A Neglected Literary Novel: Alice Thomas Ellis’s “Pillars of Gold”

This fall my husband and I read aloud one of my favorite novels, Pillars of Gold, by Alice Thomas Ellis. I was thrilled to have a chance to introduce him to this English writer; he admired and enjoyed the witty dialogue, though he complained about the adverbs.

“I love the adverbs,” I insisted. “It’s an English thing.” I’m not sure it is an English thing but I tire of spare American prose stripped of adverbs and adjectives.

Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005) is respected in the UK, though I get the feeling that she is seldom read there, either. Ellis, a novelist, newspaper columnist, book editor, publisher’s wife, and mother of seven children, was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982 for The 27th Kingdom, a gently offbeat novel set in Chelsea. The Booker went to Thomas Keneally that year for his brilliant Holocaust novel, Schindler’Ark (Schindler’s List in the U.S.). I loved Keneally’s book, but how could two such radically different novels compete for the same award? It is exasperating.

Alice Thomas Ellis

But Ellis’s best book is Pillars of Gold, published in 1992, a tour de force written mostly in dialogue. Two neighbors, Scarlet and Constance, are constantly in and out of each other’s houses in North London, gossiping, complaining, eating, drinking, and dissecting the female experience.

When Scarlet reads in the newspaper that the corpse of a woman has washed up in the nearby canal, she wonders if it could be their neighbor Barbs, who hasn’t been around lately. Constance admits it’s possible, and they consider telling the police, but Constance doesn’t like dealing with the police, and they decide it is better to mind their own business.

The thing is, they don’t like Barbs. Barbs is unpopular, because she poaches husbands and boyfriends. She may have philandered with Scarlet’s awkward husband, Brian, an advertising man, and definitely with Mamet, Constance’s Turkish boyfriend, a speculator and shady businessman.

Constance, who lives alone and travels around selling bead necklaces and arty jewelry, is sensible and stable, despite having been raised in a quasi-criminal working-class family. But in her large, close family, the siblings all have each other’s backs. Middle-class Scarlet has fewer relatives: she dislikes her flamboyant mother, has a difficult husband, and worries about her daughter. She is grateful for Connie’s friendship.

Scarlet’s sulky, rebellious teenage daughter, Camille, is also worried about Barbs. It does not, however, prevent her organizing a party in Barbs’ deserted house. Camille and her friend Sam (a girl) think Barbs probably was murdered, but what can they do about it? The two generations of women have the same attitude: avoid the police. Don’t involve the patriarchy.

In this lively novel, the women hang around together, talk endlessly about their lives, the important and trivial details, believe in government conspiracies and washing apples, and do nothing about Barbs because they don’t want trouble.

There are many memorable quotes in this book. For instance, when Connie and Scarlet discuss Barbs, they are irritated by her claims to feminism, by which she means promiscuity. And men are not threatened at all by her professions of feminism, because they like a woman who is sexually available.

Scarlet crossly thinks,

…a woman free of coy inhibition must be a gratifying gift to the male, whatever she herself thought her motives might be. Silly bitch, thought Scarlet. Constance said she couldn’t stand feminists, because they reminded her of men. Just as if there weren’t enough of them around already.

This neglected novel is so much fun to read. You may also like The Summer House Trilogy, which was adapted for a 1992 film starring Jeanne Moreau and Joan Plowright among others.

Women’s Books We’d Like to See in Print

There are wonderful women’s presses out there:  Virago, Persephone, British Library Women Writers,  The Feminist Press, and Furrowed Middlebrow. But some books are perennially forgotten, and here are some of my favorites that are worthy of revival.

1. Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy. These complex, witty novels, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide,  delineate the the changing relationship between the narrator, art historian Claud Pickering, and his histrionic stepmother, Helena, a former chorus girl, amidst the disintegrating class boundaries of postwar society. His beloved half-sister, who must deal not only with Helena but a deadbeat husband, is perhaps his favorite person. These books are as good as Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time!

2. Library of America has rediscovered Nancy Hale in recent years, publishing her novel The Prodigal Women and a collection of her brilliant short stories. I strongly recommend Nancy Hale’s two charming out-of-print memoirs, A New England Girlhood, which delineates her unique childhood as the daughter of two artists, and Life in the Studio, a memoir of her parents inspired by the relics she found while clearing out their studios after their deaths. 

Life in the Studio is my favorite: Hale and her mother comically disagree about many subjects, including fashion. In 1928 Lilian wore a new black cape to Nancy’s wedding to protect her wedding outfit, and Nancy despised it.  Nancy felt that “if one was not wearing Chanel, pearls, a felt helmet and a knee-length coat clutched together at the hip, one might as well be dead.”  But Lilian saved garments forever, sometimes arranging them for her paintings, or making patchwork quilts – but she mostly wore them.   Nancy despaired: she had learned from an editor at Vogue “that no woman should have more than three outfits in a wardrobe at a time–one on her back, one in the closet, and one at the cleaners.”

Hale was the first woman reporter for The New York Times and a frequent contributor of short stories and autobiographical pieces to The New Yorker.  She was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale; the granddaughter of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man Without a Country; the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Lucretia Peabody Hale (The Peterkin Papers); and a descendant of Nathan Hale.

3. Another book I’d  dearly love to see back in print is Gladys Taber’s autobiographical novel,  Mrs. DaffodilThe kind, witty heroine, Mrs. Daffodil,  is almost Taber’s twin:  she lives in the country with her widowed friend, Kay,  and they  raise children, dogs, cats, a pheasant, and a baby blue jay.  Mrs. Daffodil, a writer, happily churns out a syndicated column called “Butternut Wisdom” and romantic short stories about young love, because readers are not interested in what she knows about, i.e.,  middle-aged widows. Mrs. Daffodil has a weight problem because she loves to try out magazine recipes that call for a pint of sour cream.  When we first meet her she is having trouble zipping up a dress, and about to go on a diet. Fans of Taber’s Stillmeadow books will love this novel.

Mrs Daffodil by Gladys Taber | Goodreads

4. I am a great fan of Emily Kimbrough’s Forty Plus and Fancy-FreeKimbrough is best known for Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a hilarious travel memoir co-written with actress Cornelia Otis Skinner.  But Kimbrough also had a solo writing career.  In Forty Plus and Fancy-Free,  Kimbrough, a fashion editor for The Ladies’ Home Journal , is trying to decide whether to travel to Italy with her friend, Sophy. Her employer agrees  to give her a vacation if she covers the Coronation in England.  I laughed hysterically over their Italian lessons at the Berlitz school, because who hasn’t had linguistic goof-ups?  When a young man follows Sophy through the streets in Italy, she cows him by telling him she is a grandmother. And there are breathtaking descriptions of views and art, though usually with humorous comments.

5. How on earth can Alice Thomas Ellis’s classic humor books, Home Life, More Home Life, & Home Life Three, & Home Life Four be out-of-print? Ellis, a novelist, mother, editor,and a conservative Catholic, wrote these brilliant domestic columns originally for the SpectatorHome Life is vaguely like E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady, only urban, circa the 1980s. A white Persian cat is in the sink, so Ellis has difficulty brushing her teeth; a man mistakes her for a prostitute when she is in a bar with Beryl Bainbridge; she gets snowed in in the country; and the pipes burst and inundate a set of Thackeray.

What are your favorite out-of-print books?  Informed minds want to know!

An Alice Thomas Ellis Revival: Rereading “The 27th Kingdom”

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.

Alice Thomas Ellis’s “More Home Life”

It has been raining a lot, so I  indulged myself by staying home  and rereading  Alice Thomas Ellis’s Home Life Two, or More Home Life. The “Home Life” columns were written for the Spectator in the 1980s, and then collected and published in four volumes.  Ellis, who was nominated for the Booker Prize for her novel  The 27th Kingdom, is an equally witty essayist.  Her columns range in subject from meditations on domestic life to the burlesque of being mistaken for a prostitute in a bar to freezing on vacation in Wales because nobody understands the boiler.

Some of these essays strike a “chord” with me (literally).    In “Too Many Love Songs,” she admits she doesn’t care for most music.  She says outrageously, “I don’t know which I hate more, Mozart or the Rolling Stones…”  (I do like the Rolling Stones, but I agree about Mozart.). But when her favorite shows on Radio 4 are repeated, she listens to the music on Radio 2.

…as I washed the dishes I was struck by the fact that every single song was about love.  For me, on a scale of one to ten, romance comes about eighth, after chess but before politics and football.  I scarcely ever give it a thought.  My mind is usually taken up with what to cook for lunch, or why I’ve got an overdraft when I’ve hardly bought anything, or who’s going to feed the boa constrictor while its master is away on holiday, or where the daughter is, or why the mat from outside the bathroom is draped up the steps to the barn.  Perhaps these topics are not suitable to be set to music, but surely someone could think of something to sing about as well as love.

I agree with Ellis!  The rock songs I grew up with were always about love, not to mention the Frank Sinatra songs my mother listened to.  And since real life generally consists of other activities, it’s no wonder that women read romance novels.

Many of you will cackle over Ellis’s essay, “Over-booked.”  When she reads a confusing article in the newspaper about the British book trade’s schemes to compete with shops like Marks & Spencer, she has trouble deciphering the meaning.  She quotes an almost unintelligible paragraph:  the book trade needs to”reallocate resources”and “market the product better overall and so that  we strive to produce a product which is going to be popular and of the highest quality.”

Ellis informs us that 50,000 books were published last year.  She wries facetiously, “If only these multiple titles could be reduced to, say, 100 standard lines–ideally to ONE BOOK written jointly by a committee of tried and tested best-selling authors…”

Home Life is so much fun to read.  Unfortunately these books are out-of-print.

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