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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Angels and Insects


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To purchase Angels and Insects

Title: Angels and Insects
Author: A.S.Byatt
Genre: Novellas
Written: 1992
Length: 343 pages
Availability: Angels and Insects - US
Angels and Insects - UK
Angels and Insects - Canada
Angels and Insects - India
Des anges et des insectes - France
Die Verwandlung des Schmetterlings - Deutschland
Ángeles e insectos - España
  • Two Novellas
  • Includes the novellas Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel
  • With numerous illustrations
  • Morpho Eugenia was made into a film, Angels and Insects, directed by Philip Haas and starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Patsy Kensit

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Our Assessment:

B+ : technically accomplished modern Victoriana

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Antioch Review . Fall/1993 Gerda Oldham
The Atlantic Monthly . 5/1993 Phoebe Lou-Adams
Christian Science Monitor . 25/5/1993 Merle Rubin
London Rev. of Books . 19/11/1992 John Barrell
National Review . 23/8/1993 J.O.Tate
New Republic . 2/8/1993 Michael Levenson
New Scientist . 3/20/1993 John Gribbin
New Statesman . 6/11/1992 Kathryn Hughes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/6/1993 Wendy Lesser
The New Yorker . 21/6/1993 Mary Hawthorne
TLS . 16/10/1992 Marilyn Butler
VLS . 6/1993 Polly Shulman
The Yale Review . 10/1993 Walter Kendrick

  From the Reviews:
  • "Both stories are essentially romantic fantasies, written with grace and expert use of literary references and the practicalities of dress, deportment, and money. They are a pleasure to read." - Phoebe-Lou Adams, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "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." - John Barrell, London Review of Books

  • "Taken together, they show the reach and the promise of the Byattian project of resuming the incomplete work of the past." - Michael Levenson, The New Republic

  • "The atmosphere is more gothic than SF. The hothouse feel makes for a compulsive read, and the scientific flavour is nicely integrated into the story." - John Gribbin, New Scientist

  • "Angels and Insects is at once quirky and deep, and it brims with Byatt's generosity, imagination, and intelligence. Yet we long for the spirits of the characters she has created to breathe into being." - Mary Hawthorne, The New Yorker

  • "There's too much Swedenborg in The Conjugial Angel, and there may be too much natural history in Morpho Eugenia" - Walter Kendrick, The Yale Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Angels and Insects consists of two decent-sized novellas, Morpho Eugenia (that would be the insects) and The Conjugial Angel (more obviously: the angels). Both are set in 19th century England, and Byatt ably enters and presents that world.

       Morpho Eugenia is a Darwinian tale. William Adamson finds himself first a guest of and then married into the wealthy Alabaster family. He went on an expedition to the Amazon, but lost near all his possessions and specimens in a shipwreck that he just survived. He is fascinated by insects -- especially, here, butterflies and ants.
       William Adamson is of a different class and background than the Alabasters. He is also alone -- a stranger in their midst -- while they are ... very close. As the daughter he falls for, Eugenia, explains:

     "I love my family, Mr Adamson. We are very happy together. We love each other very much."
       No kidding.
       Eugenia tragically lost her fiancé before she could wed; the circumstances of this death are only revealed relatively far into the novella (though they don't come as that much of a surprise). Eugenia warns Adamson:
I cannot be loved, Mr Adamson, I am not able to be loved, it is my curse, you don't understand.
       But it is to no avail: Adamson wants her. As Eugenia's sister is already engaged there's a nice double wedding and Adamson is welcomed into the fold.
       Adamson is kept somewhat busy organizing and arranging the accumulated collection of the pater familias, but what he'd really like to do is set out on another Amazonian expedition. Meanwhile, his wife is breeding and breeding -- one of several reasons Adamson feels it wouldn't be right for him to set off just yet. Funny, though, about the kids: as Adamson observes:
     "It is as though environment were everything and inheritance nothing, I sometimes think. They suck in Alabaster substance and grow into perfect little Alabasters -- I only very rarely catch glimpses of myself in their expression --"
       Throughout the book there's a great deal of contrast with the world of nature, as Adamson sets up and observes an ant-colony with some of the other children, even writing a book about it. Meanwhile, there's also considerable Darwinian debate. Nature, in these times, is still something of a mystery, and while there are glimpses of its brute truth these aren't always clearly observed or understood.
       Adamson also finally comes across Eugenia's secret, and quite a dramatic one that is (though well foreshadowed throughout the book -- both the what and the who). Still, it's a neat turn, and allows Adamson to leave this odd place with someone more appropriate, in all respects, for him.
       The novella nicely compares civilization with the way animals (specifically insects) live; Byatt does this very well, and from the role of women to laws of nature she offers some remarkable examples, always nicely contrasted with the strange Alabaster world. What weakness there is in the novel is in the somewhat cursory manner many of the human relationships are explored. Adamson's love for Eugenia doesn't fully convince, and Byatt chooses not to consider closely how it evolves after they are wed (in part, no doubt, because Eugenia is meant to be seen as the unassailable queen ant, busy only breeding (and being protected)). But the novella is still an accomplished, clever scientific fiction.

       The Conjugial Angel is quite a different piece of work. It is dominated by poetry, as Byatt quotes extensively. And, though set in roughly the same time, it is much less scientifc -- and more spiritual, or at least concerned with spiritualism (and, yes, quite a few spirits float around here).
       A character, Mr Hawke, explains:
Swedenborg teaches us, as you know, that true conjugial love comes to us all but once, that our souls have one mate, one perfect other half, whom we should seek ceaselessly. That an angel, properly speaking, joins two parts in one, in conjugial love.
       That's a lot to aim for, but its these ideals that the characters are focussed on. Poets appear (if not in entirely real form) -- Keats, for example -- but it is Alfred Lord Tennyson that is the dominant figure of influence, and his In Memoriam the central work.
       Mourning, death, longing for answers: this and more is creatively addressed here, but it's an odd mix of modern and Victorianism. Formally and stylistically impressive, the novella doesn't fully convince as a story.

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Angels and Insects: Angels and Insects - the movie: Reviews: A.S.Byatt: Other books by A.S.Byatt under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Antonia Susan Byatt lived 1936 to 2023. Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for the bestselling Possession, she was the author of numerous highly acclaimed works of fiction. She was the sister of author Margaret Drabble.

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