Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Alice Thomas Ellis

Or Anna Haycraft as I should probably learn to think of her, although I rather like the name she choose for herself – it feels of a piece with her writing. Alexander Lucie–Smith (goggling him was a fascinating diversion) has written about her for the latest issue of 'Slightly Foxed'. (And how I wish I’d thought of that name first.)

Anna/Alice was a Catholic, she was also a wife, mother, writer, cook, hostess, editor, and almost a nun but of all these things it’s her religion that she chooses to mention and generally draw attention to in so many of her books so it’s no surprise that the article is called ‘From Convent to Kitchen Table’ or that as well as being her friend, and she his editor, Alexander Lucie-Smith is also a priest. I found Alice Thomas Ellis through Virago, firstly with ‘Fish, Flesh, and Good Red Herring – A gallimaufry’ and later when I picked up a book in Waterstone’s because it had an apple on the spine. This was ‘The Sin Eater’ and was swiftly followed by ‘The Summerhouse trilogy’ (which is a masterpiece that I cannot recommend highly enough). These were re printed around 2004 but since then not much has appeared.

Lucie-Smith wanted to re-read his friends novels but found her unavailable from his favourite second hand book shop and in his library, not only unavailable but unknown (I hope he looked on amazon next where her books are cheap and readily obtainable). I think what surprises me is that these books aren’t that old. Fairy Tale’ which is wonderfully disturbing was written in 1996, one of her books was shortlisted for the Booker (admittedly in 1982 which is longer ago than I like to admit given my own age) some of the books were televised, and according to Wikipedia Charles Dance was looking to turn ‘The Inn at the Edge of the World into a film in 2009. So how is it that a writer who was clearly popular, as well as critically acclaimed can disappear so quickly?

I will be forever grateful that Virago have a soft spot for catholic lady authors (Carmen Callil’s convent education was certainly good for something). I’ve found so many writers to admire who have this one thing in common. It’s not the religion that attracts me, at least not directly, but something in the way the world is shown that’s deeply attractive however dark it gets (this goes for male catholic writers too; Evelyn Waugh exemplifies many of the things I love about Alice Thomas Ellis).
I can’t put it better than Lucie-Smith did so I’m quoting part of his conclusion:
 “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.”
I think so too and hope that ‘Slightly Foxed’ does for some what Virago did for me – introduce them to a really wonderful writer.

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