Ellis’s works cover a wide range, including two cookbooks under Anna Haycraft Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone to So Much Trouble (with Caroline BLACKWOOD, 1980) and Natural Baby Food (1985); two studies of the psychology of delinquency, coauthored with Tom Pitt-Aikens, Secrets of Strangers (1986) and Loss of the Good Authority (1989); as well as two volumes of essays critical of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, based on her columns for The Catholic Herald during the 1990s: Serpent on the Rock: A Personal View of Christianity (1994) and Cat among the Pigeons (1994). During the late 1980s, she wrote a weekly column, “Home Life,” for the Spectator; these personal sketches, which describe the seemingly unremarkable occurrences of family life in rural Wales but which also display Ellis’s acerbic wit, have been collected into four volumes: Home Life (1986), More Home Life (1987), Home Life Three (1988), and Home Life Four (1989). She has also contributed regular columns to The Universe (1989–1991) and most recently to The Oldie (1996 to present). Ellis’s memoir, A Welsh Childhood (1990), complemented by the black-and-white photography of Patrick Sutherland, weaves together anecdotes from the author’s early life on the coast of North Wales with profiles of eccentric characters and the lore of the region.
Ellis’s most widely known work, however, is her fiction, which includes eight novels, a collection of short stories, The Evening of Adam (1994), and a trilogy of novellas, The Clothes in the Wardrobe (1987), The Skeleton in the Cupboard (1988), and The Fly in the Ointment (1989), published together as The Summer house Trilogy (1991) and which was adapted to film (The Summer House) in 1993. The trilogy documents the weeks leading up to the impending marriage of Margaret and Syl; each novella is narrated by one of the significant women: Margaret, Margaret’s mother-in-law-to be, and Margaret’s scandalous Aunt Lili. Highly comic with a strong moral undercurrent, the trilogy highlights the best qualities of Ellis’s fiction, including an economic rendering of character and dry, witty dialogue.
Ellis, the fiction editor for the Duckworth publishing house in 1970, was a member of what came to be known as “The Duckworth Gang,” which included Blackwood, Beryl BAINBRIDGE, and Patrice Chaplin. Their novels typically focus on contemporary British women at odds with their domestic milieux. For the most part, Ellis’s novels exemplify the “Duckworth style,” but her work also contains strongly traditional Catholic and moral components. The Sin Eater (1977), given the Welsh Arts Council Award, chronicles the final days of a man whose family gathers around him. The Birds of the Air (1981), also given the Welsh Arts Council Award, explores the nature of grief and at the same time critiques the silliness of the English Christmas. The Twenty-Seventh Kingdom (1982), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, focuses on the deceptiveness of appearances, while The Other Side of the Fire (1983), is a study of unrequited love.
Unexplained Laughter (1985), honored as the Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year, chronicles the adventures, both worldly and spiritual, of a woman who has come to Wales to recuperate from a failed love affair.
Ellis’s 1990 novel, The Inn at the Edge of the World (1990), which won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Fiction in 1991, describes five people who go to a remote Scottish inn to escape Christmas. Pillars of Gold (1992) shows the impact of a woman’s disappearance on her neighborhood. Ellis’s recent novel Fairy Tale (1996) blends the real and the fabulous in a social comedy set in a remote Wales valley. A smart couple retreats there to escape urban life, to be confronted by strange and mysterious occurrences. Ellis’s novels are typically “short, edged comedies of human failure in the face of some ultimate good”; blending eccentricity with the transcendent, they explore the retreat from the quotidian and the confrontation with the mystical.
Bibliography Burgass, C., “A. T. E.,” in Moseley, M., ed., British Novelists since 1960, Second Series, DLB 194 (1998): 113–19; Waugh, A., “A Modern Emma Woodhouse,” Spectator 255 (August 31, 1985): 24–25
Judith Ellis Funston
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