Read for the yearlong Elizabeth Taylor read-a-long on Librarything and my own month of re-reading. I first read it not that long ago – in October 2010. I didn’t expect to have a different reaction to a book I read so recently – and on the whole I didn’t. I think I found Angel a sadder character this time around – rather than merely monstrous – which she is too.
Angel, often described as Elizabeth Taylor’s tour-de-force, is a novel really quite different to her other novels. The story concerns Angelica Deverell – Angel of the title – who having been brought up by her mother over a grocery shop in Volunteer Street – dreams of another kind of life. Her life with her widowed mother punctuated by weekly visits by her Aunt Lottie is a dull one for Angel, and is deftly handled by Taylor who brings this world to life brilliantly. The beginning of the novel and the portrayal of Angel’s early life was by far my favourite part of this wonderful novel.
“Angel often felt jolted when the girls stopped at their gate; partly, from having forgotten them; partly, from having to transfer herself too quickly from Paradise House to this mean district with warehouses and factories and great brooding gas holders…..
Halfway down Volunteer Street was a row of shops: a fish-and-chip shop from which children were running with hot greasy parcels; a newsagent’s a chemist’s where light from the interior glowed feebly through three glass bottles of red and green and violet liquid and coloured the bowls of senna pods and sulphur lying in the window. Next to the draper’s and the last in the row was the grocery shop; there the delivery boy, was packing up an order on the counter, weighing sugar into pink bags. The wedge of cheese beside him was covered in his dirty finger-prints. The saw-dust on the floor was scuffed about now at the end of the day.”
Angel’s dreams spill over into real life when she is a young girl as she frequently tells lies. Angel is contemptuous of her mother and her aunt, and considers herself much better than them. Spitefully setting herself above them she sneers at them is idle and unappreciative of the sacrifices made for her education. The novel opens in 1900 when Angel Is fifteen, while feigning illness in order to avoid school, Angel begins to weave some of her romantic fantasies into a novel. She has no doubt of her success, her imagination will not allow for her failure. So Angel becomes a novelist – terribly over written, her novels are not always considered decent, and although they provoke much criticism not to mention literary snobbishness they make her wealthy. Angel is a constant trial to her publisher and his wife – Angel has her own very set ideas and will brook no criticism – and as a dinner guest proves to be a nightmare.
“Hermione’s colours were not flying throughout dinner: they were dipped, less in submission than wonderment. She soon became convinced that Angel was mad, that her own high spirits could never counter such insanity and were not called upon to do so. She fell back into a state of relaxed fascination while Angel attacked Theo on business matters and questioned him closely upon details which he could not have been expected, by anyone but Angel, to carry in his head.”
The character of Angelica Deverell was based loosely on the lives of Edwardian authors such as Marie Corelli and Ethel M Dell. Elizabeth Taylor skilfully allows us inside the head of the Angel – totally deluded, convinced she is a genius – she becomes increasingly selfish and difficult as the years go by. Angel pours the love of which she is starved into a succession of pets, cats, dogs, a parrot and later peacocks she is often irrational in her love of them. When she meets poet Nora Howe-Nevinson and her artist brother Esme Angel begins a new obsession, as she is instantly smitten by Esme.
As a girl she had dreamed of life in Paradise house – a house where her aunt was employed, and where there lived another girl named Angelica. As a wealthy woman Angel is now able to fulfil her fantasies and buy the crumbling shell that Paradise house has since become. Angel is a darkly comic novel – with a heroine who is not very likeable, but is instead often ridiculous. The novel is written with the wonderful attention to detail and fascinating characterisation that is present in all Elizabeth Taylor novels. Angel is a brilliant, sometimes pitiful monster. She is also probably the most memorable of all Elizabeth Taylor’s characters.