VRW: Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

So here I am, reading Angel by Elizabeth Taylor next to a cosy fire (at my parent’s place), amused and able to spend the week doing nothing but reading and blogging and drinking tea… I will add, my eyes are starting to get sore from using the computer so much (and I still have a cold), so it’s not complete perfection!

As for Angel, I completely enjoyed it. On Sunday night before Virago Reading Week started, I carried my stack of 15 Viragos through the snow from our cottage into my parent’s place and next to the fire just before settling in to watch Downton Abbey, hoping it would inspire me to pick something good to read. I browsed through a few books (after watching Downton, I certainly wouldn’t do that while watching!) and finally started reading Angel — from the middle! I’d already seen the movie, so read from there to the end, then back to the beginning. I stayed up quite late reading by the fire, then quickly raced through the rest of it on Monday.

Despite my lovely co-host Rachel, who usually loves all books and people, calling this book (or the character of Angel in particular) ‘infuriating’ and also ‘odious’, I was quite entertained. Angel Deverell is teenager at the very start of the 20th century (her aunt is mentioned as being in mourning for Queen Victoria at one point), who is determined to leave the poverty of her common life and become a famous romantic novelist, through the power of her imagination. And she does. This may seem like a simple feminist success story, but it is so much more than that.

For Angel is vain, narcissistic, and what’s more, completely short-sighted about all her faults. (Literally and metaphorically and she refuses to wear glasses throughout her life, declaring it’s only a matter of will power.) Despite her writing being full of wild romantic inaccuracies, she refuses to change one of them. And she is shocked when trumpets do not hail her genius, but instead she is criticized! This portrait isn’t just satiric though, Elizabeth Taylor shows Angel’s humanity and frailty. She shows how completely lonely she is, always lying to make her life sound better than it is (early on when a teacher asks her what she does in her spare time, she says, “I play the harp mostly”) and is utterly unaware of how to behave properly around people. She has a strong character, she has made a success of herself as a published author, she’ s worked hard, followed her passion, etc, as so many still strive to do. Isn’t that enough?

Elizabeth Taylor is possibly examining what a true artist is really like. Angel meets a painter and falls in love with him, more for his looks than his talent and gets him to paint a portrait of her. This is the result:

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, emphasised the suggestion of loneliness. He had been tempted to scrawl a title upon the blank side of the canvas: ‘Study in Solitary Confinement.’ Her eyes and the dog’s looked mournfully out of the picture; Sultan’s dully, hers reflectively. …people thought the portrait dreary and tactless and wondered why Esme 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.

Angel, at first shocked, soon grew used, from constant looking, to seeing only what she chose, especially the narrowness of her bare hand with its emerald ring. She would gaze at this detail for a long time each day.

Of course Esme’s clear-sighted art is not acclaimed the way Angel’s self indulgence is, in the short term. Angel had begun writing after spending years in her imagination, pretending she lived in an endlessly beautiful place called Paradise House, not because she loved books themselves (in one scene she comically refuses to get a library membership when all she wants is the address of a publisher out of the inside of a book):

She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her, and she thought that she would rather write a book herself, to a pattern of her own choosing and about a beautiful young girl with a startling white skin, heiress to great property, wearing white pique at Osborne and tartan taffetas at Balmoral.

When she goes to Greece on her honeymoon, she doesn’t like it — after writing many glamorous books about it! The image that comes up several times in the book to describe her is a cactus:

Once he saw a large cactus-plant in a flower-shop window. From one unpromising, barbed shoot had sprung a huge, glowering bloom. It looked solitary and incongruous, a freakish accident; and he was reminded of Angel.

Later, the cactus reappears:

She had found one living thing there among the flower-pots, a great cactus which had surprisingly survived, gross and bladdery; it looked as if it could keep itself going on its own succulence for years to come. She pinched its fleshy pads with curiosity.

Angel lives off her excessively romantic imagination, relying on nothing else, she has nothing else to feed her art but desperate fantasies. She has survived and succeeded where others have not, but she doesn’t see the true horrors she brings to herself and everyone around her, through her own blind selfishness. She collects pets, claiming to be a great animal lover, but even they are never very happy, because she doesn’t know how to properly care for anybody or anything, even herself.

This is why she hides from the truth, because she knows women in her world are mostly powerless:

At other times she was menaced by intimations of the truth. Her heart would be alarmed, as if by a sudden roll of drums, and she would spring to her feet, beset by the reality of the room, her own face — not beautiful, she saw — in the looking-glass and the commonplace sounds in the shop below. She would know then that she was in her own setting and had no reason for ever finding herself elsewhere; know moreover that she was bereft of the power to rescue herself, the brains or the beauty by which other young women made their escape. Her panic-striken face would be reflected back at her as she struggled to deny her identity, slowly cosseting herself away from the truth. She was learning to triumph over reality, and the truth was beginning to leave her in peace.

I was powerfully impacted by this novel, perhaps because I can see some similarities with Angel — I often made up stories in my head as a child to forget my unhappiness and still want to be a writer. I’ve sometimes thought of trying to write the way Angel does, putting down the inaccurate romantic visions that come to mind, uncensored. I’ve wanted to escape into the romance of the past, forget about the truth of people’s lives then or now. I’d looked at so many old fashioned black and white pictures of Paris that when I finally did go there on my honeymoon, I too was a little disappointed to find that Paris had not lived up to all of my fantasies… (although Marcel Proust also wrote about experiencing that with people he thought he loved and going to Venice, so maybe I’m not quite the only one).

This novel showed me that art has got to be about more than imagination, romance, or fantasy, it also has to involve seeing the truth clearly. Elizabeth Taylor portrays Angel’s rise and fall with an accurate grace, relishing in the details that Angel herself would rather overlook. It was an eye opening read and one I highly recommend, especially to anyone hoping to become a writer themselves!

Also — why not announce our first official chance to win one of those mystery book prizes we’ve got? (They’ve been sent to Rachel, but she hasn’t received them yet. Not an intentional mystery, but they are meant to be five books!)We thought, since we love seeing pictures of everyone’s books anyways, why not give you the chance to win one of the books in a photo contest? It can be any kind of photo to do with Virago books and the more creative the better. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a fancy camera or not, just show us your books! (Or you reading them, maybe in an unusual or thematic location, anything goes…) Since I’m only mentioning this now, any photos from the beginning of the week on count.

I’ll also be doing today’s round up later on tonight (since I’m near the end of the time zone, I guess I’m likely to be a bit behind the rest of you and would have had this post up earlier if I hadn’t gotten a headache after trying to write it earlier), so send me any links for today and especially your pictures for the rest of the week! Here’s my stack of Viragos, all collected from one secondhand bookstore in Calgary (so glad I started imitating some of you and buying them while I still lived there!), interspersed with books from the Virago Modern Classics in other editions. I’ve already started on another gem of a book, can anyone guess which one? It’s a coming of age story and the author is already becoming a favourite.

20 thoughts on “VRW: Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

  1. bookssnob says:

    Wonderful, wonderful review Carolyn! I did find Angel odious (aren’t you lovely saying I normally love everyone! Ha! I wish that were true!!) but also terribly pitiable. I think Romola Garai did a wonderful job of portraying her in the film. Did you know Elizabeth Taylor based Angel on the popular Victorian romantic novelist Marie Correlli? It brings an interesting perspective to the character. I loved your insights on the nature of art and fantasy; lots to think about there.

    Oooh the photo competition! I bet we get some good entries for that. You make sure you take it easy! Don’t do too much with a cold!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks Rachel, you have to be one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, so my comment stays!

      Watching the movie without knowing anything about the story was a rather odd experience, the trailer had made it look like a glamorous tale of a woman’s successful beautiful life, but then in the movie I slowly started to pick up on the satire and all the things going wrong in Angel’s life that she just ignores, it was very interesting that some of the scenes were portrayed as her fantasy versions of the events, rather than the reality of them. Not a typical story, but it definitely made me want to read the book, especially because I kept hearing about this Elizabeth Taylor who was a novelist!

      I didn’t know it was based on a real person, I think that author may have been mentioned in the novel as one of Angel’s rivals. Interesting.

  2. carolwallace says:

    Carolyn, this sounds like great fun. There’s something so satisfying about a character like Angel, isn’t there? I will definitely put it on my TBR list!

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes, definitely. Before this I had been reading a novel about a too perfect character (or at least the narrator seemed to think she was perfect, I thought she was really annoying) and so it was a very fun to laugh and sigh a little over the very unangelic Angel.

  3. Penny says:

    What a great review, Carolyn! I have this book and will definitely read it soon! It’s funny, because only this morning I was thinking about romantic imaginings and women writing stories about the kind of romance they’d like to have had… Kind of spooky, really! 🙂
    I didn’t know there was a film. I like Romola Garai and a particular favourite of Jane’s and mine is The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, where she plays the teenage version of Judi Dench’s character!
    Hope you’re fully recovered soon. 🙂

  4. kiss a cloud says:

    Hi Carolyn! I hope you’re feeling much better today. I have to say, Elizabeth Taylor (especially with that name) intrigues me and I hope to find a copy of any of her books someday. I am eager to go hunting for Viragos after The TBR Dare is over!

    So I’ve posted my entry for the contest. Sadly, I don’t have a collection yet, but pretty soon I hope! Here’s my photo: http://kissacloud.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/on-the-happy-foreigner-and-viragos-in-general/

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks for the photo, Claire, and hope you can find more Viragos! It’s a bit harder to find them in North America, but some used bookshops do have them (I found a copy of Miss Mole by E.H. Young just the other day in my tiny town, which I’d just been wanting to read!) and like you say, it is fun to go hunting for them. 🙂 I hope you do get to read Elizabeth Taylor, I think you would like her.

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