N°2 | “Things seen and done otherwise”: Adaptiveness and the Dynamics of Difference in A. S. Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia

Peter Merchant (Canterbury Christ Church University),


Abstract :

“Double vision,” defined as an awareness “of things seen and done otherwise,” permeates A. S. Byatt’s novellaMorpho Eugenia, first published in 1992. The fact that its hero is a returning traveller, and an expert on insect behaviour, makes for connections which work both interculturally and across species. The novella’s acknowledgment of a number of precursor texts prompts us continually to refer Byatt’s writing back to the work by others that it artfully reimagines. Finally,Morpho Eugeniasets up an intersemiotic encounter between fiction and film; for a cinematic version was part of the author’s original conception and became a reality just two years after publication. This essay accordingly attempts a comparative treatment of a text whose techniques are themselves comparative. It explores the making of anagrams, through which existing elements are suggestively redisposed, as a parallel to the adaptive impulse and the adaptive act.

Résumé : 

La novelette Morpho Eugenia de A. S. Byatt, publiée pour la première fois en 1992, est imprégnée de la “double vision”, définie comme une prise de conscience “des choses vues et faites autrement”. Le fait que son héros soit un voyageur de retour et un expert du comportement des insectes crée des liens qui fonctionnent à la fois entre les cultures et les espèces. La novelette laisse deviner des liens avec un certain nombre de textes précurseurs et incite continuellement le lecteur à se référer à ces intertextes brillamment réimaginés. Enfin, Morpho Eugenia organise une rencontre intersémiotique entre la fiction et le cinéma, car Byatt avait à l’esprit une version cinématographique lors de la conception originale de ce texte, adaptation qui a été réalisée deux ans seulement après la publication. C’est pourquoi le présent article tente de traiter de manière comparative un texte dont les techniques sont elles-mêmes comparatives. Il explore la réalisation d’anagrammes, à travers lesquels les éléments existants sont redisposés de manière suggestive, en parallèle avec l’impulsion adaptative et l’acte adaptatif.



A. S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, which in her 1992 volume Angels and Insects appeared alongside The Conjugial Angel, opens with its hero newly returned to nineteenth-century Britain from his travels in South America. We find him physically “constricted,” inside a dress suit borrowed for a ball, but with mental horizons so expanded that he “remembered a festa on the Rio Manaquiry, lit by lamps made of half an orange-skin filled with turtle oil” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 3), and moreover “remembered being grabbed and nuzzled and rubbed and cuddled with great vigour by women with brown breasts glistening with sweat and oil, and with shameless fingers” (7). “Nothing he did now seemed to happen without this double vision, of things seen and done otherwise, in another world.” (7)

Such “double vision” soon emerges as a resource in which Byatt’s novella is doubly invested. The immediate means of building it in is the intercultural awareness of the hero himself. Simply because he is a returning traveller, all that he experiences back in Britain comes accompanied by a recognition of—as T. S. Eliot put it—“other kinds of experience which are possible” (Eliot 111). That same habitual reference to an indelibly implicit “otherwise” is then transmitted to the reader. The threading through the narrative of the research into insect behaviour which several characters are pursuing invites us to engage in a continual comparison of their world with the ant world. The novella’s discreet homage to a number of precursor texts, taken largely from the nineteenth century, prompts us in addition to compare Byatt’s writing with the work by others which it artfully reimagines. Potentially, too, Morpho Eugenia makes the reader party to an intersemiotic translation of the written into the visual; for the film version which Byatt had in mind from the outset—having by her own account “always seen this tale as a film” (“Architectural Origins” 104)—was shot in the summer of 1994, within two years of the work’s initial appearance in print. The adaptation lent a further layer of irony. A novella that chronicles a coming to terms with the adaptability of life forms, as Darwin’s account of the successive modification of species collides for the hero’s host with the old idea of a divine Designer (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 33), was ministering now to discoveries by its readers about the adaptability of literary texts.

One work with which Morpho Eugenia is both comparable and contemporary is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, first staged at London’s Lyttelton Theatre in April 1993. Byatt’s novella and Stoppard’s play enjoy a kind of Darwinian kinship, as analogous but separate organisms arising at the same historical juncture and within the same cultural ecosystem. With Arcadia touching upon thermodynamics and chaos mathematics, while Morpho Eugenia is tethered to entomology and the post-Darwinian controversies, an extraordinarily eclectic impulse runs through each and corresponds to the intercontinental reach of the action (out as far as the Amazon in Morpho Eugenia, and Martinique in Arcadia). On the historical level both works connect the 1990s to the nineteenth century, and in each case the point of entry into the past is provided by a young scholar’s stay in a country house. Stoppard’s play puts Septimus Hodge into Sidley Park as a private tutor; and Byatt’s novella sends the scientist-explorer William Adamson, his head filled with foreign bodies, to Bredely Hall, where a foreign body is exactly what he will be. William’s call to Bredely comes, however, some fifty years after Septimus’s summons to Sidley; for, where Stoppard’s setting is Georgian, Morpho Eugenia is steeped in all things Victorian. The terminal dates of the action, which begins a few months after the 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and ends a few months after the 1863 publication of Kingsley’s Water-Babies, in fact serve to signal one part of the novella’s literary pedigree and to measure two of its principal preoccupations: with Victorian evolutionary theory and with the form of the fairy tale.

Although the reader is not to know whether William Adamson—who ends by expelling himself from Bredely Hall and returning to the rainforest—lives happily ever after, his beginnings are more straightforward. Byatt herself has traced her hero back to his origin by identifying him as a character “based on Bates and Wallace” (Byatt, Histories 79). William’s background in Brazil and butterflies is borrowed from Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, with the latter also bequeathing the calamity of his shipwreck on the voyage home and even donating his initials. A discreet transposition of these turns A. W. into W. A. and allows William, “because . . . he named the insects in the tropics,” to become Adamson, “the first man in the first Garden” (Byatt, Histories 81, 117). The resulting fictional composite can be projected by Byatt both as a second Adam, born of the Bible and of Milton, and as an eminently recognisable representative of mid-Victorian man, part “Amazonian naturalist” and part “Darwinian agnostic” (Byatt, Histories 79, 118.) Against him Byatt pits the man trying to reconcile Darwin with Design: Harald Alabaster, the clergyman naturalist who rules at Bredely Hall and who himself is ruled by his curiosity about creation. Harald is “one of those entomological aristocratic Victorian parsons with Doubts who contributed so much to science” (Byatt, “Architectural Origins” 104). What he needs from William is on one level specialist help with his collection of specimens, on another level a type of gladiatorial combat. As he seeks to preserve what he can of the old order, by defending the territory to which Darwin has forced theology to retreat, Harald relishes the opportunity that William’s arrival affords to test his ideas in the crucible of debate.

The ten years that William has spent in South America, together with the keen eye for structural similarities and differences that his scientific training has developed in him, impel him at every turn to compare the world which he has just left behind with the world into which his invitation to Bredely Hall has now brought him. While he was abroad, home-thoughts as vivid as Robert Browning’s would come thronging: “I was haunted by an image of an English meadow in spring. . . .” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 30). After his return, whenever he takes in the sights of Bredely Hall he finds himself by the same token thinking of Brazil. The one appears an adaptation of the other. Sometimes parallels of analogy come “pok[ing] their way through the curtains of his inner eye” (63), as when he looks at some “very fine Gothic fan vaulting” and thinks “of . . . palms towering in the jungle” (7). Sometimes what strike him are parallels of contrast: “He felt he was doomed to a kind of double consciousness. Everything he experienced brought up its contrary image from out there” (24). In Brazil William moved among “olive-skinned and velvet-brown ladies of doubtful virtue and no virtue” (5), but the Alabaster daughters to whom William’s work for Harald introduces him—Eugenia, Rowena, and Enid—seem of another substance altogether, as smooth and as precious as the family name suggests: “They were all three pale-gold and ivory creatures…” (4).

Eugenia, Rowena, and Enid have two half-brothers, Edgar and Lionel, and at least five other siblings who, confined to the schoolroom and the nursery (22), are still at the larval stage. Increasingly, as its size and extent are revealed, the Bredely household comes to mimic the ant colonies which “his ruling passion, the social insects” (10), has led William to research. In the Alabaster family, indeed, this scholar specialising in the dynamics of coexistence and co-operation within specific defined communities would seem to have a subject made to his hand. Not only is there material for study in what turn out to be the tangled interactions of the family members themselves, but William’s own arrival at Bredely Hall will soon set the entire family unit adapting to the presence in their nest of an alien interloper, a stranger different from themselves in both background and values. Another potential series of comparisons arises, linking the Alabasters not with the peoples of the Amazon but with ants and butterflies. A woodland society consisting of ant colonies is chronicled in a text-within-the-text entitled “The Swarming City” (108-16). The principal observers of that woodland society, William himself and Matty Crompton, are annexed loosely to the Alabaster family; and within the hierarchy of Bredely Hall—which can include “various dependent spinsters of various ages,” and “visiting young men” (22)—they occupy a position beneath the queens but above the workers, envisaged by Byatt as “scurrying . . . in honeycombs of corridors” like “female worker ants carrying honeydew and larvae” (“Architectural Origins” 104). Consequently, once the story starts to move back and forth between the buzzing interior of Bredely Hall and the Swarming City that stands in its grounds, a dual perspective opens up whereby the human family and the ant colonies are, in the words of Tatiana Kontou, “arranged together in the narrative to create a double vision of natural and social evolution” (Kontou 126). As in The Insect Play by the brothers Čapek (1921), the insects become interesting both in their own right and for the running commentary that they appear to offer on human behaviour. The kinds of connection suggested may be deceptive, for—as William himself avows—“Analogy is a slippery tool” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 100) which occasionally throws up an “[i]rrelevant” (63) or “specious” (89) resemblance; but they are also illuminating about “human societies” and “human warfare” generally (38, 95), as well as very revealing about the Alabasters alone. Even as the novella resists them it none the less admits them.

The inset account of the ant colonies is in any case destined to impinge upon the main narrative enclosing it, since it holds an important clue to the shocking dénouement to which the frame story will lead us. That “the female is the object of desire of all males” holds at Bredely Hall, as Sally Shuttleworth points out (Shuttleworth 264), no less than in any insect colony. Just as polyandry is suspected in the Ant Queen (Byatt, “Morpho” 101), so it emerges after William has married her that Eugenia, the eldest of the Alabaster daughters, has a concurrent sexual relationship with her own half-brother Edgar. William, who thought he was marrying a butterfly, “discovers too late that he has married the Queen ant by mistake” (Cheira 135). In the ant world, relatedness between the queens and the males is no bar to mating. The same house rules apply at Bredely Hall. The Alabaster family “had always been very pure-blooded” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 22) and “love each other very much” (8), in all too literal a way. William’s discovery of this brings the novella to its catastrophe, and puts Morpho Eugenia squarely in the middle of the steady stream of English-language narratives of sibling incest, running from 1969 to 2015, which a recent study has uncovered (Kokkola and Valovirta 139).

By the time Eugenia admits to William that Edgar has been sleeping with her “[s]ince [she] was very little” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 150), it has become possible to see Bredely Hall not just as an ant colony writ very large but as a little epitome of English history. The fact that Edgar was installed as monarch a hundred years before the first William came to the throne should have warned Eugenia’s husband that Eugenia’s half-brother was earlier in line than himself. On the other hand, Harald Alabaster should have known that the theology whose truths he is trying to retexture cannot hope to match the new science which he has invited into his home; this is a contest in which Harald will be the loser, and William the conqueror. The mere names suffice for the post-Darwinian controversies to be represented here as a mid-Victorian re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings. The “double vision” of Morpho Eugenia is at this point juxtaposing the 1860s with the 1060s, as well as Britain with Brazil and Bredely Hall with the “Swarming City” of ants. The characters are conceived and developed in terms of events which took place eight centuries before their time. “The Alabasters are the Anglo-Saxons” (Byatt, Histories 81), and must bow to the fitter overseas invader, the better adapted power that comes in and takes over: “I decided quite early to make my hero an Amazon explorer … I called him William and the old collector Harald out of a blatant reference to Scott’s historical vision of old and new rulers, Saxon and Norman” (Byatt, Histories 117). It is as if Victorian evolutionary theory were being anachronistically applied to Ivanhoe, in order to ask whether certain species such as the Normans are better equipped for survival than other species such as the Saxons. Questions of adaptation, therefore, are placed firmly on the novella’s agenda.

The novella’s method, meanwhile, announces itself no less emphatically as entailing—on multiple occasions—a delineation by negatives. As Britain serves to call Brazil to mind, because “[e]verything . . . brought up its contrary image” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 24), so similar leaps are made which (for instance) link those gathered at Bredely Hall to the Normans and Saxons, or the Alabasters to the ants. The more “blatant” the category transgression, in each of these yokings together, the more vivid the bringing up, and the more profoundly the pictures evoked alter our notions of the things that evoked them. “Things Are Not What They Seem,” the title of one of the nested narratives that Morpho Eugenia accommodates (119–40), is in that sense also a truth which on every level Morpho Eugenia embodies. Throughout the larger narrative in which Matty Crompton’s playful tale is embedded, it applies in matters both great and small. Not only does William twice point to a capacity for mimicry in butterflies, which allows them to mask their true natures (20, 141), but the initial emergence of every butterfly already marks an astonishing transformation of what it once was. “Transfiguration,” says Harald, “is not a bad thing. Butterflies come out of the most unpromising crawling things” (49). The text of “Things Are Not What They Seem” highlights the “transfiguration” (133) of caterpillar into Puss Moth. Matty herself is destined for a metamorphosis. She has appeared drably devoid of sensuous promise—in Byatt’s own words, “a sexless worker” (Byatt, Histories 120)—but, when she comes to speak the same line that she turned into the title of her tale, “Things are not what they seem” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 153, 119), it suggests that there is more than meets the eye not just to Edgar and Eugenia but to Matty Crompton too. She loosens her hair and draws herself up to the full height of her name: “’My name,’ she said, ‘is Matilda.’” (157) Their shared scientific enterprise then sees William the Conqueror and the newly transfigured Queen Matilda sailing together into the wide blue yonder, while “their blood swims with the excitement of the future” (160).

Implicit in the note of expectancy on which the novella therefore concludes are the reader’s expectations of a fairy-tale ending. From the very beginning, in fact, much in Morpho Eugenia has been redolent of fairy-tale magic. The same Arabian Nights tale of Camaralzaman and Princess Budoor which later featured in the title story of Byatt’s 1994 volume The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye makes a contribution here too, as the first of the miniature narratives embedded in the text. On this occasion it is evoked only by fleeting allusion, however, and the reader must reconstruct the tale from the single line into which William’s journal has compressed it: the Prince’s “I shall die if I cannot have her” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 13–14). With pen in hand, in the early hours of the morning, and with Eugenia on his mind, William recalls that impassioned vow and reaffirms it three times before cockcrow. In doing so he is also bringing up, or inviting us to recall, the line—first penned in this same year, 1860—into which Elizabeth Gaskell would distil the essence of her novel Sylvia’s Lovers (1863): “Give me Sylvia, or else I die” (Gaskell 117). Gaskell draws the character to whom the line is given, Philip Hepburn, as a stolid Yorkshireman, “brought up among the Quakers” (117) and serving in a shop. Overwhelmed, however, by feelings for whose intensity the echo of Rachel’s “Give me children, or else I die” (Gen. 30.1) is left to vouch, he abandons his principles and deceitfully prises Sylvia away from the jolly sailor, Charley Kinraid, who has captured her heart. Byatt’s William, another Yorkshireman whose father “was a successful butcher and a devout Methodist” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 9), seems somebody just as unlikely to suffer life-threatening romantic agony as Gaskell’s Philip; but he is just as unlucky in his choice of romantic object, since Sylvia has given her affections to Kinraid and Eugenia continues to give herself to Edgar. Through replicating the triangular tensions of Gaskell’s novel, Byatt’s novella affords an intriguingly complex example of adaptation by reminiscence in which the Arabian Nights tale that impinges on both works without being named by either becomes a missing link between Sylvia’s Lovers and Morpho Eugenia. This double alignment is typical of the novella’s interest in creating congruence both with the texts that it incorporates into itself and, crucially, with the defining texts of the historical period in which the novella itself is set. For that reason Morpho Eugenia is characterised throughout by the imaginative reworking of nineteenth-century antecedents.

The novella’s Victorian setting does not in fact exclude texts of an earlier date. William summons up Coleridge (116) and Ben Jonson (66); and Matty, as well as using “a wonderful sonnet by poor mad John Clare” (104), quotes from Keats’s “Belle Dame sans Merci” (152) and from Milton’s Paradise Lost (31, 79–80). Appropriately enough, however, the allusions in Morpho Eugenia tend to concentrate on work written during the lifetimes of Matty and William themselves. Tennyson’s In Memoriam, prominently present in “The Conjugial Angel” as well as in Morpho Eugenia, is quoted here by both William (59) and Harald (87-89). Browning’s “Home Thoughts from Abroad” also features (78-79). Victorian novels are prime providers of material too, with several sources other than Sylvia’s Lovers and several suppliers other than Elizabeth Gaskell turned tellingly to account. Interwoven with the traces of Philip Hepburn in William, for example, are traces of the scientist traveller, Roger Hamley, whom Gaskell put at the centre of her final novel Wives and Daughters (1864–66) and of the drawing master, Walter Hartright, who in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859–60) was engaged to help with a collection not of specimens but of drawings. Matty Crompton’s metamorphosis into Matilda gives the character similarly divided affinities; she both “suggests Miss Matty . . . in Gaskell’s Cranford” (Sturrock 102, note 4) and, on Byatt’s own authority (“Architectural Origins” 104), “nurses the fire of Jane Eyre.” The naming of the first pair of twins born to Eugenia after David Copperfield’s two wives, Agnes and Dora (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 70), measures the extent to which Morpho Eugenia reproduces classic Victorian fiction.


These observations as yet are preliminary, rather than conclusive. The hope is that they may lead in the third and final section to firmer findings both about Byatt’s novella in particular and about the general condition, adaptiveness, which it inherits. Morpho Eugenia constitutes a perfect test case because it can be studied initially as interacting with various precursor texts to which it attaches itself through overt or oblique allusion and then, when its own turn comes, as interacted with by a single significant successor. That study can most properly and profitably be resumed after a few moments spent considering, in this second section, how best to understand and characterise the relationship that two texts enter into when one of them derives from the other. It is the kind of relationship most influentially described, perhaps, by Gérard Genette. For him, any pre-existing works which provide the basis for some newer work, “and upon which [the latter] is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary,” are its “hypotexts” (Genette 5). In so far as William Adamson’s story is grafted onto Philip Hepburn’s, for instance, Morpho Eugenia has a “hypotext” in Sylvia’s Lovers; and Byatt’s novella can, by the same token, be treated as a “palimpsest.”

John Holloway, however, in his essay “Supposition and Supersession: A Model of Analysis for Narrative Structure” offers an alternative account of the grafting process. The essay is essentially an attempt to outline what occurs in the mind of the reader while that external sequence of cause and effect which we commonly think of as the plot of a story unfolds. Events at the outset will generate a certain set of suppositions; but when succeeding sections of the narrative disconfirm the hypotheses which we have formed, or cause them to come true in an unforeseen way, supposition is superseded. The argument advanced here, and the terms that it uses, could apply equally to acts of adaptation. The “dexterous resumption and modulation” (Holloway 49) of readers’ expectations is just as prominently involved in these. In so far as after we have taken our bearings by material likely to be familiar we realise that we are in fact in another place, the experience is again one of being whisked from the recognition of an apparently predictable pattern to a revelation of unpredicted difference. When an author reworks or refers to a precursor text but does not develop the materials found there quite as the surface resemblance has led us to anticipate, there may be moments of pleasurable surprise when—in Harald’s words—“[b]utterflies come out.”

Nothing in any of the many hypotexts which are absorbed into Morpho Eugenia better illustrates expectation exceeded and supposition superseded than, from Paradise Lost, Milton’s “High on a throne” opening for Book II. In Matty Crompton’s copy of the poem, this passage might directly face the lines from the end of Book I that she has committed to memory (Byatt, “Morpho” 79–80). The passage is a supersession—or (as is signalled by the first verb in the Book) an outshining—of visions such as Ezekiel’s, setting God on a heavenly throne which seemed made of sapphire stone (Ezek. 1.26). Milton’s “dexterous resumption or modulation” of these sources surprises, of course, by enthroning Satan rather than God:

High on a throne of royal state, which far

Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,

Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand

Show’rs on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,

Satan exalted sat. . . . (Milton 110)

In his Dunciad, however (three-book version, 1728-29; four-book version, 1742–43), Alexander Pope would subsequently spring a surprise of his own, ensuring that the dislodgement of Milton’s Satan could be effected with remarkably little fuss:

High on a gorgeous seat, that far out-shone

 Henley’s gilt tub, or Fleckno’s Irish throne,

Or that where on her Curls the Public pours,

All-bounteous, fragrant Grains and Golden show’rs,

Great Cibber sate. . . . (Pope 736)

Pope’s Cibber, in the four-book Dunciad, is slotted into the place which previously belonged to Theobald: “Great Tibbald sate” (Pope 371). But really it is Milton’s Satan that both men are supposed to supersede. Cibber does so here by assuming the same position on the shining throne, as well as precisely the same position at the beginning of the poem’s second Book (that is, perched over line 5). Meanwhile, in his dazzlingly indecent variations on the Miltonic original, Pope mischievously misconstrues the golden showers as the sort that might be poured from a slop-bucket or chamber-pot over a piratical publisher in the pillory. The witty rearrangement which results is perfectly in accord both with Linda Hutcheon’s definition of adaptation as involving “an acknowledged transposition of a recognizable other work or works” (8) and with John Holloway’s view of supersession as entailing the “dexterous resumption and modulation” of a precursor or precursors.

That Cibber’s predecessor in his “gorgeous seat” was Satan is signalled not by any phonetic connection between the two names themselves—such as does the trick when E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime (1975) takes the eponymous hero of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas (1810) as the foundation for his character Coalhouse Walker—but by the obvious parallels which Pope packs into all that surrounds them. Once Pope’s reader has recognised the lines on Cibber as replicating the syntactic structure which Milton’s description of Satan inhabited, the link is fastened. Pope imitates Milton by shadowing his sentences but within that framework of sameness substituting some words which are different. His own lines at the start of the 1742–43 Dunciad, “The Mighty Mother, and her Son who brings / The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings, / I sing,” would be imitated in identical fashion in Crabbe’s 1775 poem Inebriety: “The mighty spirit, and its power, which stains / The bloodless cheek, and vivifies the brains, / I sing” (Crabbe 35). Oscar Wilde’s reputed epigram on inebriety, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes” (Pearson 192), likewise retains the shape of its precursor—the preachy platitude “Drink is the curse of the working classes”—but in doing so applies a savagely subversive internal variation. The opportunity to refresh a stale sentence simply by switching its subject plainly presented Wilde with the type of temptation of which he could get rid only by yielding to it.

The shuffled words of the epigram, “Work” replaced by “Drink” and “drink” by “work,” contain clues to the techniques of rearrangement deployed in “Morpho Eugenia”; and the tinkering that went on between Milton, Pope and Crabbe suggests that even shuffles so slight as A.W. for Alfred Wallace into W.A. for William Adamson can produce very decisive transformations. Pope, above all, shows such delicacy of touch that it is often only letters, rather than whole words, which he needs to rearrange. The passage on Cibber is a case in point. In an opening line made entirely out of Milton’s materials, except that “which” has become “that” and “gorgeous East” has become “gorgeous seat,” Pope moves the first of the consonants in “East” to the front of the word in order to create a parodic version of Satan’s throne, perfect for the dauphin of Dullness that is “Great Cibber.” (He also establishes the alliterative sequence, G for “gorgeous” and then S for “seat,” which is to return with a vengeance in “Golden show’rs.”) At the end of the sentence he repeats the manoeuvre, this time retaining the consonantal pattern of the “seat” that came from Milton’s “East” but adjusting the vocalic infill in such a way as to advance from “seat” to “sate” and so conjure up the sitting, or squatting, Cibber. Pope’s neat anagrammatic twists on Milton become ways for him to turn the light of Paradise Lost into the darkness of The Dunciad, a poem in which (since its subject is the extinguishing of wit) “Darkness strikes the sense no less than Light” (Pope 553). They are also miniature models of all that adaptation implies. Just as anagrams revolve the letters of words in order to make from them other words, so adaptation rotates the elements of a precursor text in the knowledge that something very different may result.


At a critical point in the action of Morpho Eugenia, shortly after William has discovered Edgar in his wife’s bedroom, revelation comes couched in anagrams. There are alphabet cards in the parlour, and a word-making game which—like the automatic writing in “The Conjugial Angel”—creates just the conditions needed for meaning and non-meaning to meet (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 152–53). William is dealt the letters PHXNITCSE. He does not at first spot the SPHINX he has been handed, any more than he could see Eugenia as the lethal setter of sexual conundrums that she is, and this oversight costs him his chance of “getting rid of the dangerous X” in a triumphant extraction of the word to which the entire novella is seen by Dirk Vanderbeke as a kind of cryptic clue: “Das ausgelassene Wort ist natürlich SPHINX” (Vanderbeke 436). The word omitted or elided can be no other, that is, than SPHINX. Instead, what William passes on to Matty is a word that more straightforwardly sums up his recognised “ruling passion”: INSECT. She then pointedly rearranges it as INCEST, with the comment “Things are not what they seem” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 153). Not only will the suppositions to which William has subscribed about Matty—“She was dry, was Matty Crompton” (105)—very soon be superseded, but all of his expectations concerning Eugenia and what she stood for are already completely confounded. He should have heeded the warning signs that were there to be seen when the first two twins were born: “They don’t seem to resemble me at all” (71). Three further children then also turned out true to type, as “perfect little Alabasters—I only very rarely catch glimpses of myself in their expression” (106). All five may have been fathered not by William the insect expert but by Edgar the incest expert. As Sally Shuttleworth observes, “Harald Alabaster’s sermon on love which begins ‘with the natural ties between the members of the family group … the closeness of brothers and sisters’ . . . becomes, in the light of subsequent revelations, an exposure of the incestuous dynamics which lay at the heart of Victorian ideologies of the family” (Shuttleworth 265). The anagram takes us at a stroke from INSECT and the inner story of the ant colonies to INCEST and the frame story of the Alabaster family, dominated now by an explosive secret. It therefore instantly fastens that connection between its ostensible or “supposed” subject and its actual but veiled subject that operates the whole narrative. Out of the chrysalis of the story we thought we were reading, about insects or about the post-Darwinian controversies, comes a story which we probably failed to foresee.

Byatt’s anagrammatic play, like Pope’s, accompanies an act of adaptation so bold that the adaptation qualifies as a second piece of significant imaginative creation. While Pope modifies Milton, the “dexterous resumption” in Byatt’s case is of a scene in Nabokov’s Ada:

Ada asked her governess for pencils and paper. Lying on his stomach, leaning his cheek on his hand, Van looked at his love’s inclined neck as she played anagrams with Grace, who had innocently suggested “insect.”

“Scient,” said Ada, writing it down.

“Oh no!” objected Grace.

“Oh yes! I’m sure it exists. He is a great scient. Dr. Entsic was scient in insects.”

Grace meditated, tapping her puckered brow with the eraser end of the pencil, and came up with:


“Incest,” said Ada instantly.

“I give up,” said Grace. “We need a dictionary to check your little inventions.” (85)

The matching moment in Morpho Eugenia is done without dialogue:

William . . . found himself able to present Matty Crompton with INSECT . . . Miss Crompton, her face heavily shadowed in the lamplight, gave a small snort of laughter at this word, considered it for some time, rearranged the cards, and pushed it back to him. . . . There it was, lying innocently in his hand. INCEST. He shuffled the evidence hastily, looked up, and met the dark intelligent eyes. (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 153)

A simple juxtaposition of those two passages is all that is needed to reveal in Matty’s anagram the “intertextual reference to Nabokov’s Ada” to which, as long ago as 1998, Sally Shuttleworth very persuasively pointed (Shuttleworth 264, note 22). Ada made the same word from the same letters; on each occasion the context is incest between sister and brother, brought out of the shadows into the open; and, thanks to Nabokov’s lifelong interest in butterfly taxonomy, Ada is no less liberally laced with lepidoptera than Morpho Eugenia.

Had the big-budget film adaptation of Ada which apparently was mooted (Mazierska 1) ever been made, it would have left the respective life cycles of Nabokov’s novel and Byatt’s novella looking very similar too. Morpho Eugenia in fact promptly crossed from page to screen, enjoying a far faster transition than Byatt’s 1990 novel Possession. Having been shot in the summer of 1994, the film version competed at Cannes in May 1995, went on general release in the UK (with an 18 certificate) in December of that year, and became available as a Film Four video release in May 1996. Throughout that journey, however, it travelled under a different name: not Morpho Eugenia (which might have been met with general incomprehension) but the title, Angels and Insects, that Byatt had given to the volume as a whole. The rebranding of Morpho Eugenia as Angels and Insects—like Whit Stillman’s rebranding of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan in his 2016 film Love and Friendship—simply substituted for the original title an alternative and closely associated title, also of the author’s own devising, which more plainly indicated the areas that the action would explore. A certain demonstrable proximity to the source is therefore preserved, while allowance is made for adjustments of which the rearranging of letters in the game of anagrams seems an apt emblem. Having itself reimagined the Victorian narratives that in one way or another it brought up, Byatt’s novella was open to the sort of reimagining on which Belinda and Philip Haas as the two screenwriters, and the latter as director, would now embark. A story which is partly about relocation, with William leaving the Amazon behind him to arrive at Bredely Hall, is itself transposed to a different medium; and there it comes to illustrate, not from the natural world but in the world of art, the very processes of development and variation that fascinate its hero.

If Tennyson’s In Memoriam can be trusted as a compendium of its concerns, the mid-Victorian generation with which Byatt deals in Morpho Eugenia agonised over the volatility of things that “flow / From form to form” (Tennyson 973). No such misgivings attached, at least on the author’s part, to the transition which Morpho Eugenia made from print to film: “I felt none of the usual novelist’s anxiety about film spoiling something made of words, because I had always seen this tale as a film…” (Byatt, “Architectural Origins” 104). Even at the point of its initial conception, Morpho Eugenia was a readily transformable text, and ripe for film adaptation. Its transference to the medium of film of course threw up challenges too. In so far as the text with which they were working refracts Victorian material through a twentieth-century sensibility, Belinda and Philip Haas found themselves (like Harold Pinter in his French Lieutenant’s Woman screenplay) adapting what was already an adaptation. The need to reckon with that knowledge of the book which some who saw the film would inevitably be bringing in, much as William carried his memories of English meadows into the Amazonian rainforest, was bound to pull the screenwriters in one direction; but the conventions of the narrative fiction film would pull them in another, towards the sort of realism from which the novella had worked itself free. In the event they steered a thoughtful course between fidelity to the source and obedience to the mechanics of the medium. Their film version took the story along the same trajectory as the novella, and sacrificed as few of its strands as possible; but it foregrounded some parts of the content more than Byatt herself had done, and made them meet more crunchingly. The first mention of Darwin is moved out of the privacy of Harald’s study into the dining-room where the other Alabasters have also gathered. The tension between William and Edgar is more palpable and becomes evident at an earlier stage. The convergence of the human and insect worlds is underscored at the level of costume design; skirts resemble butterfly wings, and in one scene the dress which Eugenia wears is yellow with black stripes, as if to make her into a human wasp. The connections and comparisons between Brazil, Bredely Hall and the “Swarming City” are emphasised by cross-cutting.

In this way the screenplay manages to make manifest what had been latent in the novella, where necessarily things were “seen and done otherwise,” and to capture the kind of complexities that literary texts less easily reach. Byatt indeed anticipated as much: “My idea for the film was that the screen would be able to interweave the images of the two communities—ants and people—so as at once to reinforce the analogy and to do the opposite—to show the insects as Other, resisting our metaphorical impositions” (Byatt, Histories 116-17). She not only endorsed what the screenplay attempted but contributed crucially to its development: “The Haases wrote a script both dramatic and intelligently embodying the ideas. We worked together. The project took on life” (Byatt, “Architectural Origins” 104+). The dangers that always attend upon adaptations were thus averted. Just as insects “are all at their most vulnerable at the moment of metamorphosis,” according to William, and at that time “can be easily snapped up by any predator” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 53), so any book which becomes subject to intermedial reworking is correspondingly at risk. It must rely on the scenarist being sufficiently attuned to the source material not to cannibalise it completely. The London Times film reviewer in fact wondered whether the Haases had taken attunement to the point of subservience, for Angels and Insects had to him “the feeling of a film fettered by literature”; but he also found it a “handsome and intelligent” piece of film-making (Brown). The novella’s potentially difficult migration to another medium had, in the end, been sympathetically managed. In the words which Byatt had given to Harald, “Transfiguration is not a bad thing” (Byatt, Morpho Eugenia 49). And nor, on this occasion, was the “transmodalization” (Genette’s term) that saw Belinda and Philip Haas turn A. S. Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia into the film Angels and Insects. Their film stands as a fitting and felicitous treatment of a work which itself reflects on acts of adaptation and is keenly conscious of its own adaptive potential.

Works Cited

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The Author

Peter Merchant is Principal Lecturer in English at the School of Humanities of Canterbury Christ Church University, in the UK. His recent works include the first critical edition of F. Anstey’s The Statement of Stella Maberly, which includes various related manuscripts (Valancourt, 2017), and a collection of articles coedited with Catherine Waters entitled Dickens and The Imagined Child (Ashgate, 2015). He has also contributed to the following volumes: Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity (dirs. Gibson, Trower and Tregidga, Routledge, 2013) and Home and Away: The Place of the Child Writer (dirs. Owen and Peterson, Cambridge Scholars, 2016).