The Birds of the Air

The Birds of the Air
by Alice Thomas Ellis, 1980
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

When Beryl Bainbridge died earlier this year, it marked the passing of a literary moment little known in this country but apt to be recognized by a British reader of a particular chronological and intellectual generation. Bainbridge was one of the last important survivors of a group of writers associated with the Camden Town district of London and the Duckworth publishing house as it was run by Colin and Anna Haycraft. They were born mostly before the war, the largest number sometime in the thirties; they were the peers in age of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, but it’s symptomatic of their overall tastes that Anna Haycraft’s cross-Atlantic version of The I Hate to Cook Book–Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone to So Much Trouble doesn’t include a recipe by either Hughes but instead by Dido Merwin. Others represented are Sonia Orwell, Ursula Vaughan-Williams, Seamus Heaney, Lucian Freud, Jonathan Miller, and Bainbridge herself; we can however assume that most of them are the creation of Haycraft herself, whose skills as a cook and hostess lay at the heart of the Duckworth presence during the latter third of the twentieth century. The Haycraft home became known for alcohol-lubricated parties in a large, somewhat chaotic house that in off hours doubled as the seat for a large, somewhat chaotic family. Anna, a conservative Roman Catholic convert, was devoted to her own motherhood and conceived seven children. Visitors could expect to find her in her kitchen, equally likely to be nursing a baby, stirring a pot or correcting a manuscript; cigarettes and a glass of wine were a constant, as was Anna’s misanthropic wit. The three slender, huge-eyed, smoke-wreathed sirens of Duckworth–Haycraft and her two best friends, Bainbridge and Lady Caroline Blackwood–became a trope unto themselves in the mind of visitors, and in retrospect it’s clear that the key figure was Haycraft, who touched the other two with her air of unearthly, unsmiling hilarity. She left many of the boring details of running her establishment to a treasure named Janet, but there was no question who was the star.

For a while Anna Haycraft lived a charmed life, according to her own lights. Her choices were not for everyone but they made her happy. They were put to the test when they brought her just as much unhappiness, and the value of her eccentric’s wisdom for others was tested as suffering made her increasingly isolated and waspish. One of her children died shortly after birth; another, disastrously, died in an accident aged nineteen, after a prolonged coma. Thereafter Anna Haycraft waited impatiently for death, for all the joy her remaining five brought her. She was consoled by her faith but only up to a point. Like Evelyn Waugh, another right-wing convert, Haycraft was distraught to find much that had attracted her about the Church falling away after Vatican II. She and her husband Colin were an odd couple–he famously commented that “religion is for women and queers,” not as a compliment–and his skepticism kept her on her toes, writing from deep belief but with the awareness that it was not the easiest sell among many of the people who provided the Duckworth bread and butter. After Colin’s death, Anna Haycraft became something of a crank, if a crank is a one-issue person with little regard for others’ feelings or intelligence. Her writings on British Catholicism in the nineties turned increasingly bitter and hysterical, and she was not mellowed when the Catholic Herald, no less, fired her as a columnist after her posthumous attack on the Bishop of Liverpool. She found other outlets, but never got over the sense that she had nurtured a serpent in her bosom for reasons she was ill-equipped to understand. As a convert, she was not always sensitive to the anguish her co-religionists had endured in England for a long time, or the roots of what she had admired about them in their centuries of near-total deracination. Predictably, she did not meet with much sympathy among readers who preferred banality and freedom to haunting mystery and persecution. When she died in 2004, she may not have been the only person to be relieved.

It’s a pity that her notoriety risks obscuring the fact that she also possessed a streak of genius. Even as diehard a fan as this writer cannot claim it was more than a streak; her books were short and deliberately slight, and the best of them are undermined by a self-consciousness about their own merits. She was not an admirer of the human race, which is excusable, but she was an admirer of her own prejudices, which is less so but can be forgiven in a writer if it pushes her to try harder, damning the torpedoes of popular opinion. Haycraft can write very much in this vein, like Waugh, and also like the feminist writers she absolutely refused to be identified with; if Margaret Atwood can at times sound like an agnostic Canadian feminist Evelyn Waugh, Haycraft can sound like one who is none of those things, but still manages to touch some of the same nerves of unease. It is harder to put up with her when she plays to the crowd, albeit one that may sometimes have existed only in her own mind. No doubt many readers of her Home Life columns–approximately weekly reports from Duckworth-land, having to do with Anna’s children, leisure interests, and pet peeves–took her as something of a role model; they were however likelier to sympathize with her overall sense that the past was nicer than with some of her phobias, such as science, the women’s movement, and judges.

A streak of genius is still a lot. She was the least consistent writer among the three Camden Town Fates, and not the most innately talented; that might have been Lady Caroline, though Beryl Bainbridge worked the hardest and thus had the greatest success. But Haycraft may have been the most singular, and the truest to her own uniqueness. It’s symptomatic of many things about her that this review has gone on this far without mentioning that all but her cookbooks were written under a pseudonym, Alice Thomas Ellis. She joked that she was “Alias Thomas Somebody Else.” She claimed she had chosen the name for its total anonymity, but this is unlikely: the three sibilant rhymes create a memorable hiss in the mind, and each name tells us something about her. The name Ellis might be Welsh, as Haycraft was. Thomas of course suggests her Catholicism, intercepting the near-identical beginning and end. Alice suggests Alice in Wonderland. The two last names raise questions: the author is married, of course; Haycraft was very attached to her own marriage and domesticity. This is no dotty spinster or liberated gadabout even if she writes mostly about women and their power in their own right, separate from the distractions posed by men. Or, if she’s not married, perhaps she’s relatively high in class. Haycraft was a snob, as only a Liverpudlian Celt with a Finnish father could be in her generation, even before one gets to English Catholicism and its debt to the true aristocracy. But the name isn’t hyphenated; the hint of class consciousness may owe more to meritocracy than breeding, as was definitely the case for the chattering classes in postwar England.

It was a name that lay dormant for some years. We will never know what sort of writer Alice Thomas Ellis would have been, or if she would have been, had Anna Haycraft’s son Joshua not died of injuries suffered in a fall. Prior to this catastrophe the Ellis name appeared on one novel, The Sin Eater, a sharp, amusing take on post-Vatican II Catholicism in England, competent but unmemorable on its own. It was the work of a writer who might write one other book, ten others, or none, as the mood took her. After Joshua Haycraft’s death Caroline Blackwood, who had also suffered the death of a child, behaved like a true friend and helped Anna put together her book of sleight-of-hand recipes. (I can vouch for the excellence of most of them; Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone to So Much Trouble has been a mainstay in my house for the past few years, even allowing for English-to-American translations across two decades. Favorites include Marianne Faithfull’s Different Sweet-and-Sour Pork and Dido Merwin’s omelet with cream cheese and sorrel.) But Alice Thomas Ellis did not reappear until 1980. Her name was on The Birds of the Air, a book written from the farthest reaches of grief.

The plot is minimal, provided by the English version of conspicuous consumption around Christmastime. The characters do not strictly matter except as they are deployed to set up the situation of the monstrous holiday and its disintegration into havoc. The one exception is Mary, whose son Robin has died; less distinct, but important as a stock figure, is Mary’s mother, Mrs. Marsh. She is determined that Mary will recover. “Mary felt rather like someone for whom a marriage was being arranged by people who doubted the suitability of the match but could think of no seemly way of retiring. Her family and friends behaved like outsiders privy to a secret and dubious courtship, treating her with an arch, considered and wholly unnatural care, whispering together and falling silent when they remembered her sitting by the window and possibly listening.” These sentences describe the plot of three linked Alice Thomas Ellis novels of the later eighties and nineties, the Summerhouse trilogy, and their heroine’s rebellion against marriage takes on a new significance if, as sometimes appears to be the case in the later story, Ellis views marriage as half pagan and roots for a dissident as exercising her rights within Christianity. To be sure Ellis finds Christmas to be half pagan, and draws heavily on imagery relating to Christmas as Yule, Saturnalia, Feast of Fools, rather than “God’s birthday,” as Mary calls it to everyone’s horror. Though it might be God’s birthday, Mary’s name and status move us along somewhat in the church year. The poles of paganism and Christianity are complicated by their respectively representing propitiatory gluttony and freezing grief.

A person who has suffered such a blow must inevitably be faced with the task of reconciling two distinct versions of the self, that before the loss and that created provisionally afterward. During the extremity of grief, which never goes away forever and recurs at intervals for the rest of one’s life, a third self also appears, beholden to neither past nor future nor anything else outside the anguish of the moment. The Birds of the Air is the biography of such a self. The bravery of the enterprise outweighs the relative significance of Anna Haycraft’s conclusions. Mary is a soul in torment, in whose pain no good can be found; she is also more in touch with spiritual truths than those around her. These things may be true, but they are hardly original insights.

What is remarkable and original in The Birds of the Air is its attention to craft over self-expression. Ellis could be excused for making the novel an autobiographical unburdening; she does not. Mary suffers in a way Anna Haycraft can identify with, but she is not Anna Haycraft. She is clearly defined by her own demographic details, in a way that spells character like nothing else in England: the socially conscious Catholic who coexisted alongside Haycraft’s more frenzied moments might say Mary is a more important person than the privileged publisher’s wife. She has lost her only child. She is at the mercy of expectations imposed by others in a way that Haycraft, the woman, may not have been; unable to draw upon a certain status and its accompanying authority to tell others to boil their heads, Mary is constrained by appearances. The theater of cruelty in which Mary negotiates these expectations forms the novel’s true setting, and furnishes the elements of its denouement. Ellis identifies all of it with the pagan festival of Christmas and contrasts it to Mary’s acceptance of what will not change.

If Ellis had written a more or less realistic novel, she would be obliged to focus on the relationship between Mary and her mother and humanize it to some degree. But The Birds of the Air is a comedy. We all know comedy and tragedy like one another’s company, but they don’t always appear together for the same reasons. Ellis is not interested in release from tension or the caricatures that can sometimes objectify pain. She has written a comedy because that is the kind of story she usually wants to tell, and especially here. It has been observed more than once that the deepest grief is inaccessible to tragedy. We have to pick ourselves up and get on with it, or if we don’t, those around us do; either way the story ends in life going on. No justice can be dispensed. Or as John Dowland wrote in 1603:

Time can abate the terror
Of every common pain;
But common grief is error,
True grief will still remain.

Indeed in his two grimmest plays, King Lear and its funny-horrible dress rehearsal Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare included at least as much violent farce as tragedy in deference to the unspeakable. Some things are never over.

So Mary’s mother bullies her into Christmas and farcical encounters with other beings. They include Mary’s sister Barbara, Barbara’s children and husband, Barbara’s lover, Barbara’s husband’s lover (“the Thrush”), Vera and Dennis the neighbors, a grown cat and a kitten; they might as easily include any of a limitless variety of other types, most of them stock figures of fun in that British time and place, and unfortunately one of the weaknesses of the novel and some of Ellis’ other novels is the sense that while she was writing a medieval morality play, she was also writing with the BBC in mind. The characters of Vera and Dennis belong nowhere but in a British sitcom and have their equivalents in The 27th Kingdom, The Inn at the End of the World, Unexplained Laughter and other novellas which should either be no more than fairy chill, or else funny in a way that doesn’t lend itself to the laugh track. Elsewhere, the sense in which Ellis was an amateur can add to the pleasure of reading her: she said she never wrote more than one draft and never corrected, which, if true, makes her fineness of language and construction all the more striking. If she could be awfully pleased with herself, it was balanced by the many occasions on which she showed she didn’t give a rat’s what other people thought of her. And it’s not as if television never achieves the moments she was most interested in–I have no trouble believing that Fawlty Towers was her favorite show, and some of what she writes about in Home Life is funny in the same way. The difficulty is that in Home Life, one believes a vignette like this one:

The man who mends the tumble-dryer wended his way through the clematis the other day and when he reached the laundry door, fending off the castor oil plant, he said, as I greeted him, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” I explained that the tumble-dryer had been incapacitated by a brassière hook which had caught in its metal perforations and tied all the other clothes into a knot. For some reason this had caused all the machines in the basement to give people electric shocks when they touched them–a sort of contagious hysteria–and everyday existence had assumed a dangerous aspect. He said that was nothing. Last time he’d had to treat a tumble-dryer with this complaint it had brought about a divorce. A steel reinforced brassière had become detached from its cantilever which had gone through the barrel part to foul the engine. The housewife said, as he retrieved, and triumphantly displayed it, that she herself never personally wore that sort of bra and she’d have to have a word with her husband when he got home. That, however, is not the point.

In The Birds of the Air one would have to find this not only funny, as it is in what purports to be a slice of Haycraft home madness; one would have to believe in the significance and the motives of the people involved, and while Ellis’ fictional characters can bear the weight of theological symbolism, they can’t always bear the weight of slapstick. The line is often fine, but it is still real. The author who manages to walk on that fissure again and again without falling flat is Flannery O’Connor, to whom Ellis is sometimes compared. The difference is that O’Connor’s comedy was all her own, as Ellis’ is when she trusts her voice. When Ellis’ pratfalls are secondhand they are worse than unfunny, they pop the suspension of disbelief like a balloon, and they leave behind a sense of meanness and poking fun at people her faith should bind her to defend. This doesn’t mean her every comic turn fails; the scene in which a hysterical Barbara is doused with coffee grounds is just as funny and painful as it’s meant to be. But the jokes involving working-class Vera and Dennis seem like little more than sniping at those whom the Camden Town crowd found to be their inferiors, and so do some of those involving Sam, Barbara’s son.

In the end, we can forgive this if Mary behaves according to the requirements of fable and allegory, because the great strength of The Birds of the Air is in its symbolism. This is not symbolism in the modern literary sense, or even in that of what is called “folk symbolism.” It is transparently artificial, in the manner of a medieval bestiary, and as such it is able in its limited scope to convey acceptance of a state of being (grief) that may define a person forever. Anna Haycraft might have been chuffed to have her tale compared to a fable as analyzed in the introduction to Vernon Jones’ famous 1912 translation of Aesop’s Fables, by G.K. Chesterton:

But the fable and the fairy tale are things utterly distinct. There are many elements of difference; but the plainest is plain enough. There can be no good fable with human beings in it. There can be no good fairy tale without them… for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called “the revolt of a sheep.” The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island–it would remain undiscovered. If the miller’s third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen–why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy.

One of Alice Thomas Ellis’ best-known witticisms has to do with love, and the love of pets versus human beings. “There is no reciprocity. Men love women; women love children; children love hamsters.” So it’s charming, but also poignant to go from Chesterton’s reflections on the fable to his dated but still relevant reflections on the significance of fables being about animals, as The Birds of the Air takes its title from bird imagery that underlines the protagonists’ closeness to nature:

Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all the fables that are or are not Aesop’s all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls.

So Mary must be true to her own grief and the others must be as the blind, but have the scales fall from their eyes to differing degrees; their awakening to the reality of death, and thus of the beyond, must be conscious as well to differing degrees, while whatever self-consciousness Mary possesses must be in the service of her role as visionary. The privilege she enjoys as such must be balanced by its accompanying burden, which is that no consolation will ever be hers. It is Mary’s tragedy that she cannot be anything but herself and cannot lose her soul. And all this must be brought off in language the present-day reader can believe. Alice Thomas Ellis delivers on every count, so effortlessly, with such economy and power, that one wonders why she ever needed to bother about anything else; perhaps she included the sitcom touches because they gave her something to think about, whereas the breath of the grave may have come too naturally.

Anna Haycraft never recovered from her own loss, of course. She did write many more books, all of them worthwhile in some way; even her fulminations against liberal religion, reaching their peak in God Has Not Changed: The Collected Thoughts of Alice Thomas Ellis, are at least literate, while her main identity as a novelist came up with at least one major work in the form of the Summerhouse trilogy: three characters’ view of the same event, a nearly disastrous wedding subverted in a way that would assuredly not meet with the approval of Mother Angelica (who Haycraft admired, perhaps most for her sense of humor). Photos of Anna Haycraft in the last two decades of her life make her look a little like Susan Cohen, wife of popular science writer Daniel Cohen and the mother of a young woman who died on the Lockerbie flight, and also a lioness of justice or hell’s spawn depending on who you talk to, and when. Both have a face that is neither old nor young and never will be, its old definitions lost, now serving primarily as a home for the minatory stare; it is the face of a person no longer loyal to the world. One’s heart can break for this person and one can still know she means one no good, if no harm without cause. Alice Thomas Ellis’ novels are modest, but they are written from a place that requires as much deference in its own way as the perspective to which Lawrence L. Langer makes reference in The Age of Atrocity, beginning with a tartly selected quote on neuroses from a psychiatric perspective:

“They all refer to the terror of the human condition in people who can’t bear up under it.” But Améry sheds light on the terror of the human condition for people who have endured it, not through neurotic defenses but through actual experience. The result is a sort of grim lucidity, a clarity beyond tragedy that Charlotte Delbo, another survivor, would call “une connaissance inutile”–a useless knowledge. Memory is not a mental illness which can be cured; and insight that discredits all illusions, including the illusion of hope, is not a perversion of human nature to be treated by therapists.

Flannery O’Connor arrived at this place as a young woman with a terminal disease; for her, it was the true ground of Christian belief, to be embraced not with bitterness but with stoic joy. She had the gift for happiness that comes to light in some people who have endured extremity. Anna Haycraft lived in the same place and endured its good and bad weather for a quarter of a century, and if her nature was not inclined to be happy at the same time, she was probably more like most of us than those who can be–as Langer has also pointed out in the context of atrocity. Langer’s analyses of the videotaped testimonies of survivors of the Nazis return again and again to the point that just because a life is outwardly functional, even bright, does not mean that it does not go on indefinitely at the limits of human endurance. One can forgive a person almost anything under those circumstances: Susan Cohen’s crusade against less vocal Lockerbie survivors or Anna Haycraft’s (literal) filing cabinet full of the dope on clergy who had watered down the Mass, ready to be sent to the Pope at a moment’s notice.

Acknowledging the Church’s own ill fame, O’Connor wrote to a friend: “Human nature is so faulty that… the Church does well to hold her own; you are asking that she show a profit. When she shows a profit you have a saint, not necessarily a canonized one.” Haycraft was no saint, but her life showed a profit; she slogged to the end for her five surviving children and achieved exquisite moments in her writing. She believed she had a vocation, often threatening to go into a convent when her family irritated her; it is still not quite true that The Birds of the Air immortalizes the moment of her taking the veil, in the sense of a vocation to grieve, because grief is equally the fate of all human beings and the facts of it are impervious to our attitudinizing. Its distinction is rather in capturing Haycraft at the moment of accepting her separateness from the world whether she had chosen it or not. Whether it would be as memorable without knowledge of the facts of Haycraft’s life is another question. But it’s not always clear that this is a good thing in every case. Given the choice to be moved by a woman or a book, the critic must choose a book but the human being may be better off choosing a woman. Haycraft’s works were not always the equal of her life, which was marked by a courage beyond what we believe should be asked of us; that it so often is asked proves at least some of her points.