Luca Fumagalli

The novels of Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005), frequently compared by critics to those of Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark, reveal behind a provocative and ironic firbankian style, which sometimes results in bitterness, grotesque and even in the horrid, a profound religious dimension.

Typical of this attitude is The 27th Kingdom (1982), which describes the story of Valentine, a novice of Caribbean origins who comes to Chelsea to upset the life of Aunt Irene and of the small local Catholic community. Between angels and demons, between miracles and scoundrels of sorts, the tone of the book is deliberately modest, the characters appear naive, almost simple, the action is unreal, creating a permanent contrast between the charm of the Church of Rome and the Protestant misunderstandings. Here, exactly as in the debut novel The Sin Eater (1977), the author offers the reader a convincing allegory of Good and Evil, together with the accusation against the modern Church of having surrendered to the world.

Ellis, whose real name was Ann Margaret Lindholm, was one of the leading writers of the so-called “traditionalist” wing of contemporary British Catholicism. In his works he never fails to criticize the reforms promoted by the Second Vatican Council – a theme to which he dedicated the volume Serpent on the Rock (1994) and part of the reflections contained in God Has Not Changed (2004) – and during an interview stated that since the Tridentine rite was abolished, she went to Mass with great difficulty on Sundays. On the columns of the “Catholic Herald” she also sided against feminism, even if strong and resolute women are often the protagonists of her books. Moreover, she was not afraid to criticize the Archbishop of Liverpool, according to her responsible for the drastic decline of practicing Catholics in his diocese. Long controversies followed that forced her to write exclusively for the cooking column of the weekly (cooking is another great passion of hers, to which she also dedicated a couple of books).

Despite this, the writer did not lose heart. She was strong and her life had never been easy, at least since, at the age of nineteen, she had challenged her parents, faithful of the Church of Humanity founded by Comte, by converting to Catholicism and entering the convent as a postulant for a short period. In 1956 she married Colin Haycraft, owner of the Duckworth publishing house, and their marriage was blessed with seven children.

Divided between home and literature, Ellis continued to write several essays and novels such as Unexplained Laughter (1985), later adapted for television, Fairy Tale (1996) and Hotel Lucifer (1999), assigning herself the role of critical conscience of a Catholicism in disarray.