One of my favorite books is Angel by author Elizabeth Taylor. I was first introduced to the novel because I had seen the movie, and loved it. I quickly purchased the book. Angelica “Angel” Deverell is a fifteen-year-old girl living with her poor mother above their shop. She frequently invents stories about herself, her favorite of which is that her mother was disinherited by her rich family when she married beneath her, and that Angel herself is a wealthy heiress. Angel has a vivid imagination and an arrogant disposition. She also has a gift for writing–overblown, purple-prose, bad-romance-novel kind of writing which she uses to escape her poverty.
Angel writes a romance novel called The Lady Irania and becomes an overnight sensation, a wunderkind. Fanciful and proud, Angel believes herself to be the most talented writer to ever have lived, and lives her life like a queen. But her novels are fluff; they’re on the bestseller list one day and forgotten the next. Throughout, she refuses to acknowledge reality and keeps inventing stories about herself, until they become reality to her.
Joining Angel are a cast of lively, complex characters either besotted with her, amused by her antics, or those completely absorbed with hatred for her. The novel is Austen-esque in the way it deals with the subtle nuances of people’s personalities and their flaws. It also has the same kind of quiet, dry humor that makes reading Austen such fun.
Taylor has little to no sympathy for Angel in the novel. Her tone is biting and sarcastic, and she makes it clear that she is indicting all bad-romance novelists for believing their work is timeless and meaningful. Taylor presents for contrast the artist Esme Howe-Nevinson, a struggling artist whose works are not popular and would not be popular for generations after. The dichotomy of Esme’s underappreciated work and Angel’s fast fad literature calls to mind our own time, with the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey topping the bestseller lists over intellectual literary fiction. Nothing has changed.
Angel reminds us of the undeniable power of timeless literature that transcends social and cultural boundaries to deliver truths from ages past. One thinks of the classics, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, but also of the books published in our own time that will doubtless become the literature our grandchildren will read.
Now as for the movie. I cannot possibly be unbiased about the movie. I simply love it. I stumbled upon the movie over four years ago when I was stuck home and looking for something to watch. I read the description of the movie from the On Demand menu and chose it at random. I think the description was something like, “The rise and fall of a young eccentric British writer, in the early 20th century.” I read that and thought, “British writer? Early 20th century? Yeah I’ll watch that.” When it began I saw Romola Garai on screen and literally cheered. She’s one of my favorite actresses and has played some of my favorite literary characters. Really–it’s uncanny.
Garai’s Angel is a complex mix of arrogance, vulnerability, naiveté, and a certain measure of cruelty. The cruelty stems from the fact that she alters reality around her to suit her fanciful visions of herself, and the people closest to her become casualties. To put it simply, she has enormous delusions of grandeur and lies to make herself seem important. Most interestingly though, she cannot tell the difference between lying about herself and telling stories. Eventually, she believes her own lies and the truth ceases to exist at all.
I think the Angel in the movie is much more sympathetic than the Angel in the novel. Yes, she’s utterly frustrating in the way a thirteen-year-old girl’s Facebook statuses about her two-week relationship are frustrating, but you can’t help but feel sorry for her. All she wanted was to be special, and when she got it, she had to hold onto it no matter what. And there’s something to be said about an imagination so powerful it can literally change one’s past.
When I finished the movie, I could not stop thinking about it. It’s a story that burrows into your heart because it triggers some emotion inside you. I saw myself in Angel, in the way I love stories and in my ambition to be a writer. But she is, more than anything else, a warning. You’re not supposed to want to be her. You’re supposed to pity her, and try to avoid her many mistakes.
Plus, Michael Fassbender is in it. Happy and sad things happen. It’s on Netflix Instant. You should watch it.
Francois Ozon’s direction and set design are entrancing. He uses cheesy green-screen backdrops to illustrate how dramatic and removed from reality Angel is, and the effect is just ridiculous in a great way. It’s much more complex than it seems at first watch.
Angel is a novel meant for writers. And it’s a novel meant for dreamers. I don’t mean either of those things as good, however. Above all, Angel is a cautionary tale meant for those with big egos who choose to live their lives outside of reality. Through Angel, Taylor reminds us to keep our feet on the ground and stay self-aware.
Taylor, E. (1957) Angel. United Kingdom: Virago Press