When will he suspect?

John Barrell

  • Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt
    Chatto, 290 pp, £14.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3717 7

I don’t quite know what to say about Angels and Insects. It consists of a pair of novellas, ‘Morpho Eugenia’ and ‘The Conjugial Angel’, which, like Possession, are set in Victorian England, and written in a free imitation of mid-19th-century literary English. My doubts are the obvious ones. It’s not that I can’t make up my mind about whether or not the work they do, of re-creation and creative imitation, is well done – much of the time it’s very well done, as well as I can imagine it could be. But even when it is, I’m not sure of the point of doing it, or of doing it more than once (just to see if it can be done). The idea behind these novellas seems to be something like the converse of the adage that if a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing well: if a thing can be done well, it must be worth doing. But the more successfully Byatt re-creates the Victorian novel of ideas, the more she persuades us of the irredeemable pastness of the past she re-creates, and the more the ideas she deals with, of determinism, individual freedom, the nature of life after death, seem to announce that these are no longer our concerns, at least not in this way, in these contexts, in these words and forms. The book seemed far more remote from me than any Victorian fiction, partly no doubt because of my awareness of the factitiousness of the enterprise, but also because that awareness was continually reinforced by the inevitable factitiousness of the style, which becomes Victorian at the cost of using too many formulas and too few resources, like Latin prose written by a thoroughly competent Latinist.

It is possible I suppose to see this not as a problem but as the whole point, and this may be how Byatt thinks of it. The point would be, I take it, to labour in vain in order to establish that the labour is vain – that the attempt to invent Victorian fictions will invite and enable us to reflect on the impossibility of doing so; to realise that the past is indeed a foreign country, and that the closer we seem to approach it the further it will recede. But this is not an idea so difficult to grasp or to exemplify as to account for the dedication with which Byatt in recent years has embraced her task. And if this were the point, it would make redundant the occasional displays of deliberate verbal bad manners: a dog ‘farts’, a man has a ‘prick’, a woman in bed ‘asks for more’. These anachronisms, by reminding us of what Victorian novels could not say, certainly serve to establish the distance between 1870 and 1992, but they do so unnecessarily when the same point will be made by the most faithful obedience to Victorian proprieties.

Then again it may be that moments like these are supposed to function like the table I once saw in Jane Austen’s house, which was advertised by its explanatory card as the very one at which Miss Austen is reputed to have written Persuasion, except that (as the card very candidly acknowledged) it could not have been made before 1847. The idea behind this confession was perhaps that it would act as a magnet for our suspicions, leaving us with nothing but the fullest confidence in the authenticity of the other features of the house, the Laura Ashley wallpapers, the glass cabinet with its dingy Regency dolls.

Perhaps I am striving too hard to see the ‘point’ of these novellas, when their only point is to be enjoyable fictions, but I don’t think so. They are both urgently didactic, with a striking, and strikingly single-minded, drive to deliver a message – the need to believe in the freedom of the will in an apparently deterministic universe, for example, or the importance of seeking our happiness on earth and not in an uncertain heaven. There is a moral to each novella, thoroughly appropriate to the story, but the appropriateness depends to a large extent on the reconstructed language and context of Victorian religious anxiety, so that the more pressing the message, the less it seems to press upon us. These Victorian novellas of ideas are resolutely novellas of Victorian ideas.

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