Last Sunday the New York Times Book Review had a piece about Elizabeth Taylor, the British author, which caught my interest as I had seen her name mentioned in a literary blog recently. The New York Review of Books has reissued two of her books, Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek.
Angel, born in 1885, is the daughter of a widow who keeps a shop in a poor neighborhood. Her mother and her aunt, who is a lady's maid, scrape together money so that Angel can attend a girls' school and improve her lot in life working in an office. At age 15 Angel knows she will live the high life and that working diligently at her schooling will have nothing to do with it. She has just enough vocabulary without reading much to write pulp novels that a publisher laughs at but understands the public will love. She bumbles her way through life on her stunning ego and blindness, having no clue that she is cruel and foolish. It is only Theo, one of the partners in the publishing firm who recognizes her vulnerability from the outset.
Eventually her popularity wanes and sometime after World War I she becomes a ridiculous and impoverished figure, living in a wreck of a house with a cats everywhere. After participating in a flea treatment, Theo worries the blanket covered with flea powder (and dead fleas) will be used for serving lunch.
"A good morning's work," she said to Theo. "So satisfying." He was itching all over and hoped that the cause was his imagination. He would be glad to get away — from the cats, the fleas, the damp, and these three eccentric women. He had always been glad to get away from Angel; she tired and exasperated him; but he had never been able to replace his first impression of her with any other. At that first meeting, long ago in London, she had seemed to need his protection while warning him not to offer it: arrogant and absurd she had been and had remained: she had warded off friendship and stayed lonely and made such fortifications within her own mind that the truth could not pierce it.
So there is one sympathetic character in the book, good old patient Theo. Otherwise, the characters are ridiculous and/or weak. Angel's "historical" books are riddled with anachronisms and other errors, but except for the critics, she is much loved.
The New York Times writer said Taylor witnessed the end of the Empire and writes about it without nostalgia or becoming reactionary. Christopher R. Beha says,
The shopgirl whose crass fantasies allow her to buy Paradise House and take it as her own would have seemed a perfect metaphor for decline and fall. Taylor sees instead the silent suffering the old order demanded and the damaging effort required to get out from under it.
Angel's belief she is an artist, not a hack is not unlike the self-worth that the 99% must develop to overcome an order that requires them to be merely useful to the rich. Hope that's not right, surely there's another way to think about this.