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How great tragedy inspires great art

Alice Thomas Ellis’s life was overshadowed by tragedy, and so makes great reading in this, the month of death

By on Friday, 4 November 2011

I have just finished rereading Unexplained Laughter, Alice Thomas Ellis’s 1985 novel. It is a slim book, a mere 155 pages, and thus ideal for train journeys, slipping easily into the pocket. All her books were slim, which she claimed was an advantage, on the grounds that people did not have much time to read these days, and thus preferred short books. My copy was bought in a second hand bookshop, the excellent Blacklock’s in Englefield Green, whose erudite proprietor, Mr Graham Dennis, knew all about Alice Thomas Ellis. It is always a pleasure to be able to talk about books to a bookseller.

All Anna’s books are now second hand, because they are all out of print, as I discovered while researching an article that appears in the current Slightly Foxed. But as I said in that article, she would not have minded, as she was all her writing life sharply aware of mortality and the changeability of fashion. In Unexplained Laughter, the Anna character, expresses the desire to be buried in Wales. That has now happened, which gives the book, which is a very good one, a certain poignancy.

Incidentally, Unexplained Laughter was made into a television drama , and Diana Rigg played the Anna character, which was rather flattering, I am sure you will agree.

In the Slightly Foxed article I explore the idea that Alice Thomas Ellis’s writing is essentially all about death. Her life was overshadowed by the tragedy of the loss of her son Joshua, and yet out of that terrible grief, great art was born. Her book The Birds of the Air, dating from 1980, is dedicated to Joshua, and has this inscription, which is still moving:

All his beauty, wit and grace
Lie forever in one place.
He who sang and sprang and moved
Now, in death, is only loved.

In that one place in Wales, she too now lies. And yet, her books are uplifting to read. Bereavement, particualrly the loss of a child in tragic circumstances, is very hard to live with; but it can be lived with; much as Anna wrote about death, she also wrote about the things that endure and the continuity of life. She makes great Novermber reading; this is the month of the dead, so please, visit a secondhand bookshop near you, and hunt down the late great Alice Thomas Ellis.

  • Maryam

    After reading this article, I shall have to read some of her books.

  • Andrew Witcombe-Small

    Out of print, eh? I bought and read about three of them, including ‘Unexplained Laughter’ back in the 80s, in the days when she wrote for the Spectator. What a pity I no longer have them.

    She also had something of a run-in with the Herald, as I recall.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    So glad…. Unexplained Laughter is a good one to start with, perhaps.

  • parasum

    Or for something factual, but funnier than any novel, there is “Serpent On The Rock”, about the current catastrophic state of the Church (well, almost current – I doubt she would change her book much, if she were writing it now).

  • theroadmaster

    When one receives devastating news, such as the death of a loved one, the support mechanisms that we depend on, come into play.  Our Faith gives us the spiritual sustenance to cope with such losses while never forgetting the deceased whom we continue to love despite their physical absence from our sight.  Some people chose to concretise the emotional trauma of such events through writing, painting or music.  Verdi composed his great Requiem in memorium to a poet friend friend who had died, although the composer was an an avowed atheist but with some lingering religious feelings.

  • Anonymous

    I have read all of her books. All super, clever, thought inspiring. One of my favourie authors.