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Angels and Insects [Paperback]

A.S. Byatt
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 27 1993
A collection of short stories including subjects as diverse as memories, marriage, insects and ghosts. A.S. Byatt's other books include Possession, winner of the 1990 Booker Prize.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Revisiting the Victorian ambience of Possession , Byatt treats her large audience to more extraordinary literary gamesmanship with two intricate novellas. In "Morpho Eugenia" penniless young entomologist William Adamson has just returned from a 10-year expedition in the Amazon. William is taken in by a titled clergyman with scientific pretensions, and soon marries his benefactor's beautiful daughter. Unable to undertake another Amazon adventure, he studies domestic ant colonies and discovers indecent parallels between the insects and his new family. "The Conjugial Angel" involves a circle of spiritualists, chief among them Alfred Tennyson's sister Emily, in her youth engaged to Arthur Hallam, the man immortalized in Tennyson's In Memorium . Emily has been branded faithless for having married years after Hallam's death (Elizabeth Barrett called her a "disgrace to womanhood"), but she is uncompromising in her pursuit of Hallam's ghost. As fans will anticipate, Byatt effortlessly exploits the opportunities for pastiche, belletristic flourish and critical commentary. If her symbolism is as excessively upholstered and overdetermined as the narratives of her Victorian models, beneath the padding she sets out a delicate chain of thematic concerns--19th-century tensions between science and faith, erotic currents within families, the nature of marital happiness--and heightens them by juxtaposing the two novellas here. Her easy ventriloquism mocks Victorian excesses even as she uses these same elements to inveigle her readers. Complex and captivating, this fluid volume recasts itself on every page.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

This work consists of two novellas set in the mid-19th century. The first, "Morpho Eugenia," is a Gothic fable that explores the multiple themes of earthly paradise and Darwin's theories of breeding and sexuality. There is an implied parallel between insect and human society throughout. The hero, a poor, scholarly entomologist, is taken into a wealthy Victorian family. His life and loves, particularly for the daughter Eugenia and the eponymous species of butterfly, comprise this tale. The second novella, "The Conjugal Angel," is reminiscent of Possession ( LJ 11/1/90), Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize winner for fiction, wherein poetry is woven into the narrative. Here, the poem is Tennyson's "In Memoriam , " written to mourn the death of Tennyson's friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who was engaged to the poet's sister Emily--a main character here. This is a philosophical ghost story, bizarre and comic, but since assorted mediums meet real characters, it is difficult to relate to any of them. These novellas will attract attention due to the fame of their author, but they will appeal to a very limited audience. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/92.
- Patricia C. Heaney, Nassau Community Coll. Lib., Garden City, N.Y.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars phrases so beautiful I had to close my eyes May 10 2001
By Susan C
These stories are written with the flow of warm chocolate being poured. The descriptions are lush and sensual and the stories are full of interest. Characters have such full range of life you might expect to run into them while exploring an old house. I truly loved reading these stories, though all of the "bug talk" in the first story got a little (just a little) tiring. I can't bring myself to see the movie because I am not sure anyone could bring the experience I had to the screen. Although I read this for a graduate school exam, I could just as easily have read it for the sheer pleasure. And as soon as I finish writing my thesis, I'll probably pick it up again.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fly like an angel,sting like a bee Jan. 1 2006
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.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Byzantine Sept. 20 2001
Two novellas by 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 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 istory 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.
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I know that my title makes this sound like it must be doing too many incompatible things. I really love A. S Byatt, who always makes me think and also had a really wonderful way of writing descriptions of the world that are vivid and civilized and also make us remember that we are part of the teaming natural world of insects. I have read Angels and Insect three times, and I find that I enjoy it more deeply each time.
The first novella is set in a fairly conventional Victorian setting, and deals with the themes of man's relationship to the natural world (which here means that we have to think about Darwin and evolution) and whether we really are closer to the angels or the insects in our innate nature.
The hero here marries Eugenia, who appear to be the quintessential Victorian young lady, and finds himself married to a woman who is a breeding machine, also involved in incest. In contrast to her self-absorbed fecundity is Mattie, the governess of the household, who embarks with him on a study of the wood ants in the woods of the estate. Her careful, scientific observations and her logic ultimately win out and the hero leaves with her to explore in the Amazon, foresaking here the life of the ...for Mattie's dry, brisk life of the mind.
The second novella deals with spiritualism (another preoccupation of the late Victorian age) and with the fictional lives of the family and friends of Aldred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam, immortalized in In Memorium. I think without some knowledge of the life of Tennyson and his work this may be a difficult work to figure out--it takes awhile even with the appropriate "literary" context. It is a very strange, ultimately very moving ghost story. I am very impressed with it and still not sure what all of it means.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Awesome!
The title says it all, the delivery was fast and efficient. The book was in good quality too!
Published on April 22 2010 by Taco Trivia
2.0 out of 5 stars unsatisfying
The literary conceit of the book is so great I admit that I am intimated. But baring my ignorance, I will say the book was tedious. Read more
Published on June 7 2002 by Mary T. Dumont
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing novellas in Victorian settings
The first book I read by A.S. Byatt was Possession, which remains one of my all-time favorite books. Then I wanted to read more of her work. Read more
Published on Jan. 1 2002 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Apotheosis of the Frontal Lobe
The four stars are for the "Insects" portion of this double novella. The second half, a yawner on spiritualism, can be skipped. Read more
Published on Aug. 3 2001 by Jeff Dunn
5.0 out of 5 stars Subtle and mesmerizing
Byatt is one of my favourite authors, and her talent for style, subtlety and depth in her narrative are present in these novellas. Read more
Published on July 25 2001 by moonstealer
4.0 out of 5 stars Watch the Old Butterflies Flutter
The first novella, Morpho Eugenia, is an account told in the fashion of a Victorian novel and is set in that time. Read more
Published on Jan. 15 2001 by Eric Anderson
3.0 out of 5 stars 1 novella great; the second, pretty boring
I bought this looking for more of A.S. Byatt based on some Amazon recommendations, so I must write it's NOT her best. Read more
Published on Aug. 15 2000 by J. Case
4.0 out of 5 stars A Slowly Paced Ballet of Parallels
Shimmering beauty and shocking sensuality are the only phrases to adequately describe A.S. Byatt's Angels and Insects. Read more
Published on July 29 2000
4.0 out of 5 stars Passionate and Emotional
These two novells really transfixed me. I was deeply moved and affected by both of them. (The Conjugial Angel a bit more) Her use of language, romanticism, and setting is simply... Read more
Published on May 16 2000 by Caroline P. Hampton
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