Elizabeth Taylor (born in 1912 in Reading; died in 1975 in Penn) was overlooked as a writer for a long while, even in Great Britain. Too much a stranger to London and its literary circles, she appeared too modest and looked after her husband and children too meekly without ever – in Virginia Woolf’s words – claiming a ‘room of her own’. Her family were hardly aware that she wrote wonderfully poetic novels and short stories. In the US, she had important supporters on her side, including William Maxwell who published several of Taylor’s short stories as editor of the “New Yorker”.
Thanks to Dörlemann Verlag in Zurich, Taylor’s eminent place in 20th century European literature is also gradually being acknowledged here. The follow-up publication, after the masterful A View of the Harbour and A Game of Hide and Seek, is Taylor’s Angel, the third novel in German in a wonderful translation by Bettina Abarbanell and with an engaging afterword by Gabriele von Arnim.
Angel, first published in 1957, is the eye-catcher among Taylor’s works. For the first time, the writer worked with historic material. At least at first glance, it seems that Taylor strongly differentiated her protagonist Angel(ica) Deverell from her autobiography. Angel is an artist’s novel about a writer who was born in 1885. She rises to fame as a celebrated bestselling author with terribly pretentious, kitschy stories. She feels insulted to be spurned by the critics and – as her fame fades – she gets even with her ungrateful audience and stops writing.
Angel grows up as the daughter of a grocer in the small town of Norley. After an argument, she refuses to keep going to school and begins to broaden her vivid imagination. Inspired by a nearby country manor, Paradise House, she starts writing rapturous romantic and sentimental novels that have nothing to do with her humble background. A London publisher realizes that he has struck gold with Angel, although he is aware of the literary banality of her texts. In no time at all, he makes her a rich woman.
Elizabeth Taylor based her sketch of Angel’s life on two acclaimed turn-of-the-century writers – Marie Corelli (1855–1924) and Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860–1939). Angel becomes the model of an obsessive, unsympathetic woman who wants to prove something to her narrow-minded milieu. She relocates with her mother (who is not happy about this) to an elegant part of town, and although in real life she knows nothing about love and sex, she marries the unsuccessful, promiscuous painter Esmé. As the centrepiece of her biography, she purchases Paradise House, which has meanwhile fallen into disrepair. Ultimately, her lack of literary success makes her such an outspoken campaigner for vegetarianism that her husband secretly resorts to hunting ducks.
Taylor’s novel mirrors lifelong blindness. For Angel, who exploits her close family and friends, “experience” is a “prop for the fantasy”, and when she writes “about nature” she regards a walk “outdoors” as a pointless waste of time. With impressive clarity, Taylor conjures up everyday scenes about an obsessive writer, who lacks any role models other than Shakespeare and despises the world almost without exception. Above all, however, Angel is a very funny book whose tragic underlying elements are concealed with fantastically absurd episodes. When Angel is no longer able to save Paradise House from collapse, serving her guests mouldy apple sauce as a last resort and building a tasteless monument for her dead husband that remains unfinished due to lack of funds, we again experience the novelist Elizabeth Taylor ‘at her best’.
By Rainer Moritz
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
Elizabeth Taylor: Angel. Novel. Translated from English by Bettina Abarbanell. Dörlemann, Zurich 2018. 398 pages.