Saturday, September 25, 2010

Waving to Alice Thomas Ellis

One of the sad and yet wonderful things about life (I find) is that words last longer than we do. I read a lot of published letters and diaries, and often I want to write to the person and say, Yes! I know exactly how you feel! - or, I did enjoy that! - and I can't because they're long dead.

When we were on holiday, I was in an antiquey/junk shop and found "Home Life Four", an anthology of "Spectator" articles by Alice Thomas Ellis. I was immediately charmed by them and Mr Life kindly Amazoned for me and acquired the other three in the series. They're more or less early blog posts, but from before the invention of blogging, and they detail the various events and non-events of her household. They're often funny, sometimes sad - she had five sons and two daughters, but one daughter died soon after birth and one son was killed at the age of nineteen when he fell through a roof .

Anyway, she died in 2005 so I can't write her that letter, but I thought you might like an extract from one of her articles. This is for my crafty-bloggy friends - I myself don't do much sewing but I do understand how twenty years can whizz by while one's meaning to get round to something.

I have just resurrected a piece of embroidery Рwell, appliqu̩ mainly Рwhich I began about twenty years ago. It represents Persephone and Pluto and is crammed with mythical characters.

Now I’ve forgotten who most of them are. The distraught-appearing piece of pink cotton in the middle distance must, I think, be Demeter searching for her daughter (I do know the feeling: the school hols find me constantly on the phone tracking my own one down) but I haven’t yet given her a head or hands. The three ladies in black on the right are almost certainly the Furies because one of them has got hair made of bootlaces (adders?). And who are the three ladies on the left wearing white and all so far bald?

I obviously chickened out of putting Cerberus in my picture. According to some versions he had three heads but according to others he had a hundred. Even three is too many for me and anyway I don’t think I’ve left room for him.

There are three streams of Lethe emerging from under the throne, which suddenly causes me to see this piece of furniture as a commode. These streams would be quite easy to unpick, so if I pulled myself together I could replace them with a horrendous three-headed dog. Maybe I could make him out of fake fur or would it look too poodly? I see Cerberus really as one of those sleek-coated, short-tempered hounds who tear you limb from limb before you can say “Good boy”. Velvet, I think. Black. Where am I to find a piece of black velvet without cutting up my good skirt?

There’s a nice little Doric temple made of white satin, but I’m not altogether satisfied with the clouds of pale grey tweed. I think I may replace them with a bit of foam from a shoulder pad. I have got less purist with the course of time. If I do start doing all this fine stitching again I shall have to cut my fingernails. I could paint the clippings white and use them for Cerberus’s teeth.

First I shall have to consult Someone
[her husband] about the ins and outs of the legend and then I’ll have to ask if I can have most of his old ties to cut up and create fields of asphodel. I’ll probably lose the sight of my eyes with all this fiddly work but it would be satisfying to finish it. Twenty years is a long time to leave unfinished business.


  1. Yes, a wonderfully perceptive and entertaining writer - read all you can find! I know what you mean about wanting to send a note of appreciation, but then I remember that I never actually do that for writers who are still alive.

  2. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed Alice Thomas Ellis - thank you for reminding me of her. I,too, have often wished I could comment on the writing of people who are sadly long gone - though like Judith I don't do it for living authors either.
    It's awful how you put things aside then they come back to haunt you still unfinished - I've plenty such items, but when we packed up Mother-in-laws flat for her to move here, we found a half-finished embroidered tablecloth that she started in 1936!

  3. What a lovely piece, I have a few of her books, this really makes me want to re-read them. Thank you.

  4. Definitely will have to "Amazon" her.

  5. I recently contacted an author about his book, which had touched me deeply. I did recieve a reply, but felt it an automatic response, probably from his publisher.
    I do love how your cats always seem to be so happy together.

  6. I've never heard of Alice. Her books sound very interesting though -- a peek into a different time. Alice sounds like a woman after my heart -- we could sit over tea and share our 20+ year projects. Yikes.

  7. love this and have never read her, so down to t'library for me!

  8. A blogging pioneer! What a find....I feel I have so much in common with her, being, myself, also a procrastinating quilter/appliquer! Painted nail clippings as Cerebus' teeth?...quite the creative thinker!!

  9. Definitely a lady who would have had a popular blog today! That excerpt was very funny, and I can surely relate to her ramblings about her UFO!

  10. Vivien9:53 pm

    "Unexplained Laughter" is a wonderful book by Alice Thomas Ellis: the mixture of humour and depth of the portrayal of the characters, and their development. I must go to the library and see if they've got more of her books - though often you can joyfully sieze on the idea of getting a certain writer's books out of the library and beetle off there, to find there's nothing by them on the shelf!