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From Convent to Kitchen Table

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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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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 with her over a steak and kidney pie doused in custard (or was it an apple pie swimming in gravy?). If it hadn’t been for that memorable error, she would never have become Mrs Colin Haycraft. Yet this tale was surely, like so much of the Alice Thomas Ellis legend (even the name was made up, ‘to sound Welsh’, as she put it), something of a smokescreen. The Sin Eater gives plenty of evidence of being a very carefully constructed novel; and when editing other books (mine included) Anna was a stickler for structure and plot. While The Sin Eater has great facility, and seems as natural as a tale whispered into your ear by a beguiling Welshwoman, it is also an immensely literary novel. It is centred around a big house in North Wales where the Captain’s family and dependants have gathered while he lies dying upstairs. This, of itself, reminds me of numerous novels I may once have read but can no longer remember. It is a well-worn device which enables the author to assemble a group of disparate characters who are drawn together by circumstance rather than community of sympathy – but in Alice Thomas Ellis’s hands this device has plenty of life in it. She does the same again and again, whether it is the Chelsea street and lodging house in The 27th Kingdom (1982) or the remote Scottish hotel in The Inn at the Edge of the World (1990). People are thrown together, and people do not, by and large, like each other – a rather odd aperçu from one of North London’s leading literary hostesses, but there you are. In The Sin Eater, the leading character (a lightly disguised Anna Haycraft, as in so many of her books) is called Rose; she is an Irish vet’s daughter, married into an upper-class North Wales family, and, as a Roman Catholic, doubly an outsider. She does not like her sister-in-law Angela, but the Captain’s youngest daughter is strangely drawn to Rose and her religion, just as Rose herself, in the wake of Vatican II, feels alienated from it. The nuns have ditched their habits, and this strikes Rose as not simply disastrous, but as a sign of the entire world being out of joint, and the Catholic Church no longer offering a secure haven amidst the chaos. Yet it is chaos that Rose most relishes, introducing, for example, the village prostitute to the local grande dame, a chaos that comes to a head in the annual cricket match between locals and visitors, during which all secrets are laid bare. But the ending is far from funny, pointing to a world where comedy cannot provide answers. The cricket match scene again is one of those set pieces that is a stock literary device – the idea that the harmony of society and particularly the harmony that is supposed to exist between social classes can be experienced on the village green in this most civilized of games. It gets an outing in The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, where it evokes the prelapsarian bliss of pre-Great War England: but for Alice Thomas Ellis, the world is irrevocably fallen, and the cricket match serves to prove just how absurd any idea of social harmony is. These people, Welsh and English, outsiders and locals, upper and lower and middle classes, all detest each other, and the game serves to bring simmering hatreds, which border on the murderous, to the surface. If one were to pick on the central theme of Alice Thomas Ellis’s work it would be this – a deep disillusion with the world, and a corresponding love of a world that had ceased to exist, the secure and firm world of the Catholic Church as it had been in the Fifties. She had briefly been a postulant in a convent after her conversion to Catholicism, and this short-lived experience became the centre of her life’s narrative. Had it not been for the fateful meeting in the pie shop, she maintained, she would have gone back to the convent and been a nun. The convent for her was the place where life was real and ordered. The nuns, to her mind, were beautiful. The world was a snare and a delusion, a place of ugliness. This is the theme of The 27th Kingdom, the book that almost won the Booker Prize, the story of a novice nun who goes to stay in bohemian post-war Chelsea. This book ends with a sort of apotheosis,which reminds one of the other strand in Alice Thomas Ellis’s writing, which places her firmly in a tradition going back to Ronald Firbank, a sort of very English magical realism. Anna would often say that she hated family life, literary London and writing (all three of which took up most of her time, apart from spells in her house in North Wales), and that all she wanted to be was a nun, preferably in an enclosed order. No one took this particularly seriously, least of all herself. She freely admitted (to me, at least) that she would have made a very bad nun; but the peace of the cloister was the heaven she longed for. Allied to this, and underlying it, is a longing for death which perhaps informs all her work. In one work of non-fiction, A Welsh Childhood (1990), she constantly laments the death of historical Wales under a tide of modern tourism, as well as the death of her own son, Joshua, who lies buried in Wales, where she herself plans to be buried. She writes towards the end of the book:

The place on earth where I come closest to peace is in the graveyard amongst all the quiet dead. I seem to have thought, all my life, of little but death – partly because of impatience, a yearning to have it over and done with: that extraordinary last thing that we are called upon to do, the act of dying. If we have to do it – I think to myself – I would rather do it sooner than later. But mostly it comes from the old awareness that I am not whole, that there is something missing, something more important than all the world. Death is the price we must pay for completion. I am astonished when I think that two of my children have achieved this feat, and I am left here, not knowing what they know.

Few are the contemporary authors who write about death in the way Alice Thomas Ellis did. The best of her later novels, The Inn at the Edge of the World (1990), a story about a group of people who assemble on a remote Scottish island in order to avoid the festive season, is not a ‘black comedy’. That label misleads. It is in fact a comedy pure and simple, albeit a comedy about death. As in every true comedy, at the conclusion things do not simply end, they are resolved. Without wishing to spoil the story, what happens is that those who feel incomplete are brought to completion, and the wound that afflicts humanity is healed. There is nothing black about the closing vision: rather it is profoundly comforting and hopeful. So far, I have dwelled on the more serious aspects of her work; comedy is, after all, a serious business; but there was a more lighthearted strand, best exemplified by her novel The Other Side of the Fire (1983). This book has its faults: there are a few maunderings about the hopelessness of life from Silvie, the Alice Thomas Ellis-like character, who lives a semi-detached life but acts as confidante to Charles and Claudia, whose marriage is going through a rocky patch because Claudia has fallen hopelessly (in every sense) in love with her stepson Philip. But the theme of the book is the intractability of passions, and the truth contained in the title is that there really is no ‘other side of the fire’, at least not yet – but how nice it would be if there were. This is an interesting theme, one rarely tackled by comic novels. Fiction often does point to the troubles our loves can stir up, but it is rare that love, or what passes for it, is seen as the problem. Interleaved with the story of Claudia and Philip (which is a story going nowhere) is another story, that crafted by Evvie, Silvia’s daughter, a romantic novel set on a wind- and rain-swept Scottish island; but Evvie’s efforts tend to self-parody. You can’t do romance unless you are a true believer, and the novel shows that such true belief is becoming harder and harder. In the end, I freely admit, I will always love Alice Thomas Ellis’s novels simply because I loved and admired the woman behind them, Anna Haycraft. But as Anna’s memory fades, as it surely must, and as she would not have minded, will Alice live on? She would not have cared in the least if her novels died, but I think they deserve to live: they are sharp, beautifully observed, well written and above all true – true to life, true to what comes after life and often overshadows it. They are never entirely without hope, though they resist the modern temptation to think overmuch of human nature and human possibility. We are here only a little time, but in that little time we sense that there is so much that can be found out, so much knowledge waiting for us. That vision, in her writing, is just over the horizon; now she has it, in its fullness, I believe. For her, if not for her characters and the rest of us, the veil is lifted.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 31 © Alexander Lucie-Smith 2011


About the contributor

Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest who once wrote novels, published under the pseudonym of David McLaurin, for Duckworth. Anna Haycraft was his editor, mentor and friend. He spent many hours with her at her kitchen table in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town.

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