Monday, 26 April 2010

Angel

What with work and making the most of the time that is not work (a fine walk along the Mole valley on Saturday - peacocks galore, orange tips, commas, red admirals and a holly blue, since you ask), I haven't had much blog time. But I have been reading steadily and the other day finished Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, a novel which quite bowled me over with its effortless skill and scope. I only knew Taylor from short stories, and from her late novel Blaming, which I read recently and didn't much care for (it seemed rather arid and lacking even one sympathetic character). To me, then, Angel was a revelation of how good Elizabeth Taylor could be. Beginning around 1900, it tells the story of Angelica 'Angel' Deverell, the strange spoilt child of a widowed shopkeeper, who, at the age of 15 and on no other basis than her own impregnable delusions of grandeur, decides that she is to be a great and famous novelist, writes what is clearly an appalling novel in the sensational manner of Marie Corelli - and, by sheer luck finding a publisher who is intrigued rather than merely appalled, gets it published. It is, as Angel had confidently assumed it would be, a huge hit (though mocked by the critics - but what do they know?), and Angel is, to everyone's amazement but her own, launched on a successful career. Taylor's novel follows Angel through her life, creating a wonderfully memorable monster of vanity, absurdity, wilful eccentricity and self-delusion, but one with fears and doubts that from time to time surface and must be ruthlessly repressed - and with a quality about her that, despite everything, inspires something like love in most of the (rather few) people who ever get at all close to her. It is a wonderfully subtle character study that deepens as Taylor follows Angel through the decades, as she reaches the height of her fame and, inevitably, falls out of fashion. Hilary Mantel describes Taylor as 'quietly and devastatingly amusing', and so she is, a mistress of the deft aside - 'She was always too busy writing about what she thought of as 'Nature' to go out of doors to look at things' or 'She was often violent about people, as are so many animal lovers'. She reveals character in small eloquent details of behaviour and appearance, bringing all her characters into focus, even in the fierce glare of Angel's crazed glory - and she puts every line of dialogue to good use. In fact, at her best, Taylor is almost as beady-eyed as Jane Austen herself. Angel has some very funny scenes - laugh out loud funny - but its greatest achievement perhaps is to make you care so much for the incorrigible Angel that the ending is genuinely moving. What a creation she is! Is she an awful warning? Could it be that every successful writer has something of Angel in him or her?

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