Unexplained Laughter: The Life and Work of Alice Thomas Ellis

On February 7, 2001, in the Camden Town district of London, I stopped in front of a formidable old house surrounded by a gated wall, pressed the button next to an intercom, identified myself, and was instructed to enter. Inside I was warmly greeted by Anna Haycraft, better known as the writer and Catholic commentator, Alice Thomas Ellis. I had been writing about her fiction, and when I knew I would be in London that spring, I wrote to her and requested an interview. She graciously invited me to her home, where she offered me coffee and cake as we settled down to talk in her kitchen. When I learned that she was moving to Wales the next week, I was amazed by her generous gift of a whole morning. It was the first and last time we would meet.

On March 8, 2005, Alice Thomas Ellis died of lung cancer at age 72. Born and brought up in Liverpool by secular humanist parents, she was exposed to the Church through some Catholic relatives (her father’s sister had married a Catholic) and Liverpool’s large Catholic population. Her early impressions of the Faith were positive. As she explained in Serpent on the Rock, “It is presently de rigueur to claim that Catholicism thirty-odd years ago was repressive, hidebound and frightening, but I found in it great richness and an abundance of people who made me laugh.”

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

After secondary school she studied at the College of Art, where she received a hefty dose of liberalism and communism—for, as she told me that February morning, art schools are “hotbeds of anarchy.” She decided to become a Catholic:

Then after due time and instruction I became a Catholic because I no longer found it possible to disbelieve in God…. I felt entirely at home with the conviction, aims and rituals of the Church and secure in the certainty that it was immune from frivolous change and the pressures of fashion; primarily concerned with the numinous rather than with the social and political concerns of its members.

Shortly after her conversion, Ellis entered a religious order but had to leave because of a serious back problem. She later married publisher Colin Haycraft and joined him as an editor at the Duckworth Publishing Company. She had seven children, but a daughter died in infancy and a son was killed in an accident at 19.

The New York Times noted in its obituary that Ellis “rebelled” against her secular humanist parents by converting to Catholicism. The version of the story she told me was somewhat different:

I realized this makes a lot of sense. This is an ancient, ancient structure. What I think is interesting is that no one has any faith in age and experience anymore. I think authority is vital for any sort of freedom. Anarchy is not freedom. One of the nuns told me, “Once you’re inside the Church, you can shake a pretty loose leg.” It gave you much more freedom once you knew the rules than just floundering around in this complete permissiveness and liberalism. You’ve got the structure, and within that you can be very free, and you can actually be very happy.

Sadly, Ellis’s contentment in the Church came to an end with the Second Vatican Council. “Nowhere have I found any evidence of Vatican II having had a beneficial influence,” she says in Serpent. “In place of the old rigours we have sentimentality, confusion, untruth, meaningless talk of ‘renewal’ and ‘improvement,’ and ‘sharing’ and ‘caring’ where once these were taken for granted and practised in a specifically and recognisably Catholic fashion.”

Her anger led to fiction. “I felt bereft and consequently resentful. I was so annoyed that in 1977 I stirred out of my habitual indolence and wrote a book called The Sin Eater.… I had to do something rather than sink into despair.” The main character in the novel says of the local parish priest:

To do him justice…he does still dress in the proper fashion. He hasn’t taken to going round in jeans and a T-shirt and a little cross on a chain round his neck imploring people to call him Roger, and he hasn’t left the church to marry and devote his life to rewriting theology to conform with his own lusts and itches, and drivel on about the self-transcending nature of sex, like all those treacherous lecherous jesuits [sic] mad with the radiant freedom of contemporary thought. But it isn’t enough. Now the Church has lost its head, priests feel free to say what they think themselves, and they don’t have any thoughts at all except for some rubbish about the brotherhood of man. They seem to regard Our Lord as a sort of beaten egg to bind us all together….

It is as though…one’s revered, dignified and darling old mother had slapped on a mini-skirt and fishnet tights and started ogling strangers. A kind of menopausal madness, a sudden yearning to be attractive to all. It is tragic and hilarious and awfully embarrassing. And of course, those who knew her before feel a great sense of betrayal and can’t bring themselves to go and see her any more.

Ellis’s character speaks for the author. She told me she didn’t go to church for ages, opting, when she did, for the Latin Mass. Serpent on the Rock recounts a period she spent traveling and asking Catholics their opinions on celibacy, feminism, the charismatic renewal, priesthood, and other subjects. But the real point of the book is Ellis’s own pointed opinions, such as her take on ecumenism: “I have never been in favour of ecumenism, either wide or narrow, for it reminds me of those promiscuous bouquets concocted by florists wherein bullied blossoms, chronologically and geographically incompatible, wilt miserably…. It may seem like a sweet idea—but it doesn’t work.” In the post-conciliar Church, she found herself “in uncharted territory in an almost dreamlike state of disorientation, in an atmosphere so unfamiliar that it seemed unreal. New or re-ordered churches of Lutheran barrenness, all Catholic culture, all tradition lost.”

I asked her if she had given up on the Church altogether. “I’m sort of hanging on to the life belt. I wouldn’t say I was aboard. You’ve got to believe—even if you don’t think so—that the Church will pull itself together and regain its lost ground. I think I actually do believe that.”

She frequently aired her provocative views in the English Catholic press, raising the ire of many of her co-religionists. She was fired from the Universe in 1994 at the insistence of a bishop, and in 1996 the Catholic Herald published a front-page apology for her earlier article criticizing the liberal policies of the archbishop of Liverpool. When I mentioned to an affable young priest at Westminster cathedral that I was interested in Alice Thomas Ellis, his response was memorable. “Alice Thomas Ellis is mad,” he blurted out. “She doesn’t understand Vatican II at all!”

Despite the feathers she ruffled, Ellis is best remembered as a writer, not an agitator. Her first novel, The Sin Eater (1977), earned high praise. Ellis was described in the London Times as “one of the wittiest writers currently at work.” Yet her wit had a dark underside, and some reviewers noted a melancholy or pessimistic strain. Others pointed to her sharp satire of English domestic life. Peter Ackroyd described The Sin Eater as depicting “the relentlessness of domestic life, the knives only just sheathed in time, the tart little phrases bouncing around like Molotov cocktails.”

Yet there is a deeper level to her fiction: a moral, metaphysical, and theological dimension that reviewers often miss. Ellis told me, “Once you take away the religious element, you can’t write fiction. Well, you can, but it’s boring.”

Critic James Mustich, in an afterward for Ellis’s Unexplained Laughter, describes well her technique:

Matters of metaphysical moment that are often on the fringes of our awareness…are slipped into the conversation of Ellis’s fictional gatherings with an only slightly disconcerting frankness, appearing (and disappearing) as quickly as a tray of exotic but alluring canapés. With the sleight of hand of a clever and accomplished hostess, the author invites deep themes into the room and lets them make themselves familiar. And despite our best efforts to ignore their insistent gaze, we recognize her portentous guests and avoid them at our spiritual peril.

Ellis wrote twelve novels. In addition to The Sin Eater, those that might be of most interest to Catholic readers are The Birds of the Air (1980), The 27th Kingdom (1982), andUnexplained Laughter (1985). The Birds of the Air depicts Christmas at the home of a Mrs. Marsh and her deeply depressed daughter Mary—an unmarried mother whose son has recently died. Mary feels “like someone for whom a marriage was being arranged by people who doubted the suitability of the match but who could think of no seemly way of retiring…treating her with an arch, considered and wholly unnatural care.”

Mrs. Marsh’s thoughts about her new son-in-law exemplify Ellis’s ability to deliver description and character with one stroke of mordant humor: “His head looked as though it had been lightly buttered—so sleek, so unguent and so slight. He made her think of hard roads under a film of rain, shallow and dangerous; of slugs and Nazis and the minister she sometimes met in the terminal ward of the cancer hospital when she was arranging the flowers.”

This Christmas gathering includes, in addition to the smug and officious Mrs. Marsh and the miserable Mary, Mrs. Marsh’s other daughter, Barbara, a humiliated wife; Sebastian, Barbara’s arrogant, unfaithful husband; Kate, their vainglorious, narcissistic daughter; and Sam, their embarrassed, perplexed son. They are in need of the Good News of Christmas, yet any explicit reference to God makes them uncomfortable:

“Well, here’s to God,” said Mary, creating a diversion and pouring herself a whisky.

They stared at her, uncomprehendingly.

“It’s his birthday,” she said.

Nearly everyone was shocked.

Mrs. Marsh felt a great desire to bang together the heads of her daughter and grandson. Christmas was bad enough without this sort of behaviour.

Thinking of this yearly ritual, Mary offers a trenchant, if irreverent, prayer: “Forgive us our Christmasses…as we forgive them who have Christmassed against us.”

Mary, alone of all the group, does think about God. She has no doubts about His existence but is not at all sure of His intentions or benevolence. She connects God with the death of her son in a remarkable, almost bizarre way: “Robin’s death, the sudden absolute cessation of vaulting, joyful life, seemed to her quite as astonishing and worthy of remark as that other more widely acclaimed and admired miracle, birth. Despite her anger, she thought that God deserved more notice for this extraordinary trick.” Mary’s willingness to be amazed at God’s lordship over life and death, and her brutal honesty about herself—“She had realised that she would have preferred Robin to live on, suffering, rather than herself suffer the anguish of loss”—suggest some degree of receptiveness to the meaning of Christmas.

The 27th Kingdom, which the Spectator called “a brittle, anarchic theological fantasy,” was a finalist for the Booker McConnell Prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious literary honors. Set in London in 1954, it follows the adventures of Aunt Irene and her nephew Kyril when Valentine, a postulant at the convent where Irene’s sister is the reverend mother, comes to stay with them, ostensibly to test her vocation in the world. However, the real reason Valentine has been sent to Aunt Irene is the apple in Reverend Mother’s desk drawer. This apple, which Valentine had picked in the orchard, is still “a large bright flawless apple as crisp and fresh and gleaming as when it had been picked all those months ago.” Reverend Mother is waiting for the apple to wither; “Until it did Valentine could not return, for there was nothing, absolutely nothing, as tiresome, exhausting and troublesome as a fully functioning thaumaturge in a small community. The more volatile nuns would get over-excited and the steadier ones worn out with coping with the vast crowds of sightseers.”

Valentine is very much an outsider: black, Caribbean, quiet, and devoutly religious. The injection of this alien into Aunt Irene’s Chelsea home becomes the catalyst for many comic situations. Ellis’s most pungent humor, however, comes simply from her descriptions or relation of characters’ thoughts, such as Aunt Irene’s observation that “[Michelangelo’s] women were really men, cursorily emasculated, with breasts like poached eggs placed randomly on their chests.”

Here is her description of Focus, Aunt Irene’s cat:

Focus was as white as frost. He had long floating fur and eyes the amber of the unclouded peat-stained streams of early spring bearing the late winter’s floods—like whisky and water—as though to warm the pale mist of the fur that surrounded his Persian person. He had a flat, rather foolish, face, like a flower, which belied the intelligence and strength of purpose that lay behind it between his symmetrical ears. His appearance was against him, for it is difficult to take seriously something that looks like a down pillow turned inside out.

Focus has a rich inner life. He had “morosely witnessed Kyril’s numberless conquests, comparing him with the neighourhood’s dominant tom, a scratty looking object who stalked Cheyne Row.” Focus, who “had been made a eunuch for the sake of the sweetness of the air in Dancing Master House,” feels superior. “He was glad, because it enabled him to take a removed and measured view of affairs—human, feline and, indeed, divine.” Focus is also highly moral, and when Aunt Irene tells a lie, he bites her. “He was a straightforward and honourable cat, and his mistress’s excesses always annoyed him.”

Cutting through the mirth are grotesque, even macabre elements, including accidental deaths and suicide. The most persistent and incisive example of evil in the novel, however, is not physical violence but the selfishness, nihilism, and cynicism of Kyril, who enjoys “drama and disaster and executions” and has “plenty of scope for meticulous cruelty.” Aunt Irene, if not as vile as Kyril, is almost as ridiculous. When depressed, she goes to “the Orthodox establishment, [where] at the appropriate moments, she would beat her forehead on the floor, and her dessicated ears would swell with the splashing syllables and deep tones of the chanting priests, and she would emerge refreshed.”

The novel explores the theme of holiness: its serenity and steadfastness, its affront to the secular world, its connection to the uncanny and miraculous. Valentine, the exemplar of holiness, brings to London a clear, unclouded vision, spiritual composure, and discriminating judgment. Ellis has managed to achieve a rarity in fiction: a good character who is also attractive and engaging. Valentine is defined more by what she is not and what she doesn’t do than by what she is and does. She is used to the silence of the convent, where she “had moved like a fish through water, accomplishedly, barely stirring the silence.” It is as if Ellis has taken the classical definition of evil—the absence of good—and inverted it, representing good as the absence of evil.

By the end of the novel, Reverend Mother is delighted to find the apple in her desk showing signs of decay. “How odd, thought Reverend Mother, that this smell should fill the living with such hope.” Her conviction that any hint of the miraculous will introduce chaos into convent life is well-founded, yet her hope also affirms that human salvation must be worked out in the muck and muddle of our very fallen world, and that miracles, though delightful embellishments of the Christian story, can be a distraction from the quotidian business of saving souls.

Unexplained Laughter takes place in a small, rural village in Wales, where Lydia, a sophisticated journalist, repairs to her vacation cottage to get over a love affair. This holiday in the Welsh countryside becomes the occasion for reflection on creaturely limits, mortality, betrayal, and religion, interlaced with hints of transcendence.

Attractive and highly intelligent, Lydia is also gifted with a razor-sharp wit and candor that borders on brashness. Although apparently secular and worldly, she believes in God. While she doesn’t attend church, she notes that, “God makes me laugh.” She insists that this God escapes all our efforts to capture Him in human categories: “I know he’s there because I can’t imagine him…. If I could I should be extremely doubtful. He’d resemble Santa Claus or someone. Anyone I can imagine is quite unlikely to exist.”

Lydia’s reference to God as a kind of cosmic comedian relates to the “unexplained laughter” of the title. There are repeated references throughout the novel to a mysterious noise that Lydia insists is laughter. Lydia’s houseguest Betty is usually ready with naturalistic explanations like animals or wind or a problem with Lydia’s hearing, yet no proffered explanation is finally conclusive.

Lydia strikes up a friendship with Beuno, the brother of a neighboring farmer and the only other character whom Lydia considers her equal. He intends to become a priest, and Lydia is pleased with him because she seldom met anyone “with whom she was in religious accord.” He is clear-seeing, intensely honest, and mystical. “I want to comb God’s hair,” he says in reply to Lydia’s question about whether he plans to marry (he intends to become an Anglican priest). “If I married,” he continues, “I’d only end up cleaning his shoes. You can’t love God and anyone else.”

Lydia believes not only in God but also in the devil, whom she calls Stan. It has occurred to her that simply leaving out a letter “a” would result in this most prosaic of names, Stan. “I keep wondering what he’d do if I wandered up to the edge of the pit and leaned over and yelled, ‘Oi, you down there. Stan!’” she says. “I expect he’d gnash his teeth in impotent rage,” Beuno replies. Yet even this playful sally is juxtaposed with an entirely serious discussion of the extent of the devil’s intelligence and limitations by space.

Although Lydia thinks of this small Welsh community—provincial, circumscribed, and inbred—as “a sort of extended nut-house,” she still loves it. And yet she feels she doesn’t quite belong. Beuno tells her, “With God…that sense of homelessness is a reminder of where you belong.”

The novel’s most mysterious character is Angharad, Beuno’s younger sister. The reader is given access to her inner monologues: “I think I am dead. I think I have been dead for a long time now. I am Angharad. Do you hear me? Listen.”

Angharad’s poignant, lyrical observations are interspersed throughout the novel. Her odd phrasing and repeated references to herself as “dead” suggest a disordered personality, yet she has penetratingly clear insight into situations and events. She hides and observes without being observed. These reminders of an unseen watcher, intimations of a mysterious presence, and repeated commands to listen overlay the narrative with hints of transcendence. Although Angharad is suggested as the source of the mysterious laughter, the issue is never clarified. I asked Ellis why she left this mysterious laughter unexplained. She replied, “Someone said that things are not only stranger than we know, but stranger than we can know. We’re not computed to understand. I leave things unexplained because they’re inexplicable.”

Alice Thomas Ellis has produced a distinguised body of work that is an important contribution to the Catholic literary tradition. Although library shelves are filled with novels by disgruntled Catholics who wrote fiction that depicts what they dislike about the Church, her achievement is completely different. While her views of the Church’s flaws and failings are manifest and the source of much hilarity, these criticisms are like minor notes in the larger symphony, or like the salt in the stew that adds zest and flavor. In her fictional universe there is an abiding sense that, for all our selfishness and foolishness, holiness is possible, that the Catholic tradition is a locus of truth, and that there is a mysterious presence in the universe that cares about us.

When I learned of Ellis’s death, I recalled what she wrote in The Serpent on the Rock about the deaths of her two children: “One’s own death seems of very little consequence after one’s children die. For the rest of your life you wait, rather as you waited through pregnancy, impatient for their presence. God in His goodness permits us all to die. An evil being might have condemned some of us to live for ever, eternally separated.”

I like to believe that Ellis—having her purgatory shortened due to all she suffered in the post–Vatican II Church—is now in heaven, finally enjoying the company of her beloved children and entertaining the angels with tales of Focus the cat.


This article originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of Crisis Magazine.


Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...