“Deeper Wonders Hidden”: Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour

taylorSeen from afar, the lighthouse merely struck deft blows at the darkness, but to anyone standing under the shelter of its whitewashed walls a deeper sense of mystery was invoked: the light remained longer, it seemed, and spread wider, indicating greater ranges of darkness and deeper wonders hidden in that darkness.

Views are a great subject for a novel, because they are always already metaphorical. “After all,” comments Will Ladislaw to his artist friend Naumann in Middlemarch, “the true seeing is within.” “I have a view, I have a view!” exclaims Mr. Emerson in A Room with a View; then, “This is my son; his name’s George. He has a view too.” What they see is not just Florence but “courage and love.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour (1947) also makes the most of the literary slippages possible between literal and metaphorical views. On one level it is a novel about people who share a particular view, looking out across a small harbour where the waves slap against the shore, and against the sides of the fishing trawlers that come and go. Their homes, shops, and businesses, in their turn, are the view for the men on those boats.

A View of the Harbour is very much about this setting: the literal view of the harbour is the surface of the novel, though Taylor’s rendering of it is anything but superficial. A View of the Harbour is set just after the war, and the war’s effects permeate the town and the lives of its residents in many ways, from the fragments of sunken wrecks that the fishermen’s nets dredge up, to the lost loved ones whose absences stunt the lives of their survivors. There’s an air of stoic shabbiness about the whole place, too, a kind of worn out fortitude. “When I was young it was so different,” says Tory Foyle, now a divorcée delicately balancing her bitterness against her ex-husband against her infatuation with her best friend’s husband:

Or, to look back upon, it was–a perpetual summer, like all those plays with young men in blazers coming through french windows–so many of them and all the same. It always seemed to be the week-end.

A-View-of-the-Harbour_NYRBWithin a few pages of the novel, Taylor has deftly introduced us to a cluster of the small town’s residents, including Tory and her novelist friend Beth Cazabon, and set in motion the small movements that over the course of the novel will gather intensity until by the end they crest and break, their energy dissipating, like the waves. Moving among them is one outsider, Bertram Hemingway, a visiting would-be artist who gradually moves from observing to participating in the subtle human dramas unfolding around him. Watching over them is Mrs Bracey, once a key player in the town but now an invalid whose acidity is somewhat tempered when she decides to have her bed relocated upstairs. From there she will once again be able to look out over the harbour “which had been a grey and white, remembered, half-imagined scene for so long”:

She wanted to watch the great dappled waves riding in to the foot of the cliffs, breaking and crumbling and scurrying back in confusion, to be conscious of the pulse of the lighthouse, to see once more visitors with folded raincoats stepping into rowing boats named Nancy or Marigold or Adeline; the moving water, the sauntering people, the changing sky, the wrinkled moonlight on the sea, and fishermen, coming out of the anchor on Saturday nights, standing round the lamp-post singing Sweet Genevieve.

She does see the scenery again, but the scenes of greater interest to her prurient curiosity are those played out by people she knows. And she’s not the only one watching from a window–or looking towards a window, including hers. As Sarah Waters remarks in her introduction to my Virago edition, “Taylor’s fascination here is with the perils and the pleasures of perspective. This is a novel in which people watch each other.”

eric-ward-cornish-harbour-scene-1887A View of the Harbour is intricately constructed, all of its interconnected stories moving a little piece at a time, paths crossing, perspectives changing, the lights brightening or fading as the characters move in and out of the foreground. It is easy to imagine many of the incidents as framed tableaux, caught by an artist’s eye so that a moment of intimacy takes on the character of a broader revelation. Unsurprisingly, it’s often Bertram, the designated artist, who makes this potential explicit:

He sat on the edge of his bed and imagined the picture he was going to paint–the harbour buildings seen across the harbour water, the crumbling texture of plastered walls, the roofs of purple, of grey-blue, the grey church on the shoulders of the other buildings, the green weed on steps and the sides of the harbour-wall, silk-fine and damp like the hair of the newly-born–all the different surfaces and substances, the true being of it coming luminously through the essence of such a scene.

He is not a very good painter; perhaps, Taylor seems to suggest, and he himself seems to realize, his artistic deficiency is, paradoxically, what makes him such a good observer–or perhaps it’s that he is too nice a man to ignore what he sees around him, and thus he lacks the self-absorption necessary for greatness. He takes an interest in real people, and thus cannot achieve the sublime perspective needed to transcend their ordinariness, or their commonplace surroundings, and raise them to the level of art. Bertram is probably a better man for it, but his paintings are not worth much except as mementos of time passed.

Taylor-virago-2An interesting complement to Bertram is Beth Cazabon, who is often so lost in the lives of her characters that she struggles to stay connected to the lives of her children, or her husband–which is a blessing insofar as she remains oblivious to his infidelity. Beth (and thus also, by implication, Taylor) is only too aware that this preoccupation with fiction is not altogether to the benefit of the author or her real-life friends and family, and that it also may mean little to posterity–Beth has no pretensions about the lasting value of her work. “I’m not a great writer,” she reflects;

Whatever I do someone else has always done it before, and better. In ten years’ time no one will remember this book, the libraries will have sold off all their grubby copies of it second-hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And, even if I were one of the great ones, who, in the long run, cares? People walk about the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James were never written. They could not easily care less. No one asks us to write. If we stop, who will implore us to go on? The only goodness that will ever come out of it is surely this moment now, wondering if “vague” will do better than “faint,” or “faint” than “vague,” and what to follow; putting one word alongside another, like matching silks, a sort of game.

It seems at once ironic and apt, then, that the greatest pleasures of this novel are due to its novelist, to her uncannily precise choice of words and her ability to place them alongside each other so that they constantly delight and surprise. She shows us these commonplace people and their straggling lives–and also their landscape, with its roughness and its manmade debris but also its timeless beauty–with paradoxically ruthless grace.

“As if she were a governess in a book”: Elizabeth Taylor, Palladian

palladian2I can’t take any credit for interpreting Elizabeth Taylor’s strange, gloomily elegant Palladian as a pastiche of Austen and Brontë. Not only does the back cover of my Virago edition baldly state that the novel “examines the realities of life for a latter-day Jane Eyre” and explicitly compare Taylor’s method here to Austen’s in Northanger Abbey, but the main character is named “Cassandra Dashwood” and criticizes her own flustered greeting to her new employer on the grounds that “Jane Eyre had answered up better than that to her Mr. Rochester.” Subtlety about its intertextuality, in other words, is not the most striking feature of Palladian … and yet what do we really know about the novel once we’ve identified those obvious connections? I’m not sure that thinking of it as a twist on the “governess novel” — or on the romance, or the gothic, plot — helps me out very much, because we still need to figure out to what ends Taylor has repurposed such familiar materials.

Having just worked through Jane Eyre with my 19th-Century Fiction class, I should be primed to consider what Taylor is up to. There’s not actually much that’s the same besides the bare outline: unprepossessing orphan accepts governess position at remote, slightly creepy country house, falls in love, endures trauma that threatens happy resolution, ends up safely married. Cassandra couldn’t be less like passionate, rebellious, creative, principled Jane, for one thing: while I lament the number of times my students (despite explicit instructions not to use the word!) called Jane “relatable,” I agree that it’s hard not to root for her — even as her novel (through her own retrospective narration) cautions us not to champion her uncritically. Cassandra, on the other hand, is a limp wanna-be, moping and hoping to live out a more interesting destiny, like a good fictional heroine. “He will do to fall in love with,” she thinks on meeting Marion Vanbrugh; “Meeting him,” she reflects later, “had merely confirmed her intention, made possible what she had hoped.” Jane is a fighter; she spends her book learning what she values most and how to stand up for it. Cassandra spends her book … hmm. Well, she spends it being in it, anyway, but that’s about as much as can be said for her.

Marion is an equally pallid recreation of Mr. Rochester: reclusive, scholarly, haunted not by a raging mad wife in his attic but by memories of his beautiful first wife, Violet. Why does he fall in love with Cassandra? Is that even what happens? Like Cassandra, he seems compelled by his implicit awareness of how their story must turn out. There’s no spark, no passion. Like Jane and Rochester, they kiss as a storm thunders, but while Brontë’s lightning, splitting the great chestnut tree, reflects the dangerous immensity of their love, it just seems ironic that nature surrounds limp Marion and passive Cassandra with such tumult:

Still holding the candles high, he drew her closer to him and kissed her. She received his kiss, but did not return it, for she did not know how, nor did it occur to her, so netted up in bliss was she, so content to be held by him not stirring, heedless of the next day and the next minute.

In their world, it seems that the most they can hope for is to go through the motions.

And even that isn’t easy, partly because they aren’t the only people there, and everyone else gets in their way somehow. Taylor populates her desolate manor with an assortment of characters, all in their own ways damaged or grieving, their paths day-to-day criss-crossing in an uneven pattern of tension and disappointment: Tom, holding the sins and regrets of his past at bay with drink; Margaret, awaiting the birth of her child, wandering the musty hallways hungry, always hungry; their fretful mother Tinty, always “full of little worries”; Nanny, grimly hanging on to her position in the family; little Sophy, the unknowing crux of the family’s unhappy plot; Mrs. Veal at the pub, pathetically needy for Tom’s attention and affection, resentfully in awe of the family at the ‘Big House.’ Only Margaret, a doctor, has any sense of purpose in her life; the rest of them seem cut off, somehow, not just literally by their isolated setting but mentally, from a world in which they can’t imagine, or find, direction or comfort. While the ending of Jane Eyre brings Jane to the end of her journey of self-discovery, nobody in Palladian gets anywhere. When Cassandra returns to the manor as its mistress, it is more decrepit than it was before.

It’s not an arch or satirical rewriting of those canonical stories: it is too fraught and specific for that. Paul Bailey’s introduction proposes that Taylor sets up the literary homage deliberately to collide with “that other, larger world out there, in which hurt and humiliation take their daily toll.” But he concludes that the result is “a fairy-story of sorts, with a happy ending for only two of its participants.” I’m not convinced, because I don’t believe in their happiness: it seems so baseless, so formulaic, so unearned. The prospect of the book seems more desolate to me even than that limited a fairy-story. When Cassandra arrives at Cropthorpe Manor, she’s warned to stay away from the greenhouse, as the glass panes have become precarious. Near the end of the novel, it has collapsed:

Like a cataract gathering speed, the sheets of cracked and splintered glass had come down a night or two ago, started by some small thing, something never to be known, a twig falling, an owl flying, or merely the last imperceptible change of quantity, a foreshadowing of what might happen to the house itself, how, after a long process of decay, one day it would suddenly not be a house any more.

Marion and Cassandra, married, go out to survey the wreckage and consider repairs: could this be an image of the future, a symbol of renewed possibilities? Why should we be so optimistic? “Marion wonders what can be done with it,” says Tinty, watching from the house. “He will never get beyond wondering,” replies Tom.

No, the pleasures of Palladian are not emotional, or not in an uplifting way. There are no romantic gratifications, beyond the artificial ones of seeing the cliché carried to its conclusion. There’s no social analysis or critique that I can discern — unless you count the general presentation of modern life as a malaise, a blight. What’s left? Literary pleasures, of course, or perhaps I should call them aesthetic ones. Palladian is only Taylor’s second novel (and it’s only the fourth of hers that I’ve read), and it’s just as distinctive as the others for its direct yet resonant sentences. They carry a moment, a mood, a mind, with few overt flourishes but many interesting choices, so that you read them once and then look again, to be sure, or to appreciate.  She’s particularly good at laying out how what seems simple — love, marriage — is actually unbearably complicated:

His head felt as if someone were doing knitting in it. Nothing was simple. He believed that he loved Cassandra tenderly; but marriage is not simple. It brought with it, Nanny had reminded him, so many complications which were beyond his energies. Tinty stood before him, and Tom, Nanny with her talk of refrigerators and change, the thought of beginning a new life in that fast-crumbling house, of leaving a smouldering and rank corner of earth to sons, perhaps, and then engaging servants, spending money, laying down wine, planting and clearing. In the library last night, no one, nothing, had stood between him and Cassandra. Now so much interposed. She was a child merely, to be led into so dark, so lonely, a wilderness as his heart. For her, so much unravelling of people, so much sorting out of possessions would have to be done. He might draw her to him and ease the passion which lay under her silence, lead her into the circle of ice which encompassed him: but the obstacles were still outside, where the world was, and even within him, there was Violet.

Vancouver: By the Books!

I’m back from my trip to Vancouver. Including travel days, I was on vacation for 11 days, making this the longest trip I’ve taken in ages. It was wonderful to spend so much time with my family and to meet up with so many of my friends — among them the wonderful Liz of Something More, who is every bit as smart and witty and energetic in person as she is online. A special treat was getting to know my newest nephew, who made it to almost three  before coming face to face with his Aunt Rohan. There was lots of good food and drink and general conviviality; the weather was spectacular, and so, as always, was the scenery. A small sample will make you wonder why anyone bothers vacationing (or, for that matter, living) anywhere else:

Sunset at Kits Beach


Along the Seawall


The Beach at Spanish Banks


Along Kits Point


Plaza at Granville Island
My happy place:
the deck at Granville Island Market


But enough about all that! This is a book blog, so of course what you want to know about is whether I had any bookish adventures along with all that socializing and sightseeing. Well, of course I did. Here’s the stack of books I either read, bought, or borrowed on my trip:

Vancouver Books I

The Woman Upstairs and Jane and Prudence were the books I brought along to read on the plane. Barbara Pym was excellent company from Halifax to Toronto: I appreciated her much more after reading Harrison Solow’s Felicity & Barbara Pym, so I was happy to find when I arrived in Vancouver that my mother had helpfully picked Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings from her collection and put them out for me. As you can see from the picture, I have “borrowed” them to read at my leisure! (I promise, I will give them back to her … next time she visits me here. See how cleverly I’m adding in incentives for her to come all this way?) The Magnificent Spinster is hers as well: one of the fun things about visiting my parents is exploring their incredibly well-stocked and various shelves, from the rows of vintage Penguin Classics in the living room to the mysteries shelved two deep in the study to my mother’s Bloomsbury nook:

Bloomsbury Corner

From Toronto to Vancouver I made good progress on The Woman Upstairs, which I had suggested for my F2F book club for August; I finished it up a day or two after I got there. I was pretty disappointed in it: it seemed heavy-handed and straining towards significance. Nora’s anger was particularly uninteresting to me, largely because it was so insistent. Though the overt allusion is to Jane Eyre, I found myself thinking more about Villette as I read it. Lucy Snowe is a much more layered and complex character — or perhaps I should say characterization: Brontë gives us mysteries, deception, and self-deception where I felt that Messud gives us mostly clichés and plot twists. And speaking of twists, the one at the end is painfully predictable, isn’t it? I ended up feeling that I had once again made the mistake of following the hype. But perhaps as I think it over more, and after we’ve discussed it in our group, I’ll realize how this preliminary reaction is inadequate.

Also in the pile is Arabella, which I bought myself as a treat at the big Chapters downtown. I ended up reading most of it on the flights home: it was sweet and cheerful and not too demanding, which is just about right for a stressful flying day. (Overall I was pleased with how well I handled the flying on this trip — there was a minimum of armrest clutching, for one thing, and my “self-talk” strategies were more effective than usual, even during turbulence. Still, even at its best it’s a crowded, uncomfortable, and disconcerting experience, isn’t it?)

My other purchases were from Hager Books, one of the very few independent stores left in Vancouver. From their carefully curated selection, I chose Gift from the Sea, which I was inspired to buy because of Litlove’s wonderful essay on Anne Morrow Lindbergh in the April issue of Open Letters Monthly. I had planned to read it on the plane home but didn’t feel well enough to concentrate on it, so now I have it to look forward too. And I chose Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures for the contrasting reason that I’d never heard of it (or him) before and was intrigued that Hager had several of his titles in stock, as if he’s a readerly favorite. Besides that, of course, I also thought it looked interesting! Has anyone read any of Hellenga’s novels? If you hated them, probably best not to tell me that I may have wasted my Hager’s opportunity on the wrong thing!

In the Woods is there because I ordered a book for a gift to be sent to Vancouver ahead of my arrival, and I wanted something to add it so I’d get free shipping! I chose it because Tana French is a name that keeps coming up when I ask for mystery recommendations. I’d been avoiding it because it begins with bad things happening to young children, but I need to refresh my mystery reading. (Pretty soon, in fact, I have to order books for another round of the ‘Women & Detective Fiction’ seminar, so you’ll be seeing more questions about that here later.)

palfreyThe book I liked best of the ones I read on my trip is actually not shown here because I finished it and decided I really shouldn’t kidnap yet another of my mother’s books. It was Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, and it is by far my favorite of the novels by Taylor that I’ve read. It’s got the same clear-eyed, almost ruthless perspective on people’s foibles and self-deceptions but is also both funny and poignant. It was on the shelf next to Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day, which I did make off with. Really, if I lived in Vancouver, I would hardly need bookstores or libraries at all!

And now, back to my regular life. . I’m pleased with how much I got done on different projects before I left, including the Middlemarch for Book Clubs site, the reviews for Open Letters, and the draft of the Dick Francis essay (now in the editor’s hands); it’s time to think about how I want to use the rest of the time I have before teaching once again becomes the #1 priority. First, though, I have to get over my jet lag …


“This blurred world”: Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek

Elizabeth Taylor is the first repeat author we’ve chosen in my F2F book club: for our last meeting, we read Angel, which was such a surprise hit we agreed we’d like to try more of Taylor’s novels. By “surprise hit” I mean in part that because we had no expectations, we were surprised to find ourselves so engaged with the book (which is not to say everyone loved it, but we all liked discussing it). But I also mean that we were surprised by its particulars: by how many things about it are unlike other books any of us had read. It is strange and dark and sad and comic and grim and satirical, all at once. And talk about an unlikable heroine! And yet we all found her a perversely captivating one.

taylorhideandseekSo we’ve moved on to A Game of Hide and Seek, which is the other of Taylor’s novels recently reissued by New York Review Books. We haven’t met to discuss it yet, and I’m quite curious to find out how the others responded. For me it was surprising all over again, because at first it didn’t seem very much like Angel. And yet the more I think about it, the more I realize that despite the fairly different story and structure, it does resemble Angel, not in its characters or events but in its attitude. Both novels proceed with a relentless lack of sentimentality that is all the more unexpected in A Game of Hide and Seek because it tells what might be called a love story.

A Game of Hide and Seek tracks the awkward, uneven relationship between reticent Harriet and erratic Vesey. Harriet knows she loves Vesey from early on, but for some time she is tormented by uncertainty about how he feels about her — or, indeed, whether he feels anything at all. Believing there is nothing between them, she marries Charles — older, steadier, uneasy because he knows she nurses a secret passion for Vesey, who, after being both emotionally and then physically absent while Harriet yearned for him, turns up again now that Harriet is unavailable. Harriet and Vesey flirt (though that seems too perky a word) first with each other and then with outright adultery.

I found it impossible to root for a consummation of their love: Harriet is a drip, and Vesey is a bit of a jerk. It is love, though, I suppose, that is hiding and being sought, though the novel doesn’t give a very encouraging idea of what, exactly, love is. Harriet’s early infatuation is completely inexplicable: is that perhaps the point, that love is something that trumps or eludes reason? Or perhaps, as Harriet’s friend Kitty cautions her, the problem is loving an idea instead of a person: Harriet longs for love, and she believes Vesey to be her love, while he does just enough — he is just enough — to sustain the fantasy.

It’s the idea of Vesey and Charles’s knowledge of Harriet’s longing for him that undermine Charles and Harriet’s marriage. Taylor is very good at evoking the isolation that comes with unhappy intimacy:

Beyond their familiarity and nakedness, they could now sense their true isolation and were more perfectly strange to one another than people passing in a street.

After Vesey’s re-entrance into Harriet’s life, her daughter Betsy develops her own crush on him. In an odd twist, Betsy comes to believe Vesey is actually her father, which is at once traumatizing and gratifying:

That life was so unlike Greek literature had been the worse for life, to her mind. To-night it came — on the strength of a cryptic note, a faded photograph — magnificently near to it.

Her other crush, her Greek teacher Miss Bell, urges her not to “be such a slave to [her] feelings.” Miss Bell herself eventually has to leave for a new school, and one reason is that she has made too much of a favorite of Betsy: the lesson she carries away is “never [to] grown fond of any of them.”  Is it possibly better that love be neither sought nor found?

A further facet of the novel is its suffragette backstory: Harriet’s mother and Vesey’s aunt are close friends who were once “hustled, gripped above the elbows by policemen, up the steps of a police-station.” Their heroism embarrasses more than it inspires Harriet, who shows no particular interest in the bright future they fought to win for her. Her one independent move is going off to work in a dress shop, but this is a prelude only to her marriage, not to any assertion of herself or pursuit of a more rewarding career. It’s Betsy who finds her grandmother’s adventures exciting.  I don’t know how to put this piece together with Harriet and Vesey’s strange affair. Maybe I’m not supposed to: maybe it’s just there, rather than there as part of an aesthetic or thematic unity. Some people’s mothers really were suffragettes: does it have to mean anything? Why do I always seek unifying ideas?

Yet there are teasing intertextual moments that make me think it’s not wrong to try to solve the novel’s puzzles, as when Charles sits reading Persuasion while entirely conscious that something is afoot with Harriet and Vesey:

‘What a novel to choose!’ Charles thought. ‘Only the happy in love should ever read it. It is unbearable to have expression given to our painful solitariness, to rake up the dead leaves in our hearts, when we have nothing that can follow (no heaven dawning beautifully in Union Street), except in dreams, as perhaps Jane Austen herself never had but on the page she wrote.

Persuasion is another novel of love lost and regained; A Game of Hide and Seek could certainly be read as the anti-Persuasion, in that its lovers have aged but not grown, while their past love does not seem worth either remembering or reviving — even though they both remember and try to resuscitate it. Anne and Wentworth learn to fight for the love that will enable a new, better life; Harriet and Vesey, in contrast, can barely see what would be right, much less fight for it. Not knowing where they are, or where they’re going, is liberating at first, even though at the last minute they realize they have been stumbling towards a big mistake:

He walked beside her with the rose hanging from his hand. The taste of the fog was at the back of their throats. They could see only the shape of one another and, when they spoke, so private, so safe did they feel that they neither paused nor dissembled. In this blurred world, words were more beautiful and they used them more truthfully than at other times.

 Taylor’s writing is a bit like that. Sentences can be meandering and difficult to follow, leaving you disoriented:

This morning, however, she was ruffled herself, felt that a real sequence was so broken that the punctual arrival of the milk-man, the charwoman coming in at the back door at her usual time, were small mockeries, piteous pretences, like the first meal after a beloved one’s death, not even reaffirming that the world goes on as usual, that in the midst of death we are in life.

But then ideas emerge clearly out of the fog, giving you a distinct outline of feeling or intent:

‘Nowadays,’ she thought, ‘perhaps always, happiness has to be isolated. Only when we block out all that surrounds it, can we have it perfect, as we so often have perfect grief.’ She felt that she must not grope backwards over her conscience, or forwards over her desires, but keep her contentment in this different climate while she could.

A lot seems blurry in A Game of Hide and Seek: character, motive, plot, morality, meaning. Taylor creates a climate of yearning and dissatisfaction, though, in which words seem sometimes beautiful and sometimes true.

“Menaced by intimations of the truth”: Elizabeth Taylor, Angel

angelAngelica 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.