AngelIn 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.

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18 Responses to Angel

  1. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I so agree about caring being quite different to liking – and not just in a black-and-white way of unlikeable characters often being more interestingly drawn than their likeable peers.

    • Teresa says:

      It is so much more complicated than just liking and disliking. It’s about feeling invested or having a stake in them and maybe also believing that the author is taking them on an interesting journey.

  2. anokatony says:

    I very much liked both Angel and Good Behavior. Good Behavior is more of a humorous work while Angel is probably more poignant like Taylor’s many novels. I consider both Keane and Taylor great in their separate ways.

    • Teresa says:

      I definitely liked this one more, although I can see why so many like Keane. I actually thought this was funny at times, more so than Good Behavior. Angel’s ideas were so preposterous, and so was the public’s reaction to her. I laughed several times at this, but never at GB. I think the comic moments there struck me more as sad, and I couldn’t laugh along.

  3. Shonna says:

    Your reflections on characters makes me think of the observation that hating is not the opposite of loving, indifference is. I also enjoy a book a lot more if I care (positively or negatively) about what happens to the characters.

  4. Alex says:

    I’ve not read any Taylor but ‘Mrs Palfry’ is on one of my reading group lists for this Autumn. if I enjoy that then I shall have to try this one, which I think is sitting on a bookshelf upstairs somewhere.

  5. Jenny says:

    This personality sounds quite familiar…! I’ve been wanting to read something by Taylor for some time, and this firms up my intentions. Sounds like a really interesting character study that would have made a good movie in, say, the 1930s for Bette Davis or someone.

    • Teresa says:

      Familiar, indeed…

      There was a movie made of this a few years ago, with Romola Garai, but I have no idea if it was any good. I’m having trouble imagining Garai in the role, but I don’t know who I’d choose instead. You’d need an actress who could pull off 17 and 70. I love the idea of Bette Davis, although with the book published in the 1950s, it wouldn’t have been possible.

  6. I didn’t know this was a book first! They did a film of it with Romola Garai and Michael Fassbender at some point, and I watched it on Netflix a while ago because I felt like watching Michael Fassbender do things, but I had already watched the Nazi-killing portions of X-Men: First Class approximately twenty times. (It wasn’t that great.)

    …And now I have scrolled up very slightly and seen that you already knew this. I didn’t love Romola Garai in this role, but I never love her in anything. I think someone with a more ruthless face would have possibly been more interesting in the part.

    • Teresa says:

      I like Garai fine, but you’re right that this part demands a ruthlessness, if not in face then at least in manner. Ruthless and soulless. She’s an empty person, which I could sort of see Garai pulling off based on her performance in Atonement, but I don’t know. I may check out the movie at some point.

  7. Scott W. says:

    I thought Angel was a terrific small novel, a great character study with a number of unusual (and, at least so it seemed to me) unusually wise observations about people. I discovered, in researching Irish writer Amanda McKittrick Ros, that Angel had been loosely based on her. I was grateful to have read Taylor first, as otherwise it would probably have been too tempting to be dismissive of Ros’ awful but strangely mesmerizing writing. In Angel, Taylor does such a fine job of trying to get inside the head of an un-self-aware, terribly mediocre writer, and comes up with a lot of tangential insights into numerous facets of art. It’s quite a fascinating book, and perhaps ironically, given the quality of Angel’s output, one of the best I’ve read that features a writer. The Guardian recently published a list of great novels that feature writers; Angel, alas, was not featured among them. It richly deserved to be.

    • Teresa says:

      The introduction to the Virago edition mentioned a couple of writers that probably served as inspiration for Angel, but none of the names were familiar to me. I agree with you about the wisdom in its pages, both regarding human nature and the way people navigate relationships and about art. And it’s also quite funny at times. There’s a lot in it.

  8. I was kind of in the same boat as you. I think I had been waiting for the character to transform, but she never does. I will say, that this is one of those books that I have appreciated more as it has had time to sink into my brain. But I agree, I am not sure I actually enjoyed it.

    • Teresa says:

      Although I didn’t like Angel much, I would have been sorry to see her reform. She was too thorough-going a narcissist for a transformation to be believable, I think. A convincing reform would double the length of the book. I actually did enjoy this, although I never got to liking Angel herself, but I don’t think we’re meant to like her.

  9. Nicola says:

    It’s a few years since I read this so it’s not fresh in my mind but I do remember how compelling it was. I’m not sure that I loved it – and I certainly didn’t like Angel herself – but the book drew me in and it was good to read your review. I think Blaming is my favourite Taylor.

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