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A Slowly Paced Ballet of Parallels
am 30. Juli 2000
Shimmering beauty and shocking sensuality are the only phrases to adequately describe A.S. Byatt's Angels and Insects.
Although this novella really encompasses two distinct stories, my comments focus on Morpho Eugenia, my favorite of the two, and, in my opinion, by far the superior.
Set more than a century ago, in Victorian England, Angels and Insects (Morpho Eugenia) follows the life of William Adamson, a naturalist who has spent years of research in the jungles of South America.
A shipwreck sends him to the home of his benefactor, the Reverend Harald Alabaster, an amateur insect collector of enormous wealth.
Upon arriving at Alabaster's sumptuous country estate, poor William instantly falls in love with Alabaster's eldest daughter, Eugenia, a weak and wan, but still golden, beauty.
Although Eugenia appears to be out of his reach, William embarks upon a shy courtship and is more than a little surprised when his proposal of marriage is accepted. And, on their wedding night, the usually distant, aloof and somewhat mysterious Eugenia has even more surprises in store. Surprises William soon comes to savor.
Complicating matters is Eugenia's brother, a socially misfit snob who takes an instant dislike to William and talks incessantly of children who grow up sans the proper breeding...breeding poor William's genes cannot provide, of course.
Eugenia, herself, soon begins to show a darker side as her mood swings from lustful to ravenous to passionate to melancholy. Feeling a bit over his head in this baronial estate, William begins to experience somewhat of an attraction to his drab and dull, but very intelligent, assistant.
Angels and Insects is a fascinating book and, as always, Byatt lets us become intimately involved with her characters.
The real triumph though, lies in the book's symbolism. The Victorians were fascinated with the insect world and Byatt uses this fascination to refect the social order of the times: the women are doted on by servants as if they were queen bees and colonies of ants mirror the red and black jackets worn during a fox hunt.
Angels and Insects takes a fascinatingly intimate look at the quirkiest of families, one whose secrets and prejudices simply cannot be dismissed.
It is William's drab assistant who sums up the book's theme. "There are three kinds of people in this house: the visible, the invisible and the in between." Angels and Insects is a lyrically sensual portrait of the fascinating world of the in between.