Wednesday, April 8, 2009

ByattBlogging 7: Angels and Insects

This book is made up of two novellas, loosely connected by plot and more tightly connected by theme. In the first story, “Morpho Eugenia”, an impoverished explorer of the Amazon takes a position with an aristocratic family at an English country house, helping to teach the children and to catalogue the vast accumulation of materials collected by the head of the household; only to fall in love, across class lines, with the eldest daughter of his master. The second story, “The Conjugal Angel”, is the tale of a spiritualist group, of two seances they conduct, and of the experiences the members of the group have — not only with the other world, but with each other. 

Both stories deal with the Victorian rage for knowledge, and the countervailing fear of a godless universe. In some ways, the anguish the characters feel at the possibility of a world without a guiding Divine intelligence recalls Sartre and the existentialists, who refused to believe in God even if, for them, atheism inspired despair; it’s as though Byatt is urging us to look again at this problem, to really consider the nature of the world around us. The Victorians feared a world without meaning, a world driven by brute instinct, bereft of the soul. Thus angels and insects: on the one hand agents of the deity above human understanding, on the other crawling things we consider far below us. But among the insects are butterflies, beautiful winged things that traditionally symbolise the soul. And there are differing schools of thought regarding the nature of angels; according to myth, after all, some of the angels fell.

In “Morpho Eugenia”, William Adamson, the explorer, has long dialogues with wealthy Harald Alabaster, a baronet and a Reverend; Alabaster desperately wants to believe in God, and is trying to write a theological tract answering the claims made in Darwin’s recently-published Origin of Species. If Harald’s first name glances at a possible state as a herald of good news, his surname definitely implies something lifeless, perhaps something of the whited sepulchre — a characteristic common to his whole family. His wife, Gertrude, is a fat, often-motionless, presence at the centre of the household, explicitly compared to the queen of some insect hive. Eugenia, their daughter, with whom William falls in love (and whose name means “well-born”, as well as glancing at the scientific name of an Amazonian butterfly which gives the story its title), is viewed by William as a pure and indeed almost angelic presence; she hardly seems to come alive as a character, but then, as we see her mainly through William’s eyes, this is less of a flaw in the story’s construction than it sounds. Her half-brother Edgar is much more lively, resentful of William for having ambitions above his station (he insults William by telling him he has “bad blood”) — and, we eventually learn, resentful for other reasons as well.

Ironically, given Harald’s interest in angels, the Alabasters are something of a serpentine family. Harald compares himself to the old dragon in Beowulf. Edgar, in a rage at William, is compared to an “angry dragon”. After sex on their wedding night, Eugenia rolls away from William “quick as a lizard on a hot stone”. William himself once had a drug-inspired nightmare in the Amazon of being “lost in a forest surrounded by serpents”. William observes that the connection of women and snake is made even in the beliefs of the people in the “virgin forest” of the Amazon; so all these images must refer back to the oldest of dragons, even as the novella ultimately has the breaking of one of humanity’s oldest taboos at its heart.

Byatt, though, extends her portrayal of the household beyond the aristocratic family. The governess, Matty Crompton, slowly comes more alive, more of a presence, as the story goes on. The rest of the army of servants which kept a Victorian manor going are less individualised, but are strong symbolic presences in the book. Harald is at one point compared to a deist God, who set the world of the house in motion but himself makes little or no intervention within it. More frequently, though, the house is depicted as an anthill or bee-hive, almost a creature in itself. Towards the end of the book, a message William receives which triggers off the climax of the story is ascribed, apparently seriously, to the will of the house rather than to any individual character. Just as ants have different positions in their social structure, so do humans; just as ants take other ants as slaves, so do humans — Byatt makes a point of noting how the Alabasters’ fortune derives indirectly from the slave trade. If the Alabasters’ servants overall are mostly undifferentiated, one can plausibly say that this is a function of William’s perspective; one of the engaging paradoxes of the man is the way in which his ability to perceive the society around him is hampered, not only by his inveterate habit of contrasting it with Amazonian societies he once knew, but also by his inability to see, to really observe, the relations around him. (A characteristic, incidentally, which prefigures the twist at the end of the story.)

So this is a socially-aware story; but it’s also a story about change, about transfiguration. Any era can be said to be a time between times, between whatever came before and in the process of changing into whatever comes next, and that of course is a characteristic of the Victorian period as well as any other. But in this story Byatt closely examines the human ability to change — or to fail to change, or to fail to allow others to change — at an individual level. Class is a factor, of course. And religious beliefs play into this theme: will humans at death become angelic spirits, or food for bugs? 

But clearly gender politics are key to this theme. The sexual dimorphism of insect life is compared with human (or, at least, Victorian) gender roles. Women are locked into certain lives or states; so marriage, while a transformative experience, also helps to enforce the predetermined course of female life — not wholly unlike insect species where sex and social function is determined before birth. If you are aware of how society limits you, can you overcome its dictates? Or can you just escape from it? In this context, it is perhaps significant that William is an explorer of the Amazon, somewhat like Simon in The Game; but the resonances of the name of the jungle is more pointed here, helping to point to the story’s fierce insistence on freedom, and on the human ability to change. To evolve: the fear of Darwin’s godless universe is also the fear of a changing world, a world that will develop away from traditional hierarchies.

Of course in a story about transfiguration the butterfly is a key symbol. The butterfly’s metamorphosis, glanced at in the title, becomes the metamorphosis of a psyche — of Psyche herself, seeking Cupid. Perhaps the soul (the meaning of the name Psyche) doesn’t need contact with the divine if it has the ability to transform itself like an insect, and become in that way something new. Monarch butterflies, we are told at the end of the story, migrate vast distances, and may be blown far away from their hoped-for destination, but still are alive and bright.

Like Possession, this story is stuffed full of other texts: Harald’s theological work (at or near the centre of the novella), in which the cruelty of the natural world is answered by the faith presented in Tennyson’s In Memoriam; a book on English insects composed by William, Matty, and the Alabaster children (the product, therefore, of collaboration between genders and generations); a fable written by Matty for William, warning him of the true nature of events in the Alabaster household (based around the scientific names of insects and their mythic resonances, it’s a mash-up of the Bible, the Odyssey, the myth of Persephone, the myth of Psyche, and The Golden Ass, told in a style not unlike George MacDonald's). This seems natural, as the characters most alive in the book are those who most naturally live in language, as readers or writers or both. Most of them, as well, are concerned, as Byatt is concerned, with the representation of the world in prose, of the difficulty of perception and interpretation. “Analogy,” says William, “is a slippery tool.”

The story at one point contrasts “the fairy story with its bridal triumph” and “the novel, with its hard-won moral vision, and the brief glimpse of death and due succession”. In the end, it can be seen to have elements of both, or to contain both within itself. It’s not unlike the Amazon, which William can describe as a “Paradise on Earth” in one sentence, and as an “Inferno” in the next. This is less transformation, perhaps, than the ability to harmoniously reconcile two states, like the human condition; now aspiring to angel, now sinking to insect. “As long as you are alive,” we’re told at the end, “everything is surprising, rightly seen.”

A character who comes in at the very end of “Morpho Eugenia” provides the most obvious link to “The Conjugal Angel”, which follows the wife of said character some years on. Lilias Papagay is part of a group of spiritualists who, as spiritualists do, conduct seances. And who sometimes see spirits and ghosts as a result; Mrs. Papagay’s friend, Sophy Sheekhy, is particularly gifted in this field. Other members of the circle are Mister Hawke, a Swedenborgian eager to explain the Swedish mystic’s views on angels and conjugal love, and Mrs. Hearnshaw, a matron who has buried five young daughters in a row. (Presumably, the names of the latter two indicate that the spiritualists are not to be taken as lunatics — they can tell a Hawke from a Hearnshaw.)

But most notable of the spiritualists are Captain and Mrs. Jesse — the latter of whom is the sister of Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate. Emily Jesse loved Alfred’s friend Arthur Hallam, years ago when they all were young; but Hallam died, and Emily later married Jesse, prompting a cordial dislike from the members of Hallam’s family as well as some members of her own. Alfred later wrote In Memoriam, one of the greatest of all English elegies and the poem which saved Harald Alabaster’s faith, in Arthur’s memory.

The dominant plot thread in this story is the life of the Jesses. Emily loved Arthur Hallam, or so she believed when she was young. What, then, of her love for her husband? How can the two men, and her feelings for them, be compared? The story gives us this Victorian question — many thought Emily would have been better to have lived as a sort of nun devoted to Hallam’s memory — as it gives us many other attitudes, on gender and religion and other issues. It feels oddly distant; Byatt makes little attempt to justify Victorian thought in contemporary terms. We instead have characters (some of them based on real people) for whom these beliefs are the soil out of which they have sprung; for whom, in other words, it’s difficult to conceive of alternatives, to articulate even the possibility of rejecting them.

We also have angels. Tons of them, oddly involved in mortal love. Hawke expounds Swedenborg’s ideas of angels and love: souls that find each other on earth, that find their true love and unite, ascend as angels. There is mention of the story of the Watcher angels, who came to feel carnal desire for mortal women; hence, it is suggested, the reason women wear hats, so that the angels do not lust after their hair. Tennyson, in a chapter in which the poet recalls Arthur Hallam and wrestles with his own sexuality, feels an angel walking on his grave. He also imagines that a poem might be perceived as an angel, in the same way Swedenborg in his visions saw psychological states as physical objects. Underlying all this the recurring question in this book: are human beings angelic in nature, or gross matter?

In a sense, the story takes the form of an extended meditation on In Memoriam. Tennyson’s biography, attitudes, and sexual nature are reconstructed and examined; it feels as if the whole of the poem is quoted at some part of the story, analysed critically, given further meanings. The verse reaches into the cores of the characters, even those not directly related to the poet, and moves them; it drives them, it teaches them about beauty, it inspires their faith. The story is about belief; it is also about poetry. And about love: the crucial choice which is the climax of the book unites these things, making a statement about the nature of love, an affirmation of this world in the face of intimations of the next.

Lilias Papagay is the frame through which we see this choice, and much of the story, unfold. She and Sophy begin and end the story together, before the first seance and after the last. Lilias, who is a writer, who imagines scenes — creating characters in her head based on the people around her — is given a folkloric ending, straight out of Homer (cleverly, and subtly, connected to a motif in Matty's fairy tale for William in "Morpho Eugenia"). It is a final unexpected conjunction, a unity of dissimilar principles. It’s a fine touch on which to end the book.

Both “Morpho Eugenia” and “The Conjugal Angel” have that sense of dissimilarities united; hence Angels and Insects as a unified work, two dissimilar novellas in one. The plots of the two stories of this book are strong, and the characters convincing (though one wonders about the lack of a relationship between William Adamson and his children), with the result that the metaphysics rise naturally out of circumstances. Both stories work as individual pieces, both gain from the juxtaposition. One character, unexpectedly, ties the two together; so does the setting, the culture in which they take place. And, as well, the questions with which the stories wrestle, like Jacob; questions and themes which can never be fully resolved, and hence are as relevant in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as they were in the nineteenth. 

The book suggests, I think, that in a sense we belong equally to the world of angels and to the world of insects; we see both these things as reflections of ourselves, and so in the stories we make about them we unify their tensions. Metaphysics and fantasy — story-telling, the shaping of tales, the perception of angels — are as natural as death, sex, and life. To me, this self-conscious concern with fiction is a constant in Byatt’s writing; this book is as fine an example as any.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

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