Lately I’ve been reading nothing except Polish in Four Weeks by Marzena Kowalska, A Pocket Full of Rye by Dame Agatha Christie and, above all, Home Comforts: the Art & Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson. And I’ve been doing little except housework because when I consulted the Great Cheryl on a laundry stain, my eye fell upon her warnings about dust mites. Horrified I arose from my chair, seized a vacuum cleaner, and never looked back.
Housework can become just another excuse for a writer to delay writing, but it does wonders for the house and pleases one’s spouse. It beats drinking hollow. And as a matter of fact one of my favorite Catholic writers was a housewife (and mother of seven) who drew upon domestic life to write two cookbooks, thirteen novels and umpteen columns or Britain’s The Spectator magazine.
Alice Thomas Ellis was the nom de plume of Anna Haycraft (1932–2005), a British writer who defined herself as Welsh. She was also, not to put too fine a point on it, a tradition-minded Catholic who loathed the innovations that followed the Second Vatican Council. Her attempts to come to grips with the spirit of the Council are captured in her non-fiction Serpent in the Rock, but in fact she declared that it was the spirit of the Council that goaded her into writing fiction in the first place. Her first novel The Sin Eater explores the idea of apostasy as a reaction to the Council. Her best known novels, comprising The Summerhouse Trilogy, recapture the preconciliar spirit of monasticism and moral absolutes.
My favorite of her novels so far is The Other Side of the Fire, a retelling of the Greek legend of Phaedra, the queen who fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus. Phaedra becomes Claudia, an upper middle class housewife with two children away at boarding school. Hippolytus is recast as the child of Claudia’s first marriage, Philip, now an adult learning his father’s trade at the family-owned publishing firm. (As the author’s own husband was a publisher, this was a brave choice.) Phaedra’s nurse is played by Claudia’s best friend Sylvie, who also spends her days at home, but in comically gloomy squalor with a dog.
What interests me today about Ellis’s novels of housewife life is how adventurous they are. Family life provides enough emotional thrills and chills to create seriously engaging novels. And the Catholicism is implicit rather than explicit; although she greatly respects mysticism, Ellis has no time for pious platitudes or community sharing. Her Catholic characters are usually at odds with each other, the mystics alone in a crowd and often in anguish. The Birds of the Air, the story of a family at Christmas, illustrates this tendency beautifully.
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s when being “just” a housewife was considered uncool and admitting to it at cocktail parties was social death. Now the pendulum has swung the other way. and many female employees openly long for the financial freedom to be housewives. However, I think it unlikely that the 9-5 set have evolved enough to be interested in housewife chat at cocktail parties, yet another reason why I am glad I also have the option of saying I am a writer.
And this is where I mention that I will be appearing at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh on Thursday, August 7th as part of a group of writers reading between 6 and 8 PM. The evening is part of Blackwell’s Writers at the Fringe series—the Fringe being the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the cheeky stowaway riding the coat-tails of the Edinburgh International Festival. If pressed, I will tell my audience why vacuuming is so important and how easy it is to make cherry vodka cordial.
Tickets are free of charge.