In my recent review of Good Behaviour, I noted that I admired the book more than I enjoyed it, partly because I couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters. When it comes to characters, caring is different from liking. I can care what happens to a character without liking that character much. I can actively root against a character, or at least be curious about that character’s fate. The title character in this 1957 novel by Elizabeth Taylor is a perfect example of a character whose story I cared about, even as I loathed the character herself.
Angelica Deverell decided at age 15 that she was going to be a writer. This despite never having been much of a reader. Her impulse to write comes not from a love of literature but from the pleasure of imagining life as she believes it ought to be. Her first novel left her publisher in stitches with its overwrought prose that featured a “nay” on every page, but he knew it was likely to sell. And sell it did. The critics loathed it, and the clergy were scandalized by it, but the public devoured it and continued to devour each book she published.
Taylor appears to be on the side of the critics. We’re given no reason to think this is a case of critics not taking a woman’s work seriously. Angel’s success seems to be less about skill than about a mixture of luck and obstinacy. She was lucky to happen upon the address of a publisher who would give her a chance and a public that was ready for her original style of storytelling. She was obstinate enough to keep writing when everyone in her working-class family said it was a waste of time and to stay true to her vision when her publisher asked her to tone it down.
But Angel’s stubbornness, which served her well in starting her career, ultimately leads to her downfall. In everything she does, she presses forward with no thought for failure. If something doesn’t go as it should, it’s never her fault. She is always right, and she will always get her way, no matter what. Here, her publisher, Theo, reflects on Angel’s unbending nature and where it might lead:
He could not imagine any brightness or ease ahead of her. Her sternness, the rigorousness of her working days, her pursuit of fame, had made her inflexible: she was eccentric, implacable, self-absorbed. Love, which calls for compliance, resilience, lavishness, would be a shock to her spirit, an upset to the rhythm of her days. She would never achieve it, he was sure. For all the love in her books, it would be beyond her in life.
Angel does eventually fall in love, but she pursues that love with the same determination that she pursued her literary career. Although she appears to succeed in this pursuit, her victory is hollow. She is obsessed with her husband and is utterly torn about when he enlists and goes to fight in the Great War, but it’s not clear that she ever loves him. He’s something like a possession or a pet, like the peacocks and Persian cats that eventually take over the grand home she bought to fulfill a childhood fantasy.
As her life goes on, Angel’s obstinacy remains, but her luck does not. Here the book takes a turn that could be considered sad if so much of the fault didn’t fall squarely on Angel herself. Taylor lets circumstances take their course, and there is something satisfying in watching it happen, although this doesn’t feel like the story of a selfish woman getting her just deserts. How could it be when Angel herself refuses to consciously acknowledges how terrible things have become? Determination and delusion are, for Angel, not so far apart. Perhaps it was delusion that fueled her early career, and she will keep to her delusions. Anything else would destroy her.