I am planning an Alice Thomas Ellis revival this holiday. This means I will prominently hold one of her novels whenever I walk in front of the football game. Since I am known as a reader—and some people annoyingly introduce me as “She-reads-a-lot”—I may mention Ellis over dessert.
Ellis’s extraordinary novel The 27th Kingdom was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982. Set in Chelsea in 1954, this witty, whimsical novel opens with the bohemian heroine, Aunt Irene (pronounced Irina and known by all as “Aunt Irene”), reading a letter from her sister, the Mother Superior of a convent. She wants Irene to take in a postulant who doesn’t quite fit in with the nuns.
I must say I chortled as I read Irene’s reaction to her sister.
She read her letter again, and because it made her cross she ate another piece of toast, reflecting that it was always one’s family who annoyed one most and made one fat. Simply that her sister was now called “Reverend Mother” made Aunt Irene cross and inclined to put too much butter on her toast.
Every line is imbued with Ellis’s wit and brilliant insights. Her characters are often uncomfortably flawed, but accepted by Aunt Irene. When Aunt Irene asks her beautiful but vicious nephew, Kyril, to read the letter, he can’t be bothered. He carelessly tells her to say No if she doesn’t want the girl, but Aunt Irene, a Roman Catholic, has a sense of duty. And she is exasperated with Kyril, whom she knows she has indulged to the point of provocation and danger, but she loves his beauty too much to deny him anything.
A heterogeneous group of characters surround Aunt Irene. There is Mrs. Mason, the spiteful cleaning woman who is the wife of an abusive alcoholic; shrewd, savvy working-class Mrs. O’Connor and her son Victor, who deals shadily in beautiful objects whose provenance is doubtful; and Mr. Sirocco, the mousy lodger who simply won’t leave. He is one of Kyril’s friends, perhaps a former lover.
Then the magical Valentine, who has disturbed the Mother Superior, arrives. She is a fascinating character, gorgeous, black, mysterious, and from a faraway island. She has magic abilities, and Aunt Irene wants to “touch her like a talisman.” What upset the Mother Superior–Valentine’s talent for miracles- is a saving grace in Chelsea. Valentine in part symbolizes the conflict between the Roman Catholic tradition of miracles and the new realism and drabness of faith in the 20th century. (This is one of Ellis’s concerns in her essays.)
There is also a mystery. The tax collector is after Aunt Irene and she gets phone calls from a heavy breather. There is a sense of danger throughout the novel.
This strange book is entertaining and enigmatic, with elements of magic realism. If I knew more Catholic church history, I would doubtless appreciate it more. She is one of the best English writers of the 20th century, yet most of her books are out-of-print. She deserves a revival.