Over the weekend I finished reading A.S. Byatt's novella-collection Angels & Insects and then finished reading the January 25 issue of The New Yorker. What's weird is that a couple of articles in the magazine strongly reminded me of the book I'd just finished.
First, there was the short story, which is one of the more bizarre pieces of fiction that the magazine has published recently. It's called "Trailhead," it's by distinguished entomologist E.O. Wilson, and is more like a creative-nonfiction article about an ant colony, than like a literary short story. You can learn an awful lot about ants from it: their mating habits, the social structure of their colonies, how different colonies fight each other...
But I had just learned many of these same facts from Angels & Insects! One of Byatt's protagonists is William Adamson, a naturalist who is writing a popular-science book based on his observations of a local ant colony. As is her habit, Byatt embeds excerpts of Adamson's writing into the text of the novella... and it's very similar to "Trailhead." Adamson is like a fictional, Victorian-era E.O. Wilson!
Then, at the back of the magazine, Anthony Lane reviews the new movie Creation, the Charles Darwin biopic. Evidently, the movie shows Darwin struggling to write The Origin of Species while anguished by the death of his daughter Annie and holding imagined conversations with her. Lane writes, "The movie, with its complicated time jumps, does give fresh energy to another Victorian obsession—namely, the ghost story. The epoch that, with Darwin’s assistance, came to nourish profound doubts about the hereafter was also, by a pleasing paradox, the heyday of interest in the spirit world."
Well, it wasn't intended as such, but that just happens to be a precise description of what Angels & Insects is all about. It's made up of two novellas: "Morpho Eugenia," about William Adamson, who is an early follower of Darwin, and clashes with his religious father-in-law because of it; and "The Conjugial Angel," about a group of Victorian spiritualists, holding seances to try to contact dead loved ones. So, the spiritual and the earthly, angels and insects. What I got from it is that we think of the Victorian era as being cozy and repressed, but it was during this time that ideas like "God is dead" first came into the culture, and people were really frightened and confused, and sought solace. But did solace lie in Darwin's scientific rationalism, or in the metaphysical spirit world? Which system should one follow?
"The Conjugial Angel" is not entirely successful, at times reading more like Byatt's meditation on Alfred Tennyson and his poem "In Memoriam" than like a piece of fiction with a strong plot and characters... in contrast to "Morpho Eugenia," which, for all its digressions on ant life, has an interesting story to tell. It's extremely "Byatt-y" (it might make a good introduction to her work for someone who's unwilling to tackle Possession), and because you know that I have a bias for Byatt, that's just fine with me.