Hilary Mantel, who introduces the newest Virago edition of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, calls it ‘quietly and devastatingly amusing’. The introduction which she crafts is witty, and interspersed with a lovely anecdote about her experience of the novel. ‘For any writer,’ she says, ‘good, bad or – as we mostly are – an ever-changing mixture of both, Angel provides a series of sharp lessons in humility’. I love the way in which Mantel compares Elizabeth Taylor to her protagonist, Angelica, and the vast differences which she highlights between the two.
Angel was first published in 1957, and is number 135 on the Virago Modern Classics list. The more I read of Taylor’s work – almost all of which is collected upon the aforementioned list – the more deeply I fall in love with it. She is such a wonderful author, whose deft touch creates protagonists who feel marvellously real, and scenes which please every single one of the senses.
The novel begins in 1901 in the fictional brewery town of Norley, ‘a mean district with its warehouses and factories’. The small details which Taylor weaves in vividly set the social history, interspersed as they are with the story – ‘the organ-grinder with his monkey’, ‘lardy-cake’, learning things by rote at school, exercise programmes within the classroom, leaving school before the age of sixteen if one had a ‘situation’ to go to, paying for things with florins, and so on.
In Angel, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Angelica Deverell – Angel for short, though this nickname feels like rather an ironic one – who believes that she is ‘destined to become a feted author and the owner of great riches. Surely her first novel confirms this – it is a masterpiece, she thinks’. She is vividly described from the first, and is striking in appearance; ‘forbiddingly aquiline’, as Taylor puts it. Angel is ‘lax and torpid’, and relies heavily upon her imagination to dim the world around her. She is lazy and self-important, always relying on her busy mother – a widow who owns a small grocery shop which she and Angel live over – to do things for her, when she is perfectly capable of performing such acts herself. Angel is both unpopular and rather judgemental. Taylor writes that ‘she longed for a different life: to be quite grown-up and beautiful and rich; to have power over many different kinds of men.’
Despite Angel’s uglier characteristics – and let us face it, there are so many of them that she practically feels as though she has been built of unsavoury traits – she is still somehow ultimately endearing. Taylor allows her readers real understanding for her protagonist. Whilst she is difficult, we do come to see why as the novel gains momentum. Angel finds a kind of solace from what she views as the cruelty of the world around her, and writes fantastically exaggerated tales. Her mother takes the change of plan, so different from the goals which she had originally held for her daughter, in a most interesting manner: ‘It [her writing] seemed to her [Angel’s mother] such a strange indulgence, peculiar, suspect. There had never been any of it in the family before, not even on her husband’s side where there had been one or two unhinged characters’.
Angel’s ultimate naivety is really quite sweet – for example, she sends her novel to Oxford University Press because she finds their address in one of her schoolbooks. Taylor demonstrates her protagonist’s determination so well throughout. The plot twists come out of nowhere and delighted me entirely, piquing my interest in the novel even further. Angel is a stunning novel, and one which I would highly recommend to everyone.