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.

To put it another way, or it may be to make a related point, that appropriateness of moral to story, story to moral, is largely the result of the impressive intelligence with which the thread of the narrative is so inextricably interwoven with the discourses which combine to give it meaning – Victorian religion, science, elegiac poetry, ethics, social description. There is an extraordinary density of signification: the discussions about whether the order of the universe is the product of blind chance or of design, or about the nature of death or the existence of the spirit world, the numerous quotations, the stories within the stories, the description of landscapes, of rooms, of people, of clothes, of social events, all contribute with a fascinating efficiency to the construction of meaning. I began sidelining what seemed to be the salient instances of connectedness, but gave up when I found an almost unbroken pencil line running down every page. And I soon began to feel a relentlessness about the intelligence with which these novellas are constructed; they induced claustrophobia; there is no room in them to discover anything except what has been put there to be discovered; every road is signposted, and to the same destination. The tone of my review is in places a reflection, no doubt, of the relief I felt on emerging from this book; it can be taken as a tribute, however backhanded, to the complexity of its organisation.

The ending of ‘Morpho Eugenia’ made me think of Michael Heseltine. The story opened up the deep mines of the realist novel only to shut them down with the ruthless logic of allegory and fable. William Adamson, the son of a Yorkshire Methodist butcher, is an entomologist who has spent ten years in the Amazon rainforest, studying butterflies, moths, ants and termites. On his return to England, he had expected to be able to finance his future research from the sale of the specimens he had collected, and from the royalties on a book about his experiences and studies. But on the voyage home he is shipwrecked, most of his specimens are lost, and at the start of the novella he has washed up penniless at Bredely Hall, the Gothic mansion of the Rev. Harald Alabaster, a baronet, liberal churchman and anti-Darwinian collector of zoological specimens, who is attempting to write a lengthy vindication of the argument from design.

At Bredely he meets Alabaster’s sad and beautiful daughter Eugenia, whose fiancé, a soldier, has recently died. He falls in love with her at first sight; or perhaps what he falls for are the qualities enshrined in her name – her breeding, so much more distinguished than his own, her whiteness, so gleamingly different from the Amerindian women he occasionally coupled with in Brazil. ‘I shall die if I cannot have her,’ he tells his diary; and so when her father invites him to extend his stay at Bredely, as a kind of paid guest, he accepts with enthusiasm. Adamson’s duties are to catalogue the baronet’s own vast and still unpacked collection of specimens and to act as a sounding-board for his confused attempts to refute the theory of evolution; there are vague promises of funding for future field-work. In addition he agrees (he can hardly refuse) to help with the scientific education of the younger Alabaster children, which is conducted by the knowing Matty Crompton, a poor dependant and unofficial governess.

He is of course in no position to propose to Eugenia, but he does find an opportunity to tell her that if only he could, he would. To his amazement and delight, Eugenia brushes his scruples aside; her father raises no objections; and in no time the pair are married. Adamson’s life, however, is very little changed by the gratification of his greatest desire. Husband and wife continue to live at Bredely; Adamson continues to feel a less than free and accepted member of the family, and finds himself performing the same duties as before. Plans for a return to the Amazon are indefinitely postponed; and except for the few weeks each year when Eugenia is not pregnant, the couple enjoy little more mutual intimacy than before their marriage. Adamson’s closest relationship is with Matty, the only person in the house with whom he is on a footing, socially and intellectually. Together they begin an elaborate study of the local population of ants, with the idea – it is Miss Crompton’s originally – that Adamson will write a book about them, at once popular and path-breaking. Conversation and research with Matty Crompton are all that console him for the futility of his new life.

But when will he suspect? The reader has been encouraged to suspect since early in the story, when Adamson sees but does not over-hear a conversation between Eugenia and Edgar, her brutal elder brother, which leaves her in tears. Suspicion becomes a racing certainty in the following twenty or so pages, when Edgar reveals the depth of his anger at the approaching marriage, when Eugenia in her bridal bed seems to know much more than she should, and when she insists on christening her first-born Edgar. Her terrible secret, however, is for many years safe from her husband, born too soon to be wise in the way of readers of 20th-century detective fiction, and disabled, by his scientific training, from recognising any but ocular proof. It is not until ten pages from the end that he returns from hunting to discover his wife in bed with her brother. They had been at it for years; when Eugenia’s fiancé had found out, he shot himself.

In the final scene, Adamson is in mid-Atlantic, bound once again for Brazil, his fare paid by the advance on his book; beside him on deck is Miss Crompton, the plain Jane who, true to the values of the Victorian novel, has stepped out of her protective covering and revealed herself as a much worthier partner for the hero than the flashy object of his earlier impetuous desire. She, too, has emerged as a writer who can rely on her pen to pay for her liberation. Her first effort was an insect-fable, in which she had suggested to Adamson, at tedious length, the possibility of escape.

It is the fact that Adamson is so slow on the uptake which delays the denouement of the novella long enough to allow the development of the themes, arguments, descriptions, writings, which announce the story’s meaning. There is (for example) an extended opposition between Paradise and the Inferno which poses continually the question of which is which and where it is better to be. During his long years in Brazil, Adamson had repeatedly dreamed of the peaceful English countryside, staring at the grotesquely luxuriant, mosquito-infested rainforest and seeing, as if in the calenture, the green meadows of England with their abundant but chastely-tinted flowers. In the landscape around Bredely he seems to have found his English Paradise, complete with Eugenia as an English Eve with whom Adamson can pretend to be a still unfallen Adam. As he begins, however, to become accustomed to his new life at Bredely, the household begins to be revealed to him as a universally coercive system, in which the Alabaster family has become so dependent upon its largely invisible army of servants that its own paradisal idleness is as much forced as is their labour. Worse still, the system persuades those whom it enslaves to identify its ends as theirs, so that it takes much tactful prompting by Miss Crompton, as well as the discovery that his Eve had been seduced by the serpent Edgar, for Will to see that this paralysis of the Will can be shaken off only by a decision to return to the Inferno he has left, the place of thorns and thistles, west of Eden, where there is real work to be done.

Adamson’s sense of the Bredely household as a system which operates by itself, independently of the organising will of any of its members, develops mainly from the study he undertakes with Miss Crompton of the ants that live in the nearby woods, the meticulousness of which testifies – as does so much else in these novels – to the meticulousness of Byatt’s own Victorian researches. The pair are especially interested in the Formica sanguinea, the red ants who capture ants of other species and make them their slaves. Bredely, Adamson seems to understand, exists only for breeding. It is organised round the red bedroom of its queen, the obese and languid Lady Alabaster, who spends the day in idle deshabille, while endless lines of maidservants dressed in black scuttle back and forth from the kitchen bearing sweetmeats and beverages. By the end of the book, Eugenia, too, has become a mere breeding creature, an incestuous red ant queen, and the authorial voice gives her a thorough dressing-down. This seemed a bit harsh, for I don’t imagine Eugenia would have agreed to do the sex-scenes if Byatt hadn’t insisted that, like everything else in Angels and Insects, they were absolutely integral to the plot.

By one of the arguments that Adamson considers, the house is no more matriarchal than patriarchal; like a nest of ants – perhaps, he speculates, like a mill, or like society itself – the house is run by no one and for no one’s individual benefit, but by the spirit of the system itself. The division of labour includes everyone, the mill-owners as well as the mill-hands, the queens and the drones like Harald Alabaster and Adamson as well as the countless army of subterranean workers. What Adamson still has to learn, however, and he finally learns it from Miss Crompton, is that the analogy between the forms of organisation discovered among the social insects, and human forms of social organisation, is fatally deceptive. The analogy will do for the likes of the amoral Eugenia, who uncomprehendingly defends her incest as ‘natural’; but for a moral being like Adamson it offers no insight into how humans should behave, and to believe in it is merely the symptom of a diseased will.

It is not clear to me whether Adamson and Matty ever reached the Amazon. They sailed on the Calypso, whose captain, Arturo Papagay, is missing presumed dead in the second novella, ‘The Conjugial Angel’, following the wreck of that very ship – though he turns up in the final pages, to the great delight of his semiphoney spiritualist wife, who much prefers flesh and blood to ectoplasm. She has been attempting, with the aid of Sophy Sheekhy, a medium, and several members of the New Jerusalem Church, to raise the spirit of Arthur Henry Hallam, he of In Memoriam, with whom Emily Jesse, Tennyson’s now married and elderly sister, had once had an understanding. In the interstices of their attempts, the novel reflects on the persistence of mourning, partly by means of a reading of Tennyson’s poem. When a message from Hallam finally arrives, it assures Mrs Jesse that she and he will be one angel in the hereafter. But Mrs Jesse, most of whose life has been spent waiting, anxiously, guiltily, for just such a promise, realises at once that she wants no part of it, has not done so for years. She wants her present husband, also a seafarer, stolid, loyal, selfless; she wants him now and she wants him after death. The spiritualist group collapses, to nearly everyone’s apparent relief.

And certainly to mine: I enjoyed ‘The Conjugial Angel’ much less than its companionpiece. Perhaps I preferred ‘Morpho Eugenia’ because I read it in almost ideal conditions. I have rented a London flat for the summer and autumn, convenient for the British Library, and after four visits from a pest-control company it is still infested with bedbugs. When the landlord provided me with a new bed, I tied grease bands round the legs, on which several specimens of the species Cimex lectularius are now displayed. It was on this bed that I read Angles and Insects, and I responded with more sympathy to Byatt’s account of a house run and overrun by insects than to her reflections on life after death; the only after-life I look forward to at present will begin when my lease expires.

By the time I got to the second novella, the relentless coherence of Byatt’s narrative method had come to seem less fascinating – it had become all too familiar. But it was the style that finally wore me down. Its Victorianness is achieved mainly by a series of variations on a sentence whose verbs, like ants, are continually trying to move more luggage – more clusters of adjectives, more relative clauses – than they can comfortably bear. This is good for evoking the oppressive heaviness we associate with some aspects of Victorian life; with the formal interiors, for example, all that plush and polished wood, all those warm colours. Victorians could live in those rooms, no doubt, because they could also be elsewhere, in the chill bedroom or dank shrubbery. But wherever we go in Angels and Insects, inside or out, upstairs or down, it is too often a version of the same sentence that leads us there and tells us what to see, think and feel. ‘The Conjugial Angel’ is set in Margate, and reminded me of a dismally wet afternoon I spent there as a child, trailing behind a great-aunt who was showing my grandmother the sights; each called the other ‘Ma’. My great-aunt, too, was particularly attached to one sentence: every thirty yards or so she would stop and say: ‘And this is the ‘igh Street, Ma.’ When my grandmother finally broke her silence, she spoke for us both: ‘Bugger the ’igh Street, Ma.’