Two novellas by A.S. Byatt, the author of a particular favorite book of mine, Possession. Both stories share some commonalties with that work: an historical setting made real through the use of documents (poems, stories) that signify the date of their creation by their style. Both stories are set in the past, near the turn of the 19th century. “Morpho Eugenia” (the insects of the title) is a little mystery story about a naturalist who has lost all of his specimens during a sea-wreck and is forced to work as a catalogist for a wealthy amateur, working through the amateur’s bought samples. The naturalist is loosely based, it seems, on Alfred David Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection with Charles Darwin. He finds that his patron’s family is nearly as interesting as nature, especially one young lady cocooned from the world. But cocoons hide things.
The second story is more like Possession in that it plays revisionistic (or maybe impressionistic) with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and his sister Emily through the medium of a medium (that is, a clairvoyant). The point around which the story revolves is Arthur Hallem, the subject of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” a friend of his youth and the betrothed of his sister, who died on a sea voyage when Hallem was twenty-two. Emily, now married, has lingering doubts about her choice of marriage, wondering, if she should have, as her brother’s poem snidely implies, spent her days in perpetual maidenhood. Are we destined to have only one soul mate, the other being with which we form ‘the conjugal angel’?
Byatt’s style is Byzantine. Her scholarship into literary history has informed her pen to leak the century from its nib, and is not for those married to modernity. Yet her subjects are fresh and vibrant, pictured with painful clarity in the harshest of lights. Her characters ache in-between the lines.
[Finished July 1999]