On The Conjugial Angel
By A S Byatt
By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
WHO THINKS OF Swedenborg these days, who even knows his name let alone his writings, apart from Blake scholars and the devotees of occultism – and, of course, the Swedenborg Society? Not many, I’d warrant, except A. S. Byatt, whose lecture, On The Conjugial Angel, delivered in 2010, has been published by the society in an attractive cloth edition with stylishly minimal dustwrapper. The book divides into three: the text of Byatt’s lecture, the record of a question and answer session, and a concluding set of endnotes.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) first established himself as a man of science before having a spiritual “awakening”. He spent the rest of his life developing a personal Christian theology much concerned with angels and demons.
Byatt’s “sideways” interest, as she describes it, in him is mainly creative, having started as something more academic. She encountered him in an essay by F R Leavis, who suggested his ideas may have influenced the shape of the novels of Henry James. In lecturing on James Jnr, she discovered his father had written a book called, The Secret of Swedenborg, which in turn elicited the quip from Emerson, “And kept it.”
Having indicated his influence on writers as diverse as Henry James and Balzac she makes the case for his effect on her own work, having sat “on the peripheries of Swedenborgianism, trying to work out the nature of the novel.” She talks of shape and structure, although it is not made clear exactly how this works. From the extracts of her novella included in the lecture it appears more to do with themes and subject matter.
One of Swedenborg’s ideas concerns the “conjugial angel”, which is the married bonding of male and female after death into one angelic entity. It’s this concept of the conjoining of both physical and spiritual worlds that drives Byatt’s novella, The Conjugial Angel, (published with its partner, Morpho Eugenia, in Angels & Insects). The primary material for this is the effect on Alfred Tennyson of the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam — which has gone down in literary history — and on Tennyson’s sister, Emilia, who was engaged to Hallam.
Her story is less well known. For a few years after Hallam’s death she effectively lived as a widow until she met and married Captain Richard Jesse, causing something of a stir in the family and wider social circle. She developed an interest in Swedenborg and spiritualism but rejected the idea of the conjugial angel which would have her bonded with Arthur Hallam rather than her actual husband.
She did not get to see the spirit of Hallam in any seance but in Byatt’s novel the fictional clairvoyante, Sophy Sheekhy, does, when she’s on her own. This section is quoted in the lecture. It is a striking and disturbing episode:
There was a sudden gust of odour, not rose, not violet, but earth-mould and corruption.
‘You see,’ said the harsh, small voice. ‘I am a dead man, you see.’
This idea of the summoning of spirits, of running the solidly physical against the visionary, as a source of the novelistic process is the core of the lecture: Byatt makes the point — not exactly original or startling — that “Writing is a bit like seeing things that aren’t there,” then later elaborates: “The feeling I wanted to get from the writing was to keep changing key, from the real, to the banal, to the terrifying, to the symbolic, to the visionary and out again…” And she comes up with the conceit of “poems as the ghosts of dead poets”, the implications of which she leaves the reader to explore.
The volume is a curiosity. It says little about Swedenborg but spins off a number of fascinating connections to subjects beyond itself: to the poetry of Tennyson (and Keats); to the changing attitudes to death and the afterlife; to fluctuating fashions of interest in the occult; to the mysterious process of writing; to the unresolvable relationship between our physical and emotional (or spiritual) existences.
It is a work of hybrid literature, combining lecture, recitation, meditation and public response. At times it becomes almost Borgesian in the way it tracks unexpected connections between real people and fictional characters, employing quotations and references to existing poems, all interwoven with the author’s own imaginings. It encourages the reader to look at familiar authors such as Tennyson, James and Balzac in a new light. Not bad for such a small book.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.