Included as one novella of two within Angels & Insects (1992), this work is by Booker Prize winning novelist A.S. Byatt. Now 83, she lives in her hometown of Sheffield.
Although it met with mixed reviews, it’s since gained a cult following. The story is about the life of a Victorian naturalist as he wrestles with love, science, spirituality, and bugs.
"You may argue anything at all by analogy, sir, and so consequently nothing. This is my view. Feuerbach understood something about our minds. We need loving kindness in reality; and often do not find it—so we invent a divine Parent for the infant crying in the night, and convince ourselves all is well. In reality, many cries remain unheard in perpetuity."
Morpho eugenia is a species of buttefly. And there are some connotations there, no? Themes abound throughout Byatt’s work.
But one of the more fascinating is how the central character, Victorian naturalist William Adamson, comes to view the insects he studies as strangely human.
Whilst on a scientific expedition, his boat sank and he was left shipwrecked (a common occurrence in the 19th century).
As the reader, we catch up with Adamson after he’s spent a decade in the Amazon.
Lucky for him, posh English sorts abound in fancy houses and his new home is now out in the jungle.
As he considers marriage and attempts to become an upper class type, something is bothering him.
He studies insects and views their carnal (and otherwise) instincts in the humans around him. And that realisation plays out as he struggles to comprehend his place in society.
With his eye on the beautiful aristocrat Eugenia, he’s eager to move up in the world.
But as he continues to study some garden ants, he ponders over the various interpretations he gains from their seemingly methodical behaviour.
The Conjugial Angel is the second novella—and it rounds off Angels & Insects.
So, it’s a romance book. Essentially. But with greater themes on love, life, spirtuality, and science.
Byatt realistically portrays the Victorian world, where pomp and ceremony are the name of the game.
And it makes for chaming reading. It’s perhaps not the type of thing for everyone. It has a slow pace to it—some readers may find it dull and pretentious.
Others will seriously take to the rich tapestry of characterisation and postmodern themes. Or you can just read it as a romance novel. 50 Shades of Bugs, if you please.
But there is an underlying sense of gothic fascination in every paragraph. And we found it an intriguing slow burner.
In 1995 Philip Haas directed the film adaptation. It starred Mark Rylance, Patsy Kensit, and Kristin Scott Thomas.
There was a bit of a thing for Victorian films like this back then, with the 1995 TV series Pride and Predjudice a big hit. Plus Ang Lee’s period drama Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Alan Rickman.
So, that’s three major period drama productions in 1995. And we bet there we more of them! We haven’t seen Angels & Insects, but it has decent reviews. Famed American critic Roger Ebert really rated it, handing over 3.5/4.
The American-British production had a modest box office return of $3.4 million.
More interesting for us is the production problems the crew had—namely with the 6,000 ants brought in as part of the script.
They all walked off set (as is often the case with ants). So, in were brought another 6,000. And then the original 6,000 returned and, wahey, there were now 12,000 ants on set!
Our advice to filmmakers is to avoid working with ants. They seem pretty unruly.