“There is something wonderful about naming a species. To bring a thing that is wild, and rare, and hitherto unobserved under the net of human observation and human language…” – William Adamson, “Morpho Eugenia”
In one of her first postings for the Floating Academy, Tara MacDonald discussed her experiences teaching Alasdair Gray’s neo-Victorian novel, Poor Things (1992), in an introductory-level literature class. This year I decided to teach Angels & Insects (published the same year as Gray’s) in an upper-year undergraduate class, bookending the term with Byatt’s pair of novellas. Our department’s program offers a couple of classes on the Victorian novel, and devotes another two to the study of poetry and prose from the period. In my experience, the latter courses require a much more careful hand in the selection and curation of materials. I felt Byatt’s novellas, composed as they are from fragments of Victorian texts and glimpses of historical perspectives, offered a creative example of the kind of collage we were undertaking as a class.
The first novella, “Morpho Eugenia,” introduces William Adamson, a Victorian naturalist who has returned to England having endured a lengthy expedition in the Amazon and a costly shipwreck in the Atlantic. Having lost most of his specimens, he is convinced to stay in his patron Harald Alabaster’s household as a kind of resident entomologist and immediately finds himself drawn to Alabaster’s daughter, Eugenia. Early in the text, Eugenia describes the creative project she’s undertaken with the use of William’s scientific materials: “I have made a beautiful display,” she tells him, “a kind of quilt, or embroidery almost—out of some of the earlier specimens you sent my father. I have pinned them out very carefully—they are exquisitely pretty—they give a little the effect of a scalloped cushion, only their colours are more subtle than any silks could be” (8). The passage is a fitting description of her novella itself, which artfully threads together an impressive number of Victorian texts into a glittering whole. Infusing historical research with dramatic narrative, Byatt’s work can give students the sense that the line between fiction and critique, and between writing and reading, is not so rigid and inflexible as we might think.
Seductive as this shimmering image might be, however, it ought also to serve as a warning to readers of neo-Victorian fiction. “Morpho Eugenia’s” insistent and unsettling analogy between insect and human society, delivered through her entomologist-narrator’s perspective, can illuminate the problems of perspective encountered by contemporary readers of Victorian culture. From the historical distance of our vantage point, these humans often look like ants. Their struggles, hang-ups and fears are commonly simplified and minimized. The novella’s stunning 1995 film adaptation exploited the pleasures to be taken in watching the Victorians. Borrowing many of the representational codes of the Merchant Ivory mode of historical film, Philip Haas’ costume drama presented English history as exotic spectacle, playing to our ethnographic desire to observe elaborate rituals and colorful displays from the perspective of fascinated outsider.
Reflecting on the epigraph quoted above, what happens when our students learn to name the Victorians as a species? How does “the net of human observation and human language” threaten to domesticate all that is “wild, and rare” about these people? As Tara noted in her reflection, and as anyone who teaches Victorian culture is likely to find, “sexually repressed” still functions as one of the most dismissive (if not entirely inaccurate) names we’ve given to the Victorians. Neo-Victorian novels typically bank on this modern preconception, peddling sex as their secret. Splicing together Wilkie Collins and Krafft-Ebing, they unspool tangles of plot through sexual concealment and repression, synchronizing narrative and sexual climax, and proffering exposure and confession as the answers to the story’s tensions. I must temper this critique of the genre, however, with the admission that my most well-received lectures tend to follow this structure as well, exploring and expressing alongside my students the things Victorians often would not or could not bring themselves to say.
This was my first experience teaching neo-Victorian literature, and I’m just now beginning to write a critical piece on Byatt’s second novella, “The Conjugial Angel.” Have you taught neo-Victorian literature in the context of a Victorian course? How has it reframed the way you and your students think about Victorian literature and culture?