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.