In her novel Angel, Elizabeth Taylor turns the exploration of the relationship of the artist to her imagination, her drive, her self-opinion, her ego, on its ear.
One of George Eliot’s early publications was a piece of criticism called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” That wonderful titular phrase sprang to my mind when I was rereading Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor. In trying to encapsulate the book in a phrase, I came up with “Weird Novels by Lady Novelists.” And then I realized that Angel is in fact the story of a writer of Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, and my little brain-worm came full circle.
Weird Novels by Lady Novelists is, for me, a category. Yes, I just made up this category, but go with it. Other books I’d include in this category are: The Brontës Went To Woolworth’s by Rachel Ferguson, The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood. What these and Angel have in common in that they are truly unique from other novels. Each presents a set of characters that are bizarre, living in the actual world (none of these are fantasy novels in any way), made unfamiliar and fascinating by their odd-ball existence in it.
Elizabeth Taylor was the author of a string of novels and short story collections published in the mid-20th century. She’s not quite so obscure as some of the other writers NYRB revives—the wonderful imprint Virago Modern Classics has kept Taylor in print the last 25 years or so, though her books have seldom been easy to lay hold of in the USA.
While Taylor could never be accused (like, say, Anita Brookner) of writing more or less the same novel over and over again, Angel is, in Taylor’s body of work, a stand-out in its oddity. The eponymous protagonist—she’s too perverse and unlikeable to be styled a heroine—is a grotesque. Angelica is a monster of egotism, who in no way resembles her humble parents (her mother runs a down-at-heels cornershop, her aunt is a lady’s maid), seeming instead of have sprung from the depths of her own fevered will. (Hmmm. She’s actually quite a bit like Ayn Rand, minus the fascistic politics.)
Self-absorbed, devoid of empathy, disdainful of everyone around her in the sad little provincial town, Angel quits school rather than face the pupils she’s alienated, and hits upon the idea of writing a novel when she grows too bored of feigning a vague illness as an excuse to stay in her room. She writes a rags-to-riches story of a brash young woman of great talent and beauty bounding into the heights of aristocratic society—a kind of portrait-of-the-artist-in-apotheosis. Knowing nothing about books or publishing, she sends her completed manuscript to the Oxford University Press because she finds the address in one of the few books in her room. They don’t take it of course, but the next London publisher she tries at random snaps up her odd romance, and publishes it, despite Angel’s resistance to making a single editorial change—even to correct the fact that champagne isn’t opened with a corkscrew.
The publisher summons her to London and is astonished by her—she admits blithely to having read very little because she has no books and is busy writing, and when pressed, to quite liking Shakespeare except when he is trying to be funny. Later he describes her to his wife: “They are never happy, these sports which ordinary, humble people throw off: they belong nowhere and are insatiable.” Angel Deverell is indeed insatiable for her own strange sort of success: she knows exactly what she wants out of her new-earned fortune, and proceeds to get it.
All of this happens fairly early in the book, which then goes on to tell the story of the rest of Angel’s life, as a driven artist who sacrifices everything human in her life—and all the humans around her—to her art. Angel understands and cares nothing about the real people she lives among—she is emotionally blind to the feelings of her mother, who when brought to live in suburban luxury is only intimidated by the servants and longs for the social life of her former shop-keeping days, and of her husband, a good-looking wastrel of a mediocre painter, who, unlike Angel, sees all too clearly through his own pretensions to artistry, and once set up with all the accoutrements of a fine studio by his wealthy wife, gives up painting altogether.
That her art is laughably, humorlessly, bad is Taylor’s wonderful joke in this novel. In examining the Passion of the Artist through a purveyor of trash, Taylor turns the exploration of the relationship of the artist to her imagination, her drive, her self-opinion, her ego, on its ear. Angel’s dismal traits occur frequently in the private lives of successful artists too, who, in their single-focus approach to how they use their time and that of others, lay waste to family and friends—but where the art product is great, the destruction is seen as somehow inevitable—maybe tragic, but worth it.
Taylor is a writer who is dryly droll, sharply observant, and able to show her characters in the most squirm-inducing light while still quietly honoring their humanity. NYRB’s reprinting of Angel and another of her novels, A Game of Hide and Seek, is an opportunity for readers to re-engage with one of the greats of 20th century fiction.