Angel in Distress

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How are the new year’s resolutions working out? I guess I should confess to having already broken mine. I was transfixed by Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel – I couldn’t look away! – and so it’s technically not my fault.

I recommended Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and this is just as good – better, I’d say – but a very different book.

For starters, you don’t know whether to laugh at or weep for Angelica Deverell, who’s so much the center of this novel, I promise she’ll redefine your notion of self-centeredness.

The year is 1900 and Angel (irony intended, I assure you) is 15 and the unhappy student at a private school, the fees for which Angel’s widowed mother labors impossibly long hours to meet.

Angel’s milieu is English working class, and imperious and discontent, she rejects it totally. Instead of applying herself to her studies, gaining a skill, or god forbid, helping her mother, Angel spends her days weaving elaborate fantasies. The more she daydreams, the more intolerable life on Volunteer Street becomes.

To her mother’s horror, Angel quits her coveted place at school to write a novel. As laughable as this may seem (and after a bit of flailing) she makes a success of it. But even her publisher and reading public aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. The style is high-flown, the plot preposterously romantic, and manners iffy. In short, it’s delusion. But there’s always a market for that.

You get a good taste of what Angel is like from the novel’s first few paragraphs:

“‘into the vast vacuity of the empyrean,'” Miss Dawson read. “And can you tell me what ’empyrean’ means?”
“It means,” Angel said. Her tongue moistened her lips. She glanced out of the classroom window at the sky beyond the bare trees. “It means ‘the highest heavens’.”
“Yes, the sky,” Miss Dawson said suspiciously. She handed the exercise book to Angel, feeling baffled. The girl had a great reputation as a liar and when this strange essay had been handed in – “A Storm at Sea” – Miss Dawson had gone through it in a state of alarm, fearful lest she had read it before or ought to have read it before.

The funny thing about this book is that I couldn’t help feeling sympathy and a disconcerting respect for Angel, as hateful and as arrogant as she is sometimes portrayed. Angel bullies her mother, scoffs at her aunt (who could step straight out of an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs) but at the same time harbors an endearing tenderness for animals of any sort. (The string of pets in Angel’s life make great characters, too, from Sultan to Silky Boy.) Her husband is unfaithful; her publishers and critics fear and mock her. Yet she is always reaching for something more – the vast empyrean. She’s at once distasteful and wholly pathetic.

As the arc of this novel follows Angel through her life, you see her infinite capacity for both determination and delusion. Taylor is such a keen observer of the tragicomic in life and this is writ large in the character of Angel.

Happy reading,
Elizabeth Frengel

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