Angel - Hilary Mantel, Elizabeth Taylor

In A Room of One's Own (1928), Virginia Woolf described the emerging woman writer of the 20th century as theoretically confined to writing in her drawing-room - sometimes secretively, hampered literarily by patriarchy and hindered creatively by her inexperience of the world.

Elizabeth Taylor( 1912-1975), whose own literary work had been influenced by Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and E.M.Forster, would model a version of the 20th century woman writer with her offbeat protagonist Angelica Deverell -Angel. Circa 1900, Angel would write her first romantic novel in the privacy of her bedroom, march off alone to London ( without the prerequisite five hundred pounds a year), refuse outrightly to make any manuscript alterations, disregarding the advice of Gilbright & Brace, to become published by the young age of sixteen years.

Her melodramatic, flamboyant romance novels, set amongst the high society of dukes and duchesses, are deemed laughable by the critics, yet become successful - widely read albeit by the lower -middle classes for whom Angel shows disdain and disrespect: the same class of her origins which she subconsciously pushes aside, too full of pride to acknowledge. Angel is an absurd, ridiculous and badly talented version of Jane Austen- the antithesis really of Virginia Woolf's vision of the 20th century woman writer.


Her vanity had been stunned by the way in which her book had been received. No trumpets have been thrusting out from behind clouds, proclaiming 'genius' and 'masterpiece'. For a long time nothing at all had happened, and then, slowly, the abuse and sarcasm had begun. The very passages of which she had been most proud, had been printed as if they were richly humorous; her dialogue, her syntax, her view of life, her descriptions of society were all seen to be part of some new and quite delicious joke.(69)


She possesses a grandiose (perhaps delusional) imagination wrapped around an even grander ego; a humorless nature, a complete lack of self-awareness, frequent occasions for prejudiced points of view and an assertive, demanding, imposing will. Her career rockets, she becomes rich and famous; but between the changes that two wars bring and her incapacity to change with it, Angel eventually falls embarrassingly out of popularity from her once-loyal readership.


The book insert for Angel describes her as a 'monster'; her publisher Theo also ruminates: Once he saw a large cactus-plant in a flower shop window..It looked solitary and incongruous, a freakish accident; and he was reminded of Angel. (77)   I tend to see her in a more sympathetic light.


Angel is class- conscious because of her poor beginnings: since adolescence, she had longed for the elevation of social prestige. Above all, she desires love much like the stuff of her novels. Isolated in her own made-up "reality", Angel actually believes she has found these things in the success of her books, her extravagant purchases and garish lifestyle; in her marriage to the good -for -nothing, femininely featured Esmé, and even in her androgynously featured sister-in-law, Nora, whom Esmé alludes to be devotedly in love with her.


She turned her back to him, examining the cactus plant again, afraid for herself lest the house, just like another childish toy, was to be the sum of her good luck.


"I comfort myself with material things," she said in a muffled voice, her long fingers pressed to her brow, covering her eyes. He knew then that she was about to risk everything and see what he himself would now have no need to say.


"What other things do you want?" he asked gently.


" Love." The word came with such a gasp that the St . Bernard for the first time looked surprised.(150)


With glimpses here and there of a vulnerability veiled in the stiffness of an attitude sometimes misread, Angel seems a pitiable character rather than a pathetic, unlikable one.  Towards the end, like her few friends, the reader feels sad for the woman writer as if she were a character from a Shakespearian tragedy.


Arrogant and absurd she had been and had remained: she had warded off friendship and stayed lonely and made such fortifications within her own mind that the truth could not pierce it. At the slightest air of censure in the world about her, up had gone the barricades, the strenuous resistance begun by which she was preserved in her own imagination, beautiful, clever, successful and beloved.(226)


Virginia Woolf fans who have read her feminine discourse A Room of One's Own might note Woolf's female paradigm incandescently recreated and molded here by Elizabeth Taylor - a new favorite woman writer for me.


Angel is a loosely historical novel in that it is based on the career of best selling author Marie Corelli.
I was so intrigued by Angel that I'm sure I will be digging up some of Marie Corelli's novels -I think I'm in for some light reading and a chuckle.