Angelica Deverell, the eponymous protagonist of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, will not accept the dreary reality she lives with, and so she creates a different world through her fiction, finding in it all the glamour and drama she yearns for and believes she deserves. So far, so good, right? We’ve met imaginative young girls in novels before — Jo March, Anne Shirley — who channel their repressed energy for life into story-telling, and whose hunger to express themselves matches their exuberant desire to live more fully. But Angel, it turns out, is no relation to these lovable sprites, and Elizabeth Taylor’s own novel offers none of the cheerful consolations of Little Woman or Anne of Green Gables: there’s something much darker and sadder in this account of a woman who never ceases in her insistence that her fantasies are reality but whose life never does bring her any real joy — only constant battle against unwelcome truths.
Angel, in other words, is a book that surprised me. I thought I knew the kind of thing I was getting into when I started it, and I was instantly on Angel’s side, too, when on the very first page she confronts her dubious teacher about an essay poor Miss Dawson can not believe Angel has written: “Who does she think wrote it if I didn’t? Who does she think could?” But things went awry for me after that, as Angel turns out to be anything but sympathetic — and yet there’s something compelling and maybe even tragic about the completeness with which she insists on living her own version of her life, never backing down even when faced with the cruelest facts. Refusing reality is hardly the route to moral heroism, and at no point does Angel transcend her own egotism, while at no point does Taylor soften her or elevate her to make our work easier.
Her publisher manages, as we must, to see her straight on: “He realised the hunger she had suffered, the deprivations of her wilful, ranging imagination.” Early in her career she tells him the truth of her early life but concludes, “None of what I told you seems true to me and I know that one day I shall stop believing it.”
Unreality is also the hallmark of her novels, which are critically disdained:
The very passages of which she had been most proud, had been printed as if they were richly humorous; her dialogue, her syntax, her view of life, her descriptions of society were all seen to be part of some new and quite delicious joke. No one had wept, it seemed, when reading the funeral scene–unless it was with laughter.
Yet laughable as the books are, they are (for a time, at least) bestsellers:
The more the critics laughed, the longer were the queues for her novels at the libraries; the power of her romanticism captivated simple people; her preposterous situations delighted the sophisticated; her burning indignation when some passing fury turned her aside from her plot into denunciations and irrelevancies, swayed some readers into solemn agreement and others into paroxysms of laughter.
Taylor is clearly a sophisticated novelist, not one aiming at simple people, so the most surprising aspect of Angel is the total absence of satire at Angel’s expense: she paints her character’s portrait with the same unexpected ruthlessness as Angel’s eventual husband Esmé literally paints it:
The portrait lacked exuberance and he had painted her in her darkest clothes against a banal background; the empty window behind her, the bare wall, emphasized the suggestion of loneliness. . . . at the time people thought the portrait dreary and tactless and wondered why Esmé had not the wit to modify the arch of her nose, the eccentricity of her clothes and correct her slight astigmatism, and if she would not disguise her own pallor, he, on canvas, might have done so.
His unsentimental realism is the complete opposite of Angel’s denial of reality, which remains perfect even as she becomes increasingly freakish in her aging eccentricity:
To herself, she was still the greatest novelist of her day, and not the first in history to receive less homage than was her due. No one bought her books, and only the middle-aged or elderly had ever read them: she did not know that she was now a legend of which the young had only vaguely heard; risque, their grandparents, in quaint fashion, said her novels were.
Somehow, Taylor manages to bring no judgment down on Angel for refusing to live in the world. It would have been easy to enhance the pathos of Angel’s final moments by granting her an epiphany, a moment of painful self-awareness, but all she feels is fatigue, and relief when she realizes her long struggle is over: “it was not to be gone through again; after all she was at home, in her own bed, with her own life behind her.” In choosing fantasy she has not, after all, taken the easy way.