The fictional knives of Alice Thomas Ellis
It’s been far too long since I posted some fictional food on this site. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve been introduced to a writer whom I know immediately will become one of my favourites – Alice Thomas Ellis. This was the nom de plume of the English writer and legendary editor Anna Haycraft, and I am indebted to my friend Tegan for lending me The Birds of The Air, which I absolutely loved. Tegan has written about Thomas Ellis in a riveting series of academic essays on literary influence, which I hope to see in widespread publication very soon.
Thomas Ellis is one of those sharp-eyed, caustic observers of the English middle classes, and wrote her thirteen novels from the late 1970s to the 1990s. She died in 2005, and I feel a little mortified that I’d never heard of her before now, because judging by the obituaries of the time she was very highly regarded.
(She reminds me a bit of another recent discovery of mine, Nina Bawden, whose children’s books are renowned but who also wrote brilliant fiction for adults – coincidentally, the first Bawden book I read was titled The Birds On the Trees ).
Thomas Ellis, like Bawden, is one of those discoveries that thrills because you know there are so many more books to read – on finishing The Birds of the Air I went immediately to Google and discovered not only all the other novels but also, excitingly, that she wrote two books on cooking! Am tracking those down forthwith, but in the meantime am engrossed in Unexplained Laughter, which I ordered as an e-book (nothing quite like that instant gratification) and am loving. The writing reflects the paradox of Thomas Ellis’s conservative Catholicism – a convert who spent six months as a nun, she famously loathed any progressive change to the church and described the Second Vatican Council (an attempt to modernise some of the most rigid teachings of the Church) as unleashing a “tide of sewage”. Despite her books being filled with powerful female characters, she was apparently “bitterly opposed” to feminist influence in Catholicism. Go figure.
Tegan tells me that Thomas Ellis’ novels are “full of food” – and so far at least, she’s right. What I love about this extract, from Unexplained Laughter, is how spectacularly narky Thomas Ellis is – food here isn’t the sloshy-galoshy shorthand for sensuous pleasure it so often is in fiction: it’s a point of unspoken tension between two women, black and sharp. With the character of Lydia so immediately and richly unpleasant, I can only imagine the scorn with which Thomas Ellis would have greeted contemporary preoccupations with “likeability” of characters in fiction.
Lydia and Betty are staying at Lydia’s cottage in the Welsh countryside. Lydia has just been ditched by her unfaithful lover, and “had invited Betty to stay by accident, or rather by drunken mischance, at one of those fatal office parties.” Now they’re trapped there together, with Lydia’s loathing of Betty growing more intense by the minute. But she “determined to be pleasant since the one thing more disagreeable than staying with someone you detested was staying with someone who detested you too. Dissembling was tiring but squabbling was disgusting. She would never be sufficiently intimate with Betty to quarrel with her.”
“The sun shone the next day, and Emyr arrived to connect the water pipes. Betty made him a cup of tea and sat among the cut lengths of gleaming copper and strong-toothed tools conducting a little chat, which afforded Lydia a moment’s amusement since Betty was adjusting her conversation to suit a person of low intelligence and the people of the valley were, on the whole, clever, devious and unusually literate. As Betty talked of the rain of the previous days the builder spoke briefly of water tables; as she deplored the unemployment of the Principality he gave a succinct resume of the economic situation; as, somewhat at a loss, she praised the sun for now shining, Emyr described in a few words how it would eventually burn itself out. The scene was rather like a bull-fight, with Betty, small-eyed, blundering hither and yon dazzled by the whisk of scarlet, the glancing slippers of the matador.
‘What do you want for lunch?’ enquired Lydia when Emyr, having demonstrated that the taps now functioned, had left.
‘I thought I’d make us my special salad,’ said Betty. ‘If you’ll wash the lettuce I’ll make my special dressing and we could pick some wild sorrel and chop it in at the last minute.’
‘Do you know, I’m not hungry,’ said Lydia, consideringly. There was something spinsterish in Betty’s plans for her salad, something intimate in her expectation that Lydia would collude with her, and something repellent in the prospect of two single women fussing over food in the kitchen. Lydia was damned if she’d play salads with Betty. She might never eat again until Betty had gone. She had real women friends: pretty, witty women more likely to speculate on a swift method of fermenting potato peel than slaver over wild sorrel. Why were none of them here? Because she hadn’t asked them, that’s why. She had chosen for herself the human equivalent of sackcloth and ashes, and she denounced herself for a masochist. Do I, she asked herself, imagine that because I have lost a man I am in the same category as spotty Betty? Is it my Unconscious (of the existence of which I have informed doubts) that has dropped me in this plight? Because if so, I had better watch out. ‘I think I’ll go for a walk,’ she said.
‘Perhaps it’ll give you an appetite,’ said Betty.
As she walked, Lydia wondered whether perhaps Betty was lesbianly inclined and that this was why she found her presence so distasteful. After half a mile she had rejected this hypothesis and decided that it was merely because she was unattractive, the sort of person who, fifty years ago, would have worn rubber galoshes. Lydia did not castigate herself for so disliking a fellow-being, believing that it was sufficient merely to refrain from overt unkindness.”
From Unexplained Laughter, Alice Thomas Ellis, 1985 – published by Corsair, an imprint of Constable & Robinson (ebook) 2012