Angel Deverell escapes her working class roots, only to become entombed in a grand yet crumbling palatial house.
Elizabeth Taylor’s 1957 novel, Angel, opens with a fifteen-year-old Angelica (“Angel”) Deverell determined to avoid her mother and aunt’s plans for her. Angel’s widowed mother runs a small grocery shop and her Aunt Lottie toils as a maid for Madam at Paradise House. The two women are pleased with themselves when they secure a position at Paradise House for Angel. When the proposition is run past the young girl, she is shocked and indignant. There is no way she’s going to serve the likes of Madam. Instead, she begins to write a novel. Her mother and Aunt Lottie hold dubious hopes for this enterprise, but Angel persists. The resulting novel The Lady Irania is an overblown, overwritten piece of melodrama in which its author has great confidence. She takes the manuscript, by herself, to London, and manages to find a publisher. It’s a hit and so begins a career pumping out similar trashy titles, making her and her publishers rich.
Despite this success, all is not well. Angel finds her work receives excoriating reviews and she is often a figure of mirth in literary circles. Compounding the problem is the author’s strange, unsympathetic personality. Angel lives in a doggedly unreal world where absurd personal fantasies are entertained. She believes she is a great author and yet the world failing to pay its proper due. This makes Angel entirely humourless, even bloodyminded.
Success leads to riches, and to problems. Angel buys Paradise House, a personal vindication, but as the years carry on she marries a cad and takes on too many expenses, ending up in old age a certifiable crackpot, deeply in debt, the once lavish Paradise House crumbling around her ears.
Angel makes for addictive reading. Elizabeth Taylor is an expert at building up complex characters that fascinate and repulse. The whole novel is one long, delicious train wreck as Angel drags along a cast of unwilling characters, or victims if you will, caught up in her unfortunate rise to the top. There are brilliantly evoked scenes in which Angel’s publishers absolutely dread having to conduct meetings, dinners and get togethers with their star writer, knowing how unreasonable and unpleasant she is. Anyone whose heart has sunk at an unwanted invitation will readily commiserate. The novel also has more than its fair share of humour, such as when Angel visits her friend and rival, Lady Bailey, at her sumptuous house. When Angel falls asleep on the journey, her weary driver dare not wake her upon arrival. Lady Bailey, for her part, has caught a chill and can’t come from her bed. The maids and servants run back and forth between car and house, until the driver takes Angel back home. There she finally wakes, to be told of the farcical events.
It’s difficult to say what the exact theme of Angel is, although besides being a sharp character study of a cantankerous and self-deluded woman, it does offer a subtle analysis of class and money (Taylor was briefly a member of the British Communist Party.) Angel as a young girl fantasises about inheriting Paradise House, this contrasted against the hard life of her working class mother and aunt. When she does finally buy Paradise House, it becomes a symbol of the emptiness and moral vacuity at the centre of such supposed opulence. Her mother and Aunt Lottie are fawning and deferential to power, but we sympathise with them, whereas the financially powerful Angel is a thoughtless, self-centred monster.
A brilliant and merciless study in human depravity.
Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor. Vintage Classics. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books