It is sobering to think how literary fashions change. Deciding to read the whole oeuvre of Alice Thomas Ellis once more, I went to the excellent Camilla’s Bookshop in Eastbourne, where not a single copy was to be found, and where the assistant asked me ‘Who was she? What did she write?’ Other second-hand bookshops proving equally fruitless, I went to the library, where the lady at the desk looked her up on the computer. ‘These are old books,’ she said. Long banished from the open shelves, the novels I requested would have to come all the way from Shoreham. A sad fate for an author who was fashionable not so very long ago. But Anna (as everyone called her) would not have minded: she was sharply aware of death throughout her life, and a period of posthumous literary quiescence would have pleased her; she, more than most authors of her time, knew in the midst of literary celebrity, that all flesh is grass.
Born in 1932, she came to literature relatively late, in 1977, with the publication of The Sin Eater. She had by that time been married to Colin Haycraft, the Chairman of Duckworth, for over twenty years; it was he who published her first books. Though she was to become a prolific author, of fiction, cookery books and the ‘Home Life’ column in the Spectator, she had in fact started out as an artist, and always gave the impression of having fallen into writing by accident. She claimed never to plan any of her novels, but just to write them out in longhand on her kitchen table; they would later be typed up by Janet, her assistant, who had been the children’s nanny, and who was the only person who could read her writing.
Indeed, she once told me that she never planned anything, but had drifted into marriage, into having seven children, all by the purest accident. The story of her meeting with her husband was a famous anecdote: working in a London pie shop, she had given him the wrong sort of pie, and he had fallen in love w
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