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Today's review, so I'm caught up, yay.

These two slightly interlinked novellas made me think oh, that's what Andrea Barrett was trying to do with her short stories about Victorian science and scientists. Byatt's stories are quite different from one another in external form but both intimately concern themselves with the late Victorian concept of God and the shifts in that concept post-Darwin.

In the first novella, 'Morpho Eugenia', the protagonist comes back from a rather unpleasantly Othered Amazonian butterfly-collecting expedition to the patronage of a gentleman's family and life in a great country house. He falls in love with a daughter of the house, of course; they marry, of course; it all goes wrong, of course, but in a very particular and unusual way. I deeply admire this novella, though I couldn't enjoy it as such (it is too cold): its deep structure prevents the things about it that seem conventional from actually being what they seem. (In fact the best part of it is a fairytale written by one of the characters entitled 'Things Are Not What They Seem', a fairytale which is both enjoyable by itself and tells the protagonist everything important if only he knew how to read it.) This is one of those books that makes you draw your own conclusions, and it is actually the elaboration of metaphor one has to do for oneself that provides the emotional punch at the end. That said, there is entirely too much pageroom taken up with philosophical argument about God and instinct and habit and individuality. Partly this may be a magician's trick, the distracting hand to keep us from looking in the direction things are happening, but in a work so dependent on the unsaid and the inferred it is annoying to have to say to the writer that we got it the first four times, thank you.

But that emotional punch at the end was there, although I didn't care about any of it until the ending, and what had actually happened there didn't hit me until fifteen minutes afterward while I was getting a drink of water, at which time the whole thing became retroactively much better.

The second novella, 'Conjugial Relations', is both admirable and likable, though I don't know how much you have to know about Tennyson. It's set at a series of seances held by, among others, Emily, the sister of Tennyson's who used to be engaged to Arthur Hallam. Arthur Hallam's premature death inspired In Memoriam, generally considered one of the greatest poems of the Victorian era. Fifty years later, Emily, her second husband, and their friends are devout Swedenborgians (... I am not going to go into this; it was a common inspiring cause of seances) and are trying to contact Hallam's ghost. In the process there is a fascinating look at the ways that the great poem, the great poet have appropriated and shoved aside Emily's very real grief, the ways everyone hated her for remarrying and having children. There are genuine hauntings here, both figurative and literal, for one of the mediums is a real medium, and the way that her perceptions work is intricately detailed and like nothing else I have seen in literature, fantasy or not, and beautiful. I mean, there is an angel here like a jar or a beaker, and with feathers made of glass, and she can't really describe it, but what she can't say is amazing.

This is full of love and grief and anger and a deep undercurrent of feminist rage and a lot of extremely original imagery in a very small space, and it is a relatively minor quibble to say that yet again there is too much verbiage devoted to ruminating on Changes In The Victorian Idea Of God (we get it, we get it) and that there are twenty pages you could tear out inclusive and present as a Lecture On Tennyson to a graduate seminar without changing a word of them.

But o the structure of this story, I am whelmed with delight at it. Except for tearing out that lecture, which I would personally have done, this is like one of those Fullerian tensegrity structures where none of the beams touch each other and they are all held in place only by the tension of the strings between them. So while this is not Byatt in full-on genius mode (Possession has a place dear in my heart) it is well worth reading, and certainly much better than I thought initially, while I was suffering through the first novella before it got to the kick.

I hear they've made a movie of the first novella. I can't imagine that being anything other than a bona fide terrible idea.


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