Angel Deverell is one of the most infuriating characters I have come across in literature in a really long time. She is intensely disagreeable (see scene where her dog Czar meets a small fox terrier), and I at times relished disliking her as I was reading. Ultimately though, I found that despite being such a prickly person, it was hard not to feel some amount of sympathy for her. Misunderstood? Misguided? Probably yes on both counts, but very very complex and human. Such are the abilities of author Elizabeth Taylor to create such a humorless woman that the reader can't help but be curious about.
And Angel really is without humor. She inhabits the worlds, at least in her mind, that she will come to write about so successfully. Born at the end of Queen Victoria's reign, Angel is the daughter of shopowners. Her maiden aunt is a lady's maid and might just be able to get Angel a position in the Great House where she works, but Angel has other ideas. Named after the daughter of this landed family, Angel fantasizes about Paradise House. She embroiders stories about her life there that she passes off as real to her school friends. And when at fifteen she sits down to write out her daydreams, she discovers she has a knack for it. She leaves off school altogether and pushes aside any plans or hopes her mother and aunt might have had for her. Plans she disdains as she knows she is destined for greater things.
The thing is, greater things do come her way. Angel is nothing if not tenacious and when Oxford University Press, the only publisher she knows of, turns her down for publication, she doesn't give up. A small publisher's interest is piqued when she sends them her manuscript for The Lady Irania. They expect the author to be an "old lady romanticizing behind lace curtains", but get Angel instead.
"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 favorite party-piece and he mocked his partner's defense 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 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."
"So will other women."
"I should hope more reverently."
Angel's books are truly awful, at best potboilers, sprung fully developed from her vivid, if wildly incorrect imagination. She does no research basing her stories on what she thinks life might have been like in another time in another place. And when later in life she does get to visit the places she has written about, she's absurdly disappointed. Nothing lives up to her expectations, her imagination. Her books, though are a great success and immensely popular.
So. Angel. She is completely narcissistic, arrogant, self-absorbed, unable to empathize with those around her. She doesn't get subtle jokes and isn't able to laugh at herself. She writes but she doesn't read books. Oh, the thought. She is a prickly pear, but I knew that surely she must have a soft spot somewhere inside. I think what it comes down to is she wants to be be loved and understood (though I'm not sure I entirely ever figured her out). She's haughty and doesn't try to understand anyone else. However she does love animals (despite that fox terrier scene). The best moments are those when she lets the veil down ever so slightly and her husband or publisher sees a side of her that they (and the reader) wishes were the true Angel, or at least the Angel that she would allow the world to see.
The critics excoriate her, but her readers adore her. She wants to live her own life and she does. She gets everything she desires and becomes rich and reasonably successful in the process. The novel follows her life's trajectory from humble beginnings to the arc of success, but as the times change and the war comes she isn't able to change as well. Her books, as outlandish and risqué as they once were, become dated and no longer read by the younger generation. Angel always carries on.
The story is a bit like Cinderella's. When the ball is over and midnight chimes the magic vanishes. Towards the end Angel's life is pitiable, yet she still lives in a pleasing fantasy not seeing the world crumble around her. I wonder if she ever quite grasps the reality of her life? And when she does get a glimpse, it is too painful and she is only too happy to have someone else gloss over the messy parts. Do I care for her at the end finally? I'm still not entirely sure. She is a very provoking character. The last sentence, though, was heart wrenching.