Why is it that we so enjoy reading about monstrous characters? In the early pages of Angel, I was thrilled/appalled by the behavior of fifteen-year-old Angelica Deverell — but definitely more thrilled. In fact I’d been anticipating reading Angel for quite some time. It’s probably Elizabeth Taylor’s best-known novel, owing in part to the 2007 film that starred Romola Garai (below). But Angel seems to stand out even among Taylor’s wonderful novels, on the strength of the title character and the remarkably steely narrative voice.
When we meet Angel, she is being raked over the coals by her English teacher because an essay she has written seems suddenly, suspiciously fluent. Plagiarism is suspected. “She doesn’t believe I wrote it, she thought, glancing with contempt at the flustered little woman…. Who does she think wrote it if I didn’t? Who does she think could?” Thus Angel begins and thus she goes on for the entire book — a character like this one doesn’t develop. She just exists, and lets life break around her like waves around a rock (a simile Angel herself might have used). Angel, it turns out, doesn’t read. Has no friends. Lives in a pokey industrial town, above a grocery store. And to rescue herself from the inevitable humiliation of life as a working-class teenage girl at the turn of the 20th century, she resorts to writing fiction.
Oh, yes — another life ruined by books. Or is it rescued? One of the remarkable features of Elizabeth Taylor’s narration here is her scrupulous attitude toward Angel. She neither judges nor explains. No Freudian theories, no evidence that her cowed mother mistreats her, no bids for sympathy, no efforts to make this character more attractive.
What Angel does have, besides a gift for purple prose, is unshakable faith in herself and an imagination that substitutes for empathy. Taylor describes this process early in the novel — it’s a question of Angel’s accumulating details to construct an alternative world:
… 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…. Acquisitively, from photographs and drawings in history books, she added one detail after another. That will do for Paradise House, was an obsessive formula which became a daily habit. The white peacocks would do;… as would the cedar trees at school.”
And what’s really happening? Angel is learning “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.”
So guess what Angel becomes? A novelist, what else? An immensely popular novelist, able eventually to craft her reality so that it reflects her fantasies: grand house, garish clothes, handsome artist husband. The drama that keeps us reading is generated throughout the book by Angel’s collisions with existence itself. Will she give way? Will she even notice that her books have stopped selling, that the peacocks are ill, that her husband is unfaithful? By the end, we rather want her to remain indomitable. Maybe that’s the precise point of the monstrous character: that she, unlike us, is impervious to life.