Byatt on marriage -- really awful, spiritually perfect

June 20, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse


A. S. Byatt

Random House

330 pages; $21 In this pair of intricate novellas, A. S. Byatt writes about Victorian England with the same erudition, sympathy, wit and irony that characterized her last novel, the prize-winning best-seller, "Possession." The novellas, both concerned with marriage and romance, are linked and contrasting.

The first, "Morpho Eugenia," develops themes based on 19th-century science, specifically studies of insects conducted in the wake of Darwin's theories of evolution. The second, "The Conjugial Angel," set in the shadowy realm of seances and spiritualism, reconstructs the story of Arthur Hallam -- the brilliant youth, dead at 22, who inspired Alfred, Lord Tennyson's great poem "In Memoriam" and who was betrothed to Tennyson's sister, Emily. A key character, the sea captain Arturo Papagay, makes a cameo appearance in both novellas.

In "Morpho Eugenia," William Adamson, naturalist and Amazon explorer, is taken in by patron Harald Alabaster, a landed gentleman and amateur collector, after William has survived a terrifying shipwreck that destroyed almost all his specimens. The year is 1859; the place, Bredely Hall, the Alabaster estate. William has the unenviable job of cataloging Harald's scientific collection, which causes him "moments of real irritability that treasures for which men like himself had risked life and health should lie here higgledy-piggledy, and decay in an English stable."

William falls in love with one of Harald's daughters -- beautiful, pale (naturally, all the Alabasters are pale) Eugenia -- and, to his astonishment, he wins her hand. "Morpho Eugenia" refers to a rare species of butterfly William collected in the rain forest and managed to save from the shipwreck. It also refers, by extension, to Eugenia Alabaster, whom William woos by devising a cloud of butterflies to hatch around her in the conservatory: "She turned round and round, and the butterflies circled, and the captive water splashed in its little bowl."

William is also a captive, sexually in thrall to Eugenia, who very soon becomes pregnant with twin daughters, then a son, and another pair of twin daughters -- all pale, blond Alabasters. Eugenia is compared to a second insect, a rapacious and self-centered queen ant, who uses the male in order to breed offspring and then discards him. William feels superfluous -- at best tolerated, at worst ridiculed by the Alabaster clan. Unable -- to travel abroad to conduct his research, he is coaxed by Matty Crompton, the Alabasters' acerbic, intelligent governess, to study the ant and bee colonies on the estate. William's journal documenting his entomological observations and Matty's insect tTC fairy tale are woven into the text.

William is sincere, earnest, methodical and plodding -- a typical Victorian male. That most readers will guess Bredely Hall's horrible secret long before William is confronted with it in no way diminishes the pleasure created by this intentionally melodramatic and emotionally satisfying story.

"Conjugial Angel" refers to mystic philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg's conception of marriage as a spiritual union, in which husband and wife will be reunited after death in a single angelic form. This novella begins in Margate, on England's southeast coast, in 1875, 10 years after Papagay, the sea captain who appears at the close of "Morpho Eugenia," has been presumed lost at sea. His widow, Lilias, "a great weaver of narratives from tenuous threads of looks, words and feelings," conducts regular seances, accompanied by Sophy Sheekhy, a former servant girl whom she has taken in, who sees and hears unearthly visitors.

The spiritualist circle includes Captain and Mrs. Jesse, the former Emily Tennyson who was engaged to Arthur Hallam more than 40 years earlier. The circle has been trying without success to make contact with Arthur. As Ms. Byatt describes these seances and the people who attend them -- a compilation of the pompous, the ludicrous, the pathetic, the tragic and the sincere -- the story of Arthur's life and death, of his connection to the Tennysons, and of the composition of Alfred's poem gradually unfolds.

For nine years after Arthur's death, Emily dedicated herself to his memory, until Richard Jesse persuaded her to marry him -- a decision that was treated as a betrayal by Alfred and by the Hallams. The myth-like quality of this early, unfulfilled love and Emily's guilt has shadowed her life and infected her relationship with her husband and her sons: "You are accompanied through life, Emily Jesse occasionally understood, not only by the beloved and accusing departed, but by your own ghost too, also accusing, also unappeased."

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