‘… bullying, obnoxious, hypocritical, unpleasant, alienating, opportunistic, confrontational, monomaniacal, disloyal, dysfunctional, insufferably rude, foolish, grudge-bearing, and an anachronistic bigot.’ These are a selection of words used to describe a certain recently deceased politician. Can’t work out who it is? The answer is at the end of the blogpost. It could be a description of Angel Deverell, the main character in Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh novel. Both women had lots of power and very few friends.
The novel opens with a phrase from Angel’s composition called A Storm At Sea: ‘into the vast vacuity of the empyrean.’ A teacher is worrying about plagiarism. ‘Miss Dawson had gone through it in a state of alarm, fearful lest she had read it before or ought to have read it before. She had spent an agitated evening scanning Pater and Ruskin and others.’ Angel, the schoolgirl is the one who in ordinary circumstances would have been in a state of alarm. She is no ordinary girl. When she is challenged about the meaning of ‘empyrean’ she reacts thus:
“It means,” Angel said. Her tongue moistened her lips. She glanced out of the classroom window at the sky beyond the bare trees. “It means ’the highest heavens’.”
“Yes, the sky,” Miss Dawson said suspiciously. (p7)
It always pays to read the opening paragraphs of an Elizabeth Taylor novel with good attention. Angel, even as a schoolgirl, is able to write overblown prose, to demonstrate her vivid imagination and to meet challenge with disdain. But we are also invited, surely, to have some sympathy for her, for the teacher’s definition is much more prosaic than hers.
This novel tells the story of Angel’s life from girlhood at the end of the nineteenth century, in trouble with everyone in her town for her imaginative additions to real life, through her first novel, its success, her season in London, her marriage, widowhood, old age and finally her death.
In Angel Elizabeth Taylor has created a character who is monstrous; a writer of flamboyant and excessive fiction that is full of errors and anachronisms and other writerly solecisms (such as using real people’s names). The financial success of her novels came from the popularity of her overblown prose and the outrageousness of her style. Angel herself was certain that she should be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare and Goethe (whose name she could not pronounce).
She always supposed that everyone had read all of her books and had them nearly by heart, that they thought about them endlessly and waited impatiently for the next one to appear. (p133)
We learn through her publisher that she writes ‘with ignorance and imagination’. She has no sense of humour, no self-doubt and no judgement. Elizabeth Taylor is not above some humour at her subject’s expense.
“You are made to suffer?” he asked, then wished that he had not, dreaded a description of soul wrestling in the toils of creation; could not bear that he thought.
She touched her breast. “Here,” she said. “The most appalling indigestion. I think I breath badly when I am writing – hold my breath and then let it come in gasps. I feel cramped. Then when I stand up the pain begins – it is all right if I can belch. Why do you laugh?” (p134)
She never does anything, as they say, by halves, and for a while the public love her books and she becomes rich enough to buy the house she fantasised about in childhood. She commands loyalty of a kind, often from people who benefit from her books; her publisher, her mother, her husband, her companion and her manservant Marvell. She makes excessive demands on these people and they undertake her commissions because it is easier than dealing with her unreasonable anger. This is how her publisher Theo suffered:
He sometimes longed, too, to take a rest from the hazards of her correspondence. Two or three times a week, her letters, carelessly scrawled in violet ink, arrived at the office with her complaints about the insufficiency of his advertising, his lack of chivalry in not challenging her critics, the shortcomings of Mudie’s, the negligence of compositors. She accused him of cheese-paring; her advances, she said, were so niggardly as to be insulting. She mentioned great sums which had been paid by other publishers to other women novelists – to Miss Corelli and Miss Broughton – and suggested that from the fortune her books had provided him he was subsidising the bungled efforts of the other women writers on his list. “As it is by my industry that these poor little books are published at all,” she wrote, “it would merely be civil of you to acquaint me with your future plans for spreading this charity about.” (p76)
Angel is arrogant, rude, selfish and opinionated, and what she doesn’t like she ignores (such as her aunt, the First World War, critics, poverty, people who challenge her).
Some readers shy away from picking up a novel with an unsympathetic protagonist. Why, they wonder, would they read a book about someone they don’t like? She is a very awful character, but it is her awfulness that makes Angel such a good read.
Even more interesting is why Elizabeth Taylor wrote about such a horrible character, and why she made her, of all things, a novelist? What does this novel offer us about the life of a writer?
At one level Elizabeth Taylor is offering a reflection on the novelist’s task, to provide an authentic narrative, one that is grounded in experience, a task in which Angel fails. This is part of her odiousness, she fails to be authentic and does not know it. ‘Greece was so disappointing. It was nothing like her novels.’ (p153).
Perhaps the author of Angel was also concerned about public reaction to excessive novelists such as Angel. Elizabeth Taylor was a writer of careful and crafted sentences, in whose narratives nothing much seems to happen. (Angels’ life was uneventful.) And Elizabeth Taylor was criticised for being too middle-class, too domestic, too unassuming in her material. Some of these criticisms came from fellow writers. She kept herself very private, rather quiet. Angel, by contrast, is slapdash, writes about what she does not know and draws attention to herself with her letters written in violet ink.
Despite these implied criticisms of Angel’s behaviour and writing, Elizabeth Taylor’s character evokes pity in the reader. You would not feel happy in her company, but you can admire her chutzpah, her daring, her rejection of the conventional. The striking image is of Angel as a flowering cactus, spikey and colourful.
She had found one living thing there among the flowerpots, a great cactus which had surprisingly survived, gross and bladdery; it looked as if it could keep going on its own succulence for years to come. (p148)
The extract that begins this blogpost comes from the review by Simon Hoggart in the Guardian on 19th October 2013 of the biography by Jonathan Aitken called Margaret Thatcher: power and personality.
The comparison of Angel and Mrs T does suggest that women who behave as they did provoke very strong reactions. How to be powerful and a woman without alienating people is an important question raised by the novel.
Other blogs reviews of Angel to check out are:
Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel was In a Summer Season (1961) and I will be reading it in November.
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