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on 3 March 2004
These novellas read a bit like Virginia Woolf, as multi-layered, but earthier.
The first in this collection was wonderful. The mood is languid and slightly melancholy, the plot ambles along amidst interesting characterisations and beautiful descriptions round off the narrative, with a subtle twist at the end.
The second, while beautifully written, was a triumph of style over plot. The forbidden undercurrents somewhat redeem the novella though, and Tennyson's personal history provides some of the structure in this otherwise overly slow tale.
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on 8 July 2009
I can only review the first of the novellas, "Morpho Eugenia".
Byatt is known for the large amount of research she does for each book... and a tendancy to want to put it all on display! Perhaps there is rather too much about insect names in here, irrelevant to the plot and somewhat tedious. However, there is also, fortunately, much to enjoy.
The plight of William the poor northern Naturalist was a credible enough premise, and I enjoyed the intellectual debates between him and his wealthy father-in-law. I was however puzzled why the old man needed Wiliam's help to set down his opinions, and why he felt such a failure over the results. The father's compositon set out in full here (incorporating Tennyson's poetry) was surely worthy of being printed in many a journal or magazine of the day.
I liked the analogy of the ant colony as a comparison with the workings of the house. The skullery maid and her daily duty of beetle collecting was a nicely Hardyesque touch, as was her tragic fate (like Fanny in Far From the Madding Crowd.)
The writing of William and Matty's ant book was well done, especially the ambitious, provocative coda which mused on freedom of action and predestination.
Best of all were the moments that poetically illustrated the emotions of the characters. The clouds of butterflies and moths, in the context of William and Eugenia's attraction, was a very powerful scene, again worthy of Hardy. Sadly, some of the rest of the story failed to come up to such a standard. Overall it was not the sum of its highly promising parts.
The plot twist featuring the brother had shock value, but was undone with the fatuous inclusion of the INSECT anagram in the following scene. It seemed too contrived, and I felt manipulated bythe author. And why did we have to have to endure in its entirety that tedious meandering fairy story of Matty's, "Things are not what they seem"? I went off the character of Matty by the time I'd waded through that section.
Overall then, a very promising set-up which goes off the rails somewhat. A shame. I would be interested to see the film that was made of this story, and whether some of the weaker elements were ironed out.
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A.S. Byatt is best known for her lush, time-spanning historical romance "Possession." In "Angels and Insects: Two Novellas," Byatt revisits the intellectuals of the Victorian era. She dips into Victorian interests in spiritualism, insects, poetry and love -- not to mention their darker sides as well.
"Morpho Eugenia" introduces us to a young naturalist named William, who until recently had been studying insects in the Amazon. He was shipwrecked, then rescued by the wealthy Alabaster family. While continuing to study butterflies, he marries the beautiful eldest daughter Eugenia and for a time, lives the good life. The only problem is that unknown to him, Eugenia is wrapped up in a lifelong tangle of obsession and incest.
"The Conjugial Angel" introduces us to a group of mediums who gather to call up spirits. Mrs. Papagay is still in love with the dead Arturo. Emily mourns her dead lover, immortalized in her brother Alfred Tennyson's "In Memoriam" -- except she has married again. Now she struggles with her past emotions, her present doubts, and her longing to communicate with her love again.
As in her prior works, Byatt's writing is almost dizzily lush. She has a good sense of detail, describing ribbons, moths, butterfly wings, and the flames of gaslights. But pretty words are not all that Byatt has to offer -- she makes use of poetry (her own, and that of others), Darwinism and religious faith, Swedenborg, a family whose opulence covers their decay, and the nuances of love. Not to mention the dialogue: Eugenia's rambling explanation about her relationship with her brother is chilling.
Perhaps best of this collection is that Byatt has a fantastic grasp on period descriptions and dialogue -- it all sounds like a novel from the 19th centuy, with the polish of a modern book. Which is not to say that "Angels and Insects" is perfect. Byatt spends a little too much time on the moths and too little on the Alabaster family. And she's not at her best in "Conjugial Angel," which lacks the punch of the first novella. It's moving at the end, but takes awhile to get there.
Delving into such topics as survival of the fittest, poetry and love, Byatt produces a solid pair of novellas written in her usual sensuous prose. Despite some flaws that bog it down, this is a unique read.
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on 25 June 2007
Having not long finished Possession there could be no doubting the authorship of Angels & Insects: A S Byatt, surely our greatest living `Victorian' writer. Once again we are treated through delightful writing to a study of the twin Victorian obsessions of sex and death. The two charming novellas which comprise this book are both dreamy romantic-fantasies very much in the nineteenth century mould but with a darker twist. The first concerns a poor young naturalist who marries into the gentry, accepted on the grounds that he has qualities more important than financial resources. We learn eventually that his wife doesn't. The second takes place in the world of séances and looks at the haunting power of lost love and the need for some to cling to it. I am familiar with Victorian literature (novels) and with mid-nineteenth century attitudes towards nature and its origins and can vouch for the authenticity of this work from these two perspectives. As for poetry and spiritualism I cannot say but they certainly read authentically. I can recommend this book strongly to those with a literary bent and an interest in the Victorian era. Others may find the stories a little long-winded and somewhat difficult.
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on 29 January 2001
The first novella, Morpho Eugenia, is an account told in the fashion of a Victorian novel and is set in that time. William Anderson is a natural scientist, survivor of a shipwreck returning from his journeys of scientific exploration in the Amazons. Son of Adam of the garden of Eden living in the time where Darwinism is overcoming a long history of fervent religiosity. He is devoted above all to his study of science but finds himself at the novella's start in financial destitution, but has lucked upon the Alabasters, the father of whom is an avid collector of insects and natural life. William is more or less employed by him and inevitably falls in love with his daughter. They marry and William wishes he had found his happy ending. This is where the traditional Victorian novel would have ended it seems; though the complexity of the affair would have been drawn out further. If this had been all there was to the novel, it would have been a great disappointment by only touching upon the novella's major subjects the struggle between religion & science, class conflicts and inhibited sexuality. But instead William finds himself unsatisfied with his happy ending life and dives deeply into the local insect world of ants alongside the withdrawn and mysterious Matty Crompton. Subsequently, each of the issues is explored much more deeply and their entire world is revealed to be some sort of perverse fable with which William becomes thoroughly disgusted yet he is incapable of leaving by his own will. Only by Miss Compton's strength is he able to extricate himself from the Alabaster's swamp. This seems to be a strong comment on many Victorian novels that allowed women to transcend their fated circumstances only through the assistance of a man. This statement is made in contrast to the character of William's wife Eugenia who has been marginalized by her husband who views her only as an angel or an insect but never as a human. It seems that if he had ever recognised her as such that his happy ending would have been a sincere one. Instead, he returns to the point from which he had just returned at the start of the novella, back to the jungle of the Amazon but invested with more hope this time and the powerful human Matty beside him.
The second novella, The Conjugal Angel, seems illuminated best by Sophy Sheekhy's thought, "They strangled her, she felt sometimes, the living not the dead." The diverse lives of a cluster of spiritualists who seek to communicate with those they love. The complexity of their faith is drawn out in a series of memories and meditations focusing on the transcendental aspect of love, but also the insurmountable divide between human relations and the power of a divided spirit to ferociously tear at the living. The constant need of all those involved to reach out points to an inadequacy to communicate truthfully with the living. There is a sense that in life we are separated by these many dividing factors, but the ideal is that in death we may be joined as one. The ending which reunited Mrs. Papagay with Captain Papagay suggests a hope for the living to experience spiritual union in life that need not wait for death.
I found the first novella much more enjoyable than the second. Morpho Eugenia is able to relate a number of complex issues while being entertaining at the same time, but The Conjugal Angel is simply quite dense while portraying interesting intellectual ideas and is too literary.
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on 7 February 2017
These two novellas are undoubtedly very accomplished, but I personally couldn't get into either. The first tells the story of a young entomologist, William, who falls wildly in love with a rich, brainless aristocratic girl, Eugenia. They marry, but the marriage, though fertile, rapidly becomes cold, and William becomes increasingly preoccupied by his work, which in turn leads to his bonding with the governess in Eugenia's family, Mattie Crompton, who shares his fascination with the insect world. At last, William discovers a secret that turns his life upside-down, and which is related (in terms of language, at least) to his obsession with insects. The second novella is about a Victorian medium recruited to help Alfred Tennyson's sister Emily, now a staid married woman, correspond with her dead fiancé Arthur Hallam - and other than a bit of communication, not a lot happens.

Both stories have their good points and explore some interesting areas - mourning, and the uncertainty of whether mediums really do have some link to the spirit world in the second; men's tendency to value beauty above intellectual companionship in their early relationships, and their tendency to separate 'work' and 'love' in the first. There are also some lovely descriptive passages. But Byatt can't resist overloading her stories with excessive historical and period detail, endlessly reminding her reader what a clever, well-researched writer she is. In the first she completely overloads the reader with information about insects, and produces yet another one of her pastiches with Matty Crompton's long fairy story (though actually, this is pretty good), while both Matty and Eugenia remain maddeningly enigmatic as characters, and the grand climax of the story is rushed over. In the second there's so much detail - how a Victorian parlour is furnished, what exactly Hallam said to Tennyson and his sister when, all the tools of the medium's trade - that there's room for not that much else. And the trouble is that the characters get lost in the elaborate backdrops that Byatt has prepared for them - it's hard to engage with any of them, or to really care about them. It doesn't help that everyone - like the Victorian characters in 'Possession' speaks in a very po-faced, 'historically conscious' style which comes across as horribly stilted - and not actually that much like the dialogue in real Victorian novels.

I would say that these stories are brilliant in terms of historical research, but somehow rather bloodless experiences - particularly in comparison to some of Byatt's earlier work, or the luminosity of her 'Matisse Stories'.
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on 5 October 2008
Angels and Insects is an intriguing pair of novellas. At one level it examines the complexities of human relationships, especially those incorporated within marriage and the family. It identifies tension, dissipates it, anticipates expectations and then seeks resolution of conflict when they are not realised. In Morpho Eugenia, William, a suitor, pursues his beloved and she becomes his wife. They breed with regular success, but there is a darkness that separates them in their marriage, a darkness that becomes light when William comes home from the hunt unexpectedly.

In The Conjugal Angel we enter a spirit world. For the inhabitants of the world, the spirit reality is as tangible, as rational a universe as any other. It is a world with familiar landmarks that reveal themselves easily to the accepting mind. Powerfully and engagingly interpreted by an influential writer, their significance enters the participants' assumptions, their existence never questioned.

Angels and Insects is set in the mid-nineteenth century and, as such, deals with concepts, both social and intellectual, which are quite foreign, quite removed from those of the contemporary reader. In Morpho Eugenia, we have a scientist exploring the revolutionary ideas of evolution and applying these not only to the natural world he researches, but also the private human world, both physical and emotional, that he inhabits. Needless to say, his radical ideas are not shared by many close to him. In The Conjugal Angel, we encounter a group of people motivated by a reality they all share. But, for the contemporary reader, it is a reality that is utterly foreign, its literature and its analysis both apparently bogus in today's judgment.

Thus, eventually Angels and Insects is a novel about ideology. It illustrates how ideological assumptions about the nature of existence can drive an individual's and a society's approach to life, and how it can convince people of the truth of illusion, or vice versa. And in considering the works of contemporary poets, Angels and Insects illustrate how the literature of an age can become suffused with its ideology and, indeed, how this can feed back into the substance of life to reinforce assumptions.

As ever, A S Byatt's use of language is virtuosic, making the process of reading Angels and Insects a delight throughout. It is an ambitious project which almost achieves its design. The shortfall, however, becomes a frustration.
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on 31 May 2010
This was a rather strange book. I was expecting a lot more from it than I got.

The first story, Morpho Eugenia was a rather interesting, romantic, and slightly racey story. And by far the best of the two tales in this book. I liked how dedicated the lead was to Eugenia, and the wonderful things he did to gain her love. But other than that, this story hadn't much going for it. The characters were all rather lifeless and a bit samey. I found it hard to tell one from another at times. I also disliked the occassional passages from William's book, that he writes throughout the story. I just found they really got in the way of the story. The best part by far was Miss Crompton's story, which appears at the very end of 'Morpho Eugenia', but is no where near worth the wait!

As for Thw congigial angel, the 2nd story in this book, I was bored throughout. The characters were terrible and dull, with little personality between them. I can't say much more, other than, again, the added in poems and passages from various authors really annoyed me. I'm sure they were important to the story, but they just got in the way, and seemed a rather lazy way of moving the story along.

So I don't think I can recommend this at all, and it has really put me off reading any more of AS Byatt's work, which is a shame, because I really thought I would love it.
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on 2 December 2014
Fantastic writing but don't get too involved with Morpho Eugenia, the twist at the end will ruin yoour life
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on 16 February 2016
I had to read this book for one of my uni modules. I found it incredibly dull and hard to get through on account of constantly falling asleep. That could just be because it's not the type of book I'd read for pleasure. It's well written though, and great for the price
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