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A Cloud of Butterflies : ANGELS & INSECTS: Two Novellas, <i> By A. S. Byatt (Turtle Bay Books: $21; 337 pp.)</i>

<i> Masello's novels have been published both here and in England; his most recent is "Private Demons" (Berkley/Jove)</i>

IS. Byatt knew her place, she’d be locked away in some stuffy seminar room, arguing the finer points of Romantic poetry with a bunch of sulky undergraduates, and commuting in her spare time to the London Library, in the hope of discovering some small scrap of overlooked Keats. And no one, outside the groves of academe, would ever have heard a peep out of her.

But Byatt doesn’t know her place, and like the heroines of her own recent novels, she insists on getting out and mingling with the general public. A formidable literary scholar, university professor and author of a highly-regarded critical study of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byatt has always written novels as a sort of sideline, novels that did, however, hover close to the world she knew--Bloomsbury flats and the British Museum, arts cinemas and grants committees, lecture halls and faculty teas.

With “Possession,” a bestseller which also won England’s prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction in 1990, Byatt finally broke through to a new plateau, not so much in subject matter (we were still buried in the library stacks much of the time) but in approach. She found a way to frame her vast erudition in a modern story line, to have some fun with what she knew, and in “Angels and Insects” she’s having fun again.

Sly, but serious, fun.

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Made up of two novellas, with a fragile bridge that joins them, “Angels and Insects” is set, as was much of “Possession,” in the mid-19th Century. It’s an era to which Byatt is clearly much attached, a time of great intellectual ferment, when science and faith collided head-on. With the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” everything from the truth of the Scriptures to our proper place in the universe was thrown into question, and the reaction--on both an individual and a societal basis--is in many ways at the heart of both novellas.

In the first, “Morpho Eugenia,” the very title is a reference to a rare species of butterfly. That there also happens to be a central character named Eugenia, who does indeed evolve in ways we would never have imagined, is just one of the ways in which Byatt layers her story, and reserves her meaning. Eugenia is the grieving but beautiful daughter of a wealthy aristocrat and ex-cleric, Sir Harald Alabaster, who brings into his house a brilliant young entomologist who has just returned to England after 10 years in the Amazon jungle. Shipwrecked on his way home, and from a working-class background to begin with, the young scientist, William Adamson, is delighted to accept a sinecure in the Alabaster household; in exchange for his help sorting out the rich collection of botanical and insect specimens that Alabaster has bought from other explorers, Adamson receives a small salary and the large promise that one day Alabaster will finance a return expedition to South America for him. He also gets to live in the great and Gothic Bredely Hall.

His position there remains uncertain, however; not a servant, and not a family member, Adamson occupies a kind of uncomfortable middle-ground, one made even more so when he discovers himself falling in love with Eugenia. In mourning for a fiance who has died, Eugenia is a pale gold and white creature, quiet and seemingly demure, whom Adamson becomes determined to lift out of her grief, even if only for a moment. On an impulse, like a princess in a fairy tale, she admits that she would “take great pleasure in sitting in the conservatory in a great cloud of butterflies. It would be most romantic.” And Adamson of course conjures it.

“At first, in the sunny green and glinting glass, he thought he had failed, and then, as though they had been waiting for her, the creatures came out of the foliage, down from the glassy dome, darting, floating, fluttering, tawny orange, dark and pale blue, brimstone yellow and clouded white, damask dark and peacock-eyed, and danced round her head and settled on her shoulders, and brushed her outstretched hands.” With his cloud of butterflies, Adamson wins her hand--and, unexpectedly, a world of troubles.

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Byatt comes at her story in her usual manner--indirectly; the plot doesn’t so much advance as accrete. Adamson, a scientist justifiably proud of his powers of precise observation, cannot see what is right in front of him at the dinner table. He can chart and chronicle and diagram the most minute doings of the wood ant colony in the elm tree bole, but he cannot transfer these insights to the human colony in which he is now enmeshed. It takes the subtle guidance of the mysterious young governess to help him open his eyes, and to see at last the reasons for his own persistent discontent. Those reasons, monstrous and surprising, also turn out to be highly germane to the issues he has wrestled with all his scientific life. (Byatt likes to perform neat little tricks like that.)

In “The Conjugal Angel,” the second and slighter novella of the pair, Byatt allows questions of faith to supersede those of science. Lilias Papagay, a widow, and Sophie Sheekhy, a spinster, eke out a living in Victorian Margate by acting as mediums at seances. Their best client, an eccentric and elderly woman, is not only the sister of Alfred Lord Tennyson, but was once the fiancee of Tennyson’s dearest friend, the tragically deceased Arthur Hallam. It was for Hallam that Tennyson wrote, 17 years after his friend’s death, “In Memoriam.” But what was the great hold that Hallam had on the poet laureate’s heart and imagination? And why did the woman to whom Hallam was once engaged feel such a mixture of devotion and resentment?

Byatt has created, out of fictive mediums and actual historical figures, a complex and puzzling ghost story, one which hinges on a close reading of Tennyson’s life and work, and on the abstruse writings of the philosopher and mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg. It was Swedenborg who coined the term conjugal angel, by which he referred to the divine union of true and perfect soul-mates.

In “Angels and Insects,” Byatt has written a pair of tales that neatly bracket, and illuminate, an era. And though her voice still bears the occasional, faint echo of the lectern--there are so many things she has to stop to tell us, just so we can keep up our end of the game--on the whole she wears her learning lightly, and well.

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