Monday, November 07, 2005

Alice Thomas Ellis, R.I.P.

The October issue of Crisis magazine contains an excellent article by Marian E. Crowe, "Unexplained Laughter: The Life and Work of Alice Thomas Ellis" (unavailable online). Ellis, who died in March of this year, was an English Catholic writer well-deserving of discovery. She was born and raised in Liverpool by secular humanist parents, exposed to the Church through the influence of some Catholic relatives (her father's sister, says Crowe, had married a Catholic) and Liverpool's large Catholic population. Despite all things, her early impressions of the faith were positive: "It is presently de rigueur to claim that Cathlicism thirty-odd years ago was repressive, hidebound an frightening," Ellis writes in Serpent on the Rock, "but I have found in it great richness and abundance of people who made me laugh."

Following her secondary schooling, Ellis studied at the College of Art -- a "hotbed of anarchy" -- where she received a large dose of liberalism and communism. Crowe quotes her (from a personal interview before her death) as saying:
Then after due time and instruction I became a Catholic because I no longer found it possible to disbelieve in God.... I felt entirely at home with the conviction, aims and rituals of the Church and secure in the certainty that it was immune from frivolous change and the pressures of fashion; primarily concerned with numinous rather than with the social and political concerns of its members.
Shortly after her conversion, says Crowe, Ellis entered a religious order, though she had to abandon that way of life because of a serious back problem. She later married publisher Colin Haycraft and joined him as an editor at the Duckworth Publishing Company. She had seven children, but a daughter died in infancy and a son was killed in an accident at age 19. Crowe notes that the New York Times stated in its obituary that Ellis "rebelled" against her secular humanist parents by converting to Catholicism, but counters that this version of the story, far from the truth, hardly scratches the surface. Again, she quotes Ellis from a personal interview:
I realized this makes a lot of sense. This is an ancient, ancient structure. What I think is interesting is that no one has any faith in age and experience anymore. I think authority is vital for any sort of freedom. Anarchy is not freedom. One of the nuns told me, "Once you're inside the Church, you can shake a pretty loose leg." It gave you much more freedom once you knew the rules than just floundering around in this complete permissiveness and liberalism. You've got the structure, and within that you cna be very free, and you can actually be very happy.
Then comes the kicker: Vatican II. Crowe notes, sadly, that Ellis's contentment in the Church came to an end with the Second Vatican Council. "Nowhere have I found any evidence of Vatican II having had a beneficial influence," Ellis says in Serpent. "In place of the old rigours we have sentimentality, confusion, untruth, meaningless talk of 'renewal' and 'improvement,' and 'sharing' and 'caring' where once these wre taken for granted and practiced in a specifically and recognisably Catholic fashion."

Ellis sublimated her anger and turned it to fiction: "I felt bereft and consequently resentful. I was so annoyed that in 1977 I stirred out of my habitual indolence and wrote a book called The Sin Eater .... I had to do something rather than sink into despair." The main character in the novel, as Crowe notes, says of the local parish priest:
To do him justice ... he does still dress in the proper fashion. He hasn't taken to going round in jeans and a T-shirt and a little cross on a chain round his neck imploring people to call him Roger, and he hasn't left the church to marry and devote his life to rewriting theology to conform with his own lusts and itches, and drivel on about the self-transcending nature of sex, like all those treacherous lecherous jesuits [sic] mad with radiant freedom of contemporary thought. But it isn't enough. Now the Church has lost its head, priests feel free to say what they think themselves, and they don't have nay thoughts at all except for some rubbish about the brotherhood of man. They seem to regard Our Lord as a sort of beaten egg to bind us all together ....
And then comes the most startling of her descriptions:
It is as though ... one's revered, dignified and darling old mother had slapped on a mini-skirt and fishnet tights and started ogling strangers. A kind of menopausal madness, a sudden yearning to be attractive to all. It is tragic and hilarious and awfully embarrassing. And of course, those who knew her before feel a great sense of betrayal and can't bring themselves to go and see her any more.
Crowe says that Ellis's character speaks for the author here. She told Crowe in an interview that she didn't go to church for ages, opting, when she did for the Latin Mass. Crowe says when she asked Ellis if she had given up on the church altogether, Ellis replied: "I'm sort of hanging on to the life belt. I wouldn't say I was aboard. you've got to believe -- even if you don't think so -- that the Church will pull itself together and regain its lost ground. I think I actually do believe that."

Ellis frequently aired her provocative views in the English Catholic press, raising the ire of many of her fellow-Catholics, until she was fired from the Universe in 1994 at the insistence of a bishop, and in 1996 the Catholic Herald published a front-page apology for an earlier article by her criticizing the liberal policies of the archbishop of Liverpool. Dispite the ruffled feathers of the hierarchy and publishers, Ellis is best remembered as a writer, not a political agitator. The rest of Crowe's excellent article reviews several of her most beloved books. These include: The Sin Eater (1977); The Birds of the Air (1980); The 27th Kingdom (1982); and Unexplained Laughter (1985). If you like a sardonic wit, if you like oblique but incisive cultural critique, if you love Evelyn Waugh and Walker Percy, and might enjoy something somewhere between the two, try Alice Thomas Ellis. She's well-worth discovering.

Alice Thomas Ellis died on March 8, 2005, of lung cancer at the age of 72.

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