conjugial Angel, to me, was not as significant a piece. Although it
has some interesting themes and characters, it's rather lacking in plot.
It has to do with mediums in Victorian England, and has lots of
fascinatingly well-researched detail regarding their place in that
society. It's also about the poetry of Tennyson, and about grief and
mourning. It's only tertiarily about Mrs. Papagay, a woman whose lusty
husband, whom she very much loved, has been lost at sea, and how she turns
to being a medium to both make a living and to seek answers for herself.
It's too bad, because Mrs. Papagay is a great character, and I felt that a
more conventional novel structure would have showcased her story
These 2 novellas are linked by their setting in Victorian England, both exploring the nature of life and domestic living. One explores sexuality and the place of people in the Darwinian world, the other spirituality and the nature of communication with the dead/living. Both topics were all the rage in Victorian life, both popular because of the discussions of the nature of humanity that was brought into focus with Darwins theories that placed mankind farther from the angels. I enjoyed both these stories by keeping their context always in mind. From the greater perspective they were both magical in the facets of living at that time, and even today.