We’ll be talking about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont on the Walking Book Club this coming weekend, so I thought now was as good a time as any to read another of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. Angel has been warmly recommended to me many times, and, it transpires, rightly so!
Angel is a strange fifteen-year-old, when we first meet her, living with her mother above their grocer’s shop in a ‘hateful’ Victorian factory town. She lives more in her imagination than in reality and spends much of her time inventing stories about being the mistress of the improbably named ‘Paradise House’, where her aunt is a lady’s maid:
Lax and torpid, she dreamed through the lonely evenings, closing her eyes to create the darkness where Paradise House could take shape, embellished and enlarged day after day – with colonnades and cupolas, archways and flights of steps – beyond anything her aunt had ever suggested.
Paradise House is Angel’s escape from her squalid physical existence; her imagination is her way out:
She was learning to triumph over reality, and the truth was beginning to leave her in peace.
She decides to write a novel based on her daydreams, set in 1885 at ‘Haven Castle’ where ‘white peacocks wandered on the moonlit terrace the night Irania was born’.
She writes her novel in bed, and then sends it off to various publishers until one of them – in stitches from the romantic purple prose, but suspecting that women might react like his wife, who ‘devoured and gobbled every iridescent word’ – takes it on. He says,
I feel an extraordinary power behind it all, so that I wonder if it is genius or lunacy.
Angel indeed possesses an extraordinary power. Through sheer force of will and imagination she propels herself forth from her unpromising start in life to a wealthy published novelist. Indeed she ends up actually living in Paradise House – her fantasy becomes reality.
Elizabeth Taylor allows Angel this success but doesn’t let us lose sight of how ridiculous she is. At the height of her stardom, Angel rents a house in London for the Season:
Some of Angel’s stories about her lately-acquired portrait-ancestors were disastrously comic; her sense of period was so vague and her notions of country-life wonderfully sensational. A handsome young man among dogs was going off to shoot his rival in a duel, not pheasants among the autumn foliage; a lady in an Empire gown had been a mistress of Charles the Second… She went to the Royal Garden Party in violet satin and ostrich-feathers with purple-dyed chinchilla on her shoulders; amethysts encrusted her corsage and mauve orchids were sewn all over her skirt where they quickly wilted. Glances of astonishment she interpreted as admiration.
Sadly Angel’s success doesn’t last forever, and the book draws to a close when she is a lonely old woman marooned in Paradise House with her lady-companion, a couple of servants and many cats, while the decrepit house rots and crumbles around her, and more and more furniture is sold off. Yet Angel’s spirit never dies, even as her money dwindles:
Dismayed and indignant tradespeople received copies of her novels or old photographs of herself; they invariably returned them but by that time the account had been written off in Angel’s mind.
Angel stubbornly adheres to her fantasy right until the end, and you can’t help but feel a searing affection for her, admiration for maintaining her headstrong perversity, refusing to be brought down to bleak reality by anything or anyone, ever in all her life.
Intriguingly, characters tend to describe Angel as a witch. Elizabeth Taylor uses this image again and again:
Hermione could imagine her sitting under the sea, casting spells, counting the corpses of the drowned.
A strange figure to Clive, in her long, faded red dress and with her black hair hanging down her back. Cats followed her, arching themselves and cavorting about the hem of her skirt, bewitched by her presence.
Indeed you can see why Angel might seem like a witch – as her publisher said, she has an ‘extraordinary power’ and perhaps it is easier to explain this power as witchcraft, something not of our own world and not quite right.
But really what Angel possesses is the power of fiction – the novelist’s craft. Her stories might be ridiculous but they grow beyond the page, envelop the reader and the writer, grow more real than reality.
Angel’s novels are the opposite to Elizabeth Taylor’s – they are over the top, impossibly romantic, passionate and daft as opposed to Taylor’s domestic observations of everyday minutiae. And yet both novelists were panned by the critics. (Angel decides they must be jealous of her talent.) It begs the question, how can these two authors create such different novels and yet both be so easily dismissed by the literary establishment? Perhaps, with Angel, Elizabeth Taylor is having a little jibe at the critics.
Luckily Elizabeth Taylor, unlike Angel, has a wonderful sense of humour, and it is infectious, seeping out of the page and making it impossible not to laugh as soon as you recognise an element of Angel in yourself, or in someone else.
Certainly, next time an eccentric local author comes into the bookshop, draped in purple chinchilla and carrying a pile of signed copies of their book, then I might not be able to resist pointing them in the direction of this wonderful novel, to which they will undoubtedly be able to relate. Having said that, I suspect I will foist it upon others too – it is a magnificent book, dazzling and dark at once, like witchcraft, and I can’t see how anyone can help but fall under its spell.