Ellis, Alice Thomas 1932–
Ellis, Alice Thomas 1932–
(Anna Haycraft, Anna Margaret Haycraft, Brenda O'Casey)
PERSONAL: Born Anna Margaret Lindholm, September 9, 1932, in Liverpool, England; married Colin Hay-craft (a publisher), 1956 (died, 1994); children: five sons, two daughters (one son and one daughter deceased). Religion: Roman Catholic.
ADDRESSES: Home—Wales. Office—c/o Author Mail, Duckworth & Co. Ltd., The Old Piano Factory, 43 Gloucester Crescent, London NW1 7DY, England.
CAREER: Writer. Duckworth & Co. (publishers), London, England, fiction editor.
MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature (fellow, 1989.
AWARDS, HONORS: Arts Council of Wales Literature Award, 1977 for The Sin Eater; Booker-McConnell Prize shortlist, 1982, for The Twenty-seventh Kingdom, and 1986, for Unexplained Laughter; Writers' Guild Award for best fiction, 1990, for The Inn at the Edge of the World.
(Under pseudonym Brenda O' Casey) Natural Baby Food: A Cookery Book, Duckworth (London, England), 1977, published under name Anna Haycraft, Fontana (London, England), 1985.
(With Caroline Blackwood) Darling, You Shouldn't Have Gone to So Much Trouble (cookbook), J. Cape (London, England), 1980.
(Editor) Mary Keene, Mrs. Donald/Mary Keene, Hogarth Press (Oxford, England), 1983.
Home Life (essays), Duckworth (London, England), 1986.
(With Tom Pitt-Aikens) Secrets of Strangers (nonfiction), Duckworth (London, England), 1986.
More Home Life, Duckworth (London, England), 1987.
Home Life Three, illustrations by Ze, Duckworth (London, England), 1988.
(With Tom Pitt-Aikens) Loss of the Good Authority: The Cause of Delinquency, Viking (London, England), 1989.
Home Life Four, Duckworth (London, England), 1989.
(Editor) Wales: An Anthology, illustrations by Kyffin Williams, Collins (London, England), 1989.
A Welsh Childhood, photographs by Patrick Sutherland, M. Joseph (London, England), 1990.
Cat among the Pigeons: A Catholic Miscellany, Flamingo (London, England), 1994.
The Evening of Adam, Viking (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England), 1994.
Serpent on the Rock: A Personal View of Christianity, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1994.
(Editor) Valentine's Day, Duck Editions (London, England), 2000.
The Sin Eater, Duckworth (London, England), 1977.
The Birds of the Air, Duckworth (London, England), 1980, Viking (New York, NY), 1981.
The Twenty-seventh Kingdom, Duckworth (London, England), 1982, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1999.
Unexplained Laughter, Duckworth (London, England), 1985.
The Clothes in the Wardrobe (also see below), Duckworth (London, England), 1987.
The Skeleton in the Cupboard (also see below), Duckworth (London, England), 1988.
The Fly in the Ointment (also see below), Duckworth (London, England), 1989.
The Inn at the Edge of the World, Viking (London, England), 1990, Trafalgar Square (New York, NY), 2001.
Pillars of Gold, Viking (London, England), 1992.
The Summer House: A Trilogy (contains The Clothes in the Wardrobe, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, and The Fly in the Ointment), Penguin Books (London, England), 1994.
Fairy Tale, Viking (London, England), 1996, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1998.
A Gallimaufry of Books and Cooks, Duckworth (London, England), 2004.
Columnist for Spectator, Universe, 1989–91, Catholic Herald, 1990–96, and Oldie, 1996–.
ADAPTATIONS: The Clothes in the Wardrobe was filmed as The Summer House, 1992.
SIDELIGHTS: "Literary history is full of cliques, those intense and gossip-riven clubs of like-minded souls whose personal interrelations reflected the solidarity of their works," observed John Walsh in Books and Bookmen. According to Walsh, Alice Thomas Ellis, fiction editor for Britain's Duckworth publishing house, was at the center of just such a group in the 1980s. Dubbed the Duckworth Gang, and comprised of Ellis and novelists Beryl Bainbridge, Caroline Blackwood, and Patrice Chaplin, the group evolved a distinctive, immediately recognizable style, reported Walsh, which reviewers refer to as "the Duckworth style." Works in the Duckworth mode—usually novels of about 150 pages—are generally written by women and feature women; they are set in the United Kingdom during modern times, with plots focusing on the domestic and marital strife of a main character, sometimes leading to physical violence; and style is important, while traditional expository techniques are de-emphasized. The books also, in Walsh's words, "guarantee devilish entertainment."
Ellis has written what Walsh considers classics in the genre. Her novels have earned the author acclaim as "brilliant" and "clever," with praise for her books extending from appreciation of her elegant prose style to admiration for her ability to create eccentric characters. In the estimation of Harriet Waugh, reviewing for Spectator, Ellis writes "short, edgy comedies of human failure in the face of some ultimate good…. [She] maneuvers to pit the world against the spirit and then stands back to see which will win. Her stories are domestic in nature, her protagonists often women taking an understandable interest in the oddities they inadvertently manage to collect around themselves. She writes intelligent novels … and she writes with clarity and wit."
The Sin Eater, Ellis's first novel, is set in Wales and concerns the interaction within a family—also surnamed Ellis—as the impending death of the father draws family members home. More important than plot in this work is the atmosphere, the sense of impending doom evoked through Ellis's interweaving of a biting wit with vivid imagery and Welsh mythology. Indeed, the distinguishing quality of the book, Peter Ackroyd commented in Spectator, is "its wit: the relentlessness of domestic life, the knives only just sheathed in time, the tart little phrases bouncing around like Molotov cocktails." And Jeremy Treglown, reviewing for the New Statesman, offered a similar assessment, observing that The Sin Eaters "has some of the satirical malice, the implacable cruelty of plotting and the snobbish humour of early [Evelyn] Waugh, and a lot of Virginia Woolf's narrative method…. It is a fiction … satirising both the pretensions of the rulers and the inadequacies of the ruled."
Following The Sin Eater is The Birds of the Air, both "an anatomy of various kinds of grief" and a "savage attack on English Christmases," appraised Anatole Broyard in a New York Times review. This second novel centers on the Marsh family: Mrs. Marsh, a widow who feels no one appreciates her; her daughters Mary, who grieves for her deceased, illegitimate son Robin, and Barbara, who is obsessed with her husband's infidelity; Sebastian, Barbara's husband, described by Ellis as a professor whose "insistence on ordinary language and absolute clarity of expression rendered his discourse unintelligible to the ordinary person"; and Sam, Barbara's son, whose rebellious nature and dislike of hypocrisy prompt him to dye his hair green for Christmas.
Ellis's "characterizations are deft and devastating," wrote Linda Barrett Osborne in the Washington Post Book World, showing "with stunning accuracy how people can live together day after day without knowing each other at all." Mary, the main character, resides in an inner world of grief, providing a sharp contrast to the Christmas season with its expectations of peace and joy. She and Sam together, explained Jennifer Uglow in a Times Literary Supplement critique of The Birds of the Air, "belong to a more elemental world" than do their relatives. Although misunderstood by their family as uncaring, the two are "passionate beings." As in The Sin Eater, continued Uglow, in this more recent novel Ellis "presents the submerged world of irrationality and disorder which they inhabit as more powerful than the civilized surface … this short novel is densely packed, strengthened by a network of imagery, almost overburdened by urgent blasts against modern society."
Ellis's 1982 novel, The Twenty-seventh Kingdom, was shortlisted for Britain's most prestigious literary honor, the Booker-McConnell Prize, and despite its popularity did not reach American readers until 1999. It is "a brittle, anarchic theological fantasy set in the Chelsea of the 1950s," remarked A.N. Wilson in the Spectator, while Linda Taylor, critiquing for the Times Literary Supplement, reflected that the novel is a book wherein "eccentricity rules." Aunt Irene, whose looks had "disappeared under waves of creamy, curdling flesh," is the main character and, reported Taylor, all who approach her residence, Dancing Master House, become to some extent subject to its bizarre rules. It is "clever and funny," observed Taylor, adding that Ellis "beguiles the reader with the oddity of coincidence, an air of mystery…. Like Aunt Irene, she's a master of the deceptive appearance." Describing the novel as "witty," a Publishers Weekly contributor added praise for Ellis's "whiplash humor" and noted that readers will "marvel … at the ease with which she depicts eccentric but fully recognizable members of society."
The Twenty-seventh Kingdom is also, according to Wilson, "a tale of sacred love, and the miraculous." In contrast, The Other Side of the Fire, in Wilson's opinion, "is a merciless little story of profane love unrequited." Claudia, the protagonist, has been married to staid, boring Charles for fifteen years when she falls in love with her stepson, Philip, whom everyone but Claudia recognizes as a homosexual. In an effort to thwart her passion, Claudia introduces her stepson to Evvie, daughter of her bohemian friend Sylvie. Evvie, however, thinks love is ridiculous. Sylvie herself no longer cares about love, and Charles, suspecting that something is amiss with Claudia, turns to Sylvie for advice.
Although reviewer John Nicholson suggested in the London Times that The Other Side of the Fire provides another example of "Ellis's chillingly effective dissections of the damage people do to each other when they stretch out the hand of friendship or, worse still, love," he cautioned that the author's seriousness should not obscure her reputation as "one of the wittiest writers currently at work." Indeed Claudia is ludicrous in her infatuation, with Ellis continually poking fun at the lunacy of love. In the London Times Pat Raine, for example, noted that "some splendid passages from a lowbrow love story are merrily inserted into [the book's] elegant narrative," while in the New Statesman Harriet Gilbert lauded the work as "a fast and funny novel, its cynicism warmed by compassion."
Ellis's Unexplained Laughter "is an elusive novel teetering on the edge of comedy but remaining faintly and unexpectedly sombre," opined reviewer Harriet Waugh. The protagonist is Lydia, a London journalist taking sanctuary in Wales following the end of a love affair. Betty, kind-hearted and frumpy, is Lydia's foil, and together the two explore the local community and meet its inhabitants. In the process, reported Julia O'Faolain in the Times Literary Supplement, there is much taboo-breaking "as the unsayable keeps getting said…. Ly-dia's sharp tongue links her to the eighteenth century. Hers is a classic wit. Lucid and rational, it encapsulates and sums up with utter clarity." Confident though she is, Lydia finds herself shaken upon hearing the mysterious laughter that emanates from a Welsh valley. There is no clear explanation for the laughter, which not everyone is able to hear. "One is not," as Isabel Raphael pointed out in her critique for the London Times, "allowed to sit comfortably in Alice Thomas Ellis's world. She enjoys teasing, too … and every gust of laughter is counterbalanced by a shiver in recognition of the human condition." And O'Faolain concluded that "in the end the novel cannot be summarized and this is proof of its excellence. The author's quicksilver perceptions can be conveyed adequately in no words but her own."
Ellis's "Summerhouse Trilogy," consisting of The Clothes in the Wardrobe, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, and The Fly in the Ointment, tells the same story from three different points of view. Set in a London suburb, the events concern the impending marriage of a young woman, Margaret, to forty-year-old Syl. Margaret has no desire to marry Syl; the marriage has been arranged by Syl's and Margaret's mother, who control much of their middle-aged children's lives. Margaret, as narrator of The Clothes in the Wardrobe, recalls her life prior to her engagement: her education in Egypt, a disastrous first love affair there, and her witnessing of a murder committed by her lover. Though she had wanted to become a nun, she feels unworthy of the vocation after helping to dispose of the body and sinks into a silent, colorless way of life. She is saved from marriage to the worthless Syl when Lili, an exotic friend from Egypt, seduces the betrothed man and contrives to have the wedding guests witness the act, thereby giving Margaret a way out of the doomed union. Margaret is then able to pursue life in a convent. The Skeleton in the Cupboard, narrated by Syl's mother, reveals that Margaret was sexually abused by her father.
The Fly in the Ointment is told from Lili's viewpoint, and shows that her promiscuity is part of her struggle to keep from falling into a deep depression. "Her narrative style is sometimes conversational, sometimes dramatic with breathless ellipses," noted Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Catherine Burgass. "She also has a tendency, shared with Margaret, toward archaic biblical-sounding forms of expression." Burgass noted that, "while the comic or farcical aspects of her public seduction of Syl … are presented in the first two novels, in Lili's account the scene has elements of tragedy. Reviewers have described the novel as elegant, malicious, and darkly comic." The three books, taken together, present the idea that memory is highly fallible, for although the same events are described in each novel, the different narrators tell vastly different stories.
Ellis puts a group of strangers disappointed and hoping to avoid the forced festivities of the Christmas holidays together in her award-winning 1990 novel The Inn at the Edge of the World. Each person in the group has been lured to an island off the coast of Scotland in the hope of avoiding holiday events at home. Ronald is a distressed psychoanalyst whose wife and cleaning lady have abandoned him simultaneously; Jessica is an actress who is paid huge amounts of money to pitch bath soap and tea bags; and Anita is an out-of-sorts retail store manager. Noting that, despite its premise, the novel remains upbeat, Atlantic contributor Martha Spaulding added that "Ellis's ironic sense of humor pokes up everywhere like crocuses in March."
Ellis's 1996 novel, Fairy Tale, is an offbeat story set in a Welsh village full of eccentric characters. Clare and Miriam are two London women who visit the village, where Clare's daughter, Eloise, lives. Eloise longs for a child, but her husband does not. One day she comes home with a strange, silver-haired, green-eyed baby. It turns out to be a changeling and is eventually taken into the care of three fairies who, throughout the story, have appeared in various human guises. Booklist reviewer Whitney Scott found the book "charming in moments," but cautioned readers that "its sometimes downright slow pacing, may delight one reader while working like Sominex on another." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted as well that "even if the novel's plot and pacing are not always consistently on cue, the ironic charm and whimsical humor are consistently sharp."
In addition to her novels, Ellis, who converted to Roman Catholicism during her late teens and studied briefly as a postulate in a nunnery, has written numerous books and essays on religion and the Catholic Church. In 1996 she was dismissed as a columnist for the Catholic Herald after writing some scathing pieces about "what she sees as the general degeneration of Catholic practices," reported Burgass. Ellis's views are clearly expressed in her book Serpent on the Rock: A Personal View of Christianity. Commonweal reviewer Paul Baumann dubbed Ellis a "ferocious" writer, adding: "Make no mistake about it, Ellis believes in Hell as well as in the devil and especially in clerical garb and the Latin Mass. When at her best, she can make you believe too…. Her description of the ineradicable nature of grief and loss is utterly persuasive, as is her matter-of-fact acceptance of the self-sacrifice motherhood demands…. Her wry views about sex as the world's most overrated pleasure are very amusing, and not unconnected to her dismissal of men as a species of dithering idiots." Baumann concluded that Ellis's work has its flaws, but she is, nevertheless, "a writer of … moral imagination and sure dramatic instinct." In Contemporary Review Richard Mullen also had praise for Ellis's work, noting that Ellis, among the "finest and most perceptive novelists" of her generation, "has a genius for seeing how small details reveal so much about peoples' lives." Despite her concerns over the state of the Catholic Church following Vatican II, Ellis "has that rare gift of being able to denounce without rancour" and throughout Serpent on the Rock she threads "a radiance of how a strong, deep and highly emotional fiath can guide someone through the troubles of our time."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 40, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 194: British Novelists since 1960, Second Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Ellis, Alice Thomas, The Birds of the Air, Duckworth (London, England), 1980.
Ellis, Alice Thomas, The Twenty-seventh Kingdom, Duckworth (London, England), 1982, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1999.
Ellis, Alice Thomas, A Welsh Childhood, photographs by Patrick Sutherland, M. Joseph (London, England), 1990.
Atlantic, April, 2001, Martha Spaulding, review of The Inn at the Edge of the World, p. 104.
Booklist, March 15, 1998, p. 1200; December 15, 2000, Whitney Scott, review of Valentine's Day: Women against Men, p. 788.
Books and Bookmen, February, 1983; January, 1984, p. 20.
Commonweal, December 4, 1981; August 16, 1996, Paul Baumann, review of Serpent on the Rock, p. 26.
Contemporary Review, January, 1995, Richard Mullen, review of Serpent on the Rock, p. 52.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 28, 1987.
Guardian, April 1, 1996, p. 4.
Library Journal, July, 1981, p. 1442; September 15, 1984, p. 1771; June 1, 1987, p. 128; March 1, 1992, p. 133; October 1, 1995, p. 86; January, 1997, p. 110; March 1, 1998, p. 126.
Listener, July 22, 1982, p. 24.
Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1984.
New Statesman, December 16, 1977, p. 855; October 24, 1980, p. 26; August 13, 1982, p. 22; November 11, 1983, p. 30; August 23, 1985, p. 28; July 28, 1989, p. 31; December 1, 1989, p. 36; September 21, 1990, p. 45; April 17, 1992, p. 47; September 2, 1994, p. 39.
New York, September 7, 1981, p. 64; October 15, 1984, p. 92.
New Yorker, January 14, 1985; July 18, 1994, p. 81.
New York Review of Books, June 23, 1994, p. 46.
New York Times, August 5, 1981, p. C22.
New York Times Book Review, October 18, 1987, p. 22; April 24, 1994, p. 13; April 20, 1997, p. 21; April 26, 1998, p. 26; December 20, 1998, p. 13.
Observer (London, England), July 4, 1982, p. 28.
People, August 24, 1981, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, June 5, 1981, p. 79; July 20, 1984, p. 70; June 5, 1987, p. 70; January 20, 1997, p. 382; March 2, 1998, p. 60; August 24, 1998, review of The Sin Eater, p. 46; July 26, 1999, review of The Twenty-seventh Kingdom, p. 62.
Saturday Review, August, 1981, p. 1442.
Spectator, December 24, 1977, pp. 29-30; December 31, 1983; August 31, 1985, pp. 24-25.
Sunday Times (London, England), August 17, 1980, p. 33; June 27, 1982, p. 40.
Times (London, England), September 4, 1980; December 1, 1983; August 22, 1985, p. 9; November 12, 1986; November 29, 1986.
Times Literary Supplement, November 25, 1977; August 15, 1980; July 2, 1982; November 18, 1983; September 6, 1985; December 19, 1986.
Village Voice, November 27, 1984, p. 56.
Washington Post Book World, August 30, 1981.
Ellis, Alice Thomas, A Welsh Childhood, M. Joseph (London, England), 1990.
Independent (London, England), March 10, 2005, p. 35.
Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2005, p. B9.
New York Times, March 12, 2005, p. A27.
Times (London, England), March 10, 2005, p. 67.
Washington Post, March 12, 2005, p. B7.