From the Vault: 'Angels and Insects' by A.S. Byatt, Starring Mark Rylance

Patsy Kensit and Mark Rylance in Angels and Insects/Photo © MGM Home Entertainment
Patsy Kensit and Mark Rylance in Angels and Insects/Photo © MGM Home Entertainment

A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects is split into two novellas, Morpho Eugina and The Conjugal Angel. Set in the mid-nineteenth century Victorian era, the two interconnecting stories focus on the physical, natural, and metaphysical. In the opening novella, Morpho Eugina, an inquisitive naturalist compares his life to one that of an ant; noting that the human and the insect worlds are both caught, trapped, and bound within the laws of nature and societal mores. Morpho Eugina’s counterpart novella, The Conjugal Angel, revolves around Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam. In this piece of Victoriana, the characters explore the perplexities of the metaphysical, hoping to rekindle lost connections with the spirits of loved ones through séance.

"Angels and Insects," the 1995 romantic drama inspired by the novel’s premiere novella, Morpho Eugina, stars Mark Rylance as William Adamson, the naturalist returning home from his time spent studying insects along the Amazon River. William is penniless, having lost all his belongings in a shipwreck off the coast. He then meets and falls in love with Eugina Alabaster (Patsy Kensit), the daughter of wealthy botanist Sir Harald Alabaster (Jeremy Kemp). Sir Harald is fascinated by William, admiring his inquisitive nature. The Alabasters invite William to live with them as he continues his studies. Throughout his stay with the Alabasters, William begins to discover the parallels between the aristocratic family and the lives of insects, which intrigues as well as frightens him. Although the film is set in a beautiful Victorian setting, director and screenwriter Philip Haas takes A. S. Byatt’s stillness and laces it with subtle eeriness.

Live a Life Well-Read Get the best of news, culture, and books delivered weekly. Join the Signature newsletter