Writers are monsters: Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel. First published 1957; my edition: Virago Modern Classics, 2013.

‘Writers are monsters’, Hilary Mantel concludes in her introduction to this VMC edition. The gloriously inappropriately named protagonist of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel is a bestselling writer (born in 1885) of terrible romantic fiction. She’s the antithesis of her creator: Taylor writes her meticulously acute observation of ordinary lives, usually in unexciting suburban bourgeois settings, able through her sensitive writer’s antennae to pick up the tiniest signals of emotion and strangeness; her style is crisp, clear, restrained. Angel writes outrageously romantic, borderline salacious period melodramas with two-dimensional characters, dredged up from the shallow pool of her limited sensibility in luridly clichéd, overwritten prose. She’s opinionated and ignorant, and hates books and reading almost as much as she dislikes real people and life:

She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her…

When asked by her publisher when they first meet what authors she’s read and liked, she’s at a loss:

“I quite liked Shakespeare,” she admitted. “Except when he is trying to be funny.”

Angel escapes from and triumphs over reality in her daydreams; ‘she was menaced by intimations of the truth’. Henry James aspired to write ‘the real thing’; Angel

had removed herself, romantically, from the evidence of her senses: the reality of what she could learn by touching, tasting, was banished as a trivial annoyance, scored out as irrelevant.

These adolescent fantasies develop into her badly written stories as antidote to her drab, squalid life above a grocer’s shop in a dismal slum in a bleak industrial city.

It’s a novel that’s as bitter about the dreadful taste of a reading public that makes Angel a fortune from her scribbling as it is about the awful, exposed solitude of the writer’s life.

Elizabeth Taylor, cover of 'Angel'Perhaps that sounds a bit grim – but it’s a very funny, beautifully written book. From the opening words, when we’re treated to the only direct quotation in the novel of Angel’s execrable, purple prose style – an extract from a story written for her teacher (though it’s a style imitated viciously by one of her subsequent publishers) – it’s clear that Taylor has created a deliciously outrageous monster.

There are telling glimpses of the mediocrity of the adults around her that inspire Angel’s venomous animosity from the outset, such as that dull, narrow-minded teacher at a pretentious but useless private school:

She doesn’t believe I wrote it, she thought, glancing with contempt at the flustered little woman with the slipping pince-nez and bird’s-nest hair. Who does she think wrote it if I didn’t? Who does she think could? What a way to spend your life – fussing about with school lessons, getting chalk all over your skirt, going home to lodgings at night to work out the next day’s Shakespeare – cut to page this, line that, so that we don’t have to read the word ‘womb’.

The narrative voice has the wit, insight and sharp eye for detail that is all Taylor; Angel would never be capable of that selective kind of descriptive detail. But it’s a voice that also accurately expresses the viciousness and arrogance of the schoolgirl who so despises this harmless, commonplace teacher. It foreshadows the sheer nastiness, narcissism and intolerant cruelty that Angel displays throughout her life whenever someone criticises her work (which is clearly terrible), or has the temerity to challenge her fiery, rude and obstinate behaviour.

It’s perhaps this aspect of the novel that’s so brilliant. Anyone who’s ever aspired to write has to deal with the conflicting emotions brought about by the critical comments of those who read their work.  Angel has such a wilfully inflated, delusional view of her own brilliance that she’s incapable of accepting criticism gracefully, or of learning from it. She believes she’s perfect, so improvement is a logical impossibility in her view.

Maybe there’s something in this mixture of ‘great vanity’ and self-belief that all aspiring writers experience, but rarely admit to.

Here’s a typically astute piece of humour that also serves to draw attention to the egregious lack of self-awareness in Angel’s character; she receives fanmail, but also letters from clergymen complaining that she’s corrupting the morals of the young:

…these letters gave her a sense of power and she enjoyed reading them…she did not write for children. Letters which merely made carping criticisms, about flowers coming out in the wrong season, Orion appearing in the night sky in August, or some confusions with Greek deities, she put down as the work of literary critics, a part of their general scheme against her.

Typical of Angel, to make the expression ‘literary critics’ into an expletive (as ‘do-gooders’ or ‘anti-fascists’ are for extreme right-wingers). And notice that it’s ‘confusions’ and ‘deities’, plural! That hint of paranoia, too. Wonderful.

Then she picks up another reader’s letter:

“Dear Madam,” she read, “Since you can only describe what you write of from your own experiences, we must deduce from this fact that you are nothing but a common whore. Please keep your excesses to yourself and spare yours in disgust, Lover of Literature.”

When her husband roared with laughter on reading this, Angel ‘looked at him in amazement which changed to cold disdain.’ She can’t understand why he finds it – and her – hilarious, and then she feels sickened and angry; ‘he must be mad’, she concludes. The London EC4 postmark ‘meant nothing to her’; her vanity exceeds her boundless ignorance, for it is, of course, that of Fleet Street and the heart of English publishing.

I wrote in February about Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories and about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

The wolf and the lamb: a fable for our times

I was going to post about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel, which I recently finished reading, but was diverted by an entry in an old notebook of mine about this fable of the wolf and the lamb. It resonates even more today, given recent events in the world.

Three fables of Aesop in the Bayeux tapestry By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three fables of Aesop in the Bayeux tapestry By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The wolf and the lamb is the last one

The beast fables of Aesop (620-c 560 BCE), themselves often derived from more ancient oriental sources such as the Buddhist Dipi Jatakas, were adapted by the Roman poet Phaedrus (15 BCE-50). The text that follows is from a prose translation by H.T. Riley, published in London, 1887, available at Project Gutenberg; I’ve made minor adjustments in line with the original Latin text.

THE WOLF AND THE LAMB.

Driven by thirst, a Wolf and a Lamb had come to the same stream; the Wolf stood above, and the Lamb at a distance below. Then, the villain (thief or brigand, lit.), prompted by hunger (or ‘wicked throat’), trumped up a pretext for a quarrel. “Why,” said he, “have you made the water muddy for me while I am drinking?” The wool-bearer, trembling, answered: “Please, Wolf, how can I do what you complain of? The water is flowing downwards from you to where I am drinking.” The other, disconcerted by the force of truth, exclaimed: “Six months ago, you slandered me.” “Indeed,” answered the Lamb, “I was not born then.” “By Hercules,” said the Wolf, “then ’twas your father slandered me;” and so, snatching him up, he tore him to pieces, killing him unjustly.

This Fable is applicable to those men who, under false pretences, oppress the innocent.

More pertinent is the alternative version by Christopher Smart (1722-71), which ends :

Abash’d by facts, says he, “I know

’Tis now exact six months ago

You strove my honest fame to blot”—

“Six months ago, sir, I was not.”

“Then ’twas th’ old ram thy sire,” he cried,

And so he tore him, till he died.

To those this fable I address

Who are determined to oppress,

And trump up any false pretence,

But they will injure innocence

By Jean-Baptiste Oudry - artsy.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48311782

By Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1686-1755 – artsy.net, Public Domain

The fable was adapted many times subsequently; La Fontaine (published 1668-94) of course, but also by the Scots makar, Robert Henryson (fl. 1460-1500). Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his version (adapted slightly):

It’s about widespread social breakdown. The Lamb appeals to natural law, to Scripture, and to statutory law, and is answered by the Wolf with perversions of all these. Then Henryson in his own person comments that there are three kinds of contemporary wolves who oppress the poor: dishonest lawyers; real estate tycoons intent on extending their estates; and landowners who exploit their tenants.

To this could be added, in our day, the power-crazed in all walks of life, including politics.

I shall be going on holiday soon, so may not post much for a while; meantime I hope to post the Angel piece before I go.