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.

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