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Ellis, Alice Thomas

ELLIS, Alice Thomas

Pseudonym for Anna Margaret Haycraft. Nationality: British. Born: Anna Margaret Lindholm in Liverpool, 9 September 1932; grew up in Penmaenmawr, Wales. Education: Bangor County Grammar School, Gwynedd; Liverpool School of Art; postulant, Convent of Notre Dame de Namur, Liverpool. Family: Married the publisher Colin Haycraft in 1956; four sons and one daughter (and one daughter and one son deceased). Career: Director, Duckworth, publishers, London. Columnist ("Home Life"), the Spectator, London, the Universe, London, 1989-91; and for The Catholic Herald. Awards: Welsh Arts Council award, 1977; Yorkshire Post award, 1986. Address: 22 Gloucester Crescent, London NW1 7DY, England.

Publications

Novels

The Sin Eater. London, Duckworth, 1977.

The Birds of the Air. London, Duckworth, 1980; New York, VikingPress, 1981.

The 27th Kingdom. London, Duckworth, 1982; Wakefield, RhodeIsland, Moyer Bell, 1999.

The Other Side of the Fire. London, Duckworth, 1983.

Unexplained Laughter. London, Duckworth, 1985; New York, Harper, 1987.

The Inn at the Edge of the World. London, Viking, 1990.

The Summerhouse Trilogy. London, Penguin, 1991; New York, Penguin, 1994

The Clothes in the Wardrobe. London, Duckworth, 1987.

The Skeleton in the Cupboard. London, Duckworth, 1988.

The Fly in the Ointment. London, Duckworth, 1989.

Pillars of Gold. London, Viking, 1992; Wakefield, Rhode Island, Moyer Bell, 2000.

The Evening of Adam. Harmondsworth, England, Viking, 1994.

Fairy Tale. Wakefield, Rhode Island, Moyer Bell, 1998.

Uncollected Short Story

"Away in a Niche," in Spectator (London), 21-28 December 1985.

Other

Natural Baby Food: A Cookery Book (as Brenda O'Casey). London, Duckworth, 1977; as Anna Haycraft, London, Fontana, 1980.

Darling, You Shouldn't Have Gone to So Much Trouble (cookbook; as Anna Haycraft), with Caroline Blackwood. London, Cape, 1980.

Home Life. London, Duckworth, 1986; New York, Akadine Press, 1997.

Secrets of Strangers, with Tom Pitt-Aikens. London, Duckworth, 1986.

More Home Life. London, Duckworth, 1987.

Home Life 3. London, Duckworth, 1988.

Loss of the Good Authority: The Cause of Delinquency, with TomPitt-Aikens. London, Viking, 1989.

Home Life 4. London, Duckworth, 1989.

A Welsh Childhood, photographs by Patrick Sutherland. London, Joseph, 1990; Wakefield, Rhode Island, Moyer Bell, 1997.

Cat Among the Pigeons: A Catholic Miscellany. London, Flamingo, 1994.

Editor, Mrs. Donald, by Mary Keene. London, Chatto and Windus, 1983.

Editor, Wales: An Anthology. London, Collins, 1989.

* * *

In all her books Alice Thomas Ellis takes the form of the upper-class social comedy and turns it inside out, with mordant, often uncomfortable wit, satire (some of it quite savage), and a gift for dialogue which means much more than is apparent, in a background which alternates between the country (usually Wales) and London, patches of which must be regarded as the author's own territory.

Her first novel, The Sin Eater, is set in Wales, where the Welsh have given up farming and taken to preying on the holidaymaker. In a country house, near a small resort which has declined since its prewar heyday, the Captain, patriarch of the family, lies dying, unable to speak or move. Only a matter of time, says the doctor, cheerfully. Not much grief is shown by the family assembling to say goodbye to him. Henry, the eldest son and heir, lives with his wife Rose and the twins in the family home. Visiting are younger brother Michael, his wife Angela, and Edward, a Fleet Street literary journalist, object of Angela's love (or lust). Ministering incompetently to the household is Phyllis, her son Jack ("Jack the Liar") and Gomer, Phyllis's adored but highly unpleasant grandson. The outsider is Ermyn, youngest daughter of the house, back from a secretarial course in London, regarded by the rest as half-witted (in fact she is slightly deaf, following measles in childhood, but no one has noticed). Rose (like Ellis) is a Roman Catholic, a brilliant organizer, one who arranges food, houses, and circumstances to disconcert others. Angela (who hates her) is disoriented by being put in a room newly arranged in 1930s style. A killing meal is eaten shortly before the cricket match of village versus Squire. When the village wins, for the first time, there follows a vengeful and dismaying Welsh saturnalia. Rose loves only the twins (absent from all but the first and last page of the novel) and the terrifying denouement is a fitting end to the outpouring of spite and malice so deftly observed.

Christmas is a family time, and in The Birds of the Air, Mrs. Marsh decides to invite all the family, to try to cheer Mary, whose grief will neither disappear, nor be assuaged. Mary's sister Barbara has just discovered her husband's infidelity by overhearing a sniggered comment that suddenly makes sense. She is on the way to a breakdown. Mary's grief is an indescribable agony, unhelped by her Catholicism, over the death of her illegitimate son, Robin. Everyone is embarrassed by Mary's grief. Barbara makes an exhibition of herself, getting drunk and pursuing Hunter, who rejects her. Social embarrassment to the last degree forms the basis for some hard, sharp things said about the nature of grief, love, and family life.

The 27th Kingdom (shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1982) is set in Chelsea in the 1950s, where Aunt Irene (of distant Russian descent) lives with her nephew Kyril in a pretty little house. Chelsea is still very socially mixed, and the cast includes the O'Connors, a large family of criminal Cockneys, and a passing parade of casual lodgers. The outsider and new lodger is Valentine, who wishes to be a nun, but has been sent out to see more of the world by Reverend Mother, who is Aunt Irene's sister. Valentine is, most inconveniently, a saint, as well as being very beautiful, and black. As in all the novels, the four last things of the Catholic Churchdeath and judgment, heaven and hellloom in the background. Aunt Irene loves Kyril, but recognizes that he is evil and wicked. Both she and Mrs O'Connor, the Cockney matriarch, recognize the goodness of Valentine. Once again, it's very funny, and slightly more gentle in tone. Food plays its part, and so does Focus, a charming, beautiful, and amusing cat.

The Other Side of the Fire brings together a number of themes which can be claimed as standard ingredients in the Ellis novel. Claudia Bohannon is the second wife of Charlesthey have two children of their own (absent at boarding school). Claudia finds herself inexplicably and shamingly in love with her stepson, Philip. Her confidante is Sylvie (living in the country, there are few congenial people around). Sylvie has given up love, and company, and has become a witchor not, depending on how you view her. Certainly she has a familiar in the dog Gloria, evil-tempered and a perfect nuisance, rather like Sylvie's ex-husband, as one of the characters points out. Evvie, Sylvie's daughter, is writing a romantic novel along very predictable lines, containing stock characters like a Scottish vet with a dull fiancée, a housekeeper, a beautiful promiscuous girl, a mad Laird. Unfortunately and hilariously the characters from the novel invade life, and vice versa. Claudia is sweet but dimit takes a brick dropped by Evvie before she realizes what everyone else knowsthat Philip is a charming and unscrupulous homosexual. The book meditates on various forms of loveand its transitory naturetouching all but the maternal, which, as in The Sin Eater, is so important that it is never mentioned.

Unexplained Laughter is set in Wales, where Lydia, a tough London journalist, has retreated to get over a broken heart. With her is Betty, who is nice, but a bore. The only company (typically, a small group of characters at each other's throats) is a family. Hywel, a farmer, is married unhappily to Elizabeth; Angharad, his youngest sister, is speechless and considered mad but is not as mad as all that; Beuno, the younger brother, is studying for the ministry. There is also the doctor, formerly Elizabeth's lover. Lydia is witty and cruel. It is only when she starts hearing unexplained laughter in the air round the cottage, and she talks to Beuno about the existence of God and the devil that she begins to develop into a more human being and allows herself to become fond of others. The devil is at work; they are a nasty bunch, with exceptions. Beuno is some kind of saint, Betty is pleasant and dull, Angharad is a visionary, and Lydia is improving her soul. Beuno exorcises the laughter, and it disappears. Whatever it was, he considered it evil.

In Fairy Tale, young Simon and Eloise forsake the sinful pleasures of the city for a bucolic life of meditation, but Simon soon becomes alienated by his partner's mystic flights of fancy. She longs for a baby, which Simon refuses to provide her, so instead she goes wandering about the countryside, in hills haunted by a sexual predator, and eventually returns bearing a strange infant. Pillars of Gold almost seems to view the same situation from another angle: this time a young woman, an American named Barbs, has apparently succumbed to the clutches of a murderer, and is found dead in a canal. Her suburban London neighbors speculate as to the cause of the murder, and the outcome reveals facts about their community of which they would gladly have remained unaware.

These short novels are written with an uncanny ear for contemporary dialogue, the flash of steel beneath the apparently harmless words. There is a great deal said about the Catholic church, life, death, food, love, children, and the existence of evil, the devil in our midst ("Stan," Lydia calls him, a nickname for "Satan"). Only in the short story, "Away in a Niche," in which a tired housewife swaps places with the local saint for the three worst days of Christmas, do we get anything like a cheerful, happy conclusion.

Philippa Toomey

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