Homage to Elizabeth the First

By Walther, Matthew | The Spectator, November 30, 2013 | Go to article overview

Homage to Elizabeth the First


Walther, Matthew, The Spectator


Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, with an introduction by Hilary Mantel Virago, £12.99, pp. 336, ISBN 9781844089345 Spectator Bookshop, £11.69

'She wrote fiction?' Even today, with the admirable ladies at Virago nearly finished reissuing her dozen novels, Elizabeth Taylor remains mostly unknown except to fellow novelists, literary journalists, worthier publishing types, and a handful of dedicated readers. Even Nicola Beauman felt obliged to call her wonderful 2009 biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor so as to avoid confusion with the overrated actress whose debut film, National Velvet, was released only a few months prior to the publication of Taylor's first novel.

It cannot help her reputation that she had a majority of her papers burned, produced no journalism and kept her distance from literary London, writing only to friends such as Ivy Compton-Burnett and Barbara Pym, kindred spirits of sorts. Nor does it work in her favour that, unlike Pym, Taylor was a lifelong atheist and for many years a member of the British Communist Party, which would seem to exclude her from the ranks of novelists likely to be favoured by Britain's few remaining excellent women. She lived a quiet life in a Buckinghamshire village with her husband Ray Russell, a chocolate maker and fellow communist, publishing a novel every few years until her death in 1975. Elizabeth Jane Howard was once asked to write Taylor's life, but declined on the grounds that nothing had ever happened to her.

After reading Taylor's seventh novel, Angel, Mark Olgivie-Grant wrote that it was 'a good book, but she didn't write it'.

The idea that Angel, first published in 1957, is somehow anomalous is common among Taylor fans, but I have never understood it.

All her familiar hallmarks - the elegant but unfussy prose, the arctic attitude towards her characters, the Citizen Kane-like chronological leaps - are here. When the novel begins, Angelica 'Angel' Deverell, aged 15, is a would-be writer whose school essays are made up entirely of purple patches. (Her teacher suspects that these are cribbed from 'Ruskin and Pater': a very good and subtle dig at those two old gasbags. ) Like one of our own purveyors of Kindle erotica, Angel is a monstrous egoist with little or no interest in literature as such. …

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