Angels and Insects (A. S. Byatt)

Posted: September 22, 2015 in fiction
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A few weeks ago, I was complaining about an author who wrote a period novel, but didn’t do it well. Byatt does it well. She knows the Victorian Era, so her books are similar to the classics, but she discusses things that were unmentionable back then. These stories contain things that people really did and thought about, but only hinted at in literature.

When students discuss the Nineteenth Century, they often treat it as a period of great certainty; they trust the surface of religious conservatism, or the now-well-publicized hypocrisy: a church on each corner, with a bar and two whorehouses between each pair. But they don’t question the moral certainty of the time. Well maybe it’s not exactly hypocrisy. That conservative certainty was all surface. The Nineteenth Century was a time of great insecurity – people started questioning their religion in a way they never had before, so they had to reassure each other constantly that “God is in His Heaven, and all is right with the world.” As Hamlet’s mother would say, “Methinks they do protest too much.” Darwin is an easy scapegoat, but the Industrial Revolution changed the world so much that the old belief system wore thin in several places. Nothing convinces people that God is limited like poverty. Byatt really captures the uncertainty of the time.

The two stories here are linked by this theme of uncertainty, but also by a minor character. Captain Papagay appears at the end of each to signal the fulfillment of other characters’ goals, though it’s only the middle of their journeys. For a story to end in hope, there has to be some sense that the characters live beyond the end.

MORPHO EUGENIA

In some ways, this is a protracted analogy between ant colonies and Victorian country houses. The communities are remarkably similar.

Nevertheless, in the hot days just after Midsummer, when they increased their vigilance in order to observe, if possible, the nuptial flight of the Queens and their suitors, he was hard put to it not to see his own life in terms of a diminishing analogy with the tiny creatures. He had worked so hard, watching, counting, dissecting, tracking, that his dreams were prickling with twitching antennae, advancing armies, gnashing mandibles and dark, inscrutable complex eyes. His vision of his own biological processes – his frenzied, delicious mating, so abruptly terminated, his consumption of the regular meals prepared by the darkly quiet forces behind the baize doors, the very regularity of his watching, dictated by the regularity of the rhythms of the nest, brought him insensibly to see himself as a kind of complex sum of his nerve-cells and instinctive desires, his automatic social responses of deference or required kindness or paternal affection. One ant in an anthill was neither here nor there, was dispensable, was nothing. This was intensified, despite his recognition of the grimly comic aspect of his reaction, by the recording of the fate of the male ants.

This story was difficult for me to read because it reminded me of my own marriage. It failed for a different reason than William’s, but a lot of the emotions were the same. The ex became interested in me primarily as a provider of children and for her children – like William, I was defined primarily by my reproductive function, which inspires about as much respect as prostitutes generally receive. I felt worthless, like a drone in an anthill. I need to be with someone who wants me for more than sex. Sex yes, and frequently, but not just when partner is at peak fertility and wanting another pregnancy.

There are a few long passages speculating on intelligent design, trying to reconcile God and Darwin, but the arguments tend to go in big circles without reaching any conclusions. It seems that the only conclusion available to logic is that God is an evolutionarily advantageous fantasy adopted by the masses for the preservation of the social order.

One of the things that I appreciate about Byatt is that she considers the “surplus women,” the worker ants who support the queen. Miss Crompton lives in the house in a marginal position between the family and the servants, quietly watching both, with her beautifully bony wrists. A woman of sense and education, she constantly surprises William, though me not at all. I’ve come to expect rebellion, poetry, talent, intelligence, and an appreciation for natural beauty from Victorian governesses. Here she is, upon seeing her first monarch butterfly, on a ship a hundred miles from shore.

‘It fills me with emotion,’ she says. ‘I do not know whether it is more fear, or more hope. It is so fragile, and so easily crushed, and nowhere in reach of where it was going. And yet it is still alive, and bright, and so surprising, rightly seen.’ ‘That is the main thing,’ says Captain Papagay. ‘To be alive. As long as you are alive, everything is surprising, rightly seen.’

A friend complimented my nature photographs, which I routinely post to facebook. He said something about my skill, but I don’t think I really have any. Like all art, my pictures are a method of self-expression. I see the world as completely, breathtakingly, gobsmackingly beautiful. My natural state in the forest or mountains is one of wonder and awe. And excitement – I jump and skip like a small child. If my pictures are at all lovely, it’s because I see the world as so beautiful that I can’t show it to you any other way.

THE CONJUGIAL ANGEL

This not-quite-half of the book is less about science than faith. Instead of faith in God, though, it’s about faith in the occult: mediums, séances, the dead. And also unlike the first story, it deals with a fictional version of people who really lived.

The Victorian Era’s favorite bromance is the one commemorated in In Memoriam A. H. H. Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam were best friends, so close that Hallam’s father and twenty-first century literary critics assume they were a gay couple. Byatt presents them as men who love each other, but who don’t have sex. Instead, they use their sisters as proxies. Arthur was set to marry Alfred’s sister Emily, but then he died. Alfred spent seventeen years writing a poem about his grief in which he calls himself Arthur’s widow, and then he married Arthur’s sister Emily. Personally, I find the collective grief for Arthur Hallam to be excessive. As he’s described, I can’t see anything unusual about him, but everyone treats it like a huge betrayal that Emily falls in love with someone else eight years later. Eight years is plenty of time to give to someone who was always more in love with your brother than with you.

It is hard to love the dead. It is hard to love the dead enough.

Despite the more-than-appropriate mourning period, Emily still feels guilty for finding another lover.

And with them in the dreams stood also a separate creature, the girl in black with a white rose in her hair, as he liked to see it. 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.

This is an issue I feel from time to time. My younger selves are all still here in my head, and some of them don’t approve of my life as it is now. Of course, they’re also jealous, so I try not to take their disapproval too seriously, but it contributes to my tendency to depression. I feel guilty for not being able to feel guilty. I end up in church feeling empty and disconnected, looking for a community but feeling alien. As my community is forming up here in the new town, I don’t feel that I have much in common with anyone. I try to connect through the job, or through talking about my family, but it just doesn’t seem to work. I feel too different. It doesn’t help that over Labor Day I drove back home and hooked up with someone I felt a close connection to but whom I will never see again. I find myself hoping that he was lying about moving away soon because I’d like to run into him again someday, and that won’t happen if he really does go to California. I’m lonely, and my twenty-year-old self tells me it’s my own damn fault. I was so judgmental and intolerant – if that part of me had its way, I’d still be married, making justifications like Byatt’s aged Tennyson:

He thought he had acquitted himself well enough, he thought he had. He had felt a suffusion of affection and companionable calm, which he suspected was less than what others felt, somehow, but not unpleasant, not inadequate. To Emily’s taste, he was sure. If he was truthful, there was more excitement in the space between his finger and Arthur’s, with all that implied of the flashing-out of one soul to another, of the symmetry and sympathy of minds, of the recognition they had both felt, that they had in some sense always known each other, they did not have to learn each other, as strangers did. But this did not make them men like Milnes. They were like David and Jonathan, whose love to each other was wonderful, passing the love of women. And yet David was the greatest lover of women in the Bible, David had despatched Uriah to his death to possess Bathsheba, David was manly beyond all heroes.

It always bothers me when people assume that being a homosexual means that a man is effeminate. Since coming out of the closet, I’ve become more confident and assertive, more stereotypically masculine, not less. Even after I’ve taken it like a good bottom, I don’t feel or act womanish. I love masculinity as a concept and some men specifically – for me, there’s nothing feminine about being a gay man. And if I find someone who loves me as Lieutenant Jesse loves Emily, I won’t turn him down either.

You don’t seem to understand. I didn’t mean to speak so much so soon, but there I go, rushing on, like the North Wind, can’t stop – have you ever felt that someone was to do with you, when you saw them, quite simply, just that, that there are people all over the place with noses like dough-buttons and eyes like currants and other people like Roman busts, you know, and then suddenly you see a face that’s alive – for you – and you know it’s to do with you, that that person is a part of your life, have you ever felt that?

Sometimes people are just perfectly matched, and the externals of their lives don’t make them an obvious fit but their real selves align perfectly. One of the ancient Greeks – I think Plato – once theorized that people were originally conjoined beings, split in half for this mortal life. Some of the pairs were androgynous, some were doubly feminine, some doubly masculine. We spend our lives looking for our other half, our soulmate. This has given rise to the (in my opinion) dangerous idea that there’s only one person in the entire world that a person can be truly happy with. In Byatt’s story, this gets merged with the Christian understanding of angels (hence the title), and eventually Arthur Hallam appears as half an angel, haunting the girl who moved on, never realizing that Alfred is his other half, not Emily. She has her Captain (promotion since their marriage), and she loves him, not the boy who died forty years earlier.

Taken together, these two stories show the limitations of mid-Victorian Christianity, its inability to accommodate evolution and spiritualism, two contrasting forces that probably shouldn’t work together to destroy the mechanism of social order, but that’s how the process happens. And of course, they’re also stories about finding love, written with the skill of someone who loves the Victorian Era and the English language. Since I love these things too, I’m going to keep reading Byatt’s stories. They leave me satisfied, full, if not exactly happy. The realism of her stories doesn’t lend itself to simple emotions, even when it’s magical realism.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s