Elizabeth Taylor: Angel (1957)


Angel was my fifth Elizabeth Taylor novel and it was nothing like the ones I’ve read before. It’s almost entirely a character portrait, covering one person’s life from her teenage years to her death. I can’t remember many other of her novels spanning so many years, with the exception of A Game of Hide and Seek, but even that stops before middle age, as far as I remember.

The novel starts with an éclat. Fifteen-year-old Angel is caught lying. She’s been telling two small girls of her glamorous life at Paradise House. In reality, she and her mother live in a crammed apartment above her mother’s shop and Paradise House is the place where her aunt, a lady’s maid, works. When her mother finds out about her lies, she’s so angry that she slaps her. Not something Angel’s likely to forgive. Since she was a child, Angel fantasizes about the house and thinks that she should be living there and not the other Angel, the daughter of her aunt’s mistress.

This early scene tells us a lot about Angel. Not only is she unhappy about her circumstances but she imagines a better life for herself, feeling that she’s entitled to it. Since she’s got such a rampant imagination, she thinks the best revenge is to do something with it and she begins to write a novel. Her mother and her aunt are horrified. Writing? What and idea! But Angel doesn’t care. No matter the cost, she will become a famous author. This is another of her traits – she is determined and when she’s determined she doesn’t stop until she gets what she wants. All this wouldn’t be so bad but Angel is also deluded. She thinks that she’s a great writer although what she produces is pure schlock. She loves to imagine things but she never does any research. She’s also quite ignorant. People in her books open champagne bottles with a corkscrew. Her books are not only risqué but full of inconsistencies, melodrama and bad taste. At first her novel is rejected but then she finds a publishing house that is willing to give it a go. The two publishers are so amused by her writing that they can’t let it pass, thinking that the public might enjoy it for its raunchy scenes and wild spinning of tales. And they are right. Angel’s novels are a major success, making her not only famous but very rich.

Unfortunately, and this is the true tragedy, she doesn’t know that her books are loved in spite of being bad and not because they are, as she believes, masterpieces.

It wouldn’t be an Elizabeth Taylor novel if it wasn’t astute, witty, and wonderfully well-observed. Not only Angel’s mother, but also her aunt, the publishers, the servants, her friend Nora, and Nora’s brother Esmé, are all fully rounded characters.

Obviously, delusions like Angel’s cannot last a life time. While the book is funny and often hilarious in the beginning, the tone and mood get darker and very melancholic in the end.

I thought that Angel was grotesque in many ways but she had endearing qualities. She discovers vegetarianism and a deep love for animals. The big house in which she lives swarms with cats and there are many wonderful scenes. Elizabeth Taylor must have had cats because so many details are so well captured.

Angel’s a lonely figure but she has some relationships. With her live-in friend Nora, her gardener, and others. While they are all exasperated, they stay with her. Not only because of her money, although that’s part of it, but because she’s so genuine. She may be deluded, she may be flawed, but she’s true to herself. Always and at any cost.

I was wondering the whole time while reading this book where the inspiration for this novel came from. Hilary Mantel, who wrote the introduction, thinks that in writing this book Elizabeth Taylor showed how bad writers can make money while good ones, like Taylor herself, are never fully recognized during their life time. But that’s not all, according to Mantel, it’s also a very astute depiction of the life of a writer. I’m not entirely satisfied with these explanations. I think she must have met someone like Angel. When I started reading the book, I found Angel unrealistic, but then I remembered a woman I once worked with who was almost exactly like Angel.

Angel is very different from the other Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read so far but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t as good. It’s an amazing book. It’s funny, clever, and so well-observed. I read so many novels that I forget within a month or two, but I’m not likely to forget Angel and its fascinating eponymous character.

Here are my other Elizabeth Taylor reviews, should you be interested. They aren’t in any particular order.

At Mrs Lippincote’s

A Game of Hide and Seek

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont


50 thoughts on “Elizabeth Taylor: Angel (1957)

  1. You’re right – it is different from many of the Taylors. though I think she’s a more varied author than she’s given credit for. I read somewhere (I can’t recall where) that she based Angel on the author Marie Corelli – who knows?

    • It is, right? I also think she’s more varied than one would assume at first. Of course it has a lot of typical Elizabeth Taylor elements but it is different. Interesting to know about Marie Corelli. It’s such an extreme portrait, it felt like a caricature of someone.

  2. Really interesting to see how this differs from some of the other Elizabeth Taylors you’ve read. I get the impression it’s more penetrating (possibly more unforgiving?) in terms of its insight into the central character. It does sound excellent, as do all of her books – I doubt she ever wrote a bad one. Great review as always, Caroline.

    • Thank you Jacqui. Yes, you’re very right. It is totally forgiving. But not only of Angel. Some of the other characters, especially Esme who reminded me a bit of Maupassant’s Bel-Ami.
      I didn’t mention it but it’s a nice contrast that he’s an artist and a very good one at that but not successful. Angel gas also something if Miss Havisham.
      I’d love to hear what you think of it.

      • I’ll definitely read it at some point as it’s in the heap. Apologies, I made a mess of my previous comment as I was typing on my phone. I had intended to say that Angel sounds less forgiving in its portrayal of the central character than some of her others. I’m rather curious to see what I make of it. 🙂

        • Im on my iPad and struggle as well. It makes dreadful corrections smarties and messes up comments. But I got what you meant. I’m really curious how you’ll like this. I might read one per month from now on.

  3. Wonderful review, Caroline! Love the fact that Angel is an imperfect character but she is also genuine and loves her friends and her cats. I would love to meet her. I learn new words from you everyday 🙂 Today’s new word is éclat. I thought that Esmé is a girl’s name. I didn’t know that it could be a boy’s name too. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thank you, Vishy.
      I was so confused because of the name Esme. Like you I thought it was a woman’s name.
      Maybe I made Angel sound a bit more positive than she is. She doesn’t really care for anyone else but herself but she’s a strong character which I like. And the cat scenes are lovely.

      • Interesting to know that you also had the confusion about Esmé. I will look forward to reading this book, atleast for the cat scenes 🙂

        • Let me know what you think of it.
          She also gas dogs or rather one dog and many cats.
          There are names who change their use over time. Like Ashley or Tyler. It’s always weird to come across a change like that.

    • It is interesting that Angel is based on Marie Corelli. The novel writing part of it definitely fits. I love Marie Corelli. She wrote wonderful engaging stories. She was THE bestselling writer of her era. It is said that her books outsold those of her famous contemporaries like Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and H.G.Wells put together! She was derided by critics, of course, and her works have fallen out of favour now. I was lucky to get my hands on a few.

  4. I’ve always had the impression that this one is her best known (overseas, anyway). It was also, however, the first of hers which I read, so it holds a position of prominence for me personally on that score too. My notebook was stuffed with passages that I just loved in this one, about her writing and her impressions of the world, and I would love to reread it (but am also pulled towards other books of hers too, as I’ve never read one that I didn’t enjoy to some degree)!

    • I thought it was Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont but since this was made into a movie as well, it’s quite possible, as you say, that one is better know in the UK, the other overseas. I had tons of quotes but they were so long, I couldn’t include them. The end is amazing. It was so vivid I could reall see the decay of the house.
      I still haven’t read a few that many seem to love and really look forward to them.
      My first was Blaming but it’s not my favourite. If Angel had benn my first I might feel like you. I still love Mrs Palfrey and a Game of Hide and Seek the most.

  5. Having read five of Taylor’s novels now I think you’re right when you say she is more varied than she is sometimes given credit for. Angel is a wonderful character who elicits conflicting emotions from the reader!

    • She’s certainly proof that a character doesn’t need to be traditionally likable. I really appreciate that Elizabeth Taylor’s characters are so nuanced. Angel is extreme but she’s not still complex. It’s interesting that Elizabeth Taylor never tries to explain why Angel is the way she is. She paints her like a rebel.

  6. I have to agree that this is not typical of Elizabeth Taylor. This was the first of her books I read, many years ago, and I was thrown when I picked up another of her books. For years I thought she wasn’t my kind of author, but luckily I tried her again some years later and found that she was.

    • I’m glad you enjoy her other novels too now. I can really see how this would throw you when it’s the first you read. The tone and humor are so different. It actually reminded me a bit of Beryl Bainbridge’s novels.

  7. Oh, this sounds like a good read, Caroline. I loved Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont too. What a shame that Taylor hasn’t received more acclaim. I’m so glad you’ve brought her to our attention. I intend to read all of her books one day.

    • I’m so glad to hear that. Yes, it’s sad she didn’t and still doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.
      It’s a great read. Very different but well worth reading. I intend to read all of her novels too.
      I still have a few to pick up that others loved the most.

  8. I have not read her books but I sure hear a lot about them. I know someone who is very much like your character sounds. She drives me to distraction…truly, but she stays in my life because she is very likeable, at times, deep down. Sounds an interesting and fun read.

    • I can see how a character lie this can still be endearing, to some extent.
      If you’ve never read anything by her, this isn’t a bad start although it’s not typical. Mrs Plafrey at the Claremont would be great too. I think you’d enjoy her.

  9. Well, I’ve only read one (Mrs Palfrey) and it certainly doesn’t sound like that. It does sound good though. I have my next Taylor selected (At Mrs Lippincote’s) and probably want as you did to get more familiar with her norm before trying her departures. Still, interesting and a nice review too.

    • Thanks, Max. I’m glad it wasn’t my first or second. Although I liked it, I liked others more. At Mrs Lipincote’s was the one I read before Angel. It’s excellent. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on it.

  10. Agree it’s very different from her others. I enjoyed it, but think I was expecting something different. It is funny, but there’s something about Angel that shades more to the monstrous and even pathetic. This one would be ripe for a re-read.

    A View of the Harbour is my next planned Taylor.

    • Angel is almost a caricature. She certainly over the top. I’m curious to see how she’ll come across in the movie. I’ve heard only good things about A View from the Harbour. I’ll be reading that soon as well.

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