THERE IS A LENGTHY list of great mid-century British women novelists whose books tend to go in and out of print in the United States, sometimes available, lots of times not, as I have noticed with chagrin twice yearly when I order books for courses. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sybille Bedford, Olivia Manning, and Molly Keane come to mind, for instance. Thanks to NYRB Classics, we are currently in a window of time when you can actually buy new copies of the books of several of the novelists on that list, as well as a couple by Elizabeth Taylor, a name previously unknown to me. Since to be published by NYRB classics is recommendation enough for me (and since the infallible Hilary Mantel wrote an introduction), I anted up.
Angel is the story of a truly awful child who in due course becomes a truly awful young woman and then a truly awful adult, but one who from childhood has the knack of spinning wish-fulfillment fantasies that resonate with a broad range of listeners/readers. Her education is spotty, her background humble (her mom keeps a small village shop), her default mode cluelessness (since Oxford University Press publishes the Brontës and Thomas Hardy, she sends them her first novel, The Lady Irania), but her novels have the secret ingredient that separates Gone with the Wind or The Fountainhead from the great horde of near-misses. A publisher detects the magical scent, and puts out The Lady Irania; the critics sneer, but the public devours, and Angel is suddenly famous and wealthy.
Famous and wealthy, but also narcissistic, ungrateful, and ever and always clueless. She marries a handsome failed painter and sets up for him a studio in which he never paints, acquires and takes shameless advantage of a loyal and selfless factotum who sincerely believes Angel is a genius, purchases the house she longed for when she was a girl, but never, ever gets a clue. She has no more idea than anyone else why her novels hit that sweet spot. Time goes by, and gradually they no longer do--she becomes a novelist one's mother reads, then a novelist one's grandmother used to read. After her husband dies, she accidentally comes across evidence that he was seeing someone else; the factotum dies; the dream house succumbs to entropy; utterly alone, the public having moved on long ago, she finally dies as well.
How in the world does Taylor keep us interested in such a character? Deft management of point of view, brisk pacing, lucid prose, an abundance of penetrating details--the whole panoply of the inheritance from Austen, we might say. That, and keeping it frosty. A comparable American novelist--Anne Tyler, say--would have warmed up even to Angel eventually, given her a break, would have suggested that she had seen the light, etc. But as my spouse, who works with the elderly, says, "People don't become wise and serene just because they're older. If you were an asshole all your life, odds are you'll still be an asshole when you're elderly." The novelists across the pond tend to do more justice to such bare, uncomfortable truths.