Sunday, March 13, 2016

Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel: her imagination

I first heard about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel when it turned up in the results of a Google Search for “Marie Corelli”. I had never read any of Taylor’s books, but I got a copy from my library after reading in reviews that Angel was based in part on the lives of the Victorian romance writers Marie Corelli and Ouida. I had read biographies of both of these best-selling writers and was curious to see how much of their biographical material had been used in Angel.

Much of the book is very familiar; I recognised many elements from the biographies. Angel Deverell, the main character, is obviously a composite of Marie Corelli and Ouida. Some of the descriptions of her personality, behaviour and events in her life were taken directly from the biographies.

Angel Deverell is a classic textbook case. She is a type of person who appears in the human race from time to time. I see them as a kind of witch. They may get what they wish for, but the price may be very high and it may all turn to dust and ashes.

Reading about Marie Corelli’s, Ouida’s and now Angel’s life has confirmed some of my ideas about sinister unseen influences that might be at work in people’s lives. There is a lot of material of interest in the book; it will take more than one article to cover it.

Angel Deverell and the dangers of too much imagination
We first meet Angel when she is a schoolgirl of 15. Her colouring is striking, but she is not beautiful. She is not very good at her lessons either, although she can fool people who know much less than she does into thinking that she is a good student.

The only attribute Angel has that is above average is her imagination, and she uses it all the time. It plays a much greater part in her life than her senses do. To Angel, her experiences are a makeshift substitute for her imagination.

She concentrates very hard and visualises her ideal life, one of nobility, glamour and splendour, very clearly. She daydreams whenever she can, as she dislikes the people around her and the environment she lives in. She wants, and feels entitled to, something much better.

Angel pretends to herself that she owns the local big house; she furnishes and embellishes it in her imagination, using pictures for inspiration. She is always on the lookout for something that will ‘do’ for her house. She spends as much time as possible creating fantasies about her life there. In her imagination, she owns dogs and horses and wanders in the galleries and moonlit rose gardens.

Some people have little or no life of their own in the real world; they live on crumbs and the hope of crumbs and glimpses into other people’s lives, which they use to construct a fantasy life, one that often seems like and is lived at the expense of their real lives.

For me, one of the most significant passages in the book is when reality temporarily breaks in and Angel faces up to the unwelcome truth that she is living above a shop in a very commonplace setting. She is unlikely to find herself elsewhere: she has no power to rescue herself, being without either the brains or the beauty that are the means by which some young women escape. She feels panic, until she edges away from the truth.

She was beginning to triumph over reality, and the truth was beginning to leave her in peace.”

Turning one’s face away from reality to live in a fantasy world is a very dangerous game indeed to play.

Imagination can be a two-edged sword. It can either enhance or have a detrimental effect on the quality of life of the person who uses it. Perhaps it sometimes involves sucking energy from the user’s life in the real world to use in the inner world.

The more Angel enriches her inner world, the more impoverished, deficient and unsatisfactory her outer surroundings - and the people in her life - seem to be. Not only that, in later life she finds places such as Greece disappointing: they do not live up to her expectations and are not what she had imagined them to be.  This is similar to the way in which films often cannot compete with the original books as they short-circuit rather than stimulate the imagination.

Some people use their imagination to give themselves a kind of psychic ‘high’ then find that the real thing is a let-down when it doesn’t give them the same thrilling sensations. This seems common in romance writers and people who live in a world of their own. Perhaps they become addicted to psychic stimulation, which the outer world and real people cannot supply.

As a schoolgirl, Angel shares the products of her imagination by telling some small children stories about the big house, but she makes them think that she really lives there by relating her fantasies as if they were true.

Some people’s imaginations are so strong that their daydreams seems real to them. They confuse fantasy and reality; they are not always deliberately lying. Conversely, they may feel they are lying when they tell the truth. Later in the story, Angel is honest about the ugly streets and poor houses in the town she grew up in, but the truth seems unreal to her because she lived in her imagination at the time.

Angel may also just want a captive audience, telling her stories to make herself seem important and get admiration from people who don’t know any better.

Later, Angel shares and capitalises on her fantasies by writing them down and getting them published. Do books by such romance writers enrich people’s lives or do they damage them? Do they give the readers an unrealistic picture of what they are describing, making them want what they can’t have or doesn’t exist? I have an uncomfortable feeling that some readers might get addicted to second-hand psychic sensations! 

Angel Deverell’s lies are exposed
Angel finds herself in a tight corner when her lies are discovered. Her mother is very upset and furious with her and so is her aunt, who is a servant at the big house: Angel has been telling lies about her family.

She has always felt better than the people around her. She appears to live on a higher plane and is seen as aloof and condescending or occasionally appeasing so never on equal terms, so her fellow schoolgirls are not sympathetic. Angel can’t face going back to school after her exposure in the local community. She very conveniently gets a severe rash, so is off the hook for a while.

Having to lie in bed is boring; Angel also feels flat and dull. She longs for a different life, one where she is grown up, rich and beautiful, with power over many different kinds of men. Her imagination provides some comforting and intoxicating scenarios. In one, she wears a red velvet dress and meets Queen Victoria!

Raising oneself up in fantasy may be an attempt at compensation for being brought down and humiliated in reality. Too much of this is damaging and dangerous: it is essential to deal with real world people and problems with real world practices and solutions. 

Angel should have faced up to her situation and taken responsibility for its cause, rather than turn away and escape into the inner world. She does herself no favours in the long term.