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Alice Thomas Ellis: isn’t it time someone wrote her biography?

She was a highly significant writer, and nearly every important literary person passed through her kitchen

By on Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Alice Thomas Ellis: isn’t it time someone wrote her biography?

Alice Thomas Ellis has been much on my mind this week, as I have just completed a long article about her and her work for the literary magazine Slightly Foxed which will not be appearing online. In this electronic age, Slightly Foxed offers the old-fashioned thrill of being a quarterly that one can actually hold in one’s hands, and which one has to buy in a shop or have sent to you via subscription. It is a pretty good periodical (as a contributor, I obviously have an interest to declare), and it got me through my last flight with British Airways, distracting me from my sense of overwhelming claustrophobia with delicious bite-sized chunks of literary anecdote and criticism. Foxed does not review books in the usual way, but rather lets its contributors write about what appeals to them, which seems far more sensible, particularly as so many books currently being published are so dull and depressing. It is far better to expose oneself to the compulsive enthusiasm of friendly strangers for books that no one may be talking about, but nevertheless ought to be.

Anna, as everyone called her (she herself picked the Alice Thomas Ellis pseudonym, but never really liked it) is one of those authors who is now, after her death, slightly out of fashion, and no longer on the open shelves of most libraries. Many are the anecdotes that have collected around her. There was one about how she met her husband, which is so famous that I cannot bring myself to repeat it here.

She lived in a very large house in Gloucester Crescent, in what was unfashionable Camden Town, where she and her husband Colin brought up their vast brood of children. Anna loved to tell the story of how one evening, at dusk, getting out of a taxi, she saw the amazed cabbie look up at the house towering over the overgrown garden and mutter “Oh my Gawd, the ’ouse of Ussher!” I am not sure why this delighted her, but it did. There again, she had a natural affinity with the Gothick.

Once she sent me to her garret-like bedroom to fetch a book. I had to make my way through the laundry room, an ill-lit space hung with dresses, all of them black. “It is like a witch’s cave in here,” I observed. “It is meant to be,” was her crisp rejoinder.

For most people, her greatest achievement was in her literary output. She had something to say, I found, that few other novelists were saying or even thinking. But her journalism and her non-fiction were also of very high quality. Among her writings on religion was a collection of essays called God Has Not Changed. The subtitle was suitably witty – “The Assembled Thoughts of Alice Thomas Ellis”.

I suppose that title sums up Anna’s position on God, the world, and herself. It was God who held her together, the one constant thing in a world of transience. I take the view that she remains a highly significant writer, quite apart from the fact that almost every important literary person of the time, as well as a lot of other people such as myself, passed through her kitchen. She would have hated the idea, but isn’t it time someone wrote her biography?

  • Peter

    A combination of Alice Thomas Ellis and Slightly Foxed is made in Heaven!

  • Tiggy.

    I just love her books. “God has not changed is a gem, I use it for reference!!”

  • Anonymous

    What a good idea.

    Maybe you should write one, Fr?

  • Anonymous

    The best biography would be doing everything one could to make her vision a reality…

  • Rachel

    Oh, the agony of being introduced to another good writer I did not know about! I am particularly drawn to strong Catholic woman called by God to raise a brood as I am one myself. Thank you, Father, but again I mumble to myself…so many books, to little time….

  • Valerie Harnden

    Type your comment here. I read your piece on Alice Thomas Ellis yesterday when my copy of Slightly Foxed arrived:  It gave me great pleasure to read what I have never been able to express myself about this unique writer.  Surely your knowledge and understanding of her makes you the person to write her biography?

  • Yelkcub

    Alice Thomas Ellis is indeed much missed – a true comic writer whose comedy was informed by moral intensity. It is the separation of comedy and moral seriousness that renders most modern ‘comedy’ in whatever medium totally vapid. I always hoped that ATE might give another fictional outing to the heroine of Unexplained Laughter, the wonderful Lydia: in another life, perhaps.

  • Apconnect

    I would be the first to read a biography on this wonderful writer! Her auto biography ‘a welsh childhood’ was great……loved the summerhouse trilogy and the subsequent film four with Jeanne Moreau.