Alice Thomas Ellis was a novelist, controversialist and party hostess, but above all else a Catholic
Anna Margaret Haycraft (1932-2005), known to her readers as Alice Thomas Ellis, was a journalist, novelist, painter, Catholic polemicist, cookery book writer, fiction editor, mother of seven and a member of the Gloucester Crescent literary milieu. In the 1980s and 90s she was considered one of Britain’s finest novelists; now she is largely remembered only in Catholic circles, and not for her fiction but for her controversial defences of the pre-conciliar Church and her open criticism of Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool – positions that have earned her the label of iconoclast and reactionary.
In the decades since the Gloucester Terrace household was dismantled, its conflation of home life, writing, painting and publishing has invited comparisons to the Duckworth milieu and the Bloomsbury Group. But Anna was neither Virginia Woolf nor Vanessa Bell. Although, like many good Catholics, she preferred the company of artists and inebriates to that of saints or peers, Anna was no political progressive but rather a defender of ancient moral codes disappearing with terrifying rapidity from the nation’s conscience.
Nor was she particularly interested in the personal satisfactions or creative triumphs of art: painting and writing were simply ways to spend the time allotted to her. One of the century’s most sought-after fiction editors, she was only in publishing because it was her husband’s calling; she would always claim that had he been a tailor she would have sewn his buttons. Anna’s indifference to any careerist identification with the numerous talents she commanded left one interviewer exasperated.
“You’re not a novelist, not a journalist, not an artist and not a cook. So what are you?”
“A Catholic,” she answered, without a second’s thought.
The one constant at the heart of everything Anna wrote was the home. Whether speaking from her “Home Life” column in the Spectator or through the voice of one of her numerous fictional female characters, Anna demanded that her readers take their place beside her in a household where for most of the 20th century the kitchen table bore the weight of endless manuscripts, canvases and cats, and provided food and conversation for the constant traffic of children, friends, neighbours, Religious and authors seeking publication.
For Anna, all work, all writing, emerged from the intimacy of the domestic world for which she was loved and renowned; she put the Catholic experience of home and the friendships of women centre stage within the public and masculine world of English literature and letters. And yet she was no feminist. On the contrary: she frequently asserted that the many joys and blessings in her life, or any claims she could make to what is now understood as female “emancipation” or “freedom”, were given to her by the traditions and doctrines of the Catholic Church, and most definitely not by feminism. “I believe that if forced to choose with whom I would prefer to spend a few hours, I would opt for football hooligans rather than face the malignant ferocity of a roomful of would-be lady priests and discontented nuns,” she said.
Every traditional Catholic feels in their blood a pull towards the Church’s two great vocations, the religious orders and family life. Anna knew both first hand. She was a happy pre-conciliar postulant in Liverpool until a spinal injury meant she had to leave her order. She married Colin Haycraft and settled into the London literary world.
In their different but complementary ways, conventual life and family life place the household at the centre of daily existence. Not the fantastical middle-class household of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with its angel at the hearth and cozy material perfection, but a working household in which all members labour, eat, talk and pray. Anna’s weekly column for the Spectator chronicled with superb irony the endless demands on the “housewife”. But of all the tasks she performed in this role, cooking was the most constant. Her novels, journalism and non-fiction works are everywhere informed by her knowledge and love of food.
In Anna’s novels, food and the manners surrounding its preparation and consumption are a source of class identity and ill feeling. The downtrodden Mrs Mason, forced to work as a charwoman, eats with a politeness that her bohemian employer, Irene, finds “grotesque”. Protected by money and breeding from the need to use a plate and napkin, Irene instead puts her elbows on the table, waves her fork to emphasise a point, and lets crumbs fall from her mouth.
Anna’s characters are divided into those who cook and eat lustily, leaving the stems on spinach and using all of an animal, and those whose fare is prim and affected or diminished in some way by the anxieties of the cook. (Is it healthier to boil the potatoes with peels still on? Which method of cooking best preserves nutritional content?)
Anna herself adopted the peasant style in her cooking, and spent the extra time it afforded her drinking and reading. She was a champion of real food, using lashings of garlic and olive oil when they were still foreign objects sniffed at by most English cooks. With tongue firmly in cheek, she even descended to the production of Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone to So Much Trouble, a cookbook for the housewife who has only 10 minutes to prepare a meal.
Natural Baby Food shows her in a more lavish mode, preparing meals to nourish and delight her many children and exhorting the nation to favour breastfeeding and homemade weaning food: advice that was, in 1977, still countercultural. Recipes from her cookbooks find their way into the novels, just as the fictional use of food as a dramatic device reappears in her polemical works as uncompromising censure. In Fairy Tale the young Eloise trades London for rural Wales in order to commune with nature. But nature does not care for her – in fact, it wants to consume her. Eloise ends up deep in the wood, smeared in mud and filth, feeding on human flesh. In Beware of Paganism, Anna warns readers that, at its heart, paganism isn’t the comforting goddess so beloved of the New Age; it is dark, old and dangerous: it gives licence to the appetites that will leave us rotting in sins of the flesh.
Anna knew that in both the religious house and the family home, the kitchen table ought to be counter-poised perfectly with the altar: earthly food needs to be real and sustaining and heavenly food properly refined by veneration. For Anna, the changes wrought upon her beloved Tridentine Mass by the reformist spirit following the Second Vatican Council were a desecration that turned the beauty and mystery of Christ’s self-sacrifice into a cheap, disgusting meal. “Once the priest, back to the congregation, faced outwards toward eternity, and raised the cup to the Lord. Now he and the congregation gaze on each other’s ugly mugs and the raising of the chalice seems more like a toast than anything else.”
For Anna, the new Mass and the “renewal” (a word she loathed) of the Church demeaned all Catholics, but especially the priest who, as he fussed around the altar preparing the Eucharist in both kinds for the congregation, looked “more like a napkin-flapping maître d’ than someone communicating with God”.
The first translation of the Mass into English, with its obsequious gestures to Protestantism, rendered the Latin description of transubstantiated wine, potus spiritális, to “spiritual drink”. For Anna, the “housewife”, the word “drink” was deeply suspicious, a “word that manufacturers use when they want to put one over on you … it is not the real thing”. But the purveyors of this new spiritual cuisine weren’t listening. For decades Anna took her fight to the closed doors of the liberal hierarchy, demanding: “Is it the Blood of Christ or not?”
It was a thankless task. She lost friends and jobs, and was harangued by letters and phone calls from heretics and atheists alike. When enough years had passed that her arguments weren’t considered quite so heterodox, it was suggested by one mainstream newspaper that she be counted among the “revered guardians of the nation’s conscience”. She spilt her pint. What, she asked, about those whose job it is to mind the gates? “I don’t mind doing my bit but I also have the housework to do,” she said.
Before she died, Anna completed Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring. It is a book about food but also about writing. It realises perfectly the wry everydayness that is Anna’s distinct “housewife” style, apparent to a greater or lesser extent in all her works. The reader walks with her from the kitchen to the bookshelf, where she rifles through the pages of Victorian recipe books before returning to the hob to stir the sauce and observe with arch acceptance the changes that have passed across the English table. Anna’s fiction and her journalism are similarly shaped: snatches of conversation overheard in the kitchen, copied hastily by the cook as she works. The narrative voice echoes Anna’s inner thoughts as she passes opinion on the many familiar voices rising up in polyphony over the table.
Making the everyday life of a woman into the stuff of fiction and non-fiction alike: that was Anna Haycraft’s great gift. She neither romanticised nor denigrated the life of the clever housewife and mother. In her company we can feel confident that the daily joys and drudgeries of family life matter, that they are not just a quiet and private pleasure but the stuff of literature, art, even of public life.
With Anna, the reader feels that the coming and going of friends and neighbours through the kitchen door, that the demands of feeding and dressing children, of dustbins and postmen and council rates, are present as much in the life of one’s own mind as they are in the Life of the Mind. For some feminists, freedom has meant turning away from family life and the conventional expectations of women; for Anna, it was precisely the conventional expectations that set her free.
Anna found that housework was the best form of writerly procrastination. She would dither at the Aga for a while, do some laundry and prepare the dinner, her mind turning over the thing she needed to write. Then she would lie on the couch with a packet of cigarettes watching an old movie, by which time she would be ready and the words would fall out in a torrent before anyone had time to wonder where she was.
In this as in much else, Ellis – whose real name was Anna Haycraft – was the opposite of Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own is a pillar in the feminist literary canon, but it is also a book about writing. It narrates the daily life of the writer when she is doing all the activities necessary for writing besides the putting of words on paper: time at the desk, time to think uninterrupted, to drive “through London in an omnibus” or have “luncheon in a shop by herself”. In this way, A Room of One’s Own narrates the kind of life that, Woolf argues, a woman writer needs if she is to flourish. The reader is invited to follow her as she wanders through London, economically free and unencumbered by family responsibilities.
Woolf asked: what conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art? And she offered her own answer: “freedom”. Anna’s answer, however, was “suffering”. Two of her seven children died in her lifetime and it was the death of her 19-year-old son Joshua that started her career as a novelist. He fell from the roof at Euston Station and lay in a coma for a year. Her notebooks from this time are heartbreaking. They record the process through which writing fiction emerged as the painfully logical result of her efforts to stay sane.
While Joshua lay in the hospital bed, as mysterious and unresponsive as a newborn baby, Anna began taking notes for Birds of the Air, in which the bereaved heroine acts on Anna’s own compulsion to follow her son into death. The prose of Anna’s own words to Josh merge into novelistic prose: “You were born in an orange painted room. No waters broke, a dry birth. It hurt a bit. Nothing like as much as it hurts now. How can you die without my permission? My dear child … COME BACK TO ME … She had lost interest in the exterior usual world that people took for granted. She knew and wished to know better another world that began inside herself but did not finish there.”
In her own life, as in her novels, it was Anna’s friendships with other women, including fellow novelists like Caroline Blackwood and Beryl Bainbridge, that helped her to live with bereavement. The friendship that structured her everyday experience was that of the indomitable Janet – nanny, secretary, driver, a regular character in the “Home Life” column, who also appeared in the novels under the guise of the steady, street-smart companion with criminal connections and a gypsy’s view of family loyalty. Janet spent her life working for Anna. From the age of 20 she would arrive in the morning and do whatever was needed – clean out the fridge, help cater for a lunch party, help pull the shopping basket through Camden Market, take the kids out, drive to Wales, type up a manuscript, or just sit at the kitchen table and drink.
At the legendary Haycraft parties, the great and good would gather in the hallways and sitting rooms, each hoping to receive a bit of Anna’s wit, but she would hover downstairs by the Aga with Janet and smoke, preferring the easy company of a familiar friend with whom to gossip. In Anna’s final notebook, written on her deathbed, there are snatches of thoughts about the past, lists in which she tries to find appropriate objects to leave her many loved ones, observations on dying (“The time may have arrived in my life when I can use the Exclamation Mark!”) and then, out of this muddle, the surprising: “I must try and understand (!) that Janet isn’t coming with me … I see her familiar, well-loved face at the barrier.”
Anna loved women in the way her husband, Colin, loved men: for their fellowship. He was happiest in his drawing room or at high table with Horace, whisky and men of letters, as she was happiest, at least once the babies had grown up, drinking in the kitchen with smart and familiar women, either in London or in her preferred house in the Welsh countryside. While Colin edited classical scholarship and philosophy and professed to disdain the work of women novelists like those who sought Anna’s editorial acumen, she relished the writing of her female peers and predecessors: only women could look into the deepest horrors of life’s humiliations, its violence, and come up laughing.
Woolf was concerned that women had no heritage comparable to that of men, no solid legacy of prominent women thinkers on whose knowledge and tradition they could draw. Anna’s faith gave her a female history that her Protestant peers lacked: Catherine, Teresa, Julian, Edith, Elizabeth, Mary.
“What is the most important event in women’s history?” she was asked by one feminist interviewer. “The Annunciation,” she replied.
She pointed out elsewhere that the Church “permitted and encouraged women to form communities of their own, to live autonomously in convents and beguinages. They were allowed to reject men and marriage and the constraints of family life; to take a name other than their patronym and escape from the limitations and irritations of wedlock and a male-dominated society.”
Late in her life, when her journalism was at its most uncompromising, Anna mocked her generation of feminists, and the “dreadful breed of feminist men”. She mourned a womanhood that she had known in inter-war Liverpool: tough, funny, capable women who could handle a scythe or smoke a pipe. She also mourned the womanhood of early Hollywood actresses: sharp-tongued, elegant, clever, feminine and moral: “Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis etc, none of whom resemble in the least the downtrodden wimps so crucial to the feminist myth.”
Anna saw very early that feminist attacks on the priesthood were a denigration of the office’s mystery that hurt all Catholics, both men and women, but which robbed men of a sanctification so absent from their daily lives. Where women participate directly and personally in so many of Christ’s mysteries through their physical role in creation, men require the dignity of holy office:
Men are painfully vulnerable and their fragile self-esteem is easily damaged. They are often all outward show and bluster. Sensible females, being aware that they constitute the stronger sex, do not suffer the same impulse to cut a figure and make a mark but quietly get on with the business of progressing from the cradle to the grave without too much fuss or demanding to be “visible”… Some of them used to be acutely aware that their first purpose was to seek God.
Her distaste with all the liberation movements of the 1960s was grounded in a deep concern over the rise of the “me” culture she saw all around her. Anna believed that true freedom could only be found in giving one’s self away – to children, to neighbours (in the widest sense), and ultimately to God.
Even in her final moments she was making something for her children. In her hospital bed, with second-stage lung cancer, she had no kitchen, no house, no paint with which to engage them. But she began a new notebook, filling it with thoughts for her daughter to read and comment upon once she was gone. Called ‘gardening in the dark’ the small pages are a space in which Anna and Sarah can continue their conversation, with each party on either side of the wall. It was a conversation already recorded with great clarity in Anna’s late autobiographical work:
Even as I sit by the stream under the shade of the hawthorn, hand on the sun-warmed rock, watching the bees and the beetles and the birds doing concentratedly what they were conceived to do, feeling the grasses under my feet, and painstakingly identifying the wild flowers, I still cannot accept the moment for what it is. I know it will pass. Self-consciousness is the price we pay for the hope of immortality, and it is a high price. You put your hand in the stream and it runs through your fingers. You pick the flowers and they die. You hear the birds of this year but they are not the birds of last year, and next year they will be different birds. You know that – pesticides and herbicides permitting – the genus will continue, but you also know that your own awareness will have changed, and that you will not be there. And the grief is not for your self, but that all the loveliness may go unseen and unrecorded, and no one will ever know how, for you, the blossom smelled, and the grasses bent, and the light changed – and how you got up to go home as the shadows fell and the air grew cold and you came back to another mode of existence: the habitations of men and the demands of life and the world. It is perhaps easier to be sedated, to be bored, for at each moment of joyful consciousness comes the knowledge that it will pass; and as time passes, you realise it will never come again. It is more than that. It is an awareness that some of this world is so beautiful that it cannot be described; and, greedy and grasping as we are, we want not only to enjoy it but to tell it – so that it listens, and in listening becomes fixed – how unknowingly lovely it is. We look for a response from that which is unresponsive – for it takes no account of us. No wonder we dream of death, or a true consummation where longing ceases and the earth itself embraces us until we cannot be told apart, cannot be discerned, and have no responsibility.
The laboured sentences of Anna’s last, unfinished notebook for her daughter return again to these thoughts and make painfully clear Anna’s insistent desire to observe and record, and her knowledge that such a desire is ultimately fleeting. In life, there are observations through which the rapid passing of time can be caught – and shared. In death, there is only completeness.
Bonnie Lander Johnson is a writer and academic
This first appeared in two parts in the August 18 and 25 2017 issues of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here