BOOK REVIEW / A mixed benison from Tennyson: 'Angels and Insects' - A S Byatt: Chatto, 14.99 pounds

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A S BYATT has a high mind and a heavy hand. Both are in evidence again in Angels and Insects (her new diptych of novellas set in the Victorian era), along with a virtue that the high-minded don't always possess: a generous freedom from small-mindedness. In her critical essays, she has characterised herself as 'a greedy reader', and detractors would say that a weakness of Byatt the novelist is her habit of copiously regurgitating over her fiction the product of these print-binges.

It's true that until she hit on the ludic, postmodern manner of Possession, her creative work seemed, at times, merely the continuation of criticism by other means. And in the light of this, it's a safe bet that most reviewers will prefer the first novella, 'Morpho Eugenia', to its companion piece 'The Conjugial Angel'. Focusing on a young explorer and insect-collector who comes to see dismaying parallels between ant society and the social system in which he himself is ambiguously embroiled at the home of his father-in-law and patron, the former story certainly has the stronger narrative impulse. Though it resolutely crams in mounds of mugged-up entomology, there's a gaudy panache and sly Gothic tricksiness to the way the fable dramatises Victorian anxieties about competition versus co-operation and the place of man in a Godless universe.

By comparison, 'The Conjugial Angel', which takes up similar concerns in the slightly seedy spiritualist world of Victorian mediums and their bereft clients, makes slow progress, impeded by hefty road-blocks of arcane, unassimilated Swedenborg. But its treatment of Tennyson's In Memoriam contains much the most compelling and moving writing in the volume: like the discussions of Hamlet, say, in Ulysses or the scattered insights into Madame Bovary in Flaubert's Parrot, its meditations derives their power from the fact that they occur in a fictional discourse.

The novella takes off from a biographical anecdote told about Emily Tennyson Jesse, the Laureate's sister. In youth, she lost her fiance, Arthur Hallam, the subject of Tennyson's great elegy. Towards the end of her life, it's said, she attended a seance with her husband, a 'lubberly lieutenant', where she was informed that in the afterlife she would join Arthur Hallam on an eternal basis. 'I consider that an extremely unfair arrangement,' she is reported to have replied indignantly, pledging to stick by the man with whom she lived this life. Byatt envisions Emily's conflicting responses to her brother's poem: the tact (or was it reproach?) with which he usurped her place as Hallam's 'widow'; the implied rebuke of his ending the elegy not with her own inconvenient nuptials but with the less touchy wedding of their sister, Cecilia, and so on. As well as offering a bracing, felt perspective on the poem, Emily's imagined thoughts give us an intricate understanding of the position of a bereaved Victorian woman, trapped by the disapproval of others, her love upstaged by male friendships.

Some reservations: in 'Morpho Eugenia' a character, writing in 1863, asks her readers to imagine a hard red apple as the Albert Hall; this would be a clairvoyant feat of comparison since work on that building did not begin till four years later. More important than such niggles, though, are the doubts about style. Byatt's writing is irritatingly littered with the 'a kind of (or sort of) x y' descriptive pattern ('a kind of accomplished town-flirtatiousness'; 'a kind of deadly defiance') that Christopher Ricks has rightly identified as weakening the prose of her great mentor, Iris Murdoch. It's a formula that mimes scrupulousness while actually being vague and bet-hedging and it reaches its comic nadir here when a character in 'The Conjugial Angel' fantasises about how an acquaintance makes bedroom advances on his wife: 'he would have a sort of little sign that that was what he wanted'. Precisely what sort of a sort of little sign would that be, one wonders?