“Angel” is the sixth novel by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1957, and at the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group we are reading this in June as part of her centenary celebrations.

I was very much looking forward to reading Angel, and also intrigued by what I’d heard about it. It seems to be reckoned to be different from the normal style of her novels so I did wonder what I would make of it.

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The story starts in typical Elizabeth Taylor fashion as we are dropped into the middle of Angelica Deverell’s life. At 15, she is isolated, friendless, living at home with her widowed mother who runs a shop. She and Angel’s aunt (who works as a lady’s maid in a large mansion called Paradise House) have managed to scrape enough income to send the girl to an exclusive school in the hope of educating her to better herself. But Angel is known as an inveterate liar and the tale begins with her teacher unable to believe she has written a good piece of fiction.

Without wanting to put in any big spoilers, the book tells the life story of Angel from that point onwards and spans a much longer time than is usual with ET. It’s not giving away anything to say this covers the rise and fall of a popular novelist and is said to be loosely based on the life of Marie Corelli.

It goes without saying that this book is remarkably well written, as is all ET. The creation of Angelica Deverell is a triumph and I feel she is one of Taylor’s most rounded characters. She is portrayed as something of a single-minded monster: she has no love of books, what we would now call no interpersonal skills, and is selfish in the extreme. Everything in her life is centred around herself and her desires. However, oddly enough I found myself sympathising with her very much. Although Taylor does not write in much of a back story, there is enough for us to see what could have caused Angel to turn out how she did. She grew up in isolation, with no father, a weak and busy working mother, ending up poor but educated. Her aunt is a mixture of proud and obsequious with her employers and from her talk Angel builds up images in her head of her dream of Paradise House, making herself a make-believe world to blot out the real one.

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Branding her as a liar is somewhat harsh, because her lies to others (and herself) are her way of coping with a life she hates. I can see parallels with the character of Billy Liar – if the reality you are in is one you loathe, you create an alternative one in your head to help you deal with it. Many people will have this as a coping mechanism but few will actually carry it through to reality a la Billy and Angel.

Angel’s stubbornness gives her a determination to get out of the life she is in and gain her dream of Paradise House. She has no real love of literature but sees the career of a famous author as a way to obtain her dreams and so sets herself to become one by pouring out her repressed emotions into books and making herself enough money to escape from life above a shabby Victorian shop.

This is why Angel’s books are not very good, but also why they are so popular – they tap into the dreams of other repressed females. I rather wonder if this is ET having a dig at all the not-so-very-good authors who were so much more highly regarded than she was, but nowhere near as talented. I suspect it might also be a portrait of what ET feared she might have become if she had not grounded herself in everyday life and kept her writing in a secondary position in her life.

The character of Angel is intriguing because we only see life through her eyes and rotating around her, as if she is the sun in the middle of her universe with the other players orbiting around her. Because of her egomania it is impossible for her to see herself as others see her, which protects her in the main from the ridicule fired at her. There is an underlying sadness in her character and despite her appalling behaviour I can’t help having sympathy for her – much of her actions derive from her inability to relate to the world and real life.

I wondered if Taylor was using Angel’s short-sightedness as a metaphor for her total self-centredness (in much the same way that F. Tennyson Jesse does in “A Pin to see the Peepshow”). Interestingly, we don’t really see much of the results of her fame – there is little interaction with her readers apart from the worshipping Nora, and the whole story focuses on Angel and her desires.

I didn’t feel that this book was too untypically Taylor – although it covered on a long period of time, and with much less in the way of subsidiary characters than usual, I still knew I was reading ET. Oddly enough, Esme reminded me somewhat of Vesey although I can’t quite put my finger on why – perhaps it was his general indifference to existence and the way he seemed to float through the life of a stronger female. Certainly it’s a struggle to find many alpha males portrayed in ET’s work and maybe this is why reviewers don’t like her! Nicola Beauman has criticised the way Taylor deals with the passage of time in the novel, but I had no issues with this. Angel is the constant in the book, unchanging despite the ravages of age and poverty, so the time shifts only reflect the changes around her.

So although the subject matter may not be regarded as classic Taylor, I enjoyed the book very much and found it as compulsively readable as all her works! 

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