Friday, 26 February 2010

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

Anyone reading this probably doesn't need reminding that Elizabeth Taylor (not the film star) was a great writer of fiction. I have just finished Angel which is supposed to be very different from her other work, though I've only read some short stories. This is an imagined version of the life of a prolific and eccentric writer of romances early in the last century, someone like Marie Corelli or Ethel M. Dell.

Angel Deverell is a spoilt, self-absorbed and eccentric teenager who fantasises about a life of wealth and glamour. To escape her mother's grocery shop and dreary school in depressing Norley, Angel feigns illness and, deprived of books, begins to write her own romantic fiction based on her fantasies. Her aunt's account of the seemingly enchanted life of the gentry at nearby Paradise House helps to fuel these. Angel leaves school, but refuses to follow her aunt into a career in service and doggedly sends off her novels to publishers and continues to write. Astonishingly, her first novel is accepted, even though the publishers can see that her writing style is overblown and risible. Then, as probably now, there is potential profit in a teenager writing something unusual and potentially shocking.

Angel eventually becomes a wealthy best-selling author who removes her long-suffering mother from her comfortable milieu and friends and installs her in a luxury villa surrounded by servants in the posh part of town. Her mother's isolation and unaccustomed idleness are beautifully described:

It seemed to her that she had wasted her years acquiring a skill which in the end was to be of no use to her; her weather-eye for a good drying day; her careful ear for judging the gentle singing sound of meat roasting in the oven; her touch for the freshness of bacon; and how, by smelling a cake, she could tell if it were baked: arts, which had taken so long to perfect, fell now into disuse. She would never again, she grieved, gather up a great fragrant line of washing in her arms to carry indoors.

Mrs Deverell sickens and dies just as Angel is moving into higher society. She falls for and marries a charming but wayward artist Esme (thought this was a girl's name?), who is unfaithful to her. She surrounds herself with animals, and eventually buys the legendary Paradise House. Eventually she squanders her money, Esme dies and her house falls into decay, but she carries on writing even when her books fall out of fashion, remaining as full of delusions about herself and her life as ever.

Because the story is really a biography of a life, the lack of a gripping plot make the later sections of the book less compelling than the first , but Taylor skilfully and ironically analyses Angel and a range of other brilliantly drawn characters. She is sharp as a needle on the subtle feelings of those who, for various reasons, hover round Angel, falling in with or pandering to her often childish whims.

The book also features an (unusually?) sympathetic account of a publisher, Theo Gilbright, who feels compelled from the start to be sympathetic to Angel, despite her strange coldness and indifference to others. He relies on the wonderful and curmudgeonly Mr Delbanco, a completely fictional senior partner in the firm, to insist on Angel's correcting the multiple errors of fact in her preposterous books. Theo's wife, Hermione, is my favourite character, and her irritated but suppressed thoughts about Angel provide a lot of delicious humour in the first half of the book.