In Home Life, My Bookshelf Blog

Well, apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how are you? Healthy, I very much hope and not suffering too badly with lockdown fatigue? So far, my week has included a funeral, a Covid 19 Health and Safety Policy update and a couple of policy debates with my children on the subjects of potty training and number bonds. Not a whole lot to complain of, all things considered, but:

‘Always remember mes enfants, mes amis, that things are never so indescribably ghastly that they can’t get worse. This is not a consoling thought, but it does lend to life a certain grim interest. What next, you ask yourself as you lie on your back where fate has flung you amidst the sweet violets.‘

I hope you aren’t feeling quite like that but I reckon that everybody has had at least one or two ‘sweet violet’ moments over the last month or two, no? This being the case, you may stand in need of the work of Alice Thomas Ellis, author of the above and much more, happily. Thomas Ellis, whose columns on the subject of ‘Home Life’ appeared in The Spectator in the 1980s were (fortunately) published in four slim volumes, which I heartily recommend. Thomas Ellis wasn’t short of material on the subject of domestic life. In real life she was Anna Haycraft: married to Colin Haycraft of Duckworth publishers (she was the fiction editor) and the mother of seven children, the youngest of whom was eleven when the columns started and two of whom had died. She knew all about tragedy, chaos and literary bohemia. She lived in London (Alan Bennet was a neighbour) and in Wales.

The cast of characters who drift in and out of the houses and her columns include Janet, the no-nonsense nanny, ‘the entire family is still loath to contradict Janet’, fabulously camp Alfie, cleaner and confidante, a host of literary names from Beryl Bainbridge to Rosamond Lehman to Caroline Blackwood and, of course, the cats: Cadders and ‘Puss! Where are you, you disastrously dumb animal?’ oh, and the python which the fifth son got himself for a birthday present.

Thomas Ellis brought to this domestic material a pungent wit, and a host of personal contradictions; she was a devout Catholic but deeply superstitious, ‘my usual course, when faced with a single magpie, is to bow low and utter a Gloria’. She was rather proud of the ghosts at her home in Wales and quite cross when one of her friends announced that she’d exorcised one (but reminded herself that a soul had been returned to the Lord and she should therefore be grateful).

The cast of ‘Home Life’ amble, or career, on and off stage, much as they appear to have done in life. The lack of introductions adds to the sense of chaos (also sometimes Thomas Ellis didn’t know who they were either).

‘The teenagers are swarming too. The third son pointed out the strangeness of having the house overrun with enormous six-foot children. There is something Gulliverish about it. On Sunday a number of them came to lunch and while I was shoving garlic into a leg of lamb and counting the potatoes because Anna and Estelle were vegetarians (I wish Cadders was: I took my eye off the joint for a second and he ate a bit of it) there was a knock on the door and there stood a madman. He was a perfectly nice mad man … but he wouldn’t go away and what with Cadders and the vegetarians … there wouldn’t have been enough to go round.
I collared the third son and a friend and instructed them to take the uninvited guest to the pub and lose him.’

Her husband is always referred to as Someone.

‘I really knew I was home again when I heard him talking to himself while shaving. Perhaps there are lots of people who talk to themselves while shaving. How would I know? But I bet there are remarkably few who do it in Ancient Greek.’

I am sure I’m not alone in (at a rather earlier stage of life) having wistfully longed to be like my favourite novelists: obviously this is doomed, not simply to failure but embarrassment. I remember, in my early twenties,* sitting on top of a tor on Dartmoor with my beloved and feeling rather marvellously Brontëish, when we were suddenly joined by a pony, one of those tough little moorland numbers. It had wandered up the tor and couldn’t work out how to get down (neither could we because it was blocking the only path). It all got a bit complicated for a few minutes; I bet that never happened to Currer, Ellis or Acton Bell.

Anyway, at around the same time, I longed and longed to be like Alice Thomas Ellis: an author with masses of children and a dazzling social life. Well, that’s a work in progress and I’ve modified the ideal picture since (seven children! Three is quite sufficient, thanks). I have, however, managed to be exactly like my heroine in two ways. ‘I hate forms. I hate them with a simple, pure and dedicated passion, religious in its intensity.’ Oh yes. And I find tidying up, well, somewhat challenging.

‘As I go down for the third time under a tidal wave of books, clothes, papers, letters, bills, teenagers, cats and all manner of things I’ve never used and don’t know the purpose of (where did that lidless double saucepan come from? I’ve never seen it before and if anyone thinks I’m going to start mincing around making hollandaise and delicate little uncurdled custards they can — to put it at its mildest — think again), I reflect yet further on order and simplicity. Why is everything such a mess? Leicester for a start…’ **

Ah yes, that may be another way I am similar to Alice Thomas Ellis. I too am prone to the odd conversational razor blade, (or, possibly, cudgel) alas, seldom devastatingly funny but I live in hope.

‘Very occasionally one does come out with the perfect response at the time instead of at 3 o’clock the following morning. … [there was] a girl … so sweet that if you bit her you’d damage your teeth. … Someone said he’d soon be going to Paris on a business trip. ‘Ooh,’ she lisped, ‘I love Parith. Thall I come with you?’ Then she turned to me and said, ‘Oh but you wouldn’t like that, would you, darling?’ And quick as a flash I said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind in the least, darling, but he would hate it.’
Sometimes, when I’m sad, I remember that moment and it cheers me up no end.’

Me too; not least because it reminds me of my mother. She and I used the phrase, ‘I wouldn’t mind in the least, darling,’ in social situations to warn each other if either of us had encountered any lady we considered a glacé-iced b…ch. (‘Darling’ uttered in a certain tone, did the trick).

I never read any of the Home Life essays without feeling enormously cheered and, should you be the kind of person who does a fair amount of reading in the bathroom while small fists pound on the door, you need to know about these (being one-time columns, they are conveniently short too). You don’t need to be a married, Catholic mother who writes to enjoy these but it does help if you’ve ever: waited in for the plumber, done housework, filled in a form, or been bereaved. Thomas Ellis is wildly funny about all of them, and more.

I think the point of a blog post at this rather grim time should probably be to entertain and amuse you and I am feeling rather guilty; writing this has necessitated an hour of riffling through my volumes of Home Life trying to find the best bits and now I feel simply marvellous, which wasn’t quite the point of the exercise: erm, thanks.

* She says defensively
** The place seemed alright to me, but there’s no accounting for taste, is there? — also I had satnav.

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  • Veronica Stokes
    Reply

    So glad to find someone else who uses ,” apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln..” a great favourite phrase in this family! I usually have to painstakingly explain it to people.
    The “sweet violets “, however, is new to me? My go- to is “ in the fell clutch of circumstance “…
    ( thank you, Invictus).
    Have been hoping to come to your literary lunches ever since they were first advertised- roll on the day!
    Will certainly look up the Alice TE. Books.
    John Haycraft was a ( fairly distant) cousin of my husband’s. I remember the shocking story that either his father, or maybe grandfather, was shot dead in India- by mistake. The murderer thought he was someone else against whom he had a grudge…
    Will stop rambling on. Am starved of conversation…
    Veronica.

  • Liz Blaufuss
    Reply

    Good morning from Minnesota, USA! Fantastic post. I have the first 2 volumes of her columns and now I need the next 2. They are perfect for the current climate, especially here, what with a pandemic and riots 20 miles away. Makes me grateful to be living in the country! Thanks for your columns; I love hearing about your house, Newfie, and family. Enjoy your day!
    Liz

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