Thursday, August 11, 2011

Denial as an art (Books - Angel by Elizabeth Taylor)

I have heard about author Elizabeth Taylor from fellow readers for years now, but Angel is the first novel of her's I have read. Wow - what a smashing, hilarious, disturbed creation. Angel Deverell is fifteen when the story begins. Living in a drab English brewery town over a shop in Volunteer Street, she is the daughter of a widowed shopkeeper, who spends what little she has to send Angel to school. There, Angel writes an essay which her teacher considers vulgarly over-written and therefore, it is assumed, she could only have plagiarized it. It happens that telling romantic, overly ornate tales is Angel's talent. It wins her her only friends in school and provides an antidote to a life of poverty that promises the hope of only modest opportunities - in a secretarial position, or as the maid in a house of means, like her aunt who worked at Paradise House, serving The Lady and her daughter, also named Angelica.
Lax and torpid, 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 - beyond anything her aunt had ever suggested. 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; and there were portraits in the Municipal Art Gallery which would do; as would the cedar trees at school. As the house spread, those in it grew more shadowy. Angel herself took over Madam's jewel-box and Madam's bed and husband. Only that other Angelica balked her imagination, a maddening obstacle, with her fair looks and all her dogs and horses. Again and again, as Angel wandered in the galleries and gardens, the vision of that girl, who had no place in her dreams, rose up and impeded her. The dream itself, which was no idle matter, but a severe strain on her powers of concentration, would dissolve. Then she would open her eyes and stare down at her hands, spreading her fingers, turning her wrists.
At other times she was menaced by intimations of the truth. Her heart would be alarmed, as if by a sudden roll of drums, and she would spring to her feet, beset by the reality of the room, her own face - not beautiful, she saw - in the looking-glass and the commonplace sounds in the shop below. She would know then that she was in her own setting and had no reason for ever finding herself elsewhere; know moreover that she was bereft of the power to rescue herself, the brains or the beauty by which other young women made their escape. Her panic-stricken face would be reflected back at her as she struggled 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.
However, telling fantastic tales creates nothing but trouble. Embittered by the demand that she adhere to the British,middle-class mantra - to know one's place - Angel she vows revenge on her nay-sayers by becoming a published author. And Gilbright & Brace become her ticket to a wildly successful career as a writer.
Gilbright & Brace had been divided, as their readers' reports had been. Willie Brace had worn his guts thin with laughing, he said. The Lady Irania was his favourite party-piece and he mocked at his partner's defence of it in his own version of Angel's language.

"Kindly raise your coruscating beard from those iridescent pages of shimmering tosh and permit your mordant thoughts to dwell for one mordant moment on us perishing in the coruscating workhouse, which is where we shall without a doubt find ourselves, among the so-called denizens of deep-fraught penury. Ask yourself - nay, go so far as to enquire of yourself - how do we stand by such brilliant balderdash and live, nay, not only live, but exist to..."

"You overdo these'nays'," said Theo Gilbright. "She does not."

"There's a 'nay' on every page. M'wife counted them. She took the even pages, I the odd. We were to pay a shilling to the other for each of our pages where there wasn't one, and not a piece of silver changed hands from first to last."

"So Elspeth read it, too?"

"Read it? She devoured and gobbled every iridescent word."
There always has been a reading audience for ridiculous romance with little basis in truth. Look at 'reality TV.' The trouble is, while Gilbert & Brace are ready to milk a joke for all its worth, Angel fails to see any humor in either her writing or her success.

Angel is a brilliant study in self-deception. It is wickedly satiric, and a wonderful psychological study of someone who escapes from the pain of the world with fantasy so successfully that she sees no reason to ever leave her hiding place. On the flip-side, however, Angel is also what happens when education amounts to nothing more than learning the minimal skills necessary to make one's living, rather than opening up the student to the possibilities the world has to offer. The adults in Angel's world were all bashed down to size by their circumstances, so they think it practical to curtail their children's dreams to protect them from disappointment. People will always dream. Repression of those dreams is a pity, but complete indulgence is equally disastrous. Angel is what happens when those extremes are all that is offered.


Barbara said...

Another of those "Great British Writers" I've been meaning to try....thanks for the review.

Ted said...

Babara, my pleasure. I was so glad to finally discover her.