Alice thomas Ellis: Catholic Novelist PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 07 April 2010 12:51

When she died in 2005 at the age of 72, Anna Haycraft, the author who published under the name Alice Thomas Ellis, was a celebrated writer in Great Britain.  While working at Duckworth Publishers (which her husband owned), she produced a dozen novels, a collection of short stories, a cookbook, volumes of columns for The Spectator and Catholic Herald, while raising seven children.  Her 1982 The 27th Kingdom was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and several of her novels have been turned into television series or films.

She’d be worth reading just for her prose.  Her characters are vivid and solid.  “Round” is too flat a term to describe them.  They are not round but bulky.  Rose (The Sin Eater) is so bulky and angled a character that she even lends a touch of solidity to her husband Henry, who has very little to say or do in the novel, since, as one character muses, there is no war on to make men feel useful.

Ellis’s mordant, shocking wit is often reminiscent of O’Connor’s.  When Rose meets the Anglican bishop (who speaks “in the strangulated patrician tones peculiar to the Established Church”), she thinks of the black bishops she had seen “with that same smile pasted on their dusky chops.”  At the time she remarked that “they would have looked more natural and dignified . . . with shreds of missionary adhering to their marvelous teeth.”  Rose’s sister-in-law Ermyn reminisces about the time when the gamekeeper at the estate shot himself through the head, causing his cap to “sail off his head up and up into the topmost boughs of a tree, and no one could get it down again.”  Rose gets so annoyed at another sister-in-law, Angela, that “she could hardly wait for the Day of Judgment.  She would stand with her children on the mountain top, waving her black scarf.”

A known philanderer drives off a cliff with the young woman in the car, and the obituary notes that he was “giving a lift” out of sheer kindness.  Rose finds it difficult to decide “which had rendered him more unrecognizable – the accident or the obituary.”  What is ecumenism? Ermyn wants to know.  Rose answers, “It is as though a dying man were to tie himself to one already dead in the hope of setting in train a process of revitalization.”  Meditating on the story of the Levite and the prostitute in Judges 19, Ermyn wonders how it was done: “People didn’t cut up naturally into twelve pieces.  Eleven pieces was what people would cut up into.”

The black comedy is relieved by passages of arresting prose lyric.  Ermyn remembers that “Father’s face had the sobriety of a newborn child’s, a dreadful sobriety, at once pitiful and disturbing.  The twins had looked like that before they learned to smoke, when their lives had seemed compounded of greed and grief.  Unsmiling, they had seemed infinitely wise and infinitely disapproving, like the worst sort of god.”  Rose’s eyes are “huge and round and blue like windows, cut not to see through, but to show the sky.”  Ermyn glances at the beautiful Rose standing in the afternoon sun: “Rose’s jawbone was a light and taught as the shaft of a quill feather and her eyes gleamed like sea-wrack flames.”

In both Pillars of Gold and The Sin Eater, Ellis experiments with unbalanced, back-loaded plots.  Throughout the former novel, Barbs, the hated neighbor of both Scarlet and Constance, has gone missing.  Nobody knows where she is, and no one does much to find out.  The mystery is solved in a few rapid strokes in the closing pages.  The Sin Eater gathers a family to an old Welsh estate to await the death of the family patriarch, known as “The Captain.”  Contentedly domestic, Rose uses food, re-decorating and furniture arrangement as weapons to destabilize her sister-in-law Angela.  Over the course of a weekend old pettinesses intensify.  The novel ends at the beginning of “real” drama, on the edge of an abyss that we know will swallow everyone involved.  Here is a Welsh house so full of sin that no sin eater will touch it.  The tragedy is all the more chilling for being left unnarrated.

What makes Ellis a must-read, though, is the way that her resolute Catholicism shapes her imagination.  Raised by her parents in the Comtean Church of Humanity, she converted to Roman Catholicism in her late teens, and the central characters of her novels are often Catholic.  In his recent book on Dostoevsky, Archbishop Rowan Williams compares Ellis to Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.  Each wrote fiction that creates tensions “for the reader rather than the characters,” so that we are bidden to “inhabit a narrative world whose center of gravity is hidden . . . but whose distinctive boundaries are capable of being sensed obliquely yet firmly.”  They are religious novelists, but “the ‘religious’ dimension of these fictions lies in the insistent sense of incongruity, unmistakable even if no one within the fiction can say quite what we should be congruent with.”

Ellis’s Catholic characters are often estranged from the Catholic Church, or far from saintly.   Constance, a relatively faithful Catholic character in Pillars of Gold (1992) is shacking up with a Turk, runs a shady business in jewelry and trinkets, and astonishes her passive neighbor Scarlet with her tales of high government conspiracy.

The dilemma that confronts Rose is a more strictly Catholic form of alienation: She has not been to Mass since Vatican II took her church away.  “There was nothing to do on Sundays since the Pope went mad,” the narrator tells us, and Rose adds: “It’s because they’ve abandoned Christ . . . and taken up with Jesus, soppy little Jesus Jones, meek and milk and gassing away gormlessly in the vernacular. . . . They’ve put away the glorious vision and made this horrid utilitarian, just-add-water creature in their own images.  Some of them think [Jesus] was a Protestant, some of them think he was a clown, some of them think he was a pouff . . . some of them think he chased girls – and I think some of them think he was a girl.”

“Sensible religion is a contradiction in terms,” Rose says in another tirade, and “Protestantism isn’t a religion at all.  It has merely elevated all the minor vices and weakness into major virtues – meanness and anal preoccupations into thrift and cleanliness, clannishness into respectability, xenophobia into loyalty.”

Rose’s assault on Protestantism and on modernized, sanitized Catholicism is simultaneously an attack on modernization and sanitation in general, and Ellis’s novels capture not only the incongruities but also the indistinct menace of modern life.  At the beginning of Pillars of Gold, Camille, Scarlet’s daughter, is skipping school and meets with her friends at a market.  She sits “beside a broken box of rotting plums” and lays her books “on an extended stain of dried urine” and throws a plum “on to the pavement where it lay easily among the cabbage stalks and traces of vomit.”  The decay and excrement that surrounds her embodies the rot of Camille’s home, and no doubt also of her soul.  A sense of dread hangs over The Sin Eater, a Dostoevskyan hint that something forces more diabolical than we imagine are busy.

Ellis deserves to be better-known in the States.  Like Percy and O’Connor, Ellis is a writer whose Catholicism makes her an unusually perceptive scribe of modern disjunction.

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