Morpho Eugenia

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A. S. Byatt: "Morpho Eugenia" (1992)

Contributed by Elisabeth Schober

Set in mid-nineteenth century England, "Morpho Eugenia" depicts the contemporary conflict between Darwinism and religion by opposing the young scientist William Adamson to his benefactor Reverend Harald Alabaster. During his stay at Bredely Hall, William falls in love with Eugenia, the beautiful daughter of the Reverend, and is surprised to find that she accepts his offer of marriage, despite their obvious class distinction. When he tries to earn money for a future expedition, he is informed that his wife keeps a dark secret.


A. S. Byatt was born in Sheffield in 1936 and was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge. She became a fellow of University College, London, in 1984, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature before she left academia to become a full-time writer. She won the Booker Prize for her Novel Possession: A Romance (1990), and was appointed Dame of the British Empire in 1999.

Selected Publications

Novels and Novellas

The Shadow of the Sun (1964), The Game (1967), The Virgin in the Garden (1978), Still Life (1985), Possession: A Romance (1990), Angels and Insects (1992), Babel Tower (1996), The Biographer's Tale (2000), A Whistling Woman (2002)

Short Stories

Sugar and Other Stories (1987), The Matisse Stories (1993), The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (1994), Elementals (1998), Little Black Book of Stories (2003)


Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch (1965), Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time (1989), Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings (1991), Imagining Characters: Six Conversations about Women Writers (1995), On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays (2000), Portraits in Fiction (2001)

Creative Reception

Angels and Insects [Audiotape]: 1727 Blackstone Audio Books (Ashland, OR, 1996). Contents: "Morpho Eugenia", "Conjugial Angel". Read by Nadia May.

A film adaptation of the novella "Morpho Eugenia" was released (USA, UK) in 1995 with the title Angels and Insects. Dir. Philip Haas. Prod. Belinda Haas, Joyce Herlihy, and (natural history) Steve Nichols. With Mark Rylance, Patsy Kensit, Kristin Scott Thomas, Douglas Henshall, Jeremy Kemp, Annette Badland, Anna Massey.

Main Characters

William Adamson: a scientist who, after a ten-year expedition to the Amazon (1849-59) and a shipwreck on his journey home (where he wants to sell his specimens to finance another expedition) is without home and money; is invited to stay with the Alabasters and falls in love with the eldest daughter Eugenia, whom he marries eventually; often discusses religious matters with his host Reverend Harald Alabaster.

Reverend Harald Alabaster: an obsessive collector who corresponds with William Adamson during his stay in the Amazon; writes a book about the existence of God and spends nearly all day in his study.

Lady Gertrude Alabaster: wife of Harald Alabaster; has weak eyes and suffers from headaches and obesity.

Edgar Alabaster: son of Harald, with his first wife Joanna; has illegitimate children all over the country; despises William Adamson and looks down on him because of his lack of money and status.

Lionel Alabaster: son of Harald Alabaster, with his first wife Joanna.

Eugenia Alabaster: eldest daughter of Harold and Gertrude Alabaster; her marriage to Captain Hunt was prevented by the sudden death of her fiancé – officially it is made known that he died of an accident; later accepts William Adamson's marriage proposal and gives birth to five children.

Rowena Alabaster: daughter of Harold and Gertrude Alabaster; marries Robin Swinnerton the same day that Eugenia marries William Adamson – the marriage remains childless.

Matty (Mathilda) Crompton: employed in the care of the younger Alabaster children (Enid, Margaret, Elaine and Edith, and the twins Guy and Alice); longs for a more satisfying life; encourages William to write a book and publishes a collection of her own stories.


"Morpho Eugenia" is set in mid-nineteenth century England (1860-63), mainly at Bredely Hall, a manor house built in 1830 in medieval style. In the frequent comparisons with the wilderness of the Amazon, England appears to be the seat of order and civilization.


After an expedition of ten years (1849-59) in the Amazon and a shipwreck on his journey home (where he wanted to sell his insect specimens to finance another expedition), William Adamson is invited to stay with the Alabasters at Bredely Hall. The Reverend charges William with cataloguing his own huge collection of insect specimens, thus enabling the young scientist to earn money for a future expedition, since the specimens he wanted to sell in Europe were all lost in the shipwreck. William falls in love with Eugenia and gives her his most beautiful specimen, a Morpho Eugenia: a butterfly whose name literally means "beautiful" and "shapely". Furthermore, he is asked to help in the scientific education of the younger children. He goes on nature rambles with Eugenia, Matty (the governess), and the children, and builds a glass hive and a formicary for them.

One day, William confesses his love to Eugenia amongst a cloud of butterflies he has created especially for this moment. Eugenia suggests that a marriage may be possible, and her father gives his consent. Until their marriage, William spends a lot of time discussing religious matters with the Reverend, whilst Eugenia's half-brother Edgar aggressively accuses William of being of inferior birth and challenges him to a fight. After the double marriage between William and Eugenia and between Robin Swinnerton and the second daughter Rowena, William is unsure about how to proceed during the wedding night. He feels awkward when he finds out that Eugenia is already sexually experienced. During their marriage they have a very active sex life, except during Eugenia's subsequent pregnancies, which produce the twins, Dora and Agnes, almost exactly one year after his arrival at Bredely Hall, the son Robert Edgar in 1862, and the twins Meg and Arabella in the spring of 1863.

Although his marriage with Eugenia seems perfect, William is unhappy because he cannot follow his vocation of going on expeditions, whilst he feels an outsider in his own family. He starts to observe nature again, together with Matty and the children. Matty encourages him to write a natural history about the native ant colonies, with her and the children as assistants. In the winter of 1862 they finish the book, entitled The Swarming City: A Natural History of a Woodland Society, its polity, its economy, its arms and defences, its origin, expansion and decline. Matty, meanwhile, writes an illustratory fable: "Things Are Not What They Seem".

One day, William catches Edgar raping the young kitchen maid, Amy. As soon as he finds out that Amy is in the workhouse with a baby, he confronts his brother-in-law, but to no effect. When William is on a hunt with Robin Swinnerton, a stable boy tells him to come back to the house, where he finds Eugenia in bed with Edgar. She tells William that their relationship had already begun a long time ago, and that it was the reason for Captain Hunt's suicide. William finds out that Matty knows about their relationship as well and that she has made plans to go to the Amazon with him. William finally tells Eugenia that he will leave for good and that he will not tell her secret to anybody. He makes sure that Edgar provides for Amy's livelihood. Together with Matty, he goes on Captain Papagay's ship to South America (which interlinks with the second novella in Angels and Insects, "The Conjugial Angel") in search of more adventures and undiscovered species.

"Things Are Not What They Seem" is a fairy tale written by Mathilda Crompton, which is integrated into the main narrative and juxtaposed with William Adamson's scientific account of the ant colony. It constitutes a major subtext in terms of gender, as it proves Mathilda to be William's intellectual equal and reveals her creative and emotional potential to him. In contrast to William's scientific study, the story points to a "fairy glamour" underlying the world of observable facts and provides a lesson, explicitly indicated in its title, that will turn out to be important for William: Seth, the youngest son of a farmer, sets out into the world to seek his fortune. Whilst shipwrecked on an island with a few companions, they enter a palace and eat the food they find in one of the rooms. Suddenly a lady dressed up as a shepherdess enters the room, accompanied by different animals. She welcomes the group heartily and urges Seth, who has not yet touched any of the food, to take a small bite. She tells them that she is a Fairy named Cottitoe Pan Demos and that she can do magic. Suddenly she makes the food vanish and chains the men to their chairs. She touches everyone with her silver crook, turning the men into different types of pigs. Only Seth does not transform into a pig, but instead is endowed with hair that springs out like a fountain. She tells him to work as her swineherd in the rocky caverns below the palace. After some time in the caverns, Seth is helped by an ant who tells him to eat particular fern seeds which shrink him to the size of an ant, thus enabling him to escape the caverns into a beautiful garden. Threatened by two caterpillars, Seth is rescued by Mistress Mouffet, the cousin of Dr Thomas Mouffet (1553-1604, author of Theatrum Insectorum sive Animalium Minimorum). She is not under the spell of Cottitoe Pan Demos, but is instead a spy for a more powerful Fairy outside the garden. She teaches him that things are not always what they seem as when, because of his minute size, he mistakes two caterpillars for snakes or lizards. A moth takes him to the powerful Fairy, Dame Kind, outside the garden. He is able to solve the Fairy's riddle and so she helps him to free the enchanted humans and to transform them into their original shapes.

Interest Areas

Life Creation

The topic of life creation in "Morpho Eugenia" is dominated by the issues of eugenism and incest. The telling name 'Bredely Hall' already suggests that 'breeding' is a dominant concern in the Alabaster family, whose members appear to be a charming but strangely homogeneous group to William. This is most notably represented by Edgar, who calls William "underbred" and of "bad blood". Indeed, eugenism finds its culmination in the incestuous relationship between Eugenia and her half-brother Edgar. After Eugenia´s revelation of the affair, he finds out that his children do not resemble him at all, but "revert so shockingly to the ancestral type". Furthermore, he also seems to be the only one who considers the danger of inherited defects as a result of incest.


When William compares the natural beauty he has seen in the rainforest of South America with the artificial beauties he finds in England, he realizes that there is one major difference in terms of gender. While in the animal world and in savage societies the males flaunt their beauty in the process of sexual selection (see Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871) women in English ballrooms, by contrast, dress up in order to please men.

Upon his arrival at Bredely Hall, William is attracted by Eugenia's beauty and, above all, by her white and flawless skin and compares her to Aphrodite. This flawlessness, however, repulses him in his own children as soon as he finds out about the incestuous relationship between his wife and her half-brother. Therefore, he unwittingly proves his own observation that the most beautiful butterfly, Morpho Eugenia, which means beautiful and shapely, is usually the most dangerous: the bright colours, instead of attracting a mate, act as a warning to the observer.

Body Transformations

The many natural transformations of butterflies and humans that William observes and analyzes as a scientist contrast with the fantastic body transformations in Mathilda Crompton's fairy tale about the deceiving nature of appearances. In this mise-en-abyme, the danger of beautiful women, who are actually evil demons, is opposed to the seemingly dangerous lizards that turn out to be harmless caterpillars. The principle that, in natural metamorphosis, creatures are most vulnerable at the moment of transformation is also true for its fantastic counterpart, where the hero has to prove his strength while being continually transformed through the consumption of particular seeds or herbs.

Evolutionary Theory vs. Creationism

Set in the wake of the publication of Origin of Species (1859), "Morpho Eugenia" foregrounds debates on transformation processes. Indeed, this is done through the conversations between the young naturalist William, who adopts a Darwinist stance and argues in favour of the gradual process of natural selection, and his father-in-law, Reverend Harald Alabaster, who claims, against Darwin's ideas, that there is one Designer who "made everything for its particular purpose" (33). Where William contends that, according to Darwin, the beauty of the butterfly is designed to attract its mate, whilst insects can affect the form of the plants they inhabit, the Reverend maintains that beauty in nature is evidence of the existence of a divine Creator, whilst man´s ability to appreciate the beautiful (and art in general) is a sign that not everything can be reduced to a necessity.

Stimulated by discussions about whether the cells in our body or the individual ants in a nest are directed by chance or by a "loving providence", William begins to see his own life in anthropomorphic terms and compares himself to a drone in a beehive, continually working for the passive female in order to procreate.

Critical Commentary

Angels and Insects was A. S. Byatt's first longer piece of fiction after the Booker-Prize-winning novel Possession and was very favourably received, although some reviewers criticized the overload of scientific knowledge and theories (New York Times, The Yale Review). Indeed, both novellas in Angels and Insects, "Morpho Eugenia" and "The Conjugial Angel", provide detailed insights into the fields of entomology and spiritualism respectively.

This scientific dimension of the novella has contributed to its generic hybridity, which has been widely acknowledged and places Byatt in the context of postmodern experimental fiction. It has earned the novella a variety of literary labels; most strikingly "Morpho Eugenia" has been termed a series of "soap-operatic adventures" interspersed with "19th-century explorers' tales" (The New York Times). The historical dimension of the text is considered in such categorizations as "high-brow historical novel" or "retro-Victorian novel" in the tradition of John Fowles's French Lieutenant's Woman (Shuttleworth). The element of pastiche enters the novella especially in the many mise-en-abymes. In this respect Todd refers to the different layers and types of texts that exist within the narrative, such as Matty's fairy story, William's study of ants, as well as Harald Alabaster's speech in favour of creationism. Ultimately, "Morpho Eugenia" may be defined primarily as romance, as it presents a character on a quest for identity and fulfilment in a romantic relationship and, despite the naturalistic style adopted for descriptions of landscapes and insects, frequently refers to the unreal and the world beyond observable facts.

Apart from detailed specialist knowledge, "Morpho Eugenia" is characterized by an extensive use of analogies. In this respect Hansson further problematises the question of genre and claims that, through the destabilizing use of analogies, Byatt has created a "postmodern allegory". To begin with, man is compared to the insect world, especially in connection with both the social organisation found in ant colonies or bee hives and their sexual behaviour (Sturrock, Shuttleworth). The anthropomorphization of animals through the Linnean system of naming provides another metaphorical relation between humans and animals. This is reflected in the inset fairy tale, in which the hero has to find out that "Things Are Not What They Seem", a lesson that the protagonist of the main narrative learns only toward the end of the novella. The dominant image of metamorphosis is represented literally in the transformation of the pupa into a butterfly or moth, and figuratively in the change in the protagonist's perception of the two main female characters Eugenia and Mathilda as white and dark figures respectively. While Pearce sees the opposition of whiteness and darkness only as a marginalization effectuated by the male gaze, Hansson and Wallhead acknowledge the ambiguity in Byatt's analogies, pointing out that whiteness, for instance, is turned from a positive image of innocence and purity into a revolting reflection of the incestuous breeding in the family. Such ambivalent analogies between humans and animals put the validity of Darwinian ideas to the test and demonstrate their limits when it comes to moral considerations.

Critical Bibliography

Links (official website of A. S. Byatt) (British Council website) (A. S. Byatt at the Complete Review)

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